Thinking at the Edges of Joseph Campbell: The Future of the MythBlast Series

Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Illusion.

Anniversaries mark the important events of one’s life; they invite reflection on the past, why it’s mattered, and where we’ve come from. Simultaneously, anniversaries stimulate thinking about the future, where we want to go, and what remains to be done. Anniversaries often find us at a boundary, a border between what we have been, and what we will become. They place us at the edges of ourselves with aspiration pressing against present limitations and, as you will see, the 30th anniversary of the Joseph Campbell Foundation is no exception.

Jane Jacobs, a most remarkable woman, wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that “Often borders are thought of as passive objects, or matter-of-factly just as edges. However, a border exerts an active influence.” (262) At the place of borders, edges, and limits, Psyche exerts its influence as well, and the power of its protean creativity, its appel à l’aventure, awakens a desire for a more fully lived life. It is the call to adventure, and to answer it, one must be dauntless, willing to transgress ostensible limits, especially the inner psychological limits defended by belief, fear, convention, or fiat—the conditions of life to which myth speaks most eloquently.

Mythology is indispensable for one engaged in the enterprise of working at the limits or the edges of oneself. Contending with psychic realities, often destabilizing personal and cosmic truths, and the disturbing intuition that, as W.H. Auden wroteWe are lived by powers we pretend to understand: They arrange our love; it is they who direct at the end/ The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand, are the kinds of challenges one finds at the edges of oneself. The thinking of myth confounds notions of comfort, understanding, and predictability, and makes one confront, to gloss Gershom Scholem, the terrors from which myths are made.

Continue Reading the Mythblast

In his paper, “At the Edges of the Round Table: Jung, Religion, and Eranos,” David Miller described his experience of attending his first conference at the Eranos Foundation in 1969. Eranos was created in 1933, and its central mission was “to provide time and space for thinking.” Dr. Miller describes his experience this way:

I first attended the Eranos Conferences in 1969. Along with Gilles Quispel and James Hillman, the speakers were Helmuth Jacobsohn, Gilbert Durand, Toshihiko Izutsu, Schmuel Sambursky, Henry Corbin, Ernst Benz, Gershom Scholem, and Adolf Portmann. The seats for the auditors at Casa Eranos were reserved, and I was assigned a seat in the fourth row. The aisle and Lago Maggiore were on my right and an elderly British woman was on my left. In the intermission of the initial lecture by Scholem, I turned to my seatmate and, in an attempt to make conversation, I asked her whether there would be a question-and-answer time following the lecture. She said to me: “You must be an American.” I confessed that I was, whereupon she educated me about the spirit of Eranos. “You see,” she said, “the presenters are invited to speak at the very edge of their disciplines. If they manage this edge, they are in no better position than the audience to answer questions. It would be premature. On the other hand,” she concluded decisively, “if they do not manage to speak at the edge, then they are not worth questioning in the first place!”

Edges are not ends; rather, edges are the means by which one is launched into a less defined, less mediated, less determined space and, as Dr. Miller points out, edges are rich in questions that have no immediate, authoritative answers. Initial experiences of edginess are often intoxicating, but they quickly become sobering when one discovers that the relationship between edges and meaning has been uncoupled. The loss of meaning inevitably betrays the fear that nothing remains to be discovered but emptiness.  However, Wolfgang Giegerich, a Jungian analyst, calls into question our need for meaning, remarking that “The feeling that there should be a higher meaning of life and it is missing is the illness.” (“The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man,” Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 6/1 (2004): 28.) The human-all-too-human insistence on meaning functions as an obstacle that obliterates the edge and reveals the abyss instead.

In his 1957 Eranos lecture, Joseph Campbell sought to dislodge the idea of discovering meaning as the central pursuit of living:

“What—I ask—is the meaning of a flower? And having no meaning, should the flower then not be?” A bit later Campbell concludes, ” Or, to state the principle in other terms: our meaning is now the meaning that is no meaning; for no fixed term of reference can be drawn. And to support such a temporal situation, each must discover himself…without fear of the open world.” Campbell urges us to “fly to…that seat of experience, simultaneously without and within…where the meaninglessness of the sense of existence and the meaninglessness of the meanings of the world, are one.” (The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension: Selected Essays 1944-1968. 152-155)

Unencumbered by our casuistic search for meaning, having cast off the rusty shackles of causality, we are free (or, some have said, condemned) to live in the intense immediacy and protean liminality of edges in “the open world,” to play with and create room for thought and dance joyfully in the existential vacuum.

What, then, does the MythBlast series have to do with edges, meaning, and Eranos? The MythBlast series has grown to become one of the central features of the Joseph Campbell Foundation website and its internet presence. The series has published 180 original essays to date that have highlighted and explored particular Campbell texts, they have been written in an accessible, yet intelligent manner that has challenged our readers to be thoughtful and at the same time, whetted appetites for reading more widely in Campbell’s works.

In conversations with JCF President, Bob Walter, and a few other colleagues at JCF, we’ve come to believe that the MythBlast series may be capable of functioning something like a digital Eranos, offering a space for thinking and speculative analyses at the edges of critical Campbell texts, as well as the important intellectual, scholarly, and cultural influences that shaped him. The MythBlast series can become a home to creative, intellectually rigorous, and novel explorations of Campbell and mythology by authors attempting to reach beyond the safe, established, often derivative, confines of traditional scholarship (Dr. Norland Tellez is a good example of a MythBlast contributor who is currently working at these edges, and you can find his MythBlasts archived at jcf.org).

With that in mind, we’re working toward opening the MythBlast series to submissions. There are still some logistical issues to work out, but our goal is to create an opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue among diverse scholars—specialists and non-specialists alike—to consider mythology as it once was, a master discipline whose scope was not limited simply to mythology qua mythology, but also to related disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, religion, and even the sciences. People tend to forget that Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Isaac Newton were also mythologists.

My goal is to open the MythBlast series to submissions at the beginning of the coming year, so please watch this space for that announcement! Thanks for reading, and please consider carefully how you might contribute to the MythBlast series,

Best regards,

Bradley Olson, Ph.D.

About Brad 
Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is a former police officer who returned to school to earn a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and literature, two Master’s degrees in psychology, and a Ph.D. in Cultural Mythology. Dr. Olson is currently a psychotherapist in private practice at Mountain Waves Healing Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology and Mythological Studies. Brad is also the author of the acclaimed Falstaff Was My Tutor blog, which has earned him a nomination for the 2012 PUSHCART PRIZE in nonfiction.


Weekly Quote

Eternity is not future or past. Eternity is a dimension of now. It is a dimension of the human spirit –– which is eternal. Find that eternal dimension in yourself, and you will ride through time and throughout the whole length of your days.

-- Joseph Campbell

Book Club

November’s book club selection is Circe, by Madeline Miller. Sign up, read along with us, and discuss the book in the Literati mobile app.

Monthly Gift

The Symbol without Meaning (Esingle)

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Campbell’s famous, mind-expanding essay from The Flight of the Wild Gander explores the fundamental connection between myth, symbol, and human culture.

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