Myths to Live By: The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell

Good news! This book did not make me cry.

It’s a collection of Campbell’s lectures, a dozen or so, in a neat little package. I started reading it months ago, got distracted by other newer shinier books, then came back around. As one does.

“To become—in Jung’s terms—individuated, to live as a released individual, one has to know how and when to put on and to put off the masks of one’s various life roles.

The aim of individuation requires that one should find and then learn to live out of one’s own center, in control of one’s for and against. And this cannot be achieved by enacting and responding to any general masquerade of fixed roles.”

Campbell can be dry reading. But I kept hearing Alan Watts’s voice narrating in my head, so that worked out. I mean, they were friends. So it makes sense, right?

“Significant images render insights beyond speech, beyond the kinds of meaning speech defines. And if they do not speak to you, that is because you are not ready for them, and words will only serve to make you think you have understood, thus cutting you off altogether. You don’t ask what a dance means, you enjoy it. You don’t ask what the world means, you enjoy it. You don’t ask what you mean, you enjoy yourself; or at least, so you do when you are up to snuff.”

This book is about (surprise!) mythology: what it is, where it comes from, how it interacts with out social conventions, what it means, what it means about our world, what it means about us, what we can learn from it, and (most of all) how we can understand ourselves better by understanding mythology better.

“A lion has to be a lion all its life; a dog, to be a dog. But a human being can be an astronaut, a troglodyte, philosopher, mariner, tiller of the soil, or sculptor. He can play and actualize in his life any one of any number of hugely differing destinies; and what he chooses to incarnate in this way will be determined finally neither by reason nor even by common sense, but by infusions of excitement: “visions that fool him out of his limits,” as the poet Robinson Jeffers called them.”

I walked away with a long list of books/authors to read next, which is both bad and good, I suppose.

“In the Orient the guiding ideal is that each should realize that he himself and all others are of the one substance of that universal Being of beings which is, in fact, the same Self in all. Hence the typical aim of an Oriental religion is that one should experience and realize in life one’s identity with that Being; whereas in the West, following our Bible, the ideal is, rather, to become engaged in a  relationship with that absolutely other Person who is one’s Maker, apart and “out there,” in no sense one’s innermost Self.”

The contrast of Eastern to Western mythology was particularly interesting. There’s something very sinister in the way Western mythology presents an ideal of engaging with an “Absolute Something” outside of and apart from the self. This idea of External Authority—and the obligation to seek it out, serve it, get its approval, submit to its will—is damaging in ways so deep we don’t recognize them anymore. They’re too deep, too familiar.

“And now, to say just one more nasty thing about our religious institutions: what they require and expect is that one should not leave the womb that they provide.”

Think about the last time you were stuck, hesitating in indecision: what kept you stuck there? Probably you were seeking more information, a way to know you were making the right decision. But what is the right decision? There are no right decisions (or wrong decisions) unless there is some sort of external standard by which we can judge decisions, i.e., an external, higher-than-thou authority which “sees the big picture” and is just kind of, I don’t know, waiting for you to guess right and probably ready to punish you if you guess wrong. Which is, first of all, a very silly way for an omniscient authority to judge and govern, and second of all, turns us all into perpetually dependent children, never able to see things from the (authoritative, all-knowing) adult level, always grasping for signs and clues, hungry for validation and feedback because it seems that Somebody must know what the hell is going on, but it sure isn’t us.

“Life as an art and art as a game—as action for its own sake, without thought of gain or of loss, praise or blame—is the key, then, to the turning of living itself into a yoga, and art into the means to such a life.”

If we release the idea of external authority, then decisions aren’t about guessing the Divine Will, lining up with a preconfigured Correct Path, or choosing the One Right Option out of an infinite array of other, all (apparently) wrong options. Making a decision is simply about choosing (WAIT FOR IT, THIS IS REVOLUTIONARY) what you want.

And whenever anything is experienced that way, simply in and for and as itself, without reference to any concepts, relevancies, or practical relationships, such a moment of sheer aesthetic arrest throws the viewer back for an instant upon his own existence without meaning; for he too simply is—“thus come”—a vehicle of consciousness, like a spark flung out from a fire.”

It’s about picking the decision that lines up best with your values, your priorities, your interests, your desires, your energy, etc. It’s maybe about guessing at potential consequences and picking the decision that gives you the most favorable set, or helps you avoid the least favorable set.

It could be about a preferred decision, or even a better decision, but it’s not about the “right” decision.

That takes a bit of weight off.

“The ultimate divine mystery is there found immanent within each. It is not “out there” somewhere. It is within you. And no one has ever been cut off.

You are not now to lose your nerve! Go on through with it and play your own game all the way! And of course, as everybody knows who has ever played at games, the ones that are the most fun—to lose as well as to win—are the ones that are the hardest, with the most complicated, even dangerous, tasks to accomplish.”