What do contemporary scholars think of Joseph Campbell?
February 26, 2019 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I ended up watching a documentary on Joseph Campbell, and while I thought it was pretty dopey, he seemed potentially interesting. I started reading Pathways to Bliss (the most easily available book of his at my library), and I feel kind of . . . dissatisfied. It seems very meandering and I didn't feel sure I could trust what he was saying. I know it's a series of lectures rather than a book, but the lectures themselves seem meandering as well. I'd love to hear from people who are more in touch with current scholarship on myth.

Googling Joseph Campbell brings up pretty much only rah rah stuff. The Wikipedia entry is a little more balanced, but I'd like to know more. Why has he become such a focus for New Agey people? Does his scholarship hold up? Is it really scholarship? Is there something else of his that would be worthwhile to read? (I know that Hero of a Thousand Faces has influenced a ton of people, but it's always seems like a kind of simplistic idea to me - that's without reading it, so I may be completely wrong.)
I am interested in myth. I write literary fiction and poetry, some of which is based on myth (think Grendel by John Gardner or Ransom by David Malouf). Is there writing on myth for a lay audience that might be better?
Anthropologist of MetaFilter, please help me.
posted by FencingGal to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's complicated, because Campbell was a literature scholar whose work is fairly interdisciplinary. My guess is that academics in different areas would regard his work differently depending on the current trends in their particular area. I'm pretty sure that literature scholars have diverged pretty far from Campbell's core ideas, or at least would look critically at his work considering that he pretty much ignores anything outside the male-dominated Western Canon tradition of literature.

On the other hand, filmmakers LOVE HIM. I'd guess that film and media scholars have the same "grain of salt" approach I described in the above paragraph, but your average joe on the street who wants to write a screenplay worships the ground Joseph Campbell walks on. I took a TV pilot writing class a couple years ago that was almost entirely based on the Hero's Journey idea. As a framework for building a rudimentary plot that will resonate with a lot of people and by and large make sense, without needing to do a whole lot of thinking about what plot structure is and how narratives work, The Hero's Journey is as useful as any other tool out there, I guess. Additionally, a ton of people get off on the idea that the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope rests entirely on The Hero's Journey, as if that either makes Star Wars practically a religious text or makes Campbell some kind of genius. When really it's just a thing, I guess. You can draw parallels with a lot of stories in the Western Canon and The Hero's Journey. That's... fine.

As someone with a 15 year old undergraduate degree in anthropology, I'm guessing anthropologists who specialize in myth and folklore would lol at any of his ideas being considered definitive hard fact about how human narrative works.

TL;DR: It's completely OK if Joseph Campbell doesn't speak to you, a person who writes stuff based on myth and folklore. There are lots of other approaches to all of this that are equally good and perhaps more relevant.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 9:18 AM on February 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

I am not a scholar and not an anthropologist, but I have read and re-read quite a few of Joseph Campbell's books. I am not a fan of new agey cult that has seemed to lay claim to his legacy. And I agree that the books they have published that are just collections of his lectures are unsatisfying.

My favorite books of his are TRANSFORMATIONS OF MYTH THROUGH TIME, MYTHS TO LIVE BY, AN OPEN LIFE and THOU ART THAT. What I appreciate about his scholarship is how he acknowledges and incorporates so many different cultures into his explanations of what myths are (and are not). He doesn't "advocate" for one world view over another. He is interested in the origins of myths and religions from every corner of the world. Also, though he was born and raised and remained a practicing Roman Catholic his whole life, he gratefully acknowledges the wisdom of religions not his own and heaps scorn on anyone who thinks the Bible was meant to be taken literally.

I know for many people it is easy to think of Joseph Campbell's work only in relation to his influence on George Lucas and Star Wars. The Hero's Journey is now quite famous, but it is not the sum total of his work. I grew up interested in Greek and Roman Mythology and learned of Joseph Campbell through Bill Moyer's PBS series (which I think is on Netflix right now).

I fell in love with Campbell's work and found more spiritual satisfaction in his explanations and descriptions of mythology than I found in any church I ever visited. All of his best books take time to discuss the "function of mythology" which I think is vital to understand the significance of his work. Glancing through my well thumbed copies of the books mentioned above, with lots and lots of underlined passages on every page, I would summarize it so --

"the first function of mythology is to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence."

Everything he writes is an explanation of how ancient and modern myths and religions try to reconcile the harsh reality of the world we live in and the transcendent beauty of our impermanent existence.

What can I say? ... I'm a big fan ...
posted by pjsky at 9:18 AM on February 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you're interested in a similar but woman-myth-centered collection, consider reading Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

I enjoyed it more than the works Joseph Campbell - and I grew up on Campbell and this comparative literature approach to anthropology.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:08 AM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

[Hey folks - realize people are trying to be helpful, but the question is asking for contemporary scholarly/academic/specialist opinion about Campbell, so let's please stick to that. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:10 AM on February 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

He's not at all regarded highly in anthropology these days; if he ever was, he hasn't been for decades. The main knock on him is that his scholarship is suspect: that he understood things superficially, just enough to be able to shoehorn them into his universalist framework, and that his ideas are too vague to have much explanatory power.

There's also a whiff of accused cryptofascism that clings stubbornly to his reputation, as well as that of the monomyth theorists more generally. It attaches even more so to Campbell's friend and and close collaborator Mircea Eliade, who was definitely a right winger and had connections (the full extent of which are disputed) with the Iron Guard and other Romanian fascist groups during World War II.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:11 AM on February 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

As someone with a 15 year old undergraduate degree in anthropology, I'm guessing anthropologists who specialize in myth and folklore would lol at any of his ideas being considered definitive hard fact about how human narrative works.

I also have a 15-yr-old anthro degree, and second this heartily. He was falling out of favor when I was an undergrad, even as I was taught a buttload of postmodernist anthro theory by folks who should rightly love him.

I had not known that about Eliade. I'm sad, because I really like his writing, but thank you for that, strangely stunted trees.
posted by kalimac at 10:17 AM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not sure if current academia really thinks much of him. His monomyth theory was based on faulty scholarship and how he was embraced by the New Age movement and his alleged Antisemitism further tarnished him. Certainly in the early 90's most of my Anthropology professors were pretty dismissive of him as were those I knew in English literature. So in short I wouldn't feel too bad about not connecting with him. Personally, I read a few his books but I largely didn't care for him. I did like his Historical Atlas of World Mythology series, however, which were heavily illustrated and geared to a lay audience without being too New Age-y.

Are you looking for books for lay people that examine myth? Or simply collections of myths? I haven't read much in the way of current scholarship in that world but I enjoyed these books in the past:

The Folktale by Stith Thompson
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg
Morphology of the Folktale: Second Edition by V. Propp
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:18 AM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

Are you looking for books for lay people that examine myth? Or simply collections of myths?

Books that examine myth.
Also, I should probably try to be a little more clear about "lay people." I'm not looking for pop anthropology, just something that would be accessible to someone who is a scholarly sort of person, but in a different field (I'm ABD in English literature). I know that's not specific either, but I hope it clarifies a bit.

Thanks for the answers so far.
posted by FencingGal at 10:23 AM on February 26, 2019

Regarding anthropological work on myth accessible to a lay audience, my suggestion is Mama Lola by Karen McCarthy Brown. Reasons: you can check it out for free online at that link; it is commonly taught to undergrads; it gradually gives you a sort of 'mythological figures in a pantheon' overview of Vodou; but it is relentlessly contextualized in terms of social and personal practice, which illustrates pretty vividly what contemporary anthropologists typically keep in view.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:59 AM on February 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm not an anthropologist, but I think I can help clarify. Joseph Campbell, generally, proposes that myths from various cultures speak to the same underlying universal human concerns. Many contemporary scholars see this proposal as overly simplistic, if not downright wrong.
posted by xammerboy at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Joseph Campbell is to folklorists and anthropologists marginally better than what Jordan Peterson is to philosophers. He is not, and never has been scholarship, for all his popularity.

His "research" is unfalsiable, and question begging. He was wildly popular outside the academy but never within it.

For great, accessible folklorists, you cannot go past Marina Warner (from beast to blonde is a favourite), Jack Zipes, Maria Tartar. Warner in particular is a lovely, lucid writer.
posted by smoke at 12:26 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Professor Robert A. Segal, the author of Oxford University Press's book entitled Myth in the popular Very Short Introductions series, has discussed Campbell in that book as well as in a chapter of his book, Theorizing About Myth (UMass Press, 1999). Segal seems to take a more diplomatic view of Campbell than many. For my money, one of the best scholars writing on myth in recent years is Bruce Lincoln (specifically, his book Theorizing Myth); I'm sure he has made some comments on Campbell over the years, though not in that book. (Lincoln discusses Eliade frequently, who is very similar to Campbell but more influential on 'professionals'.) In the related field of Religious Studies, I'd also recommend the work of Jonathan Z Smith, who has often discussed the type of theorizing Campbell does, if not Campbell directly.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 5:04 PM on February 26, 2019

IIRC, Russell T. McCutcheon's book Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia also contains some demolition of Campbell that might be useful.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 5:08 PM on February 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Much of Joseph Campbell's ethos is derived from the work of Carl Jung, and if you're interested in Mythologies, then Jung is worth attention, with the usual caveats. I view them both as speculative philosophers rather than academic anthropologists. I think they both say interesting things, as long as we keep in context that when they talk about "Profound" things, not everything that they say is actually profound, even though it might seem like it.

If you're interested in writings about Mythology, please take a look at Robert Graves: 'The Greek Myths' has interesting commentary about the structure of myths. 'The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth' (well, the title says it all;) He also wrote the introduction to 'The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology' which is endlessly fascinating, highly recommened, & also makes a swell heavy coffee table book/doorstop. He also wrote many other interesting things. Serious scholars quibble about him.
posted by ovvl at 6:46 PM on February 26, 2019

I like “The Joseph Campbell Companion”. He is essentially using myth as a guide to the subconscious, with the goal of integrating the Jungian “shadow self” into our ego-identity.

You could also try his infamous PBS series The Power of Myth, to hear it from the horses’ mouth so to speak.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:06 PM on February 26, 2019

Thanks everyone. This helped a lot, and I'm happy to have some other books to look into. The milkman's thoughts on the place Campbell holds in film making were especially helpful for understanding why I feel like I keep hearing that Campbell is important.

Also, thanks to strangely stunted trees for bringing in the word "superficially," which I was kind of looking for in my own assessment of what I read but not quite finding. (Strange how very simple words can sometimes prove elusive.)
posted by FencingGal at 7:21 AM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

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