Mythic Imagination

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Before he was the engaging professor who brought mythology into people’s living rooms through his conversations with Bill Moyers, before he became known as the thinker whose ideas influenced Star Wars, and before his now-beloved phrase “follow your bliss” entered the popular lexicon, Joseph Campbell was a young man who tried his hand at writing fiction. At the age of twenty-nine, after years of Depression-era unemployment, when he lived off money he had earned playing saxophone in a jazz combo and read the world’s great literature in a syllabus of his own design, Campbell published his first short story. That tale, included in this collection, remained the famed mythologist’s only published piece of fiction, until now.In these stories, readers will find rich mythological symbolism, down-to-earth concerns with the ravages of the Second World War, and singular iterations of Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey schema — all interwoven into a literary style that anticipates the genre that would years later come to be known as “magical realism.” Compelling in their own right, these seven stories are essential reading for longtime Campbell fans and the many who continue to discover him afresh.

Transcript of Mythic Imagination

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Joseph Campbell studied one thing his entire life: narrative. Yet that one thing had, so to say, a thousand faces: ancient myths, epic poems, medieval romances, timeless folktales, modern novelsall were expressions of what Campbell saw as humanitys one great story. The products of that lifelong study most familiar to us are the seminal nonfiction books, essays, and talks on mythology that he produced during his life (19041987) and that, together with his journals, make up the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell in print, audio, video, and ebook formats. Campbell was a masterful dissector of the art and science of narrative, as influential in helping both writers and readers understand the core of what story is, one could argue, as any thinker since Aristotle wrote his Poetics. Yet as anyone who has read his books or heard him speak can attest, he was also a masterful storyteller: engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking...and funny. It should come as no surprise, then, that early in his career as a student of story, he should himself have turned to creating stories of his own. From his early teens, Campbell was a conscientious diarist, recording and analyzing the events of his own lifebits of dialogue, interesting anecdotes, disturbing dreams. Soon after he abandoned his doctoral studies, he began identifying himself as an author. By [1929], Joseph Campbell had already been working for some time on his short ix


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stories, his chosen vehicle as a writer.1 From that time through the 1940s, Campbell applied the same imaginative, analytical mind to the art and craft of fiction that would bring us insightful, inspiring studies of modern literature and primal mythology. The seven stories in this volume were all created during this period, before Campbell resolved that comparative mythology . . . is to be my study.2 Of the short fiction that he worked on, they are the only pieces that we still have. Six of the stories have never been published beforethe sole exception being the earliest, Strictly Platonic, which appeared in Liberty magazine in 1933 and which we have therefore presented as an appendix. Two of the remaining stories Moonlight in vermont and Last Paradisewere written as standalone pieces and are presented as such. The remaining four stories were also originally written to stand alone. At some point, Campbell realized that they shared many thematic threads, so he gathered them into a cycle that he titled Where Moth and Rust and wrote a foreword and a prologue to introduce them.3 Campbells tales vary in setting and tone from light and pastoral (Moonlight in vermont) to urban and ironic (The Lord of Love) to apocalyptic (voracious and The Forgotten Man). Strictly Platonic is a college satire, and The Belly of the Shark is a metaphysical/ psychological thriller, while Last Paradise is a complex morality tale, a metaphoric exploration of the costs of modern civilization. The four stories that make up Where Moth and Rust, written during the Second World War, collectively reflect Campbells deep unease with the course of human civilizationnot shocking, given the outlook offered by the news of the day. Conceived (as was Dr. Strangelove) as a kind of future history, the cycle offers four bleak, wartime glimpses of the world rushing toward its own destruction. Theres no sense of a shiny future of technological marvels to be found, but rather a fictional exploration of the themes laid out in Oswald Spenglers Decline of the West. Anyone at all familiar with Campbells work will recognize immediately that all of his extant unpublished stories are unabashedly mythological in theme and in content. At some point in each of the



six unpublished stories, the protagonist receives a call to adventurea visit from or an invitation to a world where none of the considerations of mundane life applyand is either transformed or destroyed by that experience. In each case, there is either an explicit or implicit evocation of primal mythological imagery: the goddess Kl births and devours; the Leviathan swallows; a timeless house of the sidhe appears and disappears; Krtimukha, the Face of Glory, consumes all; the Buddha bestows illumination that may or may not be annihilation. Like a modern version of Ovids Metamorphoses, these tales explore what happens when human beings come into contact with the eternal. Written during the years preceding the 1949 publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, these works show Campbell exploring many of the narrative and thematic ideas found in his classic study of the structure of hero tales from around the world and across the ages. He tells his stories, which explore all the classic themes of modern Western fictionlove, loss, yearning, the struggle to conform, the desire to break freewith a strong sense of the psychological combined with a resounding sense of the mythic. Fantastical and at times literally otherworldly, whimsical yet unflinching, Campbells writing was utterly out of sync with the American fiction scene of the years before, during, and after World War II. The majority of American fiction of the period was grittily realistic. From Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner to Hammett, Michener, and Mailer, mainstream American authors were focused on this world. Authors of a more speculative bentAsimov, Heinlein, del Rey, and Bradbury, for examplewere writing classic tales of science fiction and fantasy available mostly in pulp magazines, but their writing was bursting with American optimism, a hope for the future that seems utterly lacking in Campbells.4 Given that his fiction did not hew to the tropes of either the realistic or the speculative fiction of the time, its understandable that Campbell couldnt find a publisher for his writing. Though he was a positive, ebullient man, Joseph Campbells worldview was deeply influenced by the philosophical pessimism of Spengler, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. These


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so-called Romantics philosophy challenged the notion of Progress, what Campbell called an ameliorative mythology [that through] prayer or good deeds or some other activity, one can change the basic principles, the fundamental preconditions of life. . . . This is like marrying someone in order to improve him or herit is not a marriage.5 As one reads the tales in this collection, taking in their combination of the quotidian and the mysterious, it is hard not to think of magic realism, a style of literature that flourished in Latin America throughout the mid- and late-twentieth century but that wouldnt have an impact in the united States and the rest of the world until the 1970s, three decades after Campbell turned away from writing fiction. Yet prescient though his writing seems, it springs from the same modernist, surrealist roots as the Spanish-language work of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garca Mrquez. Campbells models were the novelists about whom he wrote and spoke so much: James Joyce and Thomas Mann. Proceeding from the naturalistic novel . . . in all of these works just following the [First World] War one finds [Joyce and Mann each] bringing into discourse the mythological associations which underlie his composition.6 Like Mann, Campbell attempted to marry the mundane with the mystical. Like Joyce, he tried to give his storytelling a scrupulous meanness7keeping the narrative voice colored and limited by the perspective of the point-of-view character, whether it is the banal smugness of the unnamed president in The Forgotten Man, the inchoate romanticism of the Hawaiian debutante in The Lord of Love, or the laconic cynicism of the college-educated GI in Last Paradise. With such heady models, Campbells ambitions must have been high in creating his own mythically inflected fiction. We think that the reader will not be disappointed.

S o me notes on the creation of this collection: As stated, none but Strictly Platonic was ever accepted for publication. We have included the dates of composition of these stories,



which were noted by Campbell on each manuscript, to provide a further perspective on the development of his thoughts and themes. We have chosen neither to emend nor to annotate expressions and sentiments that might strike a twenty-first-century reader as odd. Joseph Campbell was a man of his time, writing for his time. Whether hes invoking the Alphabet Soup of the New Deal by mentioning them O.P.A. critters (the O.P.A. was the Office of Price Administration) in Moonlight in vermont or spoofing the grandiloquent malapropisms of radio preacher Father Divine (The you-man body do tangibilate and the you-verse do tangibilate that which the iddibidible is been a-thinking) in The Forgotten Man, weve decided to let Campbells language speak, as it were, for itself. Likewise, we have chosen not to attempt to bring the racial and cultural politics of the 1940s in line with that of our more sensitive contemporary sensibilities. For example, in each of the stories in Where Moth and Rust, he portrays a collision between the dominant perspective in his America and another culture: African American in The Forgotten Man, Polynesian in The Belly of the Shark, Asian American in The Lord of Love, and Native American in voracious. In each case, the point is not cultural relations, but rather an underlying clash between modern societys terminal moraine of broken mythological traditions8 and fundamental, universal myth itself the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.9 Here, as in all his subsequent work, Campbell makes it clear that narrative itself has universal power, however it may be expressed. As he wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the heros visions, i