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Krishna or Christ?
Owen A. Jones
A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, by Stephen and Robin Larsen, New York: Doubleday, 1991. 636 pp. $21.95.
THIS IS the story o how an overly sensif tive, bright, and precocious son of an alcoholic travelling salesman became successful in post-Christian America. A Fire in the Mind is a sympathetic treatment, on the order of spiritual biograf phy, of the life o Joseph Campbell by two people who shared his dreams (literally: Stephen Larsen is a “licensed dream therapist”). Joseph Campbell became famous late in life, with the help of a PBS special series of interviews on The PowerofMyth that was created by Bill Moyers. But A Fire in the Mind is not really an important f historiography o myth. It is about the man himself and his search for himself. Since many Americans today are in f search of themselves, it is a story o a life that perfectly mirrors its time. Joseph Campbell was born in 1904 to upper middle class, “self-reliant,” New England Roman Catholics. He suffered as a young boy from the major disharmony caused by an itinerant but successful alcoholic father, and serious bouts of illness. He treated his family dysfunction by retreating into the world
of fable and wonder that he discovered in Iroquis myths. His physical illnesses were treated with morphine. He became “fascinated with the primitives,” and while an undergraduate at Columbia he found the book that changed his life: The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer. Ayoung poet had recently caused a sensation in the literary world with his poem The WasteLand, which used mythic images to describe the bits and pieces of a chaotic and disordered civilization. T. S. Eliot courageously pushed beyond the f level o myth, reconnecting those bits and pieces in one of the greatest Christian poems of our tradition. Campbell’s life continued t o veer in f the direction o chaos. His attempts to join his father in the business world havingfailed, he returned to Columbia to do graduate work, focusing on “Arthurian Studies,” while dabbling in theosophy and astrology. His personal journals of this period reveal “abrooding introversion,” according to his biographers. What also a p pears in his journal is a manic desire to be accepted and loved by others as a knowledgeable and important person:
My own plan is to study psychology so that I may someday be a great teacher. I shall write & teach &do anything that will
assist me on my way and win me money. I shall save my money. Then-if my life begins t o get tedious I shall pack off to the Orient or the south seas to write &study and teach there. Someday I shall have gained experience & prestige enough to d o as 1 please-then I think I shall write and teach some more.”
His college journal entries are remarkably prescient. In another self-sketch he writes:
“I feel now that my lifework will be finally discovered. I feel as though my destiny impels me toward my goal & 1 shall relax t o its efforts hereafter.”
His biographers describe this journal e n t r y a s evidence of Campbell’s metanoiu, “a deeper change of mind.” Readers with the most basic philosophical knowledge will detect more in the way of an adolescent ego-expansion than any real conversion. Indeed, upon leaving Columbia nothing changed but the venue. Campbell threw himself into t h e alchemy of Picasso’s Paris and John Steinbecks Monterey Peninsula, searching for a system that would satisfy his yearnings, while drinking other people’s booze, lusting after their women, and dancing in the nude. His goal was “to initiate the world into his creative discovery.”But was the world really big enough to appreciate him? Perhaps Campbell doubted that it was. What else would explain his skepticism o all o the great religious traditions of f f the world? “Clearly Christianity is opposed fundamentally and intrinsically t o everything that I am working and living for,” wrote Campbell in his Asian Journal-a mature opinion penned in 1955, “and for the modern world, I believe, with all of its faiths and traditions, Krishna is a much better teacher and model than Christ.” f Krishna, being one o the avatars of Vishnu, and hero of the Bhagavad-Cita,
is a member of the Hindu pantheon. Hindus expect that someday Vishnu will return t o earth, eliminate all evil, and usher in a Golden Age of mankind. Hope for such an apocalyptic victory over d i s o r d e r may have been o n e of Campbell’s life-sustaining dreams. For whatever reason, he refused to investigate the apocalypse of the soul promised by Christ to his followers. Did Campbell understand the teaching of Christ o r Krishna? Or was he content t o “sit around and look wise,” as he once described his family role in his boyhood journal? The Sanskrit scholar Jeffrey Masson doubted Campbell’s credentials to say anything credible about the East:
“He’s very much a Jungian.. . .When I met Campbell at a public gathering he was quoting Sanskrit verses. He had no clue as t o what he was talking about; he had the most superficial knowledge of India but he could use it for his own aggrandizement. I remember thinking: this man is corrupt. I know that he was simply lying about his understanding. . . . I tried t o point this out t o him politely.”
Campbell artfully dodged such criticism throughout his life, as in this potentially damaging exchange with Martin Buber:
“Excuse me, Professor Buber,” he said, “but there’s one word you’ve been using quite a lot that I don’t quite understand.” “Yes,Mr. Campbell,” said Buber, “what is that word?” “God,” answered Campbell. There was a shocked silence. “You don’t understand what I mean by the word ‘God,’ Mr. Campbell?” “Well, sometimes you seem t o be referring to a universal cosmic principle, and still at other times, to the Jehovah o the f Old Testament, and still others t o s o m e one with whom you have personal conversations. I’ve just come back from spending seven months in India, where people have constant and daily experience o God. They dance God, sing, play, f
eat, live with God-God is anything but absent .” Buber drew himself up to his full five feet and glowered at Campbell, raising his hands in an almost ritual gesture o wardf ing: “Surelyyou don’t mean to compare...”
“God is not the creator of man; man is the creator of God.” [from an anonymous Indian Holy Man, quoted in his Asian Journal]. “The Sage knows from the deepest conviction that he [emphasis added] is consciousness and that he has attained what has to be attained.” [Sri Krishna Menon]
Campbell was rescued from almost certain physical retaliation at that point by the host! The Larsens delight in these encounters, as if they prove the “monolithic” and authoritarian nature of organized religion, versus Campbell’s ability to tranf scend such particularities o time and place. But Campbell’s aversion to religion and reason seems to suggest a darker side to his persona. If you are familiar with Paul Johnson’s magnificent treatment of modern paranoia, The Intellectuals, you will possess the key to unlock f the mystery o Joseph Campbell. His own private journals reveal the inner wanderings of a gnostic intellectual, an alchemist and magician, who saw himself to be “a visionary or shaman o the f aesthetic.” As early as 1934 he was convinced that a soul-his soul-could experience “all experience” and achieve “perfect sympathy and understanding.” Students o Emerson and Spengler will immedif ately recognize the resonant symbolisms. Campbell sent copies o Decline of f the West to his girl friends and made his wife read it cover to cover. While holding court with the crew filming his life story he shouted, “Yes, Emerson is one of the few Americans who got it!” Campbell then referred to Emerson’s “transcendentalism.” Students of Emerson will f recognize the self-divinizing qualities o both characters. The Larsens unwittingly reveal what appealed t o Campbell the most: The selfdivinizing characteristics o all primif tive myths that are perfectly suited to f the lifestyles o modern artists and intelf lectuals who live off o government
Campbell agreed with these sages in his journal, adding, “I am willing to become as though lost in thought and action, knowing all the time that therein is consciousness and experience: samsara and nirvana being one and the same.” Despite a good effort by his biographers to describe Campbell’s aesthetic vision, we only sense the presence of a lonely child of an alcoholic who is desperately trying to manage life and the f materials o life, who probably became alcoholic himself, whose brother died young of alcoholism, who describes his own first drunk in glowingly mystical terms that are typical of the alcoholic drinker, who died of a typical alcoholic’s malady-cancer of the esophagus. (Paul Johnson discovered a similar alcoholic pattern in his study of modern intellectuals). It is the great witness of Western Civilization that God is not manifest in magical signs and wonders but in virtue. “It is a wicked and adulterous generation that f seeketh after a sign,” said Jesus o Nazareth. In virtue lies the power of life and the f victory o life over the elemental powers of the universe that sow confusion, chaos, and even death in the hearts and souls of men. Our tradition teaches us that we are each obligated to develop the necessary intellectual and moral virtues to discern the difference. That is what makes us free. This is not an ethnocentric prejudice. It is an empirical observation. It need not be defended propositionally. We have
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