This book is the transcript of the Bill Moyers interview series, but also contains much good and worthwhile material cut from the videos -- and which is still not included in the 25th anniversary reissure of the videos. It's also valuable because in the videos Campbell is so charismatic, so charming, so entertaining, and so articulate, that it's easy to miss the fact that while he makes many claims for the value of myth in living one's life, he never justifies those claims. Even when asked directly for an example of how a myth helped him at some time in his life, he evades the question. Reading the book at one's own pace lets you really examine his words, and reevaluate them.
Having seen the television programs in the original run and having owned the book for decades, I had a really good idea what I would be getting with this six-CD set. "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth" is absolutely essential. The flaws to be found in this format are so minor that it would be embarrassing to nitpick over them. My goal was to get Campbell in something similar to the 1970s NPR "Reading Aloud" broadcast. What I got is better than that. Less comprehensive than the Masks of God books, for sure, "The Power of Myth" weaves in and out of Campbell's great works. Bill Moyers may appear to be out of his depth at times, but Campbell seemed to enjoy the conversation format and he seemed to enjoy Moyers' company. In Program Six, which was recorded shortly before Campbell's death, he briefly appeared to be a little less focused than before; and his voice trailed off a bit a few times. Easy to understand. Then he was right back in his best form. The "Power of Myth" CDs are well worth the money and well worth your time. I ripped mine to audio files and play them, from a flash drive, with the Grace Digital Wifi media player. This is as good as it gets.
Watched the PBS special many years ago which this book is based on and it was a mind blowing experience. Mr. Campbell was an amazing man and while I did not agree with some of his ideas, the vast majority were very thought provoking and insightful.
Mr. Campbell always amazed me in the way in which he spoke, it was never perceived as threatening or forceful and people who would normally throw a riot at the thought of some of his ideas would not only listen but engage in conversation. Amazing man and one of a few that I wish I could have met in person.
I was never really interested in mythology in school, coming from a far more mathematical/analytical frame of mind. Alas, I was fortunate to have two wonderful teachers teach me in undergraduate courses in NYU and make me dive into a completely alien subject two years ago. I felt that Joseph Campbell is very clear (and not to mention original!) in explaining the different conceptions of life that altogether constitute mythology. In the interview, he said that his autodidactism came from a ready access to books - and this is very evident from the large length and depth of literature he has studied.
It is pointless to go into the content of the book because that is what reading it is for. By reading this book, it helps you understand (or reaffirm) beliefs like viewing comparative mythology as a road to uniting tales and legends common to many cultures into a theoretical framework. Incredibly, you can find that most narratives created by human cultures have very common underlying themes: the most prevalent example is the idea of the 'hero', an ordinary person who lives in confusion, is met with an opportunity where he is forced to go on a journey that ultimately results in an inner reawakening leading him to return to his previous tribe and change it - a common theme in historical epics and religious texts. He mentions different conceptions of the hero, but this interview is a repetition of his ideas written with more detail in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)'.
Campbell mentions instances from a large range of traditions, not only the large dominant ones but the smaller ones including those found in tribes isolated from civilization. For someone like me who is not well versed at all in this subject, the book's accessibility came to me as a great relief. He mentions great points about how the decline of classical education leads to a lack of spiritual reference point to self-reflect in the western world. Some ideas made me understand a few religious concepts far more clearly, such as the idea that people associate Jesus with love because he is more relatable as a human and not a perfect and overbearing figure like God.
However, the brilliance of his work is how doesn't dwell excessively on the grandiose and transcendent and instead focuses on the day-to-day challenges faced by us. He talks wonderfully about marriage and the importance of rituals. This same importance is why despite not being a particularly religious person, I keep all my fasts during the month of Ramadan - purely due to the experience itself and not due to the perceived validity of it. Campbell brilliantly expresses how a lack of myth results in spiritual bankruptcy as all cultures (including the scientific worldview that trace our descent from Darwinian forces) use narratives to create moral justifications: A Muslim would say that incest is wrong because it is prohibited by scripture, a person who holds a Darwinian view would say that our repulsion towards incest comes from cultural programming that survived because rules that prohibited inbreeding allowed for a reduction in the possibility of hereditary problems - allowing those subscribers to survive and carry on the tradition through a memetic process.
After all, myths are something that we live and die for regardless of our philosophical inclinations. An interesting comparison is how myths drive people towards the idea of sacrifice - letting go of the ego and possessions to integrate into the larger community, the family, then the tribe, country and against all possible odds, perhaps into humanity itself (e.g. Mandela, Abraham when ordered to sacrifice his son). Some of his ideas bare great resemblance to recent history, such as the anarchy created when modernity is imposed at a rapid pace on primitive (or rather less developed countries) by colonial powers - threatening people's myths and by extension their very identities. I think this book is a treasure and it is a good defense against the Dawkins-like Atheists who reject religion altogether by focusing on religions lack of epistemological basis while ignoring the fact that religion has survived for so long because it is an integral part of the human experience and carries useful heuristics ("don't take on debts") . Furthermore, the ideas in this book by extension challenge the view that the modern secular worldview relies on pure objective analysis of morality and social relations - after all, even modern cultures have a belief in some myth, be it progress, liberalism, futurism or the ability for economics to secure human happiness. I am not disregarding the validity of any of this philosophical viewpoints - simply that no culture can exist with the complete absence of a narrative that drives the community. It unveils the irony of atheist groups that reject mythology and group into their own cults, giving credence to the very ideas they claim to reject.
Campbell deals with a couple of other interesting ideas including the understanding that "the myth is a public dream and the dream is the private myth". For him, when the union of these two ideas is disturbed when one's private myth is not compatible with the larger mythology of a culture - it results in the birth of a 'hero' that reawakens a culture by molding his culture in accordance to his newfound personal convictions. This is the dramatic explanation of how cultural innovation is thought to take place and why tracing a tradition's history of itself, its birth comes from the journey of a hero. (Muhammad meditating in his cave, Moses seeing God in a tree in the Sinai desert during his exile).
Campbell also tackles a central tenet of mythology, the use of language to express the transcendental. He talks about how language stimulates the imagination despite its limitations of being reductive, powerfully reducing incredible inexpressible experiences into short tales and stories. However, the ambiguity of language could mean that it captures the metaphysical with astounding beauty by virtue of the use of abstract words, or not meaning anything at all in the first place. Someone with an analytical background might say that mythology has no epistemological bases and while mythologists might say that science itself doesn't have the power to determine morality and meaning. Both sides have their virtues and it wouldn't be wise to disregard either view without first pondering on both sides of the arguments.
Finally, let me start with my criticisms of the book or rather mythology in general. I don't like how Campbell always talks about dreams as meaningful experiences, not emphasizing the possibility that they don't mean anything at all. Yes, dreams are very important to fables, tales, stories and legends but while scientific method is testable through experiment, mythological explanations can be attributed in hindsight to nearly any narrative. Despite this, I firmly believe that the knowledge of common narratives and patterns can be used as an important mental tool. Again, the use of vague and overbearing language and terms often means that anything and nothing can be interpreted in mythological terms - hence making it unfalsifiable. However, giving credit to Campbell - he doesn't seem to believe in hippy or new age mish-mash and simply gives metaphor the importance it deserves. Lastly, I feel that Campbell should have openly taken the stance that while people may use experiences like drugs to journey into consciousness, these attempts are rather futile because self-knowledge arises from years and years of challenges and by immersing into knowledge and not through the hedonistic urge to consume a substance.
However, altogether I loved this book and it was a great read. Kudo's to anyone who understands rather than rejects!
PS: As a childhood Star Wars fan, I was intrigued to see that George Lucas actually took advice from Campbell while filming the movie, that not too surprising as I could not help but notice that mythological elements in the character of Anakin Skywalker myself.
I had always heard the well-known phrase "Follow your Bliss" ...and learned it was attributed to Joseph Campbell. However, until I read this book and discussed it with my book group I wasn't fully aware of the meaning. I would recommend reading this book to gain insight into many of the world's religions and myths and most especially, what I came away with, was how interconnected we all are with each other. I've always believed that, but Joesph Campbell helped to solidify that thought. I am only giving the book 4 stars because I would highly recommend seeing the video of the interview. The video is much superior to the book. The book is not an accurate representation of the interviews between Bill Moyers and Campbell. When comparing the two, it appears that the author of "The Power of the Myth" may have taken liberties in many instances and added phrases and ideas that were not in fact said during the interviews. The book still is able to stand on its own, but if given a choice between the two - watching the videos would be the better choice.