The Book With a Thousand Purposes
Joseph Campbell’s masterwork, the interpretation of dreams and myths, and why A Hero With a Thousand Faces isn’t just about the narrative structure of the quest plot.
Aspiring authors are often advised to read and analyse mythology in order to decode story and plot structures. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces — an analysis of the deeper meaning and structures of the stories that humans have dreamed and narrated from antiquity — is the classic recommended text on the topic of mythology. Based on Carl Jung’s work on archetypes in the deep subconscious, Campbell’s analysis of mythology has not just inspired George Lucas (the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises) but also a book that is established as the Hollywood screenwriter’s bible, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. The testament to the veracity of the thesis are the box office numbers of numerous Hollywood films — from The Matrix to The Lego Movie — that have used the Campbell formula to the last T and all the way to the bank.
However, the first couple of times I tried to read this book, it made absolutely no sense to me. Even while studying anthropology at university, I found it a difficult text. Campbell’s methods and conclusions, which combine archaeology, ethnology, South Asian studies, and folk psychology to conclude that human experience is simultaneously novel and universal appeared to be somewhat paradoxical and nonsensical.
However, this is the accepted method of academic anthropology. It is only wider misunderstanding about the definition of a human being, racial categories, and value-judgements concerning the nature of cognition, where deductive reasoning is considered superior to emotional insight that prevent access to the deeper meaning embedded in works like this. Anthropology claims that whether a person is a tribal living on the Andaman islands or an astronaut in the International Space Station, the experiential richness in terms of consuming symbols and narrative is identical. A simple function of being human. There is a wonderful talk by the anthropologist Wade Davis that illustrates this thesis (available on YouTube). Anthropology, thus, is the art of revealing ‘the universe contained in a flea’s egg’. While the norm is to study one tribe or a people, Campbell goes the other way, to reveal what studying humanity in totality tells us about the individual experience.
Campbell’s thesis is that every major world story, from Giglamesh to the Ramayana, and even our dreams, constitute a ‘mono-myth’: a structure consisting of an accidental call to adventure, failure, problem-solving, and redemption or failure that is universal and unvarying.
Keeping in mind the spectacular variance in human experience across history, geography, and epochs of technology, this is an extraordinary claim.
The mythology of the Buddha’s life, told in various cultures, forms, and mediums, makes the spine of Campbell’s analysis. The other examples that generously intersperse the discussion are instances from every canon one can think of: Biblical tales, Eskimo lore, cosmological explanations of the Maori or the Jains, the Arabian Nights, and African folklore. Marshalling these examples, which display the author’s formidable knowledge of world story-telling traditions, Campbell argues that every tribe, city-state, or civilisation tells itself the same mono-mythical tale: birth is miraculous, death is inevitable (but, not the end of existence), life is lived in stages of maturation, maturity is achieved with difficulty, and that the forces of destiny and nature, far from passive observers regularly manifest themselves and influence the affairs of men. When human civilisation is in crisis and in danger of dying through ossification, a hero is born to redeem the world, and assisted by the supernatural, manages to create the spark to re-light the flame of creativity. Nothing is an accident, not even evil. Everything has a legitimate place in the universe, including the forces of misery, death, and destruction.
In the prologue, Campbell defines myth as “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation”. As “sponteneous productions” of the psyche, Campbell correlates dream and myth to the personal and the universal respectively. Dreams are individual, myths are addressed to everyone. Dreams have attained a special status as a source to understand the human mind due to the emergence of psychoanalysis as a field of study and medical practice (especially due to the contributions of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung). A big part of their work addressed the psychic trauma and mental blockages, and their research suggests that a new search for meaning has been triggered by a deterioration in the symbolism provided by faith-based practices and traditions.
The psychoanalyst, according to Campbell, is the shaman of the contemporary age, who delves into the recesses and realms of the soul to recover our health.
Using the example of King Minos and the Minotaur, Campbell lays out the frame-work of his argument: we construct a maze, an “ordinary life” to trap our inner demons but the demons still lurk, and if not addressed, threaten to make themselves public. The ultimate fear is the fear of death, and there are two modes of story that address this: comedy and tragedy.
The individual may cease to exist, but the social body lives on. Comedy celebrates the oneness of all forms. By experiencing catharsis through story and dreams, obstacles in the psyche are unblocked, obscure resistances are overcome, and long, lost forgotten powers are rediscovered. The hero, whether Prometheus or the Buddha, ‘frequently honoured, frequently dishonoured’ is a person who makes sacrifices and cures the world of a deficiency.
The world itself is no inert geography. Through the concept of the “World Navel”, Campell describes the circle to be the most sacred shape in mythology. The sun is the “rice bowl of God” for the consumption of souls. There are magic places, the spot under the Bo Tree where Buddha meditated, Rome, or Mecca, towards which it can appear that the whole of existence is oriented. Furthermore, my favourite story in this book, is Campbell’s narration of the Buddha’s invocation of the Earth to bear witness, when challenged at the final step by the Demon of Love and Death, to his right to the spot where he meditated. To my mind, it demonstrates that every being has a right to occupy the Earth.
The world provides grace through food and energy. However, it will eventually claim our lives and consume our corpses. Representing this, not all figures we worship, like the Goddess Kali, are beautiful. The world is both nourishing and hostile.
Yet, beyond these practical observations, Campbell’s work hints at far deeper truths. Personal apotheosis lies in managing the debt and credit one owes towards one’s parents, patrimonies being both golden blessings and twisted curses. The profound insight from Buddha’s confrontation with the God of Death, in the face of racists, Malthusians, and constant complaints about over-population, that every person is equally entitled to a spot on Earth, even homeless shraamans. Kandinsky neatly anticipates Campbell’s cosmology of creation in an essay “On the Problem of Form” (that long predates Campbell’s work), describing the Creative Spirit as a ‘white, fertilising ray’. Whether one approaches the problem from anthropology or painting (or even today’s weather forecast) the same conclusion is inevitable. The cosmos and essences are not passive. They actively participate and determine our fate.
The microcosm, dies eventually, and after further trials — life is a preparation for the ordeal of death and its aftermath — after that the soul is free to roam. The world will end, too. Everything is going to blow.
This is a hard book to read for even those who have some basic training in critical theory and anthropology. At the same time, if one comes to the book with a completely uncluttered mind, it is possible it will have a resonance that a mind pre-loaded with academic theory may not.
Campbell ends by conceding that myth may not mean anything at all. They are tied to the individual and the age. An individual needs a tribe and finds totality in a group. Needs are provided and met collectively, but group identity is renewed through individual action. In our age of technology and science, the ancient system of symbols has collapsed. Biography, history, and science — subjects I had been more accustomed — provide explanations but can kill meaning. Instead of shamanic rituals reminding us of the profound nature of the cosmos and its abstractions, urging us to grow our consciousness, we are infantilised by myths of nations and races. As always, redemption lies in creativity and problem-solving. Despite all our growing knowledge of the universe, the fundamental riddle remains man himself.
Creating a story with an emotionally satisfying structure is extremely difficult. However, it is somewhat unfortunate, then, that the primary use of this book is to understand the three-act structure for screenwriting. Like any powerful work by a renowned anthropologist, it asks after one of the biggest mysteries of the universe: what does it mean to be a human being? To strip the book and reduce it to a how-to manual, though useful from a trade and craft perspective, is to overlook the profound things it has to say.