06 November 2007

Two-Thousandeye or My Hero

I am reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Like most academic writers, Campbell can be hard work; but comparative mythology has always interested me. Here are a few excerpts from the opening chapter of the book:

‘Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.’

‘What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costumes? And what does it teach?’

In Occultism and Mysticism, Sri Chinmoy states, ‘…a real mystic is he who wants to see the divine mystery in everything, in nature and in human beings. He wants to go to the essence, to the Source, faster than any human being dares to imagine. This is a real mystic.’

Campbell’s questions and conclusions lead me to conclude that he is a mystic who has donned the cloak of academia. Intriguingly, Campbell assisted Swami Nikhilananda with the widely read translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna from Bengali into English.

For Jospeh Campbell, the hero’s journey in all its forms is the essence of humanity’s story - the quest to attain immortality – to reclaim our spiritual heritage. The analogy of the thousand faces demonstrates we are all gazing upon the One from different angles. We all have a unique perspective on the journey. Each of us contains the hero.

I have only read ten pages so far, but the force of the writing so struck me that I felt like expounding the themes here. It is well known that George Lucas used this book as a guide when writing the original Star Wars trilogy. These movies are the vade mecum of my generation; thus, we have no need of the pantheon upon Olympus, and Homer mostly gathers dust. The archetypes are renewed still, and I find it impossible not to enjoy lines such as, ‘The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.’

He further writes, ‘Archaelogists are probing the ruins of Iraq, Honan, Crete and Yucatan. Ethnologists are questioning the Ostiaks of the river Ob, the Boobies of Fernando Po.’

When I read this, I can hear the music of Whitman from Salut au Monde:

‘I see the site of the old empire of Assyria, and that of Persia, and that of India;
I see the falling of the Ganges over the high rim of Saukara.

I see the place of the idea of the Deity incarnated by avatars in human forms;
I see the spots of the successions of priests on the earth—oracles, sacrificers, brahmins, sabians, lamas, monks, muftis, exhorters;
I see where druids walked the groves of Mona—I see the mistletoe and vervain;
I see the temples of the deaths of the bodies of Gods—I see the old signifiers.

I see Christ once more eating the bread of his last supper, in the midst of youths and old persons;
I see where the strong divine young man, the Hercules, toil’d faithfully and long, and then died;
I see the place of the innocent rich life and hapless fate of the beautiful nocturnal son, the full-limb’d Bacchus;
I see Kneph, blooming, drest in blue, with the crown of feathers on his head;
I see Hermes, unsuspected, dying, well-beloved, saying to the people, Do not weep for me,
This is not my true country, I have lived banish’d from my true country—I now go back there,
I return to the celestial sphere, where every one goes in his turn.

This admonition from Hermes is perfect given the tumultuous events of October past: my hero, the greatest hero I know - Sri Chinmoy - having embarked for heaven.

Many are the tales of Sri Chinmoy's life that are still to be told.

Know I well that the realm of myth has its basis in fact.


John said...

This is an outstanding post Alf, meatier than jumbo vege burger, and with more points than a witches coven in full session.

I went through a bit of a Joseph Campbell phase way back—only thing was what he said was so interesting that I kept on getting diverted nearly every paragraph, wanting to go off and ponder his every word.

A lecturer at university tried to dissuade me from reading him though, for apparently he was none too politically correct, but many a good man would fail the standards of this modern day Inquisition.

Alf said...

What a rich compliment my friend.

I must admit that I actually only had time to read part of the first chapter which gave birth to this piece!

It is definitely a brilliant book though.

I am reading a book of profiles of legendary runners and the author mentioned in the introduction that he met Joseph Campbell. He asked Mr Campbell what was the most rewarding experience in his varied life? The scholar replied, "Taking part in the track team in the 1920's when he was at University."