Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was not just a great American mythologist, writer and lecturer. He may best be remembered for his superb works in comparative mythology, like the The Hero with a Thousand Faces or The Masks of God. But those who venture beyond his vast erudition will find a man deeply in love with life. Not life as seen in a Hollywood movie, not life as we would like it to be, with love ever present and no wretchedness to be found; life in its own terms, in its misery and its glory, its bloodiness and its holiness, its wonder and its awe.
Whenever we feel tempted to embrace only the sunnier climes, we would do well to read these words from “Pathways to Bliss. Mythology and Personal Transformation“, a collection of Campbell’s popular lectures and dialogues, and remember the ultimate challenge, posed by life’s very nature.
“Now, life lives on life. Its first law is, Now I´ll eat you, now you eat me -quite something for consciousness to assimilate. This business of life living on life -on death- had been in process for billions of years before eyes opened and became aware of what was going on out there, long before Homo Sapiens’ appearance in the universe. The organs of life had evolved to depend on the death of others for their existence. These organs have impulses of which your consciousness isn’t even aware; when it becomes aware of them, you may become scared that this eat-or-be-eaten horror is what you are.
The impact of this horror on a sensitive conciousnessness is terrific -this monster which is life. Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. The first function of a mythological order has been to reconcile consciousness to this fact.
The first, primitive orders of mythology are affirmative: they embrace life on its own terms. I don’t think any anthropologist could document a primitive mythology that was world-negating. When you realize what primitive people run up against -the pains and the agonies and the problems of simply existing- I think that’s quite amazing. I´ve studied a lot of the myths of these cultures around the world, and I can’t recall a single negative word in primitive thought with respect to existence or to the universe. World-weariness comes later, with people who are living high on the hog.
The only way to affirm life is to affirm it to the root, to the rotten, horrendous base. It is this kind of affirmation that one finds in the primitive rites. Some of these rites are so brutal you can hardly read about, let alone look at, them. Yet they present a vivid image before the young adolescent mind: life is a monstruous thing, and if you’re going to live, you’ve got to live this way; which is to say, within the traditions of the tribe.
That’s the first function of mythology: not merely a reconciliation of consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence, but reconciliation with gratitude, with love, with recognition of sweetness. Through the bitterness and pains, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet, wonderful thing. This affirmative thing comes pouring in on one through those terrific rites and myths.”