From time to time I dip into all manner of curious authors, often returning to them at protracted intervals. One such is the late Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) the American mythologist and author who is best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. He was one of those early/mid-20th century polymaths who managed to see deeply into everything and extract paradigm shifting ideas and ways of explaining things. His words invariably make one think long, hard and deep — even when they at the same time contain a certain throwaway humour.
So I thought I'd share with you a few I picked, some while ago, from an anthology of his work compiled posthumously. In no particular order ...
When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.
If you go into marriage with a program, you will find that it won't work. Successful marriage is leading innovative lives together, being open, non-programmed. It's a free fall: how you handle each new thing as it comes along. As a drop of oil on the sea, you must float, using intellect and compassion to ride the waves.
If what you are following, however, is your own true adventure, if it is something appropriate to your deep spiritual need or readiness, then magical guides will appear to help you.
People ask me, "What can we have for rituals?" Well, what do you want to have a ritual for? You should have a ritual for your life. All a ritual does is concentrate your mind on the implications of what you are doing. For instance, the marriage ritual is a meditation on the step you are taking in learning to become a member of a duad, instead of one individual all alone. The ritual enables you to make the transit.
Ritual introduces you to the meaning of what's going on. Saying grace before meals lets you know that you're about to eat something that once was alive. When eating a meal, realize what you are doing. Hunting peoples thank the animal for having given itself. They feel real gratitude.
Vegetarianism is the first turning away from life, because life lives on lives. Vegetarians are just eating something that can't run away.
When we talk about scientific truth — just as when we talk about God — we are in trouble, because truth has different meanings. William James said, and it's valid, "Truth is what works".
The idea of Truth with a capital "T" — that there is something called Truth that's beyond the range of the relativity of the human mind trying to think — is what I call "the error of the found truth". The trouble with all of these damned preachers is the error of the found truth. When they get that tremolo in the voice and tell you what God has said, you know you've got a faker. When people think that they, or their guru, have The Truth — "This is It!" — they are what Nietzsche calls "epileptics of the concept": people who have gotten an idea that's driven them crazy.
Those women were going around in tents! Even their eyes were covered with cheesecloth, so you did not know if it was an old hag or a glorious goddess walking around. And you can't respond to a tent.
"Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods". That is James Joyce. The statement is quoted in Ulysses by Buck Mulligan. The situation is that Leopold Bloom, thinking of his home problem, is looking intently at a red triangle on the label of a bottle of Bass ale. When someone starts to disturb Bloom, Mulligan stops him, saying "preserve a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access" and so on.
There is a wonderful line in the Portrait [of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce], where Stephen's friend, who's been hearing all this heretical stuff, asks if he intends to become a Protestant. "I said that I had lost the faith," Stephen replies, "but not that I had lost my self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”
The obvious lesson ... is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life is in the recognition of the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think — and their name is legion — that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life, are unfit for illumination. Or those who think — as do many — "Let me first correct society, then get around to myself" are barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God's peace. All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.
A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: "As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think".
I'm currently dipping into The Power of Myth, so expect some more of the above in due course.