The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Author: Joseph Campbell

Audiobook or Real Book: Audiobook read by Arthur Morey, John Lee, and Susan Denaker

Why I Read It: The Hero With A Thousand Faces is one of those classics that  I had always heard I should read, but had never read.  And the hero’s journey was one of those things that I always heard about, but had never known any details of how it worked

General Thoughts: I feel like I always start these Book Notes justifying some personal issue I had with fully appreciating the book, but what can I say—I’m a complainer.  Normally I love audiobooks.  I wasn’t particularly worried about listening to a proper nonfiction audiobook because, even though it’s easier for your attention to wander with an audiobook, I have at times used the basic text-to-speech tools to listen to my library school readings when they are too boring to actually read and have never had a problem.  But I struggled to stay focused on Campbell.  I think, however, the problem had less to do with the contents of the book and more to do with the way it was read.  While Morey, Lee, and Denaker all seem like lovely readers in their own right, and I’m sure the intent of the editors was to imitate some style in the printed book, the shifts between who was speaking seemed incredibly random. At first, I thought one of the men was there to read the myths and male dreams and Denaker was there to read the female dreams, but then someone would read something that didn’t seem to be part of their assigned reading and throw the whole thing off-balance.  I can’t say that was wholly to blame for the straying of my attention but I do think it was the most significant culprit, especially since I most often found myself losing focus at a speaker change.  That said, while I do feel like I missed a lot more of this book than I have of any audiobook I’ve ever listened to, I still feel like I read it—maybe just skimmed a few parts.

One thing that completely shocked me about Campbell’s work was how reliant it was on Freud and psychoanalysis.  As I said, I knew very little of Campbell going into this book and really hadn’t expected any psychology at all, certainly not a psychology based on Freud.  It makes sense, of course, but it startled me that the prologue was all about explaining to me the significance and genius of Freud’s work and how it can help us understand myths across culture.  Especially since I’m not used to seeing pretty much all of Freud’s theory taken as indisputable fact.  Alongside my surprise at the abundance of Freudian psychology, I was also surprised—and amused—that Campbell used the dreams of seemingly random people as evidence of his points.  I’m not going to say he was wrong to do so, I know far too little of psychology and dream theory to do so, but I’m also not going to deny that seemed a bit ridiculous from an outsider’s perspective.  A bit like Campbell was using the pop-psychology of his day as indisputable proof of his theories.

That said, Campbell’s theories were pretty fascinating in their own right.  I’ve never been one of those people who loves old mythologies.  Despite what I said about having just reread American Gods and God: A Biography and my fascination with their implications, I was never one of those people that ate up the Greek, Egyptian, or Roman mythologies that we learned about in school.  I may have adored Percy Jackson but I never really cared about the stories his story was based on.  And, while maybe when I finally get around to reading Homer I’ll feel otherwise, for the most part, I’m more interested in the modern social influence of religion and the mechanics of belief within the lives of an individual than discovering the stories of ancient myth.  Maybe it’s this lack of knowledge that made Campbell’s repeated examples of near identical myths and symbols across cultures feel so revolutionary to me, but there were times when my jaw dropped at just how easily and how closely he could draw the parallel from one myth to another—especially when those mythologies came from cultures that were as geographically far apart as it seemed possible to be.  I can see why his fame has endured if for no other reason than bringing these similarities into the popular consciousness.  But his analysis of these myths, if sometimes too rooted in Freud and supported by dreams, seemed to raise a lot of interesting points for consideration as well.  I think perhaps his most interesting idea was how myths do and do not deal with ideas of duality and forced binaries.  I also liked when he called out a number of religions, including Christianity, for the violence of their followers.

One other note, between this book and God: A Biography I have been struck over and over again by how much the world has historically hated women—in ways I really didn’t fully comprehend prior to these past few weeks.  I consider myself decently well versed in the feminist ideology of today and therefore decently aware of the struggles that women face—at least in the United States—but seeing the way mythology and religion have historically talked about women has been painful.  It’s not that I’ve been surprised by anything I’ve read, but I definitely was surprised by what it felt like to confront it even through the distant proxy of an old white dude writing about myth and religion.  One particularly powerful moment for me was when Campbell argued, quite casually, that one of the purposes of monotheistic religions may have been to scrub the idea femininity from the divine.  Or if that wasn’t one of the purposes, it was at least one of the results for a long time.  Which also recalls the point Miles made that the action the Israelites took during the life of Moses that seemed to offend him most was placing an icon of a female deity within his house near his alter.  I’m really not sure what to do with this except feel even more uncomfortable with the social influence religion has on the modern world than I did a few weeks ago.

Quotes: (I tried using audible bookmarks and I don’t think I have the hang of it yet)

“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed” (Chapter 3 Timestamp 7:43)

“Where the moralist would be filled with indignation and the tragic poet with pity and terror, mythology breaks the whole of life into a vast, horrendous Divine Comedy. Its Olympian laugh is not escapist in the least, but hard, with the hardness of life itself—which, we may take it, is the hardness of God, the Creator. Mythology, in this respect, makes the tragic attitude seem somewhat hysterical, and the merely moral judgment shortsighted” (Chapter 5 Timestamp 13:35)

“Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Muller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. The various judgments are determined by the viewpoints of the judges. For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions” (Chapter 44 Timestamp 2:55)

Essay Ideas/Further Questions: Before coming to this section of the write-up I went a week and a half missing all my scheduled writing time for book notes and now it’s been so long I can’t remember what this book made me think about.  No essay ideas I know (I’m considering eliminating the “essay ideas/further questions” phrasing and just doing essay ideas for fiction and further questions for nonfiction), but I think I had some further questions thoughts????

For sure this book made me want to learn more about Freud’s work as well as look into the work of Carl Jung, just because they were clearly so influential on it.  That’s all I’ve got.

Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here.  The idea that anyone would read 1000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant.  But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it.  Just comment.  Hopefully if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that

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The Hero With A Thousand Faces

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