Joseph Campbell was 23 and living in Paris when he decided to devote himself to writing what he called an "Outline of Everything."
Campbell had by then earned a master's degree in medieval literature from Columbia University, but he was concerned that "my official studies were having little if anything to do with the central problems of my own life"--that his formal education, despite its excellence, had not brought him any closer to "the discovery of the center which had to be found."
Campbell worked on the "Outline" on and off for more than a dozen years, and although at times he considered it something of a joke, he ultimately found that it "served magnificently as a net to catch all that I had or knew or cared about."
The "Outline," of course, remains unpublished, being no more than an organizational tool. In a very real sense, however, it lives on, for Campbell's impossibly ambitious project underlies all of his later writings.
From "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," to the four-volume "The Masks of God," and numerous other books in which he was involved as writer, editor, or subject, Campbell attempted, in the words of biographers Stephen and Robin Larsen, to provide nothing less than "a spiritual method for the West."
By compiling a vast store of knowledge in many fields--publishing very little until he turned 40, Campbell spent decades simply absorbing information through travel and reading--he saw connections among cultures that others, more narrowly educated, did not. And what he came to believe was that the world could be appreciated, if not understood (let alone explained), through a single perspective--that of myth, the timeless allegories that cross all cultural lines.
A self-described "maverick scholar," Campbell was considered in many academic circles to be an intellectual poacher, an ambitious amateur. As this book amply demonstrates, however, he was neither, for Campbell--a champion of multiculturalism long before the phrase became a cliche--never accepted the idea that scholars should write dispassionately about a single pre-defined field.
As it turned out, academic skepticism didn't matter, for in the 1980s his reputation as a writer and speaker reached critical mass, his inspiring message--"Follow your bliss," he told his students at Sarah Lawrence College--fitting in well with New Age thinking.
If Einstein, Hitler and Hiroshima exemplified a world in trouble, haunted by constant uncertainty, strife and fear, Campbell was there to say that the astronaut was a latter-day Odysseus, that every person could be his or her own hero.
Stephen and Robin Larsen are disciples of Campbell, so it's no surprise that "A Fire in the Mind" is a sympathetic book. Indeed, it is sympathetic to the point of insularity, glossing over criticism of Campbell's work and giving him the benefit of nearly every doubt.
On balance, though, the Larsens' enthusiasm for their mentor is all to the good, for it enables them to capture the essential Campbell: his sweeping vision, his willingness to learn and think in his own way.
Campbell could have devoted his life to many things--he seemed to excel at anything he put his mind to, whether athletics, teaching, scholarship, language, dancing or musical instruments--but he chose to take a longer, more treacherous path that would lead him into a broader and deeper appreciation of the human experience. Campbell believed, for example, that "the great religions say essentially the same thing in various ways" and although that remark at first seems facile, on reflection it reverberates with intuitive truth.
The Larsens are first-rate guides to Campbell's life and the genesis of his world view. But they do not get fully inside his head, mainly because they have chosen to respect Campbell's wish that his life should be read through his work.
That's a small criticism of this long but always engrossing book, however; it manages to be faithful to its subject without sacrificing liveliness, no small feat. Campbell fans will admire "A Fire in the Mind," perhaps love it; the book will turn many other readers into fans, explaining as it does what Campbell meant when he urged listeners toward "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world."
Next: Carolyn See reviews "A Solitary Grief" by Bernice Rubens (Sinclair-Stevenson/Trafalgar Square) .