"Don't Myth With Joe Campbell."
New York City bumper sticker circa 1960s.
The late Joseph Campbell was a mythologist of mythical proportions.
Though a reluctant guru, Campbell's high-intensity lectures and television appearances turned him into a pin-up for the pop-culture set.
He shared ideas with everyone from Carl Jung to John Steinbeck to the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti, and once appeared onstage with the Grateful Dead.
A lapsed Catholic whose life became a mystical journey, he rummaged around in everyone's psychic baggage and concluded that we were all carrying around the same basic stuff.
The guiding idea behind his work, he once said, was to find in all world myths a common spiritual principal. You're talking about a search for the meaning of life? he was asked.
"No, no, no," Campbell replied, "for the experience of being alive, of the heroic journey through life."
This concept attracted a legion of fans, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Pat Riley, to his books and television appearances. The most famous of the latter are the Bill Moyers tapes.
Campbell spent a great deal of time in 1987 taping a series that, when edited down, amounted to six hours of television and attracted an estimated 35 million viewers.
According to Moyers, who moderated the PBS series, the shows' ratings went through the roof and caused the sale of Campbell's many books to soar.
Ironically, the acclaim came several months after Campbell died of cancer and created a huge but often conflicting legacy.
Some scorned him as a shoddy scholar and even a bigot. More specialized academics called him a popularizer who couldn't keep his curiosity in any particular intellectual corner.
His defenders saw him as an original thinker whose ideas carry the key to an enriched life and universal understanding. They said the attacks were a product of the jealousy that accompanies renown.
Everyone seemed to agree on one thing, however: As a storyteller, he could spellbind more skillfully than an evangelist warming up for Judgment Day. His personal vigor was a trademark, and it was present almost to his last hours.
On Oct. 30, 1987, when the 83-year-old Campbell died at his home in Honolulu, he left his words and ideas, as well as a personal library of 5,000 books and a collection of letters, photographs and personal possessions.
The literary paraphernalia of a lifetime storyteller and scholar could easily have ended up at one of the Eastern educational establishments--Columbia University or Sarah Lawrence College, for instance--where Campbell had spent much of his life, both as a student and teacher.
But it didn't. Three years after his death, the collection settled in at the Joseph Campbell Library at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria.
Here, from the white stucco structures on manicured grounds overlooking the ocean and Channel Islands is Pacifica Graduate Institute, founded in 1974, which offers master's degrees in counseling psychology and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology.
The school, which according to President Stephen Aizenstat will soon have state accreditation, has a student body of 488. Most students, said Aizenstat, enter programs to become psychotherapists. But the course of study at Pacifica has attracted students from the fields of education, medicine, dance, architecture, politics, film, urban planning and environmental studies.
Of particular interest to students, said Aizenstat, is what the institute calls depth psychology.
Pacifica is the only graduate school in the country to offer this program, he said, one that holds that the science of psychology is enhanced by the study of literature, religion, art and mythology.
It's an idea Campbell pioneered, and according to Aizenstat, an idea whose time has come.
Both the doctoral and master's programs encompass the Campbell concept that universal myths bind all people, and that understanding those myths--through art, religion and literature--can provide guidelines in solving personal, interpersonal and global problems.
Campbell, who spent most of the years between 1972 and his death in 1987 writing and lecturing, would often visit Pacifica during the '80s to lecture. During those last years he met Jonathan Young, who would become a disciple and protege.
"I was teaching at the institute, and whenever Joe would come for a visit I would offer to drive him to and from the airport. Those times alone with him are treasured memories," Young said.
In 1990, Young was selected by the school and Campbell's widow, dance artist Jean Erdman Campbell, to curate the Campbell collection.
Young thinks one of the reasons the collection is in Carpinteria is that Campbell's wife believed Pacifica was the one college that understood and taught the parallels between psychology and mythology that are central to Campbell's work.
From the new, climate-controlled main room of the library, which houses Campbell's books as well as many personal possessions and photographs, Young spoke about his first meeting with Campbell and how Campbell's stories changed his life.
"He had explained that the great scriptures of the world's religions could be understood as metaphors for psychological change," he said. "It was a major turning point for me."
Young, who earlier in his life planned to become a Presbyterian minister, told of mentioning to Campbell that he missed certain rituals of the church, such as saying grace before meals.
"Joe gently suggested that I say my thanks to the animals and plants that had given their lives so that my life would continue," Young recalled. "In a few words, he captured the essence of an old ritual and gave it fuller meaning to me."
Campbell was born into a well-to-do family of Irish Catholics in New York City on March 26, 1904.
He and his family, which included a younger brother and sister, enjoyed the good life on a New Rochelle estate, complete with live-in staff.
In September, 1921, Joe entered Dartmouth, but soon transferred to Columbia, where he dug into his undergraduate studies while finding time to become captain of the track team, go out for football, play saxophone, piano and banjo, and maintain an enviable social life.
After graduation, he bemoaned his lack of direction. He is quoted in his biography, "A Fire in the Mind," by Stephen and Robin Larsen:
"My Columbia career had left things in a chaos: I had followed a large number of completely self-contained courses, so that although I had studied literature, history, music, art history, biology etc. etc., I had no sound notion of interrelationships."
Trying to tie it all together was a lifelong goal.
Deciding to take a graduate degree in Arthurian mythology, he went to Paris and Munich to study. While there, he discovered the art of Picasso and the post-Impressionists, ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jung, and the writings of Thomas Mann and James Joyce.
Upon his return to Columbia, Campbell wanted to expand the scope of his dissertation topic beyond the Grail myth to include parallels with psychology and art, Young said. It was deemed academic heresy of the highest order.
Campbell went to Woodstock in Upstate New York, where, according to his memoirs, he spent 10 to 12 hours a day at his readings, later saying it was one of the best times of his life.
But a new challenge was about to present itself. He was offered a teaching position at Sarah Lawrence, a woman's college, which he accepted. He stayed for 38 years.
It was at Sarah Lawrence that the handsome and athletic bachelor met Jean Erdman, a student from Hawaii. Erdman was first a student of Campbell's, and much later, after she had left school, the object of his affection.
Jean Erdman Campbell laughed during a recent interview as she told of how Sarah Lawrence women lowered the flag to half-mast when she and Joe Campbell wed.
Their almost 50-year marriage was one of continuing mutual admiration and affection.
"We each followed our own paths--mine was dancing--but Joe never published anything until he had read it to me," she said.
Campbell wrote or edited more than 25 books in his lifetime, including his breakthrough "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" and the four volumes of "The Masks of God."
Until the end of his life he continued to write and lecture. He was, his wife said, just following his bliss.
To his friends and those who accompanied him on his intellectual travels, his entire life was a hero's journey. To those who wanted to know how to be a hero, he had this bit of advice:
As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm.
It's not as wide as you think.
Campbell's interest in the beliefs of others began in his youth, when he took it upon himself to study American Indian culture. After attending university, his early curiosity evolved into a fascination with Eastern religions and mythologies.
However, he had no affiliation with any specific sect. When asked if he considered himself an atheist, he replied: "How could you ask that of someone who worships as many Gods as I?"
According to his adherents, Campbell's general disdain for organized religion was at the root of a charge of anti-Semitism leveled after his death. The accusation came from former New Yorker magazine Editor Brendon Gill, who identified himself as a friend of Campbell's.
Barbara McClintock, executive director of the Campbell Library, insisted that Campbell held no disdain for any particular system of belief. He did, she said, distrust religions that claim to have all the answers. In that belief, Campbell may have offended any number of religious groups.
It was Campbell's theory that the Christian belief of the virgin birth is not about biology, but a universal idea that speaks to the awakening of spiritual life.
He also did not see the promised land as a piece of real estate, but the place inside each of us that honors everything and everyone else on Earth.
He did urge people to "follow your bliss," which didn't mean encouragement to act, as he put it, like "blissed-out ninnies." Rather, he promoted the concept of doing with your time what you really want to be doing.
"You don't have much control over what happens to you in life," he said, "but you can decide on how you experience it."
The Joseph Campbell Archives and Library is the sole physical repository of mythologist Campbell's private collection of books, papers, objects of art and memorabilia.
While exploring a multitude of cultural and spiritual traditions, Campbell amassed a 5,000-book collection of literature of the world.
The subjects of the books include religious history, philosophy, the fine arts, anthropology, archeology and ethnology, as well many versions of the world's myths.
According to Jonathan Young, the curator, many of the volumes contain Campbell's own handwritten marginalia that provide insights about his method of comparative scholarship.
Located in a separate building on the institute's ocean-view campus, the library also includes audiotapes and videotapes of Campbell's many lectures and seminars, as well as a bronze bust of Campbell, sculpted in Paris in 1931 by Angela Gregory, a protege of Antoine Bourdelle.
Also in the library are Campbell's private collection of mythic objects, talismans and fetishes, and his lifetime of photographs, trophies, medals and degrees.
The cost of shipping the possessions from Honolulu, where Campbell lived, to Carpinteria was paid for by a grant from Laurance Rockefeller. Conversion of the existing campus building into the climate- and temperature-controlled library was paid for by a Paul Mellon grant.
The library, which is located at Pacifica Graduate Institute at 249 Lambert Road, Carpinteria, is open to the public by appointment. The telephone number is 969-3626.