Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Myth is Public Dream and Dream is Private Myth

Of course we cannot take a planet and nail it to a cross, any more than we can literally believe that an Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, is the axis of the nine worlds upon which the Father of all Gods hung for nine nights as he sought the Holy Runes, the Logos. With the image of the Crucified Earth, we enter the world of mythology. We enter the world of dream.

Many of us have seen the celebrated PBS series The Power of Myth, in which Bill Moyers interviewed that architect of the contemporary mythic vision, Joseph Campbell, right here in Marin County in the library at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Campbell, who died on Halloween, 1987, served as creative advisor ro George Lucas during the making of the first set of Star Wars movies and the two men became fast friends, just as Lucas, with his unfailing eye for a hero, would later befriend the legendary Iditarod musher Susan Butcher and speak at her memorial service.

Campbell was a mesmerizing storyteller whose landmark book The Hero with a Thousand Faces rescued myth from the psychiatrist’s couch and returned it to its rightful place as a shaper of public and cultural character. Campbell explored the narrative threads that bind us as a human species from the frozen worlds of the far north, through temperate zone and rain forest to the windswept plains and bright forests of the far south. He showed how even the most ordinary person receives a unique call to adventure, finds a mentor, descends to the underworld and returns with a healing truth for others.

He was a curious character, both wisdom figure and fully embodied individualist in the modern, American mold. His emphasis upon peak experience and his famous mantra “follow your bliss” would be misinterpreted into an epidemic of self centered pleasure seeking. He didn’t like the boomers, finding us nothing more than babies in diapers thinking we could take on the gods. His love of the storied world of the past often blinded him to the stories that were brewing right under his nose. And yet, he opened up a world of wonder that probably could not have been opened in any other way. Most of us who have fallen under the influence of myths and dreams were inspired by him.

He was a master of epigram. In the second of the Moyers interviews, “The Journey Inward,” the subject turns from myth to dreaming. As he guided us from the outer world to the world within, Campbell asserted, “Heaven and hell are within us and all the gods, all the heavens, all the world are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with one another. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. . . .The brain is one of the organs.”

Moyers: What do we learn from our dreams?

Campbell: We learn about ourselves.

Moyers: Why is a myth different from a dream?

Campbell: Oh, because a dream is a personal experience of the deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. (pp. 46-48, passim)

I italicized the last line, because it, too, is one of Campbell’s famous lines. All of us are blinded by the assumptions of the culture in which we live, and Campbell, standing at the apex of his individualism, tended to confuse and conflate the boundaries between public and private, and rather like J. Robert Oppenheimer, watching the first atomic bomb explode, the work of his own, human hands, would find himself indistinguishable from a god. Both Campbell and Oppenheimer called themselves Shiva, the dancer of life and death, and at some level, both were. But at another level, neither were, for the individual is not complete within itself, but, like the parts of the individual body is only part of a greater whole. This is where it all gets confusing, and takes the fullness of the incarnational mysteries to sort out. If, as Campbell asserts, myth is derived from the warring organs in the body, at some level, it is both private and public, and the one whose bodily wars are the most convincing becomes that culture’s storyteller. We also know that our private stories, no matter how convincing, do not have the same authority out there as the public story.

Campbell felt great and terrible ambivalence toward his Catholic upbringing and so could not deal with the teachings of the Church as skillfully as with the teachings of the Iroquois, the Brahmans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese and the Aborigines of the dreamtime. But it is in Jesus that the intersection of public myth and private dream is so beautifully expressed; indeed, it is in Jesus as rabbi that the question, echoing through Judaism, is most fully raised. According to the lives of Abraham, Moses, Elijah , John the Baptist, and Jesus, public myth is not a beautiful hero tale writ large: it is the history, written by the winners, that seeks to bind and blind the inner life to itself. Thus, far from being a “private” myth, dream becomes the subversive dance of the Holy Spirit, seeking to break the stranglehold of historical/political power, of men who pretend to be gods when they are really blowing up the world.

Now history is very literal, very concrete, while dreams are without any material substance whatsoever. Jesus was all these things: literal flesh and mysterious, breathy spirit. He never raised himself above others until he was lifted up on a cross.

1 comment:

Margery Glickman said...

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