Long ago I volunteered in a soup kitchen. Amid the smells of stale oregano, fermenting citrus, and dish soap perfumed pink, I made conversation with the director of the kitchen, a kind and good man. I was just then obtaining my union card in the Mythology Scholars Local 333. "What do you think of Joseph Campbell?" he asked eagerly.
I gave no quarter. "He was a dilettante."
The director's face fell a thousand feet. If only I had bit my tongue and said, "He made myth popular again."
Scholars take pride in knowing few things minutely, and in never underestimating the complexity of the world. Campbell was famous for claiming to have found the secret to everything mythological and religious-- and revealing that it was all pretty simple, thanks, if only you followed his theories.
In graduate school I tried to read Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself throwing the book against a wall. Paragraphs were filled with unexplained assumptions, assertions begging for support, parentheses adding nothing. And all this with a self-confidence that whispered, "I'm impressive, and I'm fooling you, too."
Worse, in developing his theory that plots and characters in myths worldwide are basically the same, Campbell ignored the particulars of any given culture. He talked very little about Greek myth, and when he did he twisted details to fit his ideas. To this young man in love with the Greeks and with cultural anthropology in general, Campbell was not just a dilettante but hostile to the human race. We are all human, but we are not all the same, I raged, hopping like a madman in front of my tiny television as it broadcast the PBS Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers.
I was a poster child for celebrating diversity.
Today I still celebrate diversity, but I recognize that the general public can't appreciate the particulars of myth without scholars banding together to help them do that. Joseph Campbell fills a void-- a desire among lay lovers of mythology to understand what makes stories so important. He helps language arts teachers make sense of diverse literature for which a BA in English gives little help. And in a world where difference so often seems to mean strife, a little commonality goes a long way.
Salt, for the Romans, meant wit. I take Joseph Campbell with my eyes open, understanding his limitations. Breakfast with Pandora is my attempt to offer a few particulars from my trained perspective about a few human cultures at a few human times-- with clarity and relevance to reader's lives. I believe (God help me) this is a more humble and honest approach to mythology than you find in Hero with a Thousand Faces.
But I recognize that until a lot of folk come down from ivory towers and write some good popular books, Mr. Campbell's theories will just have to be lauded for at least celebrating that stories do matter, even if he thinks they're all the same.
A representative quotation from Campbell's Hero can be found here.