K recommended The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell to me six years ago. I was a recent transplant to Sioux Falls, SD, a novice writer struggling with the blatant lack of artistic values in the community. K handed me the PBS miniseries, six hours of interviews, and smiled.
K: I recommend this to anyone trying to understand their internal feelings and desire to pursue their dreams. It’s for anyone being confronted with these feelings in a real and profound way and trying to break out of the doldrums of conformity to roles they were born into.
I only half knew what K was talking about. But apparently, this Joseph Campbell guy abandoned his pursuit of a doctrines degree and went to the woods to read; that was all I needed to know. Also, the title seemed like it should be said in a booming voice, THE POWER OF MYTH! George Lucas claimed that Campbell’s work had an overwhelming impact on the creation of Star Wars. Why wouldn’t I watch this miniseries?
I watched the DVDs in marathon fashion, eating Fun Dip to keep me awake. The miniseries was dry and made me snoozy, and I kept thinking, Han Solo was born from this? I knew that I was missing out on something big by not fully comprehending Joseph Campbell’s message, but the Fun Dip gave me a stomachache and the room I was renting had a wasp infestation. Excuses I use when I say I never finished watching the DVDs.
I bought The Power Of Myth in book form, hoping that I would come back to it when I was ready.
I hadn’t thought much of the book until I started correspondence with local artist Susan Elnora*. I was dawn to her booth at the Uptown Arts Festival, and one necklace in particular. She urged me to try it on, but I knew how that would turn out . . .
The quality of her work spoke to me, so when she told me that all pieces were initially hand-
fabricated—most shapes sawed out, then refined with tiny files, forged, assembled, and soldered together, often textured and oxidized to bring out delicate details and sculptural dimensionality—I wasn’t surprised.
What surprised me was SE’s impressive reading list: Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, The Whale by Philip Hoare, Anam Cara by John O’Donahue, Pema Chodron, Jacob Needleman, Sherman Alexie . . .
I wanted to start a new blog in which I read her bookshelf.
But wait—it gets better.
SE’s response to what inspires her was so thoughtful I decided to post the whole thing unedited, word count be dammed:
“I’ve always loved animals, and have read extensively about them since I was very small. Although I am most fascinated by living animals, my work tends to focus on skulls and skeletons. The skulls began as a response to Victorian memento mori jewelry, which was intended to remind the wearer to live in the present, because death is always with us. I wanted to preserve that idea but to keep it light and playful, sort of a way to befriend that darker sentiment and keep it close. Bones, skeletons, and the skeletal forms of buildings and landscapes are also aesthetically beautiful, in a raw and resonant way. I’m intrigued by dead or abandoned creatures, objects, and structures that still retain something of the energy and life they once held.
I’m finding it fascinating that some of the animals I’ve been exploring in my work lately are classic Trickster figures in many of the stories Lewis Hyde brings up (Raven and Coyote, specifically). According to Hyde, Trickster is the character who questions and disrupts the status quo, and often serves as an agent of change when the systems in place are no longer beneficial to those they were meant to serve. Trickster is something of an outsider and uniquely positioned to shift the cultural perspective. Another new favorite of mine, Joseph Campbell, claims that our own culture lacks a mythology to address these types of ideas, which becomes especially problematic under conditions when a Trickster is needed. Perhaps when works of art, music, and literature resonate with us, what is actually at work is a deeper connection to a manifestation of some necessary archetype.”
Me = jaw dropped.
It was time for me to experience Joseph Campbell again.
I finished the book in Sioux Falls over Labor Day weekend. Here are the direct applications of the book I saw in my life:
During the Inward Journey chapter of the book, I read about how life begets life, which reminded me of Donald Barthelme’s, “The School,” and for those of you who know me, that is never a good sign. I once tried to calculate how many deaths were in this three-page story. I got to one hundred and sixty-four before I stopped counting. (You can read it here.) JC explained that a snake shedding its skin is a symbol of continual life, as is a moon shedding its shadow each month. In the same way humanity, generation after generation renews itself. This was made clear to me when I saw Grandma holding new baby Little A, or as I like to call her, Nugget.
It was a powerful image, one that made me want to cry, but I held it together. I wasn’t just seeing the individual family unit; I was seeing something much grander. I saw the big picture, how all of humanity is our family, not just the clan we belong to immediately.
The next night, I was in the kitchen discussing politics with Big A (my father-in-law) and Middle A (soon to be sister-in-law). I don’t recommend discussing politics with your in-laws. Stick to easy topics like bird feeders and board games.
Of course the abortion topic came up, and of course the right to bear arms came up. I felt like I was thrown in a snake pit (being outnumbered by the Republicans), but something J (Husband’s little brother) told me earlier kept me going.
J: There’s a story “Sinbad the Sailor” in The Tale of Seven Voyages. Well, in this one village all the diamonds are down in a pit that is infested with snakes. The people of the village wanted the diamonds, but obviously they didn’t want to get eaten. So, they took chunks of meat and dropped it on the diamonds. Eagles came down, ate the meat and in turn ate the diamonds, because the diamonds had stuck to the meat. Later, the villagers climbed the trees and pulled the diamonds out of the bird scat.
J told me this story because he had just gotten engaged to Middle A. (Congratulations to you both!) And we were talking about why it’s important to know where your diamonds come from.
Back to the right to bare arms conversation. Middle A told me that she believed in the right to bear arms so that one could protect their family, and gave a story of how a gun came in handy to her dad.
ME: If someone broke into my house, I would fight back, but I wouldn’t be able to kill them. They would kill my child and me first. I just don’t have it in me.
By now, I was crying, and Middle A, obviously uncomfortable, left the room. What I wanted to say—but didn’t—was this: Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, but how can you do that with a gun in your hand?
I believe government and religion are separate issues, and I was tying to keep it that way. Big A and I sat down to finish the conversation. We stayed up until well past 1AM. I cried for most of it, but at the end, we hugged. It reminded me of politicians shaking hands after a debate, and of course, it was more than that: it was a diamond mined from shit.
As a flaming liberal surrounded by Republicans, I felt like I was in a bizzaro world. I needed an escape, so the following day I went to Black Sheep Coffee on 11th Street. While Balkan Beat Box played over the radio and Ethiopian men played an intense game of chess, I settled in and read the chapter on love. I just finished highlighting this sentence, “Love is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love: the stronger the love, the more the pain,” when I received a text.
Text: Weird question. I’m at Trader Joes. Which dog biscuits should I get? And how do you know when you are in love?
My friend did not own a dog, but I knew their lover did. The domestic flavor of the text was proof enough of some type of love, and this made me smile.
ME: Most dogs eat anything. Chicken wins with Shadow. Re: Love- when you don’t have to ask.
Explaining to my friend about, pain, sorrow, the absence of God’s love, Jesus, and other mythos seemed a bit too heavy for a text message while shopping for dog treats, but it was clear to me that myth was missing from my friend’s life.
I texted EH: I view the blog as the modern essay, and so I feel like it’s an appropriate platform for anything. But I also feel like the stuff that goes along with The Power of Myth is a bit too intense for eight hundred words.
EH: Joseph Campbell is my animal guide.
For whatever reason, this reminded me of SE’s response, and the role of the Trickster. I laughed. I’d have to remind Husband (and the universe) that my birthday is coming up, October 7th, the big 3-0. A Trickster ornament would make an excellent gift for a girl who reads books.
I texted EH: Han Solo is my animal guide.
I put the book down and asked the men if I could watch them play chess. One of them turned to me and asked: what are you reading?
ME: THE POWER OF MYTH!! (I opened my arms to illustrate the power; plus, I had wanted to do that all week.)
*For more of her work check out her website: http://www.susanelnora.com/. She has a show today! First Thursday, September 6, 2012 Northrup King Building Minneapolis, MN 5 to 9 p.m. I think they have this the first Thursday of each month, if you can’t make it today.