In Alumni in Action

Joseph Campbell: Author, Mythologist, Hollywood Guru

by Patricia Danaher

BETTMAN/GETTY IMAGES (Original Caption) Author Joseph Campbell, (1904-1987), the elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. This is an undated photograph.

“Follow your bliss” is one of the most popularly quoted phrases of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose birthday is March 26th. His writings on mythology, story and psychology have influenced writers everywhere and filmmakers in particular. The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Hero’s Journey are two of Campbell’s best-known books on the psychology and arc of the story.

Campbell, who was born in 1904 in New York, was fascinated by ritual and image and had a particularly original insight into the universal patterns seen everywhere in stories. He viewed artists as cultural mythmakers and myths themselves as the imaginative products of the human psyche. He was endlessly curious and traveled widely, collecting stories and observing the pervasiveness of what he called the “monomyth”. Carl Jung observed the same thing and called it the “collective unconscious”, something in which we all participate through archetypal images that are familiar to all.

George Lucas became fascinated with Campbell’s work, following the PBS series in 1987, The Power of Myth, where journalist Bill Moyer conducted 10 hours of interviews with Campbell. Lucas has spoken fondly of the influence of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey on his Star Wars trilogy and the two men became friends late in Campbell’s life. They even sat and watch the trilogy together at his Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. It is rare to meet a storyteller in any genre who is unaware or indeed a great admirer of the work of Joseph Campbell, so in honor of the great man’s birthday, here is a smorgasbord of artists speaking of his influence on them.

In an interview in 1994, Robert Redford said, “I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology would die, and we’re close to that.” Producer and director George Miller said “I’m obviously big on Joseph Campbell, and not just the hero myth. He was really the guy who elucidated more than anyone else why we tell stories.” Actress Alyssa Milano, who became a powerful figure in the #MeToo movement quoted Campbell on Twitter: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” “Mr. Spock” Leonard Nimoy said of himself, “I’m in touch with the bliss that Joseph Campbell talked about.”

Talking about his film Pandorum, Dennis Quaid said “myth to me points to some sort of greater truth through symbol. And just like Joseph Campbell had his hand on the mythology of Star Wars, the same is true for Pandorum.” When Will Smith was promoting I Am Legend, he said: “I think with movies I am really connecting to the Joseph Campbell idea of the collective unconscious.”

Martin Scorsese: “I remember listening to Joseph Campbell talking about the idea of My Brother’s Keeper and the idea of being made up of molecules and atoms – where do mine really end and yours begin?” Sylvester Stallone has spoken of his fascination with Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which he credits with helping him in the writing of Rambo. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. credit Campbell’s influence on them in the writing and making of Iron Man.

After watching the Bill Moyers PBS series, Barbra Streisand lamented that she never had the chance to study with him. Oprah Winfrey, Viggo Mortensen, Steven Spielberg, Paulo Coelho, Michael Jackson, and Stanley Kubrick are among many, many other creative people who credit Campbell’s influence on their thinking and work. Michelle Williams: “I was watching this conversation that Joseph Campbell was having and he said something to the effect of that there are three types of things to talk about: The types of things that you can talk about; the kinds of things that you can’t aptly describe, but you try to talk about; then there’s the things that you actually talk about.”

Campbell (who died in 1987) understood and articulated clearly that art, film, and mythology are all manifestations of our desire for meaning. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

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