Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Decapitator God of the Moché of Peru. (Serpent forms surrounding the head like hair)

CAMPBELL: There is a magnificent essay by Schopenhauer in which he asks, how is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life for the other? How can it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?

In Hawaii some four or five years ago there was an extraordinary event that represents this problem. There is a place there called the Pali, where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains. People like to go up there to get their hair blown about or sometimes to commit suicide – you know, something like jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

One day, two policemen were driving up the Pali road when they saw just beyond the railing that keeps the cars from rolling over, a young man preparing to jump. The police car stopped, and the policeman on the right jumped out to grab the man but caught him just as he jumped, and he himself was being pulled over when the second cop arrived in time and pulled the two of them back.

Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman who had given himself to death with that unknown youth? Everything else in his life had dropped off – his duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own life – all his wishes and hopes for his lifetime had just disappeared. He was about to die.

Later, a newspaper reporter asked him, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed.” And his reported answer was, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.” How come?

Schopenhauer’s answer is that such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously realized under circumstances in time. This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously realized under circumstances of crisis. For it is, according to Schopenhauer, the truth of your life.

The hero is the one who has given his physical life to some order of realization for that truth. The concept of love your neighbour is to put you in tune with this fact. But whether you love your neighbour or not, when the realization grabs you, you may risk your life. That Hawaiian policeman didn’t know who the young man was to whom he had given himself. Schopenhauer declares that in small ways you can see this happening every day, all the time, moving life in the world, people doing selfless things to and for each other.

MOYERS: So when Jesus says, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” he is saying in effect, “Love thy neighbour because he is yourself.”

CAMPBELL: There is a beautiful figure in the Oriental tradition, the bodhisattva, whose nature is boundless compassion, and from whose fingertips there is said to drip ambrosia down to the lowest depths of hell.

MOYERS: And what is the meaning of that?

CAMPBELL: At the very end of the Divine Comedy, Dante realizes that the love of God informs the whole universe down to the lowest pits of hell. That’s very much the same image. The bodhisattva represents the principle of compassion, which is the healing principle that makes life possible. Life is pain, but compassion is what gives it the possibility of continuing. The bodhisattva is one who has achieved the realization of immortality yet voluntarily participates in the sorrows of the world. Voluntary participation in the world is very different from just getting born into it. That’s exactly the theme of Paul’s statement about Christ in his Epistle to the Philippians: that Jesus “did not think godhood something to be held but took the form of a servant here on the earth, even to death on the cross.” That’s a voluntary participation in the fragmentation of life.

MOYERS: So you would agree with Abelard in the twelfth century, who said that Jesus’ death on the cross was not as ransom paid, or as a penalty applied, but that it was an act of atonement, at-one-ment, with the race.

CAMPBELL: That’s the most sophisticated interpretation of why Christ had to be crucified, or why he elected to be crucified.


MOYERS: You have written that “the sign of the cross has to be looked upon as a sign of an eternal affirmation of all that ever was or shall ever be. It symbolizes not only the one historic moment on Calvary but the mystery through all time and space of God’s presence and participation in the agony of all living things.”

The Power of Myth, pp. 110-12, 116

This is one of the many high points in The Power of Myth. When I first read it (it was 2 in the morning, and my eyes were getting bleary), I thought it read that “from the bodhisattva’s fingertips dripped ambrosia from the lowest depths of hell.” This to me was quite thrilling, as anyone who studies Buddhism for any length of time knows (particularly through the sangha of the Soka Gakkai) if one journeys through Hell, the lowest of the Ten Worlds, it blazes the surest path to the second highest world, Bodhisattva. So it would seem appropriate that from the bodhisattva’s fingertips ambrosia dripped from the lowest depths of hell. Such misreadings, proceeding from a subconscious rendered accessible by bleary-eyedness, can be productive. (That’s why I often do my best writing late at night, before I go to bed, or first thing in the morning, when I have just pulled myself out of it.)

Here’s another pie-eyed reading, that same evening: I thought that in Paul’s epistle Jesus “took the form of a serpent here on earth.” How surprising, until I rubbed my eyes again and saw it was servant. The snake, of course, is a sidewinding intestine, life eating itself, as Campbell says elsewhere. Satan, tempter in the Garden. I wonder if the Bible anywhere makes such a link? Doubt it... (There is of course the link of Adam and Christ – but if, speaking in the language of that theology for a second, if God made all and the Son is God, then the Son should be the serpent too, as well as redeemer.) The only place I can remember is the bronze serpent held by Moses as he lead the Isrealites through the wilderness to the promised land.

Not surprisingly, I went to bed shortly after. Perhaps I should have opened The Book of Revelations instead and misread it.

There is something else I can read into my misreadings: a subconscious (semi-conscious) need to balance Campbell’s seemingly boundless optimism with the potion (elixir?) of my own darkness. While he describes in evocative terms the tragedy and suffering of the world, Campbell compulsively puts a positive spin on it all; of course that’s why we love him. Life does have this positive spin; that’s why we live, why even the word life is so invigorating. But I couldn’t help but thinking that for every person who risks his life for another as that policeman did, how many would just watch in transfixed uncertainty, and how many would actually help the poor sot with a push. Psychopaths also abound, and in small ways you can see this happening every day, all the time, pushing death around in the world, people doing psychopathic things to each other.

Oh well, I’ll shut up now -- rather than dwell too long on my own den of vipers. (Was that vespers?)


David Koehn said...

My experience with this is twofold. I have been in a situation to be saved and to save. I fell off a waterfall when I was quite small and was pushed to the bottom of a channel in a set of rock strewn falls. I swam with all my might upwards but could not reach the surface. A drunk guy with a beer in his hand just happened to look down into the glassy water to see the this child out of nowhere reaching up towards him. He reacted instantly, reaching his hand out, and plucking me from the water. He plopped me down on a rock, said, "be careful," and called to his buddy for another beer and stumbled away over the rocks.

I have had several situatiuons similar to the following but the simplest to explain was in Europe. A girl was just about to run across a street in what I think was Paris. I just happened to be walking by and took notice of her. As I turned back toward the sidewalk a car in the cross walk was turning right and the driver was looking left. He hit the gas and the girl took the first step of her dash across the street in front of the car. I processed all of what I just described after the fact...but without thinking I reached out and grabbed the back of her back pack, yanking her backwards...the car innocently sped past. I let go of her pack and kept walking.

I think if one is put in a position to consider the option to help or not help (rather than react)...all kinds of psychopathic, ego-driven behaviors can emerge. Usually people get in their own way and don't just "feel" the right thing.

In art, for as intuitive a trade as it is supposed to be, I find artists as afraid if not more afraid to feel than non-artists. My experience with "artists" is they have their feelings so modified and tied up in intellectual crises and issues and fears and outcomes they don't feel very much.

That's all I got...

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks, David, for sharing that. Artists, like everyone else, inhabit the full range of health and unhealth... and all of us have our own degrees of variance on that range, depending on how vulnerable we are or insufficient we feel to meet the demands of life. I myself have known depression so pervasive that I have been "shut down" to a lot of sensations and positive impulses, and doubtless that too was a barracade erected by fear of feeling... I have also saved a person from suicide, not by a dramatic act like stopping them from jumping off a bridge, but just by being there for them with what some would call an uncommon dedication. As artists are probably more prone to depression than the populace in general, that might cause many of them to be less capable of feeling and responding in a vivid, spontaneous way than a great many non-artists consumed by their jobs and relationships but whose social reflexes are thereby kept better honed and more alive. Nevertheless, some of the noblest souls I've known have been artists of various kinds -- I guess these are the artists and not the "artists"...

Pris said...

I love Joseph Campbell's work. Thanks for this write-up. The artwork and poetry on this blog is fantatic! I found your link on Silliman's blog, just two above mine.

STAG said...

Will you be at "Concept".

I have a very old copy of "prarie fire" I picked up a the World SF convention in Winnipeg a few years ago. At the time, I felt I didn't understand it well enough to judge it. I likely still don't! :)

Bill Fedun