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Thursday, April 13, 2017
CREATIVITY: An Excerpt from THE MYTHIC DIMENSION by Joseph Campbell
As we face uncertain political times, art and creativity have never been more important. When we connect with our own creativity by creating art, or when we resonate with other people’s creativity in what they create, we understand our reality in a new way. Art sparks new perspectives and approaches, so that we don’t get stuck in old ruts and repeat the mistakes of history over and over again. Sharing in creative experiences with others helps break down perceived barriers and invites dialogue where before there was none. Creativity helps us create new ways of being.

Mythologist, writer, and teacher Joseph Campbell writes about the importance of creativity in this timely excerpt from The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959–1987. We hope you’ll enjoy the excerpt, which is rich with historical and mythological references.

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This business of creativity was greatly illuminated for me by a letter that [the German poet and dramatist Friedrich von] Schiller wrote to a young poet who was having writer’s block. Schiller said to him, “Your problem is that you bring the critical factor down, before you have allowed the lyric to make its statement.” Now, every creative act is going to be unprepared for, and consequently it is going to break rules. Any person in any of the arts must learn how to deal with this problem of knowing how a thing ought to be, and how it turns out as you bring it forth. You spend years studying the rules of art, that is, how it ought to be, according to certain essential laws for the development of a cogent form, but what comes out is not in that form. When you are in the act of creating, there is an implicit form that is going to ask to be brought forth, and you have to know how to recognize it. So, they say, you are to learn all the rules—and then you must forget them. As the lyric factor is beginning to move you, the mind is supposed to watch for the emergent form, because anything that comes out of the proper ground of inspiration is formed already. There is an implicit form intrinsic in it, and your job is to recognize it.

This personal creative act is related to the realm of myth, the realm of the muses, because myth is the homeland of the inspiration of the arts. The muses are the children of the goddess of memory, which is not the memory from up there, from the head; it is the memory from down here, from the heart. It is the memory of the organic laws of human existence that sends forth your inspirations. One can help oneself to know something about these laws by studying myths, particularly comparative mythologies. Each mythological system develops in a way that is different from that of another. By comparing the ways, one can see what archetypal form is being applied to this, that, or another mode of what might be called “life-prejudices,” that is, what one thinks life ought to be, as the prejudices begin to take over and shape things.

I have become increasingly aware of the fact that there are two entirely different types of mythologies in the world. There are mythologies that emphasize, with more or less force, the sociological situation to which the myth is to be applied. These are socially based mythologies, and they insist on the laws of that social order as being the laws. We find this kind of mythology in the Bible. I imagine two thirds of the Old Testament is the statement of rules. Moses goes into the tent of the meeting and Yahweh gives him a set of rules, and then he goes the next day and there is another set, and this goes on and on and on. If you are going to live according to the rules, not of nature but of society, you have to have them written out for you. And again, throughout the Book of Kings, the kings are always making sacrifices on the mountaintops, but the text says that Yahweh did not approve of one or the other king because he neglected some set of rules. What was the worship on the mountaintops? It was the worship of the goddess Nature, that is what it was! So then, when you are studying mythology to find what the rules of nature are, avoid the Bible.

The nature rules live in the heart. The society rules and gods are always “out there.” But the source of the lyric is in here, in the heart. And that is the sense of the inward-turned meditation. There is where the god is that is dictating to you. There is where the muses live, in your own heart, not out there in some book.

The classic example of this mythology is the Dionysian system. I was in San Francisco recently where I, John Perry (a Jungian analyst), and Mickey Hart (the drummer for the Grateful Dead), together with Jerry Garcia put on a program. Mickey Hart had composed a piece that he called “The African Queen Meets the Holy Ghost” especially for that conference, the name of which was “Ritual and Rapture from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.” It was my idea. I had had my first rock and roll experience at a performance of the Grateful Dead in Oakland six months earlier. Rock music had always seemed a bore to me, but I can tell you, at that concert, I found eight thousand people standing in mild rapture for five hours while these boys let loose everything on the stage. The place was just a mansion of dance. And I thought, “Holy God! Everyone has just lost themselves in everybody else here!” The principal theme of my talk was the wonderful innocence and the marvel of life when it recognizes itself in harmony with all the others. Everyone is somehow or other at one with everybody else. And my final theme was that this is the world’s only answer to the atom bomb. The atom bomb is based on differentiation: I-and-not-that-guy-over-there. Divisiveness is socially based. It has nothing to do with nature at all. It is a contrivance and here, suddenly, it fell apart. 

The socially oriented people, the church leaders, political leaders, and so forth, always get nervous when Dionysus gets going. The descriptions of the Dionysian movement that we get from the Greeks and Romans are from the point of view of people who do not like Dionysus. You have the case of Pentheus, the Man of Sorrows, who is torn apart. Well, Pentheus is exactly Christ being torn apart. He is the one that comes out of love and says, “Yes, of course you are torn apart. Your individual will and your individual enclosure in yourself is broken, and all the rules are gone.”

Following rules is precisely the theme of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot got the title for the poem from the Waste Land theme in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Grail romances. When Parzival, in the Grail castle, saw the wounded king before him, he was moved to ask, “What ails you, Uncle?” but there was a rule that a knight does not ask unnecessary questions. Here is an example where following rules inhibits spontaneity and the emotion of compassion, which is the only emotion that counts in the realm of religious experience. The awakening of compassion, “com-passion,” “Mitleid,” “suffering-with,” enveloping that person’s pain in your skin, so that you are suffering with him or her equally, this is the awakening of the heart. That is what it is all about, and that is what the lyric moment is: the awakening of the heart.

Years ago, when computers were beginning to come into their own, it is said that Eisenhower went into a room full of computers, and he put a question to them: “Is there a god?” So the computers started twinkling and doing the things computers do, and after about ten or fifteen minutes of this mysterious performance, a voice was heard, and the voice said, “Now there is.”

When I bought my computer—anyone who has tried to work a computer knows what my experience was—I thought, well, I wonder what god it is that is there? Being somewhat an expert on gods, I lived with this computer for a couple of months, and then I recognized the god. It was Yahweh of the Old Testament: a lot of rules and no mercy! But then, when you get to know the rules and your fingers obey them, it is fabulous what that thing can do!

This is the way it is with the rules in art. You have to learn to know them, and if it is a proper, up-to-date local art, the rules will have something to do with the life of people here and now, not a big smoochy general thing about life, but how it is here and now, what our problems and our mysteries are, here and now. You have to know your own day. You have to know your own relation to your own day, and then forget it! Let the thing build into you, the way my knowledge of my computer is built into me now. And then each of you can sing.

One of the big problems for young artists today—and I think I know a lot about them, because I have been living with artists ever since I graduated from college, a long time ago—is that they are all terribly frustrated in the bringing forth of their art, primarily because they have studied sociology. They always think there is a moral to be pointed out, something to be communicated.

Artists are not very good at telling you how it is that they got to be good, but there is one artist that I know of who did, and that was James Joyce. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he gives the best clue that I know of on how to create a work of art. In the last chapter, Stephen Dedalus explains to his friend Lynch the essential points of the artist’s work. He tells him that there are two kinds of art. There is proper and improper art. Improper art is kinetic. Improper art moves you either with desire to possess the object or with loathing and fear to resist it and avoid it. Art that excites desire for the object he calls “pornographic.” All advertising is pornographic art. Art that excites loathing and criticism of the object he calls “didactic,” and so much of our writing, particularly in the first half of this century, has been didactic writing, what I call the work of “didactic pornographers.”

Proper art is static. It holds you in ecstatic arrest—arrest at what? Joyce brings up Aquinas at this point, who says that in the art moment, the first experience is integritas, the beholding of one object set apart from all objects in the world. This is a thing, and within that thing what is important is the relation of part to part, and part to the whole, the rhythm, the rhythm of beauty. And this is the key of all art. This is the key of form. The rhythm is implicit in your own body. It is implicit in your expression. And when the rhythm is properly, fortunately achieved, the result is radiance, rapture, beholding it. Why? Because the rhythm before you is the rhythm of nature. It is the rhythm of your nature. Cézanne says somewhere, “Art is a harmony parallel to nature.” Art is the rendition of the interface between your inner nature and the nature out there.

The natural mythologies are also art in that sense. They are modes, they are rhythms, in which everything is an expression of nature. When I was a student in Paris, back in the 1920s, I knew a sculptor, a very great sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, who used to say, “L’art fait ressortir les grandes lignes de la nature” (art brings out the great lines of nature). And that is all it does. And why is it that you are held in aesthetic arrest? It is because the nature you are looking at is your nature. There is an accord between you and the object, and that is why you say, “Aha!”

In one of the Upanishads it says, when the glow of a sunset holds you and you say “Aha,” that is the recognition of divinity. And when you say “Aha” to an art object, that is the recognition of divinity. And what divinity is it? It is your divinity, which is the only divinity there is. We are all phenomenal manifestations of a divine will to live, and that will and the consciousness of life is one in all of us, and that is what the artwork expresses.

Now this is what is meant by an archetype of the unconscious. An archetype of the unconscious is a recognized form, but the problem with it, when you begin to talk about it, is that it is not recognized at all; it is talked about. The thing gets to be a cliché, and it is no good anymore. This is another great difficulty in the creative life. If you know exactly what it is you are creating, it is not going to work. You have turned it into a sign or a concept instead of a thing in itself. It has to come out beyond speech, as life does.

My great friend Heinrich Zimmer had a saying: “The best things cannot be told; the second best are misunderstood.” The second best are misunderstood because they talk about what cannot be told and one thinks one knows what they are saying. This is the way religion is. The idea of God is an idea that is metaphoric of something that cannot be told, and yet we say that God is good, God is merciful, God is just, and God loves these people and not those, etc., etc. We are not talking about God at all. We are talking about our idea of God. Meister Eckhart, in the thirteenth century, said, “The ultimate leave-taking is leaving God for God.” The word that is missing is the other word. The European languages lack that very important word. Monotheism is idolatry in that it imagines its god to be the God for which you leave this one. The Hindus have the word Brahman or atman. No Hindu, nobody east of Suez, would mistake god for God, mistake a god for Brahman. Gods are all metaphors of this ultimate mystery, the mystery of your own being. So God is not “out there”; God is in here. This is the source of the lyric, and what you are writing about is the word of God that is coming out. That is what is meant by inspiration. That is what is meant by the “Word of God.” That life that is of your essence is talking through your inspirations. So let the mind up here relax and listen, not dictate, and recognize the implication of the word.

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Perhaps most responsible for bringing mythology to a mass audience, Joseph Campbell’s works rank among the classics in mythology and literature. Among his many awards, Campbell received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contribution to Creative Literature and the 1985 Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club. A president of the American Society for the Study of Religion, Campbell was professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College in New York until his retirement in 1972, at which time he devoted himself to his writing. He died after a short struggle with cancer in 1987.

From the book The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959–1987. Copyright © 1997, 2007 by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Excerpted with special permission from the Joseph Campbell Foundation,

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