A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell

A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell

by Stephen and Robin Larsen
Doubleday, 1992; hardcover.

A Fire in the Mind is an unusually subjective, several-sided biography that was written with authorization from Joseph Campbell's widow by two well-intentioned students. The abundant admiration that sometimes obscures solid scholars hip is illustrated with the authors' abandon in picturing their teacher like the Indian god Vishnu dreaming the universe into existence; this is evident when they report that Campbell “entered a timeless time, the active world revolving around him at a dreamlike remove.” In a commendable attempt at comprehensiveness, the writers trace their hero's birth in New York City in 1904, his studies at Columbia University, his travels through Europe and Asia , his professional teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College, and finally his death in Hawaii in 1987.

Like Alan W. Watts, Campbell emerges not as a serious scholar but a celebrated popularizer. Campbell wrote his master's thesis under Roger Sherman Loomis, whom the Larsens describe humorously as “a traditional scholar [who] did not approve of his pupils ranging too far from the given materials.” Neither was Campbell prompted to sacrifice conventionality for academic respectability. The biographers conclude: “Campbell had bitten into the juiciest piece of medieval mythic stew, containing fragments of the Dionysian mystery traditions, shamanic lore, the Goddess religion, Celtic magic and Christian mysteries. It was contact with materials like this that convinced him that he could never simply stay within the bounds of academia.” Campbell should be congratulated for following his interests as an independent inquirer, even when such unregimented intelligence inspires suspicion from supposed scholars!

Substantive scholarship sometimes cast no measurable influence or impact upon Campbell's personal development. Because his publications abound with numerous references drawn from Indian sources, his demeaning attitude toward Indian culture is especially revealing. Campbell confided to a colleague: “In the Madurai temple [India], watching all those people, finally something cracked in me and I couldn't take it any longer; I sat down and laughed. People, I thought, will worship anything -absolutely anything- and so what?” In a simplistic and superficial manner, his “trenchant appraisal” of India is that Indians embrace a “romantical interest in renunciation as well as a lazy (heat-inspired) interest in doing nothing (retirement at the age of 55).” In a summary he suggested: “Nothing is quite as good as the India Invented at Waverly Place, New York.”

Campbell's conclusion is that since “I found that all the great religions were saying eventually the same thing in various ways, I was unable and unwilling to commit myself to anyone.” Uncommitted, he floundered, or simply slid across a slippery surface. His conviction is that happiness constitutes an illusion, “absorption in a cause which in the end is but illusion.” More than elitism or narcissism reverberates through his revealing remark: “The perfected man's mere existence does more for the world than all the petty labors of lesser people.”

Campbell appears, as all humans appear, as flawed. And part of the tragedy is that his biographers remember him predominantly by his superficialities rather than his substance. The Larsens' writing is pervaded with the awareness that Campbell was not simply born physically beautiful, but that he worked hard to maintain that beauty, struggling to save his hand some shape, always practicing discipline required and expected of a professional athlete. Surprising for some, a preoccupation with physical beauty never culminated in excessive sexuality. The authors describe his relationship with women: “Campbell was a devotee not so much of a particular woman at this time as of an archetype, des Ewig Weibliche, the eternal feminine.” Yet there was a touch of great ness, however temporary or transient. Campbell's glowing charm attracted countless enthusiasts who regarded him highly as a popular man who taught multitudes to enjoy his versions of the world's enduring myths, even when Campbell failed to comprehend the myths that he popularized successfully. He remained a hippie hero who never degenerated with psychedelic drugs or free sex, but glowed ceaselessly with “a fire in the mind.”

Perhaps the highest compliment that a critic can give these biographers is that they unintentionally and inadvertently succeed in removing their hero from a pedestal.


Winter 1992