The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell

The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell

Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell
By Robert Ellwood. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Paperback, xiv + 207pages.

The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: "The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." The three great scholars and popularizers of mythology, C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, seem to have been confronted powerfully with the predicament implied in that: saying. Living in an era of two World Wars and bloody totalitarian tyrannies, they often faced the choice between agreeing with the majority or remaining morally and clinically sane. The agonies of their choices, along with their triumphs and failures have now been eloquently chronicled by Robert Ellwood.

Having achieved considerable fame in their lifetimes (Campbell having done so posthumously by his televised interviews with Bill Moyer), all three men have been subject often to vicious criticism when dead and unable to respond to their detractors. Characteristically, these criticisms were not so much directed against their work as against their alleged political sympathies. Indeed one cannot escape the thought that the critics wished to find ways to make a case against the three mythologists that would evoke an instant and intense adverse emotional response from as many people as possible. The uniform charge leveled at lung, Eliade, and Campbell is that of fascist and related sympathies, an accusation that unaccountably seems to be more seriously damaging in many eyes than its opposite, i.e., the charge of communist sympathies that can be justly made against a good many intellectuals of the West.

Robert Ellwood addresses himself to the lives, careers, and beliefs of his three subjects individually. In Jung's case he correctly notes that for a brief period he showed some mild sympathy towards aspects of the Nazi cause, which he replaced with a violent aversion not only against German National Socialism but against all totalitarian government. In connection with Campbell, Ellwood notes that no public statements, written or verbal, have ever emanated from him that could be construed as anti-Semitic or racist. All accusations of such a nature have been made after Campbell's death by persons who claimed to have overheard such statements in private. Obviously the proof of such innuendo rests with the accusers, and they can offer none.

Ellwood's best efforts are reserved for Mircea Eliade, whose student Ellwood was at the University of Chicago. With an insight usually absent in observers outside the East-Central European matrix, the author analyses the complex political and philosophical currents in Eliade's native Romania in the early and mid-19.30s. He describes the messianic nationalism rampant in Romania at that time and tells of some of its charismatic exponents, such as the visionary Corneliu Codreanu and the philosopher Nae Ionescu. The book reveals that Eliade was never a member of the controversial Legion of the Archangel Michael (nicknamed the Iron Guard) but that for a brief time he sympathized with its aims and consequently was briefly imprisoned in 1938-9.

Perhaps the greatest merit of this book is the ability of its author to put the political sympathies of his subjects in. the context of the intellectual milieu of the precise times when those sympathies existed. As one who was present in Europe at that period, this reviewer can attest to the veracity of Ellwood's intimations concerning the peculiar circumstances and perplexing choices faced by such figures as Jung and Eliade in the 1930s. There were plenty of good people who, during those difficult years of depression and war, saw at least a short term diminishment of democracy as a necessary evil; they found a certain allure in a vision of an authoritarian nation-state which they hoped would overcome the shortcomings of the weak and pusillanimous regimes that replaced the old, stable order of pre- World War Europe.

In the first and last chapters of his book, Ellwood touches on some issues of singular and abiding import. He indicates that all three of his subjects were inspired by a gnosis that resonated with the insights of the Gnostics and Hermeticists of old. Their view of reality was based in a vision sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity), which of necessity tends to relative such modern (and postmodern] preoccupations as multiculturalism, feminism, and the populist welfare state. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell all valued a certain individualism and spiritually based libertarianism above the fads and enthusiasms of their time or of any other time. Their contention that ancient myths interpreted in the light of patterns of spiritual transformation may serve as important resources to people impoverished by our materialistic, secular culture is not invalidated by anything we have learned about them.

With all of its outstanding virtues, Ellwood's book is likely to be found somewhat as wanting by both those who wish to condemn and those who desire to admire uncritically his three subjects. For his own part, the present reviewer would have welcomed the sort of spirited defense that can be found in an appreciation of Mircea Eliade by William W. Quinn (former editor of the Quest's predecessor journal): "Those with an irrepressible proclivity to see fascist conspiracies everywhere have occasionally sought to lump Eliade into this world view. This is poor history and worse analysis" (Novo Religio 3.1 [Oct. 1999]: 153). Neither can this reviewer agree with Ellwood that it is somehow incorrect or even reprehensible "to view the world as hopeless for any kind of salvation but individual" (178). What other salvation is there, or has there ever been, but an individual one? And where did most of the politico-ideological wrong-headedness of the last 250 years originate if not in the chimera of collective as against individual salvation?

Such considerations, however, are a matter of personal conviction rather than of objective merit. Robert Ellwood's work possesses an abundance of accurate data, inspired insight, and informed sympathy for his subjects. It is a book to be commended and recommended as well as admired by all who hold myth and its champions in high regard.


March/April 2000