Book Review: A 130 Page Joseph Campbell Book That Succinctly Ties Together Many Loose Strings

An Open Life

September 21, 2016

Allan Stevo

What it is:

In a series of interviews with radio personality Michael Toms, we get an important summary of the life discoveries and philosophies of 20th century scholar Joseph Campbell toward the end of his life in a succinct 130 pages.

A few interesting points:

1. Life’s Events Make Sense and It’s Important to Follow Your Bliss in the Process

While life’s events may seem so disconcerting in their lack of connectedness, the synchronicity of life eventually becomes so obvious as one looks back from an advanced age. While moving toward that point, it’s worthy of keeping in mind the following advice from Campbell who came of age during the Great Depression and saw several instances of family financial ruin: “If you follow your bliss, you’ll have your bliss, whether you have money or not. If you follow your money, you may lose the money, and then you don’t have even that.” Here’s Campbell explaining that at greater length.

Campbell: “If a person has had the sense of the Call – the feeling that there’s an adventure for him – and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the society because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it’s against the wrong wall.

If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one’s “bliss” – the thing that really gets you deep in the gut and that you feel is your life – doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.

There’s a wonderful paper by Schopenhauer, called “An Apparent Intention of the Fate of the Individual,” in which he points out that when you are at a certain age – the age I am now – and look back over your life, it seems to be almost as orderly as a composed novel. And just as in Dickens’ novels, little accidental meetings and so forth turn out to be main features in the plot, so in your life. And what seem to have been mistakes at the time, turn out to be directive crises. And then he asks: “Who wrote this novel?”

Life seems as though it were planned; and there is something in us that’s causing what you hear of as being accident prone: it’s something in ourselves. There is a mystery here. Schopenhauer finally asks the question: Can anything happen to you for which you’re not ready? I look back now on certain things that at the time seemed to me to be real disasters, but the results turned out to be the structuring of a really great aspect of my life and career. So what can you say?

And the other point is, if you follow your bliss, you’ll have your bliss, whether you have money or not. If you follow money, you may lose the money, and then you don’t have even that. The secure way is really the insecure way and the way in which the richness of the quest accumulates is the right way.”


2. Where You Stumble, There Your Treasure Is

The moments that are the hardest in life are also the moments that offer each person the chance for the greatest growth. Here are Toms and Campbell on that.

Toms:”So often we see those dark places as huge problems rather than as opportunities. What does mythology have to say about that?”

Campbell: “Well, mythology tells us that where you stumble, there your treasure is. There are so many examples. One that comes to mind is in The Arabian Nights. Someone is plowing a field, and his plow gets caught. He digs down to see what it is and discovers a ring of some kind. When he hoists the ring, he finds a cave with all of the jewels in it. And so it is in our own psyche; our psyche is the cave with all the jewels in it, and it’s the fact that we’re not letting their energies move us that brings us up short. The world is a match for us and we’re a match for the world. And where it seems most challenging lies the greatest invitation to find deeper and greater powers in ourselves.

Toynbee speaks of challenge and response, and every culture and individual runs into these challenges. If the power to respond fails, then that’s the end. But where the power to respond succeeds, there comes a new amplification of life and consciousness.

When I wrote about the Call forty years ago, I was writing out of what I had read. Now that I’ve lived it, I know it’s correct. And that’s how it turned out. I mean, it’s valid. These mythic clues work.”


3. The Metaphor of the Holy Grail is Very Much Pertinent to Modern Lives

Being on a quest and finding one’s path in life through that quest through life makes a person truly themselves rather than an imitation of what someone else would have us be. Here are Toms and Campbell on that.

Toms: “Myth also informs us about the stage of life we’re in. Isn’t that so?”

Campbell: “Yes. Actually, that’s one of the main functions of myth. It’s what I call the pedagogical to carry a person through the inevitable stages of a lifetime. And these are the same today as they were in the paleolithic caves: as a youngster you’re dependent on parents to teach you what life is, and what your relationship to other people has to be, and so forth; then you give up that dependence to become a self-responsible authority; and, finally, comes the stage of yielding: you realize that the world is in other hands. And the myth tells you what the values are in those stages in terms of the possibilities of your particular society.”

Toms: “Let’s take a typical myth that most people would be familiar with: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. How would that myth relate to the present?”

Campbell: “There are about four quite distinct versions of the Grail quest. The earliest example we have is by Chrétien de Troyes, around 1190. But the most magnificent one is that of Wolfram von Eschenbach, about 1220. The best known version in the English language is that of a Cistercian monk whose name is lost to us. In that story, Galahad plays the main role.

Now the versions of Chrétien and Wolfram have a married man as the hero, who is a virtuous and competent warrior knight. On the other hand, the Cistercian quest which is called La Queste del Saint Graal, gives us the monkish figure, Galahad. For me, the great one is the quest of Parzival.

The problem of the grail quest is the re-vivification of what is known as the Waste Land. The Waste Land is a world where people live not out of their own initiative, but out of what they think they’re supposed to do. People have inherited their official roles and positions; they haven’t earned them. This is the situation of the Waste Land: everybody leading a false life. T. S. Elliot used that idea in his poem, The Waste Land, and he actually quotes several lines from Wolfram’s Parzival. The Waste Land is a place where the sense of the vitality of life has gone. People take jobs because they have to live, and then they find in mid-life that the job doesn’t mean a thing.

Now, the hero of the Grail is one who acts out of his own spontaneous nature. He comes to the Grail castle where the Grail king is maimed and lame, as the whole country is. Why is he maimed and lame? Because he just inherited the job. I won’t go through how it all happened, but the sense of it is that he was not living out of the spontaneity of his own life. Unfortunately, when the hero of the Grail was told how to be a knight, he was told that knights do not ask questions. So when he sees the maimed king, he is moved to ask, “What ails you?” That is, the quality of compassion and sympathy moves him. But then he thinks, “A knight does not ask questions,” and so he represses the impulse of his nature, and the quest fails. It takes him five or six more years to get back to the castle. But the spunk and pluck of his tenacity on the quest, and the revision of the mistake he made, yield the healing of the land.

So the meaning of the Grail and of most myths is finding the dynamic source in your life so that its trajectory is out of your own center and not something put on you by society. Then, of course, there is the problem of coordinating your well-being and your virtue with the goods and needs of the society. But first you must find your trajectory, and then comes the social coordination.”


4. You Do Not Need a Guru. You Have Yourself

In the West, a guru leading the journey would be undesirable. That would likely make you but a follower of the guru. The journey is entirely your own. Live life the way you want to.

Toms: “What about the desire to follow a guru? We see religions and cults based on the teacher-disciple relationship flourishing everywhere.”

Campbell: “I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers – I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guru actually assumes responsibility for the student’s moral life, and this is total giving. I don’t think that’s quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique path.

There’s one quotation I run into in La Queste del Saint Graal which hit me as being the essence of what I’d call the European or Western spirituality. The knights of King Arthur’s court were seated at table and Arthur would not let the meal be served until an adventure had occurred. And, indeed, an adventure did occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however, by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthur’s nephew Gawain stood up and said, “I propose a vow. I propose that we should all go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled.” And it was determined that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me so wonderful: “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest.” Now, if there’s a way or path, it’s someone else’s way; and the guru has a path for you. He knows where you are on it. He knows where he is on it, namely, way ahead. And all you can do is get to be as great as he is. This is a continuation of the dependency of childhood; maturity consists in outgrowing that and becoming your own authority for your life. And this quest for the unknown seems so romantic to Oriental people. What is unknown is the fulfillment of you own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And you are the only one who can do it. People can give you clues how to fall down and how to stand up; but when to fall and when to stand, and when you are falling, and when you are standing, this only you can know. And in the way of your own talents is the only way to do it.

If you go out for athletics, the coach doesn’t tell you exactly how to hold your arms; he watches you run, estimates your form, and tunes you up a little bit. It’s your way and that’s the way of the whole life, it seems to me. This is why I don’t think the guru thing is as great as it’s supposed to be. It’s an Oriental idea where the uniqueness of the individual is utterly disregarded, I think I’m right there. I’ve spent a long time with Oriental studies, and I see nothing that does not say each has the law of his caste or his tradition or his church to follow.

Yeats, in A Vision, speaks of the two masks that life wears. The first is the primary mask that the society has put upon you – the technique of life. But in adolescence the individual has a sense of a potentiality within himself that has to throw off that mask and find what Yeats calls “the antithetical mask” – the mask contrary to that of society. And then comes that struggle so characteristic of youth in our society. In the traditional society, you are not allowed to follow the antithetical; the primary is there like a cookie-mold on you. But here comes this struggle. Now, if the family or society opposes that, it becomes rather fierce. But with a gradual yielding and attention, the young person can learn his own possibilities and what they can do for him. This is the proper way.”


Who shouldn’t read it:

Anyone set in their beliefs on any topic pertinent to the book – religion, spirituality, mythology, finding ones calling, living an authentic life – would likely not enjoy this book. The book so effectively ties together themes that reach between mainstream Christianity, mythology, and some new age practices and beliefs in a way that leaves the Christian with a richer understanding of his religion and himself, in addition to his place in the world.

Who should read it:

Anyone with an inquisitive mind who enjoys reading about culture or religion, would likely get a great deal from this brilliant collection of interviews. This description seems to fit many of the readers of 52 Weeks in Slovakia who I have had the opportunity to meet.

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: “Follow your bliss.”

Michael Toms (1941-2013) known by some as “the Socrates of radio, Toms was the longtime host of the radio program “New Dimensions,” which explores issues of faith, science, social change and healing.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo credit:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

Comments are closed.

  • join our mailing list
  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments on