Killing the shaman


That was the title of a book written by my friend Jim Stevens way back in the 1960s. The book dealt with the disappearance of the mythic Oji-Cree culture in Northern Ontario. I can’t remember much about it, but the title stuck. And it seems to have particular resonance for me today.

I’ve just finished re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss for the fourth or fifth time, at the same time re-reading Christopher Lasch’s 1979 mindblower, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. I keep going back to these wellsprings for answers, and continue to revisit the musings of the Dalia Lama and the polemics of English philosopher John Gray, among others.

Following Campbell’s death and the release of Bill Moyers’ Power of Myth series in 1988, Campbell became something of posthumous mythology industry, managed by his wife, Jean (Erdman) Campbell [shown with him in 1939]. You can’t find a lot of free video on Campbell or free sources of his writing on the Internet. You have to go to the source—the official Campbell website. How very mythologically modern.

As you’d guess from the title of his book, Campbell is a big advocate of following one’s bliss. And he followed his own advice. Born into a comfortable middle class, Roman Catholic family, he was educated at Dartmouth and later Columbia where he became one of the fastest half-mile runners in the world, according to his bio on Wikipedia.

Campbell met Kristnamurti while traveling to Europe with his family, struck up a conversation which sparked his interest in Indian philosophy and led to his leaving the Catholic faith. Three years later, Campbell returned to Europe on a fellowship from Columbia to study Sanskrit and Old French and later learned to speak fluent French and German. He’d earlier learned Latin and would later become proficient in Japanese.

While in Europe he was influenced by the heated intellectual environment, especially by James Joyce, artists Paul Klee and Picasso, as well as Freud and Carl Jung. Returning home, he rode out the Depression with John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts (the biologist, ecologist and philosopher who strongly influenced them both) in Monterrey.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad intellectual foundation for a career as a thinker and teacher.

And all in all, Campbell was an alpha male. So while I appreciate his writing, there’s a twinge of envy, an automatic resistance to the man himself, as if he’s a bit too smug for his own good, an image that’s reinforced by the photo of him on the dust jacket of the book on which he appears to have just finished sucking on a lemon. The photo reminds me of a quote by Abraham Lincoln explaining how he could judge a man by his appearance—because he felt that anyone over the age of 40 created his own face. I hate to say it, but my intuitive response to Campbell’s face is a bit like that.

I have to admit to the narcissism in my reaction. And that’s where my interest in Campbell collides with Christopher Lasch. In that great book, The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch addresses not individual narcissists but the entire American culture as being distinctively narcissistic. Where Campbell uncovers the fundamental underpinnings of myths and archetypes, Lasch reapplies them to entire cultures. This is history, philosophy, sociology and pop culture coming merging into one stream.

And individuals connect directly to their societies. In setting out to follow his own advice, Campbell is cautionary. He tells us that the path can lead to either bliss—or fiasco. In Campbell’s case, the accident of birth and genetics helped him along, just as it might hinder someone less endowed. The trick is in knowing who you are—and your limitations.

Unfortunately, limitations are exactly the things that narcissists don’t see. It’s as if they’re blind to limits.

One of the milder descriptions of Narcissistic Personality Disorder comes from the Mayo Clinic website:

“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

The combination of traits, and the inability to define reasonable personal limits, universally characterizes the disorder. And in their own lives neither Lasch nor Campbell underachieved or seemed to fit that profile. But they both recognized the mythic profile.

Ironically, Christopher Lasch identified the very thing that irks me about Campbell. In Lasch’s Wikipedia entry the author(s) paraphrase Lasch in that the: “individuals’ fragile self-concepts had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships (including religion), a dread of aging (i.e., the 1960s and 1970s “youth culture”) and a boundless admiration for fame and celebrity (nurtured initially by the motion picture industry and furthered principally by television).”

It’s the “individuals’ fragile self-concepts” phrase that gets me. Lasch is right. We’ve been “famous experted” to death, from Oprah to Bill Moyers to the evening news, and our confidence in our own views, our own instincts has been completely eroded.

Campbell is just another one of those experts, deconstructing, dissecting and demystifying the magic. His biggest contribution seems to be the codifying of mythical archetypes and promoting them as formulae for artists’ works—particularly the movies, thanks to George Lucas and Bill Moyers.

For a bit of non-narcissistic clarity I turned to the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are. And there it was. On page 36 I was informed that the basis of ignorance was bestowing concrete reality to objects. This is a “false appearance.” Actual reality, we’re told, is emptiness. So seeing something as being inherently attractive or unattractive, or inherently beautiful or ugly leads us to an objective attachment, to a false reality that can “open the way to lust, hatred and a myriad of counterproductive emotions.”

Okay. So our consumer society breeds dependence on experts, addicts us to purchasing the objects (and services) of our desire, erodes the already fragile concept of ourselves, while making us feel more important that we really are. And the Buddhist counterargument is giving up the material world altogether.

“You’re a narcissist if you relate to objects.” “Beautiful and ugly things are non-essential; you should pursue emptiness.” “Give up the material world and prepare yourself to leave the cyclical world.” That’s all bullshit. These are not the things a creative person needs to hear.

Sorry Joe, artists need to discover their own versions of the myths and archetypes. Forget about it Dalai Lama. The world is an experience to be lived, passionately, not neutralized prematurely in order to depart this meat wheel.

This creative reality came to me when I went to vote for a new town council at the Legion hall this evening. After marking my ballot I was drawn to the cabinet full of model warplanes and tanks. My God, they’re things of sublime power and awe, even in miniature. As much as any work of “fine” art, they invoke the human spirit, good, bad, creative, destructive, all in a go.

I remember meeting a working sculptor years ago. When I asked what he was doing, he simply said, “I make art.” He didn’t think about what it meant; he didn’t analyze it. He just thought it up. Did it. And sold it.

All successful artists have to kill their shamans. With the shamans dead, the shaman can be born. It’s time to slay the demystifying mythologers—and climb over their dead bodies—to reinvent our own mythologies. That is, if we can still catch a glimmer of who we are.

But before we do, we should make sure that we've captured the essence of the shaman’s wisdom. Which brings us back to that nagging little word “intrinsic” that the Dalai Lama uses to preface things. By labelling something intrinsic he means that we see a particular object or quality as existing separately from everything else, as a self-supporting entity. Now, as we've all learned, nothing exists separately from the rest of the universe. That’s why we invented God. To exempt certain objects or physical qualities from the interdependence of all other things is to make that thing our God. Even a piece of art is dependent on its audience, or even the effects of time itself.

And this is where Campbell, Lasch and the Dalai Lama come together. Campbell’s revelation, drawn from mythology, is the realization that we are all connected through these human archetypes right back to the beginning of our existence. Lasch points out that our narcissistic behaviour is disconnecting us, not only from our effects on others, but from the planet itself.

On a personal level, that reconnecting process is what Carl Jung meant by “individuation.”

Viewed properly, art can be seen as the reintegration of objects and qualities back into the metaphysical, or for lack of a better word, spiritual realm. This is the shaman’s true gift.


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