The Power of Myth, three decades on
– by Geoff Olson –
I recently invited a friend over to my place to watch the PBS television series, The Power of Myth, on Netflix. A spirited discussion followed the viewing of two episodes from the six-part series. My UBC psychology grad friend spoke eloquently of what he calls “creation as creator.”
The interviews of Joseph Campbell by journalist Bill Moyers premiered on PBS in 1988, just a year after the mythologist’s death. The Power of Myth was every bit as good as I recalled, even with its dated videographics and paint-by-number MIDI music.
Joseph Campbell was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. His studies in comparative mythology and comparative religion have influenced a wide range of scholars and artists, including director George Lucas, who drew cinematic inspiration for his Star Wars trilogy from Campbell’s 1959 classic, The Hero’s Journey (in fact, five of the six Moyers-Campbell interviews were filmed at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California).
Although Campbell rejected religious literalism, he insisted that myths are of the utmost value. Through narrative, they put the mind in accord with the ancient, archetypal prerogatives of the body.
The trouble starts when myths aren’t interpreted as metaphors, but rather as literal truths. When The Power of Myth first aired, what Campbell called “the real horror” of Beirut involved three warring faiths. In Lebanon “you have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and because the three of them have three different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference…Each group says, “We are the chosen group, and we have God.””
Two-thousand-year-old tales from the Near East have failed to accommodate the new view of the universe, said the mythologist. They have lost their resonance for millions of people. What’s needed are myths that embrace humankind on a planetary level.
“If you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth,” Campbell told Moyers with enthusiasm, gesturing to himself.
This flips the Judeo-Christian script on its head. Earth itself becomes a creator as much as a creation, in an evolutionary sense.
“Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle,” Moyers responded, citing James Lovelock’s then-radical proposition that Earth performs like a self-regulating entity. “There you are, the whole planet as an organism,” Campbell agreed.
Gaia is hardly a novel concept in 2019. However, Campbell was more of a radical thinker than some people realize. He was something of a nature mystic. He told Moyers of his feeling that consciousness and energy “are in some way the same thing.”
“Where you really see life energy there is consciousness…Certainly the vegetable world is conscious. And when you live in the woods as I did as a kid, you can see all these different consciousnesses relating to themselves. There is a plant consciousness and there is an animal consciousness, and we share both these things.”
As a scholar of myth, Campbell found these childhood apprehensions echoed in Eastern belief systems, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. In the latter, divinity resides in all things from the atomic to galactic scale. All entities partake in the cosmic play of appearances, and mirror divinity in their very structure.
Campbell’s mythological musings were hardly antiscientific. More than a century ago, Charles Darwin observed that a plant’s root tip behaved in the soil like an intelligent creature exploring its environment. In fact, botanists have discovered that root tips contain high concentrations of serotonin, previously understood as a neurotransmitter in animal brains. They have also determined that plants have at least 20 identified senses (including detection of electrostatic fields), compared to humans’ dinky five or six.
Sounds something like Campbell’s “vegetable consciousness” to me!
As for “animal consciousness,” there are plenty of good examples to cite, but among the best is the single-celled organism Difflugia coronata. Did you know that this tiny species of amoeba, invisible to the human eye, can build its own portable home?
Difflugia lives in a spherical dwelling of its own making, composed of several particles of quartz fitted and cemented together with remarkable precision. On top of the sphere are seven or eight sturdy spikes, with the largest at the base and smallest at the top, making sharp points.
“At the bottom of the sphere there is a large circular hole ornamented with a pleated collar of particles too small to be distinguishable from the cement that binds them,” writes Mike Hansell in his book, Built by Animals: the Natural History of Animal Architecture. From this Art Deco opening, the amoeba projects its pseudopodia (false feet) to glide through soil water or across damp vegetation. “The diameter of the whole dwelling, for that is what it is, is about 150 thousandths of a millimetre. Smaller than the punctuation mark at the end of this sentence,” notes Hansell.
Difflugia engulfs tiny particles of quartz when it goes looking for food. These become the building materials for a new dwelling – and here’s where things gets even weirder. When difflugia prepares to divide in two, the quartz particles are extruded from the opening in a “cytoplasmic” bud. The particles are arranged into a new home by the bud, with the two apertures face to face, held together by a cytoplasmic bridge. The cell material now splits to form two amoebae, one with a new prefab home.
You won’t find more agreeable family arrangements for tiny homes even on the Gulf Islands.
This amoeba, I repeat for emphasis, is a one-celled organism invisible to the naked eye. How is a tiny creature without a nervous system capable of constructing something this Hobbit-home-elaborate? It makes sense only if we accept that some rudimentary consciousness (or intelligence if you prefer) is mediated through chemical gradients in its cytoplasm, or through some other intracellular signalling system. Creation as creator.
So what has this got to do with you and me? Well, in the eastern/pantheistic/Campbell worldview, the same creative cosmic intelligence that permeates the living world from top to bottom is not separate from you. In fact, You Are It. And as such, exercising even the most mundane creative act aligns you with the same evolutionary agency that forges galaxies, forms babies, and fabricates amoeba condos (however, don’t expect a trophy just for participating).
“I do think “Creation is Creator” is a powerful idea,” my friend Patrick Dubois wrote me after our post-Campbell conversation. “It defies notions of control, hierarchy, or separation, and distributes divine authority, power, accountability, grace, and mystery. I think contemplating that reality naturally cultivates humility, awe, ecstasy, respect (for self and others), and acceptance.”
There is a possibility we will be interacting with another variety of consciousness, beyond animal and plant in the future: that of computer networks. With “deep learning,” we are already being schooled on the self-improving capabilities of computers – from beating champion Go players to composing articles.
“I have bought this wonderful machine – a computer,” Campbell told Moyers in 1987. “Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine – it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy,” he said with a laugh.
Let’s hope Campbell’s joke about early PCs remains just that, and not a ready-made myth for the morphing human-machine interface. Because for good or ill, our creations are already becoming creators.