Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joseph Campbell and the Great Adventure

Perhaps very few of us do what modern mythologist Joseph Campbell describes as a great adventure, his claiming that those who pursue a path through life are following in the footsteps of others and are not on an adventure. That's how society is; obviously we could not have civilized values without pathways, and most of us are happy to earn rights to follow the lead of competent others. but this order includes the very rare as well. Those who go their own way. They either wreck their lives failing return to what Campbell calls the common light of day, and they are marked for that, or they achieve a great "boon" as Campbell names the productivity of eventual exchange among others. 

Sound results recognized by others to have cultural value after the adventurer's going off the beaten path don't begin to become evident on the broad scale until he has returned, although this doesn't so much mean he adjusts and conforms, but to a great degree may transform the old order in need of new life. Even chaos is an extremely subtle order he must confront, survive and move beyond as he makes his way through a return to the future. Lives are threatened by this, that and the other thing every day, and while few of us intentionally place ourselves in harm's way, some us who do so seek to gain the experience, knowledge and wisdom to make good from what could have killed us. The successes are surely much more rare than failures. A schizophrenic may tell you about an adventure, and if any were to tell me so, I would grant the individual's word. But his or her return to normal dealings with people in a world with a difficult market for success, I would doubt this eventuality, though not rule it out as impossible.  

For my Recorder Newspapers syndicated column this week, I wrote that angling may be a difficult way to approach success in life, but what you can learn from offering lures to fish is analogous to making contributions in human society. Fishing is light fare, however, when it comes to cultural contribution. Nevertheless, we anglers participate in nature: this is the primary process; civilized order is secondary to it, and it is always our best pride to add value to our human community. 

Everything manmade is nature rearranged, including what we take from our re-creative experiences, which are personal resources for empowering our responses when we return to ordinary society from an outing. The great boon, as Joseph Campbell wrote, comes first from abandoning the world as we understand it. I think of Izaac Walton's abandonment of the British Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's rule, and there's no doubt he left the ordinary world and bestowed the boon of the most bestselling book besides The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, but fishing, at least for me, serves as a lesser reminder of adventure I had in youth. It's too much to relate in a blog post. I sought the secret of nature, wanted to know the inner truth of matter and attempted to fully enter the world's natural process in a way much more profound than I do by fishing.

Philosopher Ayn Rand would never have approved of Joseph Campbell's "mysticism," but as a youth I admired her profoundly and followed her philosophy along with so much else I studied. She stated that a man cannot long survive in a state of nature. Rather than avoid a test of this, I did what poet and literary master T.S. Eliot suggests: "Only he who risks going too far can know how far one can go."

I wrecked in the end but never quit the effort to pick up the pieces and move into this world we share. Had I not ruined my life to such deep degree, I never could have experienced my life's source in nature to the degree that made me fortunate rather than dead. Nor could my mind and imagination have opened to what is deep within and high above. I don't regret having walked out to discover what obsessed me so intensely, not even at the cost of having to work wage jobs thereafter, but I hope not until I would retire.

It's not for any but a very few to try the likes, and people are always there to help these few--by discouraging them. The best I did was get far away from people so I could hear the undiluted tone of my own voice. But they were almost right about my ways leading to the impossibility of normal life.


  1. This resonates with me. And leaves me feeling curious to know your story more. I didn't leave people, but I left the familiar ones, all of them. I believed, and still believe it was the only way to fulfill myself, to maximize my undiluted self.

    1. Are you sure you didn't leave people? You didn't find an essential solitude where no one else could find you, which you couldn't fully present to others? I knew people at the shore I saw often. And I didn't always live alone those years. But what I had with nature working in the water, usually alone; with books I studied and notebooks I wrote in was profoundly my own. People tried to stop me and I had to deal with that. But I always got altogether away from them. I was more conversant, perhaps, with the spirits of books than I was with real people those years, yet I was conversant with people, too. And the best of what we shared drew upon what I found outside the parameter of the status quo.

  2. I left my family, my friends, my acquaintances, everyone I ever knew when I left home in Lodi, and moved to Los Angeles, more than three hundred miles south of me. I was twenty-three and in ____. Pain? Fear? Anger? Frustration? Definitely frustrated, unhappy. I didn't move to LA looking to be a movie star, but because that's where Nathaniel did his practice. I had enough money to find an apartment and to keep me going until I found a job.
    You know that I am deaf. That plays into a big part of my being, especially since I was raised orally, and little or no contact with other deaf people. My sister has the same congenital deafness that I have. She is twelve years older, and was also raised orally. In my childhood years, she was always critical of me, always brushing me off, always asking me to do her a favor. The only time I can remember a friendly and doomed connection was when she tried teaching me sign language. It was for fun, and at the dinner table, my father put a stop to it, saying we shouldn't use it, we should use our hearing aids.
    At school, I was fine until the fourth grade when I started feeling 'inappropriate.' My 'best friend' started moving away from me towards other hearing friends, and not wanting me around. I was bereft, and became very withdrawn over the next ten or so years. I never dated in high school, never went to the proms. I did make a girlfriend only after my PE instructor threatened to kick me out of girl's sports if I didn't try talking to somebody. I chose the quietest one who seemed intelligent and formed a friendship that was wonderful but also doomed because I was looking for something she couldn't give me. During the time with her I made a few other friends. These were people I met in high school. I also had a couple of neighborhood friends from childhood that were like part of the background, they were just always there to hang out with. I felt less lonely, less restless when I was with them.
    My extended family were people that were special to me, and made me feel as if I belonged to a special group of people. They were my clan. But none wanted to spend any time with me.
    I am giving you this background so you can get a sense of the isolation I experienced. Socially speaking I was stunted. Social rejection was the norm for me, and a feeling of not feeling 'real' when meeting other people was pervasive. If we are as Nathaniel says, social beings more so than rational beings, then it was the pain of being so socially stunted that drove me to the extremes of moving to LA. My parents had kicked me out when I was twenty three because I had been giving them the silent treatment for several months, and we came to heads over my cat. I wanted my cat in my bedroom, and they wouldn't let me have her there. In our argument over this issue, they delivered the ultimatum and out I went. The money that I survived on until I found my first job was given to me by them.
    I don't have time to write more, and I truly don't know if this is going to interest you. But I do want to add, that even though I was socially undeveloped, intellectually, I was mature enough to see the genius in Fountainhead. Genius. And when I read Altas Shrugged....

    1. I experienced a lot of rejection at school, but I went beyond isolation by finding my own response from within in nature, spending hours alone in the woods, creek and fields from age 7, exploring, naming things, so the shore experience continued the same. For me, rather than feel inferior, as if that's what those who reject expect, I exercised my abilities so that, for the most part, I can't feel that way. That's why Branden writes about self-esteem as an actual achievement. It doesn't matter if others don't like you, not so much, at least, if you achieve in life, because you know first hand the value, if in fact such value is present. You have to be good at something, some specific practice or other, or a number of them. Life is all about fulfilling a talent or talents more than it is about being social, and I wouldn't care what Branden would say to the contrary of this, if he ever did, which I doubt. Talent or even genius, although if you lack genius, you surely have the capability for enough talent to exercise at any age. What I've just told you is the theme of The Fountainhead, but I never had to read that book to be this way. I already was so when I read it. Do I ever feel pangs of rejection? Sure. You pick yourself up and get back to work. Work is what matters first, not society.

  3. So long as you work to be good at something you care about, achieve goodness at it, social connections follow & break isolation at least enough to find incentive to go on. Albert Camus wrote that freedom is the possibility of doing better. Whatever it is you choose to do, persist against any and all resistance. If you're good at it, that's sufficient. Will there be doubt or even anguish? There is for me, but none of that & the likes is as significant as the successes. I'm a good writer, photographer, fisherman, father--so I'm good. I don't just know this in my head; my life responds because earnings are existential, not primarily accounted for by others or money. I struggle with my flaws, but I never give in as if they're really me instead of what's better about me. This doesn't mean I'm not realistic; it just means I keep at what I do, rather than overly preoccupy myself with the meaning of my life. (Camus also wrote that those who seek the meaning of life never find it.)

  4. And it's not easy. You make yourself do what you do, when it's not easy to start. Gets easier after that, but sometimes you have to take pains each day. And initial pain yields pleasure thereafter. The worst is to refuse because you're afraid that making an effort will be awful. I've had a slow start today. Before I read your comment, I thought of a girl who rejected me in high school! She had given me her #, too. Why did she renege? Simple. I approached her badly. So I forgive her that & as much as it still obsesses me, I have an upper hand of control. Don't let any of the past be who you are. Doesn't mean you can't draw on it, as I did in this post, but you need to shape it from where you are now, even given that it is as is. What's more important? That I've begun cleaning our two bathrooms. That's not just a joke; that's the truth.

  5. I confess it's a difficult comment you left, because I have such compassion for the isolation you suffered, yet you have indicated otherwise that you've found fulfillment in life, and I was sort of responding as if you're deeply haunted by the past. I can't say I'm not by mine, but I have it all very much under my control & it serves as material for writing, w/out my getting carried away by it. The worst isolation was after the shore, since it was as if I came back into the broad society naked--no college degree, no jobs to resume, just my self-employed work, yet I had no trouble finding jobs; it was the humiliation and tedium of doing wage work, having no friends, friends at the shore gone, my inspiration weighed down by depression that kept me for years in a very clueless, not entirely, state. I found that the wage work I despised became my means of connection. I had been about as negative as the Devil himself in my writings and private self, but not so much that I didn't attempt to reach for better within those circumstances, and after years of work in a particular job fully emerged as a valued employee who thrived on the company's good image. I knew many in the company; many knew me. You might be interested in that before I took this job, two years before, I read Branden on how a job can be a means for spiritual growth. I fully agreed, but when I say it was hard, not just for a few months, but for 18 years, including preceding jobs, I mean it was sometimes like crucifixion. People who come from working class backgrounds might not understand. I came from an upper professional family. I had the audacity to abandon all my parents and siblings expected of me. And then when I found myself in wage work, I just could not accept it, yet that was exactly what I had done to myself, and no one could bail me out, nor did I have any understanding confidant. After 8 years in this job I mention, I finally began to experience moments of acceptance, and as I say, I finally got over my humiliation all but altogether. Now I accept the situation. I'm in wage work until retirement unless a miracle happens and my books earn enough that I can leave it. I've always known I'm not the only writer in an ordinary job, and kept on writing, as furious as I was that my time was being "wasted," until 2009. Without wage work, I would not know how to approach an audience, because I would not really know who they are. Society is important, but it is so through work, including regular employment.


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