I’ve been reading a book by Joseph Campbell, which I can’t name — I looked it up, and they list everything, but not these books, and I think I know why — because I was reading it in the car on the way to Denver, to help boy look at apartment, and that car eats books. It will surface months from now, in the trunk, where it couldn’t possibly have got.
The book is a series of lectures on society and myth which were delivered the year before I was born at a free university type place in NYC and the title is something like “The power of myth in your life.”
I bought it at arc thrift store, 50c half price day, for the same reason Joseph Campbell is a bestseller: because his theories might or might not have much resonance in real life, but they do resound with the stories humans like to tell.
This book was an attempt, if the first half is indicative, to make the book and ultimately the Hero’s Journey relevant for everyday people and not just writers. It has that half embarrassed tone of a geek trying to communicate with normal people by bringing up “scientific discoveries” and “relevant stuff.”
The first half is also hilarious (not on purpose) which is why I hope I didn’t accidentally kick it out of the car when we got out at one of the complexes.
Mind you the laughter cringes a little in sympathetic embarrassment.
The book — again, kindly remember, a collection of lectures published before I was born — starts by pointing out that religion is dead. It might think it isn’t, but it’s a dead man walking. It has in fact been thoroughly disproved by science and archeology.
This part is unintentionally funny on two fronts: first, the author doesn’t seem to have the slightest concept of the broad swath of belief he is addressing which is a little odd since he’s an expert on myth. Even if he viewed religion as pure myth, surely he’d have studied the various ways people address it. For instance, he seems to think the only form of Christianity is the one that takes the Bible literally, and conflates this with the calculations on the age of the Earth which were in fact made by a medieval monk, and with the prophecies made by a Scottish something or other, until it baffles the mind.
Second, most of the science he cites as “proving” that we were not created but evolved (as though the two were inherently contradictory and the ‘clay of the Earth’ couldn’t mean what was found here) is now — 50 years later– thoroughly discredited. Among other things, he believed we were descended from the Australopithecines, which we most certainly weren’t, and makes inferences about our myths based on the Pithecanthropos.
Anyway, Campbell, whose (modest) aim is to convince us to believe in myth even if we don’t believe in myth, in order to save civilization, goes on to point out something I should have thought about before, something that does apply and it’s true.
When a society loses its fundamental beliefs by having them proven wrong, the society spirals down the drain. You see increased alcoholism, a fall in birth rate, suicides and general purposelessness.
Before you apply this to our society, hold on, hoss. Yeah, we have some of these problems, but we only hit them in the last 8 years or so, and they’re nowhere as serious or at crisis level as in other western societies. The clustercongress in the economy and the fact that the boomers in academia have decided to found their golden years on the backs of the younger kids student loans probably have more to do with the fall in marriage and birth rate than any loss of cultural purpose. So probably does feminism, but that is active poison, not the slow drainage of loss of cultural faith.
In fact, in many ways, we’re starting to see fight back against the extreme left in the culture. Not in politics, yet, but politics is ALWAYS downstream from culture. If you don’t believe me, remember how political correctness was viewed as serious in the eighties, and it is now considered a roll-the-eyes matter.
Yes, there are segments of our culture that are in that sort of death spiral of a discredited culture. More on that later.
First let me assert that as far as I can tell, yes, Campbell is referring to a real phenomenon of “lose faith in your culture, culture dies.”
We’ve seen that in many primitive cultures when faced with more aggressive/assertive cultures and it could be argued it’s still operating in places like Japan, even if masked by abundance.
More well-read people than I have applied it to the Russian decline, which is almost a text book example, but no one has thought to apply it to Europe, except perhaps Ed Driscoll and I when we scream that Europe is dying from WWI. And we’re being accurate but not detailed, and it’s not reaching to the roots of “dying because they lost faith in their basic values.”
First let’s discard the idea that America has — fifty years after Campbell — lost faith. We probably display it less, because it’s not mandatory and we’re not a conformist society, but if you count all forms of religious faith, we’re a near-fanatic country, and possibly the only one in which a scientist can announce himself as a person of faith and not be run out of his practice.
You can moan about faith being greater in the past, but take it with a grain of salt, will you? Faith in the past was political correctness in the eighties. You had to pay lip service to play, so people did. Whether there was any more ACTUAL faith and religious devotion is not for me — or anyone else — to know. The very imposition of social pretense of faith masked what might or might not be there.
I suspect that accounting for the fact it’s now as fashionable to be “agnostic” as it was in the past to be religious, and that taints what we hear in public, faith is more or less as it’s always been. Something I’ve observed is that some people are naturally mystical, some are naturally materialistic, and some like me strive towards faith never ending up fully achieving it but having too much of it to give it up.
However, in Europe religion is all but moribund. It amused me when an exchange professor talked about how he was shocked Portugal wasn’t a land of great faith as he’d heard. Oh, yeah, sure, it was still fashionable in certain circles, but the same people would diss faith in other circles.
Anyway the problem is not that religion died there, but what we mentioned in comments yesterday: In the Europe I grew up in, there was a great faith in communism. Not (necessarily) the road to communism that the USSR had taken. We knew that was brutal and all. But we also met with the Russians who were sent to visit, we read Soviet Life, and we KNEW however we got there communism was the way of the future, the only civilized society worth living in.
And by “we” I mean not me, because well… because I’m me. My mom says my personality is the type that can’t see a freshly painted wall without making a scratch to see what’s underneath. I don’t think I was very old when I realized Russia killed people trying to escape their “paradise” and so did the DDR and…
But the level at whic this was the assumption in ALL writing, news, literature and even education is hard to overestimate. My history book in 11th grade defined Portugal as a society on the way to socialism, which would eventually lead to communism, the perfect the society.
The first part of this was enshrined in the Portuguese constitution because socialism (as the gentle, non-murderous) path to communism, was CLEARLY the only civilized path.
Please keep in mind, btw, that people in the US who were Europhiles or even in literary circles read these books, with this assumption, and internalized it. And that these people are now at the peak of their careers in academia and politics, and most of the “focal points” of culture, including the media. I don’t know if it will help, but it should make us judge them less harshly. Unless they’re odds, people don’t question the foundational myths they were given young.
Anyway, when the USSR collapsed, what Europe lost was not religion, precisely, but it was the myth that was holding it up after they seemingly lost their religion in the abattoirs of WWI.
They knew there had been errors on the way to communism in the USSR and of course they didn’t want that, but they wanted that command economy, which worked so much better, and in which everyone had what they needed and…
And the rug got pulled out from under their feet. Which explains what I see when I go to Europe, the despondence and anomie that pours off the walls and seeps in from the trendy cafes. It explains how monuments are decorated with art not worthy of toddlers (we’re not that bad here) and all the other symptoms of loss and decay. They are a society that has lost their guiding myth. That the guiding myth was stupid and artificially implanted by power hungry serpents is of little consequence. In an era of mass media, they bought the pervasive lie and they believed in Soviet Life. Now, even if the horrors of the reality weren’t fully documented, they know there was rot and horror there and that planned economies don’t work, and of course, they’ve been told for years of the horrors of capitalism and freedom, so they’re left with nothing but suicide.
We too have been told of the horrors of capitalism and freedom, for at least 40 years in our schools, though it took multiculturalism to really convince the kids we were inferior, and even they might not stay convinced. You see, it’s really hard even for non-odds to think America is terrible when at the same time people complain that we have too many things and are too affluent. (In fact, our issues are those of the affluent, not to be confused with the issues of defeated societies. The idea that Rome died of affluence, btw, is wrong and one of those socialist prisms applied to history. “Let’s be poor, comrade, so we don’t get decadent” is their only offer to the world.)
I suspect eventually the kids will be all right. Right now they’re being pounded by an awful economy and scams to make them slaves for life. Which are of course, courtesy of the socialists of the previous generation, but they don’t know that.
And the sectors of America that have been most like Europe — Journalism, the arts, academia, political bureaucracy — are going through the same spiral as Europe too. This is sad, but not fatal. As someone pointed out, if you removed those sectors our economy and ultimately our society would do better.
So, what to do about it?
Stop mourning. The story of our demise was started by people like Campbell who imagined it was “scientifically inevitable.” And it’s grossly exaggerated.
Keep destroying the narrative, which is the remnants of that fairytale about wonderful command economies and the glitz of “Soviet Life”.
And teach your children well.
This too shall pass.