Joseph W. Campbell,
The Flight of the Wild Gander:
Explorations in the Mythological Dimension

(Viking, 1969; Regnery, 1972;
Perennial, 1990; HarperCollins, 1995;
New World Library, 2002)

The Flight of the Wild Gander is Joseph W. Campbell's analysis of the spiritual and moral crisis of the latter half of the 20th century -- not an isolated event, in his view, but part of a process that began in 1492, when not only did Columbus make his first voyage to America, but the boundaries of the spiritual order of Europe were opened once and for all. With essays dating back to 1951, it is a surprisingly timely and relevant study that goes a long way toward explaining many of the conundrums we are faced with today. As might be expected, in Campbell's hands this becomes not so much an argument as a far-ranging investigation, adventurous, sometimes surprising, always erudite and, in spite of its erudition -- or perhaps because of it -- clear and cogent.

It begins innocently enough, with "The Fairly Tale," in all important respects a history of the origins and growth of the discipline of foklore, from the Brothers Grimm to the work of the Finnish society of the Folklore Fellows; among the ironies discovered is that, as research deepened in areas that were studied for more-or-less nationalistic reasons, the more the results pointed to the inescapable conclusion that folk tales, far from being purely local phenomena, were the results of centuries, and perhaps millenia, of cross-fertilization, the basic stuff of myth and legend overlaid by the efforts of local storytellers and then returned to the mix, traded across boundaries, appropriated as material by literary figures and then returned to the people, who rang their own new variations and sent them out again. Campbell concludes this chapter with the words, "The folk tale is the primer of the picture-language of the soul."

The second chapter develops this idea, speaking of myth as a womb for the rebirth of the human psyche, drawing on the concepts of Eastern mysticism, and noting, as Géza RÓheim pointed out, that civilization "originates in delayed infancy and its function is security." (The basis of this idea is that human beings continue their development long after birth, both physically and psychologically; unlike other animals, we are born less than half-finished.) From there Campbell traces the origins of the basic mythic complexes back to their earliest extant remains, perhaps to 30,000 years ago, in the cave paintings of southwest Europe and the amazingly consistent iconography arising no later than 4000 B.C.E. that stretches from the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa across Asia to the Pacific coasts of the New World. The remains mark the path of a religious system that we are pleased to call "animistic" or "shamanistic," one based on a view that that the world is imbued with spirit and that the true sense of this spiritual aspect can only be apprehended in what, in his analysis of the concepts central to Buddhism, he renders as the idea of "no-mind," the space between recognition and thought in which the individual perceives unedited experience as a source of wonder, amazement and joy, a validation of the value of his own individual, unique experience as a point of reference in the world.

With the advent of agriculture and stock raising, the mythic experience becomes religion, a tool of the social order, no longer direct but mediated by a priestly caste whose business includes the maintenance of that social order. (Campbell is not kind to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic complex, his chief example of the most recent manifestation of "religion" as something that is not part of the mythic experience. They are, to him, the latest examples of that Near Eastern paradigm that grew out of agriculturalism into the hiearchical and hieratic systems of the early city-states of Mespotamia, submerging the invidual in the group -- although he does point out that as early as the 12th and 13th centuries, this view was being rejected not only by the poets and troubadours but by the theologians of Europe. This comes as a development of the idea, which I have seen in other contexts, that Christianity is a religion foreign to the basic European myth structures and mindset.)

Campbell sees the rise of the scientific method and a world view grounded in an objective reality supported by fact not as the death of religious experience, but as a chance for its rebirth as an experience and an act of each individual, realizing his own unique place in and as part of the universe. Science and myth are, in his view, parallel systems that have no real point of contact, and the error of modern religious thought has been the attempt to concretize myth, to make it conform to objective reality -- or, as we see in our own time, to make objective reality conform to doctrine.

Campbell's discussion, needless to say, is much more detailed and much more closely argued than this brief summary, ranging from the step pyramids and decorative motifs of Meso-America, through the commonalities of the shamanistic experience as related by Black Elk and a shaman of the Siberian Tungus, the sameness of motifs and images in Hindu and North American mythologies, the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde, the Grail cycle, Hindu and Buddhist thought, and more. There are undoubtedly objections to many of his conclusions, some of which -- such as his analysis of the Judaeo-Christian tradition -- will sit uncomfortably with advocates of other points of view; and, although the essays were updated as late as 1969, there is always new evidence from linguistics, archaeology and other disciplines that might undercut his argument. (Indeed, one of the most pointed rejoinders would appear to be that the very analysis of religious experience falls prey to the very criticisms Campbell makes of "religion" as he sees it, although he is at pains to point out that the core experience, the "no-mind" state, simply cannot be described.) However, The Flight of the Wild Gander is a tightly constructed and penetrating look at the meaning of religious experience as it has displayed itself throughout the history and prehistory of humanity.

Campbell is arguably the most eminent mythographer of our time, moving with facility between the realms of psychoanalysis, archaeology, literature and history, and giving us not only masterful explications of the common sources of myth and folklore, but their relevance to contemporary phenomena often taken for granted.The Flight of the Wild Gander is an absorbing and sometimes exciting adventure into the history, not only of an idea, but of our psyches and our spirits.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 8 January 2005

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