Directed by Patrick Takaya Solomon
A documentary featuring Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, Catherine Hardwicke, Sir Ken Robinson, Akiva Goldsman, Chungliang Al Huang
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a documentary on the life of Joseph Campbell, the 20th century American philosopher and mythology expert who was captivated by Krishnamurti and Carl Jung. My suspicion deepened upon learning that his motto was “follow your bliss”. I expected something resembling the New Age classic by Rhonda Byrne, The Secret, in which Campbell was mentioned in passing.
While studying myths, and writing on the human experience, Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years. His seminal work, “A Hero with a Thousand Faces” was published in 1949 and greatly influenced generations of artists and writers, including Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and Jerry Garcia.
I was relieved to discover that Finding Joe, unlike The Secret, had no whispered quotes, weird sound effects, or facile references to quantum mechanics. Instead it featured, in between the usual talking heads, a normal-looking group of kids acting out scenes from various myths from around the world. As a child Campbell had been fascinated by Native American culture and folklore. He later made it his life’s work to dissect the world’s myths, study their meaning and application to humanity, and bring his findings to the American public. What he had found was that the multitude of human stories all boiled down to one “monomyth”, which he called the “Hero’s Journey”.
Featuring clips from movies as diverse as The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix and the Harry Potter series, and making frequent reference to Arthurian and Hindu legends, the documentary sets out to show that every great story involves three elements: separation, initiation, and return. The first is the call to adventure, sometimes reluctantly accepted; the second, trials and tribulations, or slaying dragons; and finally, most importantly, the return of the hero to share his wisdom with others.
Campbell was an inspiration to many people, not least filmmaker George Lucas, who had decided he needed to ‘set standards, not show people the world the way it is’, after making the film American Graffiti. His subsequent research into folklore and mythology led him to read some of Campbell’s books and they inspired the final form of that magnificent hero’s journey for modern times, the epic Star Wars series.
So far, so good. But what about “follow your bliss”? It turns out that Campbell did not intend by the phrase, taken from sacred Hindu text The Upanishads, to encourage a hedonistic approach to life. In fact he allegedly commented in later life that he should have urged people to “follow their blisters” instead! His idea of “bliss” was doing what we love and are good at, and following the path laid out for us (by whom, he doesn’t specify.) Chungliang Al Huang, of the Living Tao Foundation, suggested in the documentary that ‘bliss’ can be attained in the midst of the most ordinary life, doing ordinary things; we don’t need to do anything “high and mighty” to attain it.
Joseph Campbell was by all accounts exemplary in his personal life: faithfully married to one woman, extremely hard-working, other-centred, and not particularly interested in money and the accumulation thereof. However, I do have reservations about his philosophy. Campbell held and propagated a few ideas which have no doubt contributed to the moral confusion carried over in shedloads from his century to ours.
For example, Campbell taught that the experience of being alive is more important than the search for the meaning of life. This concept, presented at the very beginning of the documentary, is one that is central to the New Age movement, and is essentially hostile to organized religions of the monotheistic variety and their many adherents. More fundamentally – because it affects everyone, religious or not – it discourages the establishment of absolute moral values, which are essential for a society to thrive.
Campbell, a lapsed Catholic, was greatly influenced by Hindu thought, and his teachings hinge upon the Eastern concept of the duality, or co-dependency, of good and evil. He criticized Judaeo-Christian religious tradition and believed that “surrendering” to such fundamentalisms, as he saw it, was opposed to taking personal responsibility. Presumably it was in this connection that he dismissed the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, as having little value; otherwise the two would surely have been kindred souls. (Presumably also Lucas’ overarching theme of good versus evil in Star Wars would not have met with Campbell’s approval either.)
The wholesale transplanting of ideas from the great Eastern religions onto our own very different culture, a popular pastime of the 20th century, seems to me about as helpful as donating a bodily organ to an incompatible recipient. Many so-called New Age thinkers unwittingly transform the subtlety and beauty of Eastern thought into an excuse for licence and lawlessness in the West. Indeed these thinkers often deeply distrust authority – a concept most Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, by contrast, seem to have no problem with.
Campbell spoke of the mythical dragon, the most fearsome creature ever invented, as having “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” written on every scale. In his philosophy the “shoulds” are the only real evil in the hero’s life. (This seems to present a logical inconsistency – how, in Campbell’s system, can anything be absolutely bad, even an “I should” or a “thou shalt not”?)
That apart, Campbell’s teaching seems on the whole to have more in common with the “preparation-meets-opportunity” success philosophies of the 20th century – think Jim Rohn or Anthony Robbins – than with the more self-centred and mystical of New Age beliefs. Finding Joe is not about Joe sitting on his assets, waiting for enlightenment. It is a story of hard graft, moving forward despite fear, and turning a deaf ear to naysayers. If taken wisely and sparingly, it could do you, me and the average Joe a lot of good. At the very least, we will learn a little more about what unites human beings to people of other, very different cultures – never a bad thing.
Sue Alexander-Barnes writes from Sheffield, in the UK.