The Joseph Campbell Interview
A Large Regular was lucky enough to get a few minutes of time from Joseph Campbell the world renown expert in comparative mythology who has recently shown a great interest in American politics.
ALR: First off thank you for your time and secondly - how should I address you? Is it Dr. Campbell? Professor Campbell?
JC: Just call me Joe. And thank you for giving me the opportunity and platform to make these observations on current American politics. Its funny but while I was alive - I had no real interest in politics but since I've been dead I've found politics to be great fun.
ALR: Great fun? How so?
JC: Well with my background in comparative mythology I tend to look at things a little bit different than most people. For instance I cannot help but think modern American politics is some sort of manifestation of the Nigerian trickster god Edshu.
ALR: I'm sorry but could you explain that for me.
JC: Sure Chris. The Nigerian god Edshu is a trickster god whose greatest joy is to spread strife. The most famous story about Edshu is about him walking down the road one day wearing a hat that is colored red on one side and blue on the other side. When the farmers in the fields go into the village in the evening, the farmers from one side of the road say, "Did you see that god with the blue hat?" And the others from the other side of the road say, "No, no, he had a red hat on." And they get into a fight. Edshu makes it even worse by first walking in one direction and then turning around and turning his hat around, too, so that again it will be red or blue. This is just like American politics today even down to the colors red and blue. Take any politician and the description of them depends alomost entirely on whether the person sees a red hat (Republican) or a blue hat (Democrat). So the people who see a red hat look at George Bush, for example, one way and the people who see a blue hat see a completely different George Bush. Same is true for almost every major politician from either side. It's just like the type of joke Edshu would pull.
ALR: You wrote extensively about mythology in regards to the hero's journey. Do you see anyone in politics today who could be a hero in the mythological sense?
JC: No - not really. You see politics and being a hero don't go hand in hand. Most people go into politics not just to be part of the crowd but to lead the crowd. The hero's journey, however, is a lonely journey. James Joyce once wrote, "I do not fear to be alone. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too." Politicians fear making mistakes especially when they think they will cost them votes. A politician unafraid to make a mistake would never look at a poll and we all know that all politicians look at polls.
ALR: But don't some political figures reach mythic hero status? I'm thinking in particular of John Kennedy.
JC: You are confusing being famous with being a mythic hero. Al Jolson was perhaps the most famous man in America in the 20's. Muhammad Ali was at one point the most famous person in the world. Now most people don't know Al Jolson and Muhammad Ali will fade from most people's memories after he's gone. John Kennedy is an interesting example because he's widely mythologized today but in reality he was no George Washington, no Ghandi or even Martin Luther King Jr. who was his contemporary. Kennedy is remembered mostly for being young and handsome and people then wrap whatever else they want around that. He's the political James Dean.
ALR: Can you explain that a little more.
JC: Sure Chris. Kennedy will always be historically famous because he was a president and he was assassinated. James Garfield was young, handsome and an American President who was assassinated just like Kennedy but nobody remembers Garfield the way they remember Kennedy. And it is not just because Kennedy is still fresh in the memory or because Kennedy had the advantage of TV and advanced photography. Kennedy will be remembered fondly because people can assign their beliefs to him. For instance many people remember Kennedy as a civil rights crusader but the truth is that he was afraid to push the envelope out of fear of alienating his Southern base. It was Lyndon Johnson who passed the Civil Rights Act but most people think it was Kennedy. Vietnam became a huge military struggle under Kennedy but most Kennedy apologists believe that if Kennedy had a full second term that he would have gotten us out of Vietnam when there really is no basis in fact for those beliefs. Probably the biggest myth about Kennedy deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy staring down the Soviets. The truth is Kennedy caved to the Soviets and agreed never to do anything about Cuba militarily which was a huge victory for the USSR yet a book and a couple of movies have been put out showing Kennedy to be the hero. To be a true mythic hero - the truth must underpin the actions. With Kennedy that just isn't there.
ALR: Why is the common perception often so wrong when the truth is available to see?
JC: I am reminded of the great line from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The director of the movie is telling us the truth and in essence telling us not to trust the printed word. This in a way brings us full circle back to Edshu. People in the press print their version of the truth based upon whether they are seeing a red hat or a blue hat. There is some truth in what they print but for the truth you must seek out the man who is walking towards Edshu who can see that his hat is both red and blue. Unfortunately that person often is shouted down by the red-hatters on the right side of the aisle and the blue-hatters on the left side. That's why even with all the great technology of today we still get so much legend and so little fact.
ALR: I really like the idea of a trickster god messing with US politics.
JC: How else can you explain Nancy Pelosi and Trent Lott if not by the hand of some god with a sense of humor?
ALR: Thank you so much for your time.
JC: My pleasure entirely.