In praise of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth

Earlier this week I got a chance to watch again the first installment of interviews between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth was originally shown on PBS in 1988, airing shortly after Campbell’s death. I was bowled over by the series once again, which is basically six hours of two men talking in a drawing room. When I tried to explain the power of these dialogues to a friend, I realized that the world is divided into two types: Those who loved My Dinner With Andre, and those who ran from it screaming. (Unsure about the last reference? Read on).  

Moyers was the perfect student at the feet of this masterful teacher, and learns along with us what makes us human. Campbell illustrates his many points with stories — stories about the hero’s journey, for instance.  Have you ever wondered why popular storytellers, from the time of Homer on to J.K. Rowling, seem to tell essentially the same story about an “ordinary” person called to take on an extraordinary task? This hero always seems to face annihilation in the service of something greater than himself. Why is this such a compelling story for every society on this planet? Campell begins his answer with this truism: “Storytellers choose stories worth telling.”

He proceeds in these interviews to give vivid examples of myths from around the world. They make it clear that this is a timeless trope is coded into our very DNA.  The hero’s journey is in a very real way the path we all take whenever we refrain from hitting the snooze button and sleepily get dressed for work.  My Dinner with Andre was a film about two men talking over a meal. It was directed by Louis Malle, ostensibly documenting conversations about life between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, played by themselves. Those who watched the film with an open mind and a curious spirit were rewarded with something that in many ways transcended film. For these people, My Dinner With Andre was enriching and exciting. On the other hand, for those repelled by the idea of nothing more than “two guys talking,” it was a deadly bore.

If the latter group saw this film in a theater, they may have hightailed it out of there as soon as they realized what they were in for. I imagine some of them fleeing to a neighboring cinema to catch the latest blockbuster of the time, Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. At that film, they would have thrilled to the story — of a man who became superhuman at great personal sacrifice. Nearly 30 years later, these people would have also wept at the heroics of actor Reeve, and his battle with, and eventual death from, paralysis and its complications.

They would have been held in sway by the reverberating story of the human struggle over adversity for something bigger than themselves. And because they would never bring themselves to ever again watch hours of two guys talking, they would not fully understand this myth’s power to move them.

If you can, do rent The Power of Myth.