I want to explore the connection between Joseph Campbell and Jacques Lacan. They both explore a symbolic (a necessarily symbolic) order that civilized society follows. I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts yet, but I see this intermixing, and I think Campbell and Lacan can be put together with one informing the other. Campbell deals with myths, and Lacan deals with the story we tell ourselves, that are ultimately myths, too.

This is not the edition I am reading but couldn't find a picture otherwise

Campbell states that myths serve four basic functions:

1) Mystical: myths open up a mystical dimension; that is to say, behind the surface world, there is a mystical source for that world. I see this as, we see the sun rise and fall, so we come up with a mystical explanation, such as, some god is riding a chariot across the sky.

2) Cosmological: is our image of the world—how we perceive the world—which changes with from time to time (mostly because of science). The best example of this is the Copernicain revolution; we had thought the cosmos was ordered with the earth in the middle, and later we learned that it was the sun in the middle of our universe, and then later we learned that our universe isn’t even the center of the universe, etc…

3) Sociological: Myths are used to validate and maintain social order. This is seen in the mystical stories we tell ourselves, I believe. For instance, we have the story of Adam and Eve to not only describe how human beings ended up on earth, it is also a tale that tells us that we should obey a supreme being and not fall into vanity; therefore, the creation story serves the mystical purpose of explaining what is behind the surface, it also maintains order by telling us to obey the Big Other watching us.

4) Pedagogical: Myths are used for instruction, to teach society and guide individuals through life.

Myths then give society order, and, Campbell claims, that when myths break down, morals break down. Science has proven that the world is more than 6,000 years old, besides whatever Arkansas wants to say, so the power of the creation story and its functions breakdown, meaning that society breaks down, in Campbell’s words:

“With the loss of them [symbols/myths] there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold on to, no moral law, nothing firm” (Campbell 10).

But of course we need these lies (symbols—and I would argue that they are not lies in a traditional since, but rather, an opiate to help calm society. If a mad man sees an elephant in the room, that is a very real elephant to him, so could it really be termed a “lie”? I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, and there was never a tension (not overtly) between learning about Adam and Eve and learning science proper. To say that myths (stories) are a lie, is to say that they serve no function besides merely pulling the wool over our eyes. And that might be the case for some; that is why Socrates says that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”)

Campbell goes on to explain this how we need these lies saying:

“…lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenges of a truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few” (11).

Now Campbell goes on to say how psychology and the scientific study of where myths come from are what must be pursued, but I think Lacan is the way to go.

The functions of myth sound much like the Lacianian triad: Symbolic—imaginary—Real:

First, there is the Mystical aspect of myths, which corresponds to the Imaginary order, which is our image of the world. An example of this order is given by Zizek when he relates the triad to a game of chess: “Imaginary…namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game in with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which the figures would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever (Zizek 8).

Secondly, the way we maintain social order (the Sociological) corresponds to Lacan’s Symbolic order. The Symbolic order is the rules we follow in order to play the game. The Big Other operates on this level and always watches us so that we follow the rules; just as the sociological function of myths gives us rules that we must follow.

Thirdly, Lacan’s Real corresponds to the Cosmological (the world we see that changes over time). The Real is, within this triad, everything else, such as a player’s intelligence, and forces we might have trouble foreseeing. The intrusion of reality into the triad, and one can see how we have set up a cosmological real (reality before Copernicus that saw the world as the center of the universe), but then has that “Real” change when science (the Real again intrudes), and shows us a new reality.

The Pedagogical aspect of Campbell, I believe, is the interaction (an interaction that takes place within Lacan) of the triad and the way each Lacanian aspect plays off each other.

There is something here between the breakdown of myths and the way society follows the Big Other (and I understand I am making a bit of a jump here witout explaining, but since so few people follow this and read it at all, I just need to write this all down before I forget). Myths only hold power, give society its moral grounding, in so far was society believes myths and allows myths to do so, just like the power of the Big Other:

“In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presuppostion. It exist only in so far as subjects act as if it exists.”

And later:

“…so this [big Other, and I would argue myths and symbols] substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly’ (Zizek emphasis in original 10).

I believe there is an interaction within these two thoughts that can inform each other, and I will be exploring these thoughts in my readings. I want to end this now because I just got Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and I am excited to read it. Lacan says that the mad man, the psychopath is the one who does not follow the rules imposed by this Symbolic power of the Big Other, and Campbell says that there are mental illnesses from a loss of myths, so I want to see how this history of madness can further inform these readings of Campbell and Lacan.

Til my next fragmented thoughts come to light and intrude my thoughts like an invasion of the Real…

Post to come: on different types of melancholy, on the relation between death and heart break and how they relate to waiting and Heidegger’s present-at-hand…


I just finished reading Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness.” It has been about ten years now that I have been interested in Eastern philosophy and thought: Buddhism, Taoism, Hindu thought, etc.. Within that, I have also been interested in psychology, and if it weren’t for the math and stats, I might have studied psychology instead of English.

De Mello’s book does a great job of mixing Eastern thought, Christian thought, psychology, and philosophy into this book (which took me so long to read because I was worried it was a little too “self-help”).

The book says nothing new, but for me, it is always good to be reminded of simple things I always forget. I tend to mix the “I” and the “me” as De Mello would put it. De Mello tells us that we need to be awakened– and this idea is a common one: most Eastern religions discuss samsara, delusion, being asleep, and that enlightenment, nirvana, God, is awakening to reality. This idea is repeated here.

The thing that we need to be awakened to is that we are attached to our delusions about life. How many of us always say, “I’ll be happy when….” But the condition (the when) comes, and then we are happy for a short period of time only to fall into unhappiness again. The first step, therefore, is to realize that we are our own obstacle to our happiness. That the idea of happiness is all in our head (“nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”).

What is continually repeated throughout the book is:
1) We must make the distinction between the “I” and the “me”– things do not happen to “me,” they happen to the ego, the I. The “I” is not depressed, the “I” is not happy, the “I’ is not anything, but we use this language that confuses us: “I am sad,” “I am happy,” but YOU are NOT “DEPRESSED”- you just are and that feeling will pass. Your emotions do not make up who you are.

De Mello says, “Problems exist only in the human mind” (80). Because we identify with our feelings. Because we try to change other people and depend on others for our happiness, and because we don’t even realize that we do these things.

2) Language is there for communication but is imperfect and leads to delusions. When we use language we categorize things, create concepts about things, talk about life imperfectly. This is an interesting point that goes along with the postmodern philosophy I have been reading. This idea also greatly reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas, who talks about totalizing language. It is also a point that Derrida makes: once we speak, there is distance, the trace permeates all our definitions; furthermore, once we put things into language, we bring in all our preconceived notions about the thing we are speaking and putting into words.

De Mello gives a great example here:

Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless

Then he repeats the example a Hindu priest gave:

The ass that you mount and tha tyou use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. you use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it” (123).

I would say that many of the other things that De Mello talks about in this book stem from this concept about language. Since language is a social, culturally shared thing, then all the other things we are attached to stem from using language in society. It is society that tell me that I have to succeed, get a pretty wife, have kids, have a good career, when in reality all you have to do is live, which brings me to number three:

3) Much like Taosim (and Buddhism to the extent that Buddhism uses Taoist beliefs), De Mello reminds us that life just is. WIth in that, the goal of life is just to live and go with the flow as he says, “Eternal life is now. We’re surrounded by it, like fish in the ocean, but we have no notion about it at all” (137).

His prescription of detachment (which isn’t really a prescription to do anything), so to detach from everything. This means from other people, from social constructions and concepts, from even religion and God. You do not need God, religion, or other people to be happy; in fact, these things just foster attachment, which leads to disappointment and unawareness.

The only thing to do is as the Buddhist say: unlearn something everyday. Lose your notions of what you think is going to make you happy and save you. De Mello, though, doesn’t give you any kind of real “method” to do this because a method would be just another part of the trap of society (I can’t help but to think of Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Invisible Monsters while reading this stuff. De Mello, like Tryler, suggest that once you get sick of being disappointed by people (because you depend on them for your happiness) then you will be able to be free without attachments. De Mello, like Brandy Alexander, lets us know that any way you can think of to escape the “trap” is part of the trap because we are so conditioned by society).

De Mello’s approach takes on a rather non-totalizing, psychological approach. There is no hope for change unless it comes from within and from an awakening/awareness. Rather than say ‘this is what you must do,’ De Mello suggest a couple of things that will help you wake up, such as, being aware of where your feelings are coming from, try to see the world from other’s perspective, realize that you are attached to wanting praise, acceptance, etc.

I feel my problem is that I am attached to wanting un-attachment. I am too concerned with wanting to “get it” with wanting to “wake up” that it gets in the way of being able to reach any kind of enlightenment. I am also selfish in my love– I want the other to want me and need me, which makes me want and need the other. But I am too attached to wanting to not want the other… It is a big mess really. But De Mello also lets us know that there is nothing you can “do.” You can only live and try to be aware of life– it reminds me of Tich Nhat Hahn’s idea of mindfulness. So… I guess I’ll stop doing…