Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell).
In March, 2016 The Joseph Campbell Foundation rereleased Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce, a sort of Frankenstein's monster of literary criticism consisting of Campbell's lectures, notes, essays, and interviews concerning the work of that megalith of Modernism, James Joyce. Revisiting Campbell's mythic, universalist, and psychoanalytic take on Joyce could breathe fresh air into teaching and writing about Joyce, bogged down as Joyce criticism now is in mining historical minutiae for its influence on Joyce's work; on the other hand, Campbell's general disregard for the fact that Joyce was a man existing in a time and place rather than an ethereal dialogue of spiritual ideals limits his critical insight.
Much of Campbell's thought on Joyce can be derived from the text's introduction where Campbell argues that "in our tradition [...] mythological images have lost their relationships to affects and are interpreted in terms of rational devaluations" (3). According to Campbell this dissociation "result[s in] a split self-image, which is the beginning of schizophrenia" (6). To Campbell, Joyce's Stephen Dedalus represents this modern schizophrenia in his works A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Campbell also argues that Joyce's works, both individually and collectively, take the form of a journey towards a unification of mythic image and affect. Campbell charts this journey by equating each of Joyce's works to Dante's, starting with comparing Vita Nuova to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and claiming that Joyce died before he could complete his literary journey towards mythic wholeness in what would have been his Paradiso (14-15).
In its essence, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words forwards a fascinating thesis that it defends through a close engagement with Joyce's texts and gives Campbell the opportunity to show off his standing as a cultural polymath, drawing wide ranging connections between world mythological systems and modern psychology; that is to say, for the most part, it is good literary criticism. A prime example is Campbell's detailed reading of the "Proteus" episode from Ulysses, in which Campbell often breaks down whole paragraphs to be interpreted word by word, charting out allusions to Schopenhauer and Shakespeare, Catholic doctrine and Irish myth. In fact, it is in his ability to guide readers through Joyce's dense allusions that Campbell shows his greatest strength as a Joyce scholar. A new reader approaching Joyce could do much worse than to look towards Campbell's work to break through Joyce's often opaque form to better understand the nuanced intertextuality of Joyce's books.
On the other hand, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words does suffer from some fairly noteworthy shortcomings. Campbell seems happy simply to provide a summary of the events that make up large portions of Ulysses rather than offering any significant interpretation. If one follows the section of the book devoted to Ulysses closely, it quickly becomes apparent that, while Campbell writes with liberty of Stephen Dedalus, when it comes to Leopold Bloom he is in fetters. Campbell's sections on episodes like "Aeolus" and "Hades" (episodes primarily concerned with Bloom) are often no more than a few pages in length and consist primarily of large chunks of direct quotes from the text, with the occasional explanatory or transitional phrase provided by Campbell. This stands in stark contrast to Campbell's discussions of "Scylla and Charybdis" or "The Oxen of the Sun" (episodes heavily focused on Dedalus), in which Campbell provides detailed interpretative analysis.
It is Campbell's unwillingness to fully engage with the significance of Leopold Bloom that reveals his greatest shortcoming as a Joyce scholar. The intellectual and esoteric Stephen Dedalus, with his stream of consciousness musings on Catholic doctrine and philosophy, is an easy target for Campbell in his hunt for Jungian archetypes. However, the eminently mundane Bloom is, in many ways, an analog for the many things Campbell fails to see in Joyce's work. The simple realities related to Joyce's background among the middle class Catholic Irish at the beginning of the 20th century largely go ignored. This is clearly demonstrated in Campbell's willingness to take Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic theory in A Portrait at face value as Joyce's own, laying the groundwork for a less "Irish" interpretation of Joyce.
Even if recent Joyce scholarship had not taken the turn of reading A Portrait as an at least partially satirical takedown of Joyce's earlier, more serious effort in Stephen Hero, Campbell's decision to take Dedalus' classical aesthetic theory as Joyce's earnest instruction for reading his texts breaks down even as one considers what Campbell himself has to say. While Campbell argues that Joyce views "art in the service of something else" or "art [that is] critical of society" as "improper art" (20-21), Campbell is quick to observe the critique of Irish Nationalism that Joyce forwards in the "Cyclops" episode's character "the citizen" (109); however, Campbell's emphasis on Joyce as an apolitical figure allows him to move past any significant close reading of the character. The reclamation of Joyce as a writer motivated by societal concerns as well as aesthetic has been one of the great successes of more recent Joyce scholars such as Vincent Cheng and Emer Nolan, and Campbell's somewhat inconsistent attempts to pass over Joyce's more political motivations do a disservice to a comprehensive reading of the author's works. This is also particularly well represented in Campbell's decision to entirely ignore the most overtly "social" of Joyce's books, Dubliners.
Mythic Worlds, Modern Words is most certainly a product of its times. When Campbell was first producing the essays and lectures that make up the text, Joyce's work was still a new frontier for literary critics to try out their interpretations, and Campbell's work is a great example of a fruitful first expedition. As such, it is still of great value to both new students approaching Joyce looking to learn the lay of the land and to scholars looking to be reminded of the raw joy of discovery Joyce's puzzling works provide. That stated, much of the territory of Joyce has been remapped over the years and the importance of Joyce's societal environment has been recovered from the blank spaces on Campbell's map and must also be given its proper due in an approach to James Joyce's oeuvre.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2016|
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