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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Sunday, March 5

say it ain't so, joe

Every once in a while I come across a statement like this one from The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America (p. 183):
Particularly important for students of literature was the so-called myth-and-symbol school -- a method that, although akin to the mythological criticism of a Frye or (the overtly anti-Semitic) Joseph Campbell, sought to ground myths in specific cultural determinants and social facts.
Or one I've already quoted (in The Jung-Eliade School) from Harry Oldmeadow's Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions (p. 375):
Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and Georges Dumézil, the doyen of Indo-European studies, were also anti-Semitic and were susceptible to the anti-modern appeal of extreme right wing political ideologies.
Then today I read an article in The New York Review of Books (Volume 36, Number 14, September 28, 1989, to be exact) called The Faces of Joseph Campbell (subscription or payment required), where author Brendan Gill says...
Campbell's bigotry had another distressing aspect, which was a seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism. By the time I came to know him, he had learned to conceal its grosser manifestations, but there can be no doubt that it existed and that it tainted not only the man himself but the quality of his scholarship.
Gill's overall argument is rather speculative -- ending up as it does linking Campbell's famous "follow your bliss" trope to the principled (in a manner of speaking) narcissism of Ayn Rand. And, like the other two sources quoted above, the article really doesn't supply much in the way of evidence for Campbell's alleged antisemitism.

There are various possible reasons for this: 1) he wasn't, in fact, antisemitic; 2) he was antisemitic, but was careful never to record the fact; 3) everyone who knew him knew he was antisemitic and didn't feel the need to document what was common knowledge; 4) those who knew him and loved his trip went to great lengths to remove any such embarrassing proof from his writings and recorded talks; and 5) I haven't dug deeply enough.

I discount 1 entirely, and strongly suspect some combination of 2-5.

While Gill's NYRB article supplied no proof, the letters were revealing. Following are two clips from the responses that were published several weeks later (in Volume 36, Number 17 November 9, 1989, to be exact). Here's the first letter (as Dorothy might say if he'd eaten it) in toto:

To the Editors:

My reaction to Brendan Gill's "The Faces of Joseph Campbell" was: So, I'm not the only one who saw the chinks in the hero's armor.

In the early 1970s, I worked with Joe Campbell on his Mythic Image at Princeton University Press. It was amazing to me that this man of cosmic vision could harbor such meanspirited and seemingly unexamined biases against much of humankind. In addition to anti-Semitism, I remember in particular his vexation over blacks' being admitted to Sarah Lawrence.

That Joe Campbell has become a public hero is astonishing. His glibness and his charisma were a mask that concealed a narrow mind.

Carol Wallace Orr, Director
The University of Tennessee Press
Knoxville, Tennessee

In his wrap-up rebuttal to a number of staunch (and shocked, simply shocked) Campbell defenders, Gill adds this...
A correspondent, Carol Luther of San Anselmo, California, writes to say that she once attended a lecture in which Campbell recounted what he called a popular Indian fable (a favorite of Campbell's in old age), the gist of which was that we are not all mere mild grass-eating goats but, instead, are blood-thirsty, carnivorous tigers, who do well to prey upon whatever lower species of animal makes up our natural diet. When she heard Campbell tell this story, my correspondent was so upset by its ethical implications that, she writes, "I rose shaking from my chair and shouted, 'What about the six million who were gassed during World War II?' In response, Mr. Campbell simply shrugged and said 'That's your problem.'"
Not proof positive, no, but we're getting there. For my own part, when I hear the name Joseph Campbell, I reach for my revolver.



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