Joseph Campbell's antisemitism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 25 12:12:07 MST 2002

The Washington Post, November 24, 1991, Sunday, Final Edition

Godfather of the New Age

A FIRE IN THE MIND The Life of Joseph Campbell
By Stephen and Robin Larsen Doubleday. 618 pp. $ 30

By Martin Gardner

ALTHOUGH NEW AGERS embraced Joseph John Campbell decades ago, it was not
until after his death in 1987 that Bill Moyers's six television interviews
turned him into a public superstar. His books on comparative mythology
weigh down the New Age shelves at Walden and B. Dalton. Critical studies of
his work are burgeoning, and now two ardent acolytes have produced a
massive hagiography. The authors, Stephen and Robin Larsen, operate a
growth potential institute on their farm near New Paltz, N.Y. Stephen, who
teaches psychology at nearby Ulster County Community College, has written
two previous books about myths, and Robin has edited a biography and
anthology of the Swedish spiritualist and trance channeler Emmanuel
Swedenborg. Stephen is also a student of Zen, Yoga and karate, and has a
private practice as a psychotherapist. Drawing heavily on Campbell's
voluminous diaries and journals, and interviews with his wife and friends,
the Larsens have written a comprehensive life of their mentor that will
tell you almost everything you want to know.

Six feet tall, handsome, blue-eyed, Campbell played guard on the Dartmouth
football team and captained the track team at Columbia, where he obtained
his master's degree. A jazz buff, he played the piano and ukelele, and blew
saxophone in dance bands. After several passionate romances, failed efforts
to sell fiction (his early stories and one novel have not survived), and
much wandering about the globe, Campbell settled down at Sarah Lawrence
College, in Bronxville, N.Y., where he taught literature for 38 years. Most
of his students idolized him. When he married one -- Jean Erdman, who
became a professional dancer -- the girls lowered the campus flag to half


Campbell's often repeated advice, "follow your bliss," is equivalent to the
New Age "do your own thing, or "create your own reality." (How about a
person, critics asked, whose bliss is to rape little children?) Yet in
spite of his close associations with theosophists and New Agers, Campbell's
basic metaphysical convictions remain hidden. When Bill Moyers asked if he
believed in reincarnation, Campbell side-stepped by saying he believed in
the metaphor of reincarnation. It is this mushiness that turns so many
people off. We don't need myths to remind us that life is a quest or that
we battle dragons. There is nothing "spiritual" about mythology unless it
points toward transcendence. As far as we can learn from A Fire in the
Mind, Campbell's mythic fires point to nothing beyond experience. It is
surprising that he seems not to have admired George Santayana, the
ex-Catholic myth-admiring atheist of whom it was said that he didn't
believe in God, but did believe that Mary was God's mother.

Campbell's darkest side was his antisemitism, forcefully detailed by
Brendan Gill in the New York Review of Books (Sept. 28, 1989). The Larsens
dismiss it with a brief reference to "so-called bigotry." Campbell once
said he moved to Bronxville to escape from Jews, and that the moon would be
a good place to send them. He objected to blacks entering Sarah Lawrence.
He threatened to flunk, and once did, any student who engaged in leftist
political action.

Similarly, Campbell's hatred of President Roosevelt prompted him to say
there were three living Caesars: Hitler, Mussolini and FDR. A great admirer
of Thomas Mann, Campbell foolishly sent him a copy of a speech in which he
urged artists and writers not to take sides in the unfortunate conflict
between Hitler and Churchill. It drew a barbed response from Mann.
Campbell's political opinions, wrote Gill, were to the right of William
Buckley. "His glibness and his charisma," one of his students said in a
letter to the New York Review of Books, "were a mask that concealed a
narrow mind."

The Larsens have done a commendable job of assembling a thousand facts
about the life of their hero with many faces. A balanced portrait of
Campbell, covering his prejudices and inner beliefs is still to come.

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