The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 5, Joseph Campbell
This is the latest in a series exploring the inner journey into the underworld of the psyche. My inspiration is a fascination with Carl Jung’s so-called ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ as described in his Red Book, and also in a summarised, sanitised version in one chapter of Memories, Dreams, Reflections. As I’ve noted in earlier articles, some commentators have described this period as madness, a psychosis, or a ‘creative illness’. Others have suggested that Jung was certifiably schizophrenic. Jung himself, however, said that this inner journey was highly significant for his inner development, and the inspiration for the remainder of his life’s work.
That sets the scene perfectly for this new article about Joseph Campbell, almost certainly the greatest mythologist of all time, for chapter 10 of his Myths to Live By¹ is entitled ‘Schizophrenia — the Inward Journey’. He says there that, having read a paper by John Weir Perry, he learned that “the imagery of schizophrenic fantasy perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey”. (Perry contributed a chapter to Spiritual Emergency by Stanislav and Christina Grof, which was the subject of the previous article.)
Prior to that. Campbell’s work had been a comparative study of the mythologies of humanity, an organization of themes and motifs common to all mythologies. He “had had no idea, in bringing these together, of the extent to which they would correspond to the fantasies of madness. According to my thinking, they were the universal, archetypal, psychologically based symbolic themes and motifs of all traditional mythologies; and now from this paper of Dr. Perry I was learning that the same symbolic figures arise spontaneously from the broken-off, tortured state of mind of modern individuals suffering from a complete schizophrenic breakdown”.
Campbell elaborates on these comparisons, and then summarises: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men”. (A perfect description of Jung’s inner journey, perhaps.)
Like R. D. Laing (as discussed in this previous article), “Perry thought that in certain cases the best thing to do was to let the process run its course, not to abort the psychosis by administering shock treatments and the like, but, on the contrary, to help the process of disintegration and reintegration along”. To be able to do this, doctors must understand the image language of mythology. They have to “understand what the fragmentary signs and signals signify (that their patients), totally out of touch with rationally oriented manners of thought and communication, are trying to bring forth in order to establish some kind of contact. Interpreted from this point of view, a schizophrenic breakdown is an inward and backward journey to recover something missed or lost, and to restore, thereby, a vital balance”.
Later in the chapter Campbell says that, following a collaboration with Dr. Mortimer Ostow, he learned that “the LSD retreat and inward plunge can be compared to an essential schizophrenia”. “The LSD phenomenon is an intentionally achieved schizophrenia, with the expectation of a spontaneous remission”. He has therefore come to the same conclusion as me in the previous article, that LSD sessions can give controlled access to this subliminal world of images and archetypal figures, since people return to the everyday world at the end of the sessions.
Campbell says that the waters into which the schizophrenic is plunged are “the waters of the universal archetypes of mythology”. Unsurprisingly, he says that “the psychologist who has best dealt with these, best described and best interpreted them, is Carl G. Jung, who terms them ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious’ ”.
Later he describes what he calls the wonders of this schizophrenic plunge. It begins with a sense of splitting: “The person sees the world going in two: one part of it moving away; himself in the other part. This is the beginning of the regressus, the crack-off and backward flow”. Inside “he is the hero chosen for a destiny”.
The second stage is “a terrific drop-off and regression, backward in time and biologically as well. Falling back into his own past, the psychotic becomes an infant, a foetus in the womb. One has the frightening experience of slipping back to animal consciousness, into animal forms, sub-animal forms, even plantlike”. (Stanislav Grof reports that such experiences are common in LSD sessions.)
“In the course of a schizophrenic retreat, the psychotic too may come to know the exaltation of a union with the universe, transcending personal bounds… Feelings arise then, too, of a new knowledge. Things that before had been mysterious are now fully understood. Ineffable realizations are experienced… I have now read dozens of accounts; and they correspond, often amazingly, to the insights of the mystics and to the images of Hindu, Buddhist, Egyptian, and classical myth… Our schizophrenic patient is actually experiencing inadvertently that same beatific ocean deep which the yogi and saint are ever striving to enjoy: except that, whereas they are swimming in it, he is drowning”. (Campbell has reached the same conclusion here as R. D. Laing, as discussed earlier in the series. He actually mentions Laing and the book that I was referencing.)
“There may come next… the sense of a terrific task ahead with dangers to be met and mastered; but also a presentiment of invisible helpful presences that may guide and help one through. These are the gods, the guardian daemons or angels: innate powers of the psyche, fit to meet and to master the torturing, swallowing, or shattering negative forces. And if one has the courage to press on, there will be experienced finally, in a terrible rapture, a culminating overwhelming crisis — or even a series of such culminations, more than can be borne”. No wonder this voyage is called the journey of the hero!
Campbell states categorically that “the clue to the method of the adventure, if one is ever to return home” is “not to identify one’s self with any of the figures or powers experienced (his italics). The Indian yogi, striving for release, identifies himself with the Light and never returns. But no one with a will to the service of others and of life would permit himself such an escape. The ultimate aim of the quest, if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others”. This sounds very much like what Jung himself achieved, and indeed the Buddhist concept of a Bodhisattva.
Campbell agrees with Laing and Perry that we need this journey for healing; it is not something we need to be cured of. He sums up: “The inward journeys of the mythological hero, the shaman, the mystic, and the schizophrenic are in principle the same; and when the return or remission occurs, it is experienced as a rebirth: the birth, that is to say, of a ‘twice-born’ ego, no longer bound in by its daylight-world horizon. It is now known to be but the reflex of a larger self, its proper function being to carry the energies of an archetypal instinct system into fruitful play in a contemporary space-time daylight situation”. (I wonder if such an experience was what Jesus was referring to in his conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, chapter 3.)
“The whole problem, it would seem, is somehow to go through it, even time and again, without shipwreck: the answer being not that one should not be permitted to go crazy (his italics); but that one should have been taught something already of the scenery to be entered and powers likely to be met, given a formula of some kind by which to recognize, subdue them, and incorporate their energies”. Jung, given his background in psychiatry and employment in a mental hospital, was obviously very well prepared.
Is not this hero’s journey into, and return from, the Underworld precisely what we need many people to undertake in modern times, in order to find solutions to the great problems facing the world? As Campbell says in another book: “There can be no question: the psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today (in so far as we are unbelievers, or, if believers, in so far as our inherited beliefs fail to represent the real problems of contemporary life) must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance. This is our problem as modern, ‘enlightened’ individuals, for whom all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence. Nevertheless, in the multitude of myths and legends that have been preserved to us, or collected from the ends of the earth, we may see delineated something of our still human course. To hear and profit, however, one may have to submit somehow to purgation and surrender. And that is part of our problem: just how to do that’ ”².
There is an urgent need to move beyond so-called ‘Enlightenment’ thinking, and rediscover the Ancient Wisdom of long ago, including its profound mythology.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.
1. Souvenir Press, 1973, reissued 1991
2. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pantheon Books, p104