Joseph Campbell & Anti-Semitism
The Politics of the Matter
by Maggie Macary, PhD.
December 28, 2004
I came across a rather famous anthropologist last night, and in our brief conversation, when he found out I was a mythologist, he mentioned Joseph Campbell and then added, "He was anti-Semitic you know." I was very taken aback by this pronouncement, not because I hadn't heard it before, but because it came from someone who was obviously very intelligent, well educated, and used to a certain level of academic discourse. I briefly responded. But the discourse bothered me.
Joe Campbell has been dead for over 20 years, and yet the idea of his anti-Semitism still seems to have some level of vitality. When I woke up this morning I began to think of this again. The first thing I wondered was, What is the definition of anti-Semitic? The OED defines this in very specific terms: hostility to or prejudice against Jews. For Campbell to have been anti-Semitic means that he would have exhibited personal hostility toward Jews (not toward the Jewish religion per se).
Anti-Semitism has nothing to do with religion, or even politics for that matter—it is a racist position, hatred against another because of race. So, I went to the AntiDefamation League's Website, whose history states "For 90 years, ADL has been combating anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds". I figured if Joseph Campbell and his work were anti-Semitic, then surely the ADL would know about it. I did a search on Joseph Campbell. Nope, nothing, no mention of his name, no mention of his works.
So, where did this idea of Campbell's anti-Semitism come from? Its source is an article published in the New York Review of Books by famed critic and columnist for The New Yorker Magazine, Brendan Gill. Written two years after Campbell's death and a year after the airing of the Bill Moyer’s' Power of Myth series on PBS, Gill complained about Campbell's reactionary attitude, an attitude that was anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-feminist. In the liberal environment of Sarah Lawrence college (a very liberal woman's college with a heavy Jewish enrollment), Campbell was considered very far right. Gill writes, "So far was Campbell from applying the wisdom of the ages to the social, political, and sexual turbulence that he found himself increasingly surrounded by that he might have been a member of the Republican party, somewhere to the right of William F. Buckley. He embodied a paradox that I was never able to resolve in his lifetime and that I have been striving to resolve ever since: the savant as reactionary. "
The evidence of Gill's opinion of Campbell was anecdotal and contained a lot of hearsay, as did the firestorm that followed.
There is always some truth hidden in such controversies—truths that seem to surface from time to time even twenty years later. So, over the next few days (because I'm already finding this topic is too large for one blog) I'm going to explore the roots of the allegations against Campbell. I'm using as a primary reference, a very well done book by Robert Ellswood, The Politics of Myth. Listen, I know this isn't scholarly to do, but this blog isn't meant to present scholarly papers and I like Ellswood's book and have had the opportunity to hear him lecture and to ask him questions. I think it's a fair and balanced presentation.
Campbell belonged to a privileged class, there is no doubt about it. He grew up Roman Catholic in a very upper-middle-class family, where access to art and music were pretty much taken for granted. He was handsome and athletic and moved easily in social circles. In 1924, on a boat trip to Europe, he met Krishnamurti and became engrossed in Eastern religions, eventually discarding Catholicism and all religious attachments, and especially rejecting any idea of dependence on external authorities. Individualism was, for Campbell, the essential basis of the Hero's myth.
Campbell spent two years in Europe, studying Grail legends in preparation for his PhD. At that time, he grew to love German culture and became deeply involved with the work of such German scholars as Oswald Spengler, Adolf Bastian, Leo Frobenius, and of course Schopenhauer, Kant, and Nietzsche. His first reactions to Nazism, like those of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade, who were also tainted with accusations of anti-Semitism, was enthusiastic. Nazism had also adopted many of the philosophical notions of the German romantic scholars, and for one who was interested in myths, this apparent revival of the mythological heroes of Germanic lore seemed revelatory.
After giving a lecture on "Permanent Human Values" at Sarah Lawrence in 1940, in which Campbell equated the democracies and their totalitarian adversaries and advocated that the United States stay out of WWII, he was repudiated by Thomas Mann. Ultimately, Campbell came to see that Fascism, like the dreaded Communism, was no friend of the individual, but not after he had established himself as a rather obstinate pacifist during World War II. Ellswood writes, "It would be unjust to say Campbell was then or ever pro-Nazi or pro-fascist; he several times expresses his distaste for the crudeness, brutality, and anti-Semitism of Germany's present masters. But against all that, he put his freely admitted love for Germany as a country and a culture, and also the passion of hatreds closer to home. Unfortunately, it was perhaps his yearning for transcendent, mythical purity of thought, together with a lack of such actual experience as Mann had had, that kept him from willingness to admit a degree of proportionality in the poltical evils of the world, or any absolute moral obligation to oppose as well as transcend the worst of them."
Throughout the '50's and 60's, Campbell found himself fervently anti-political, so much so that he ran afoul of his more left-oriented colleagues (he was in favor of the Vietnam War and continued to be staunchly anti-communist). He even supported Richard Nixon. In the 80's, his Republicanism began to waver because of the Republican party's attachment to Christian fundamentalism, to its anti-choice position, and to its stand on the environment.
In other words, Campbell's political views were complex and seemingly contradictory, as most complex thought tends to be.
One of the reasons I'm bringing all this up right now is not to denigrate Joe Campbell. His work influenced me as it has influenced many people and frankly, I wouldn't have begun a study of mythology if it weren't for him. But he was a complex man, and his ideas can't simply be reduced to a pop-phrase or a simplistic accusation. Nor can he be elevated to heroic status.
Tomorrow, I'm going to take a brief look at Campbell's true aversion—it wasn't to Jews, but rather to Yahweh and the Yahwehist religions that elevated a tribal god to a universal deity.