I started reading Pathways to Bliss because it is Joseph Campbell who coined the phrase: “follow your bliss.” So, of course, one would find a map, a pathway to bliss here. After all, isn’t that what we are all after? Bliss?
Instead in chapter one, “The Necessity of Rites,” I am introduced to our modern “calamity.” He explains that because our current myths are not fulfilling all four primary functions of myth, we are floundering. The calamity needs to be addressed in order to know bliss.
Toward that end what follows is a summary of Campbell’s explanation of the four primary functions of myth. We can then know which functions our myths are not fulfilling and work on regaining function. When we live in the function, this is the path to follow.
However, before we can begin this enumeration, we must recognize that myth evolves out of our need to evade, avoid, deny the first law of existence. I quote at length because the poetry of his explanation carries the explanation.
Now, life lives on life. Its first law is, now I’ll eat you, now you eat me–quite something for consciousness to assimilate. This business of life living on life–on death–had been in process for billions of years before eyes opened and became aware of what was going on out there, long before Homo sapien’s appearance in the universe. The organs of life had evolved to depend on the death of others for their existence. These organs have impulses of which your consciousness isn’t even aware; when it becomes aware of them, you may become scared that this eat-or-be-eaten horror is what you are.
Myth functions to “reconcile consciousness” of this “horrendous presence,” this raw fact of life of which during our waking hours we prefer being unaware.
The four functions of myth are:
1. “To evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.”
2. “To present an image of the cosmos that will maintain your sense of mystical awe and explain everything that you come into contact with in the universe around you.”
3. “To validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of rights and wrongs, proprieties or improprieties, in which your particular social unit depends for its existence.”
4. “To carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death.”
So the first order of myth simply affirms life to “its rotten, horrendous base.” This is accepting life on its own terms and in no way “world-negating.” I think for the modern sensibility this seems contradictory. In fact, it is the paradox that what we call primitive man readily accepts. It is reverence for existence at its roots. When your meat is not served in plastic, you accept that life lives on death and you are in that cycle. As Campbell says, “World-weariness comes later, with people who are living high on the hog.”
The second order of myth is to create a cosmology, which science and religion have taken over. The third order of myth is sociological. And the fourth order of myth is psychological.
Functions two and three are in large part controlled by society. We go along for the bloody ride that is the journey we call history. Our focus as individuals is on function number one and four.
However, “civilized” cultures control or deny awe, an issue we will come to later. But without awe there is no motivator other than world-negating. The reverence of awe that puts us in flow when we surrender to it unwittingly becomes for the individual a struggle against culture.
And the fourth function is in dispute. The rites that take you through the stages of our lives are not servicing our needs. Thus we become neurotics.
Because we are so dependent on family and tribe for survival, we learn to think in terms of those primary relationships. However, what has evolved in the Western culture is the expectation of and need for critical thinking, which requires independence from authority. This contradiction causes personal turmoil. It is in fact, part of the uniquely Western and relatively very new dilemma of developing an individual personality.
Herein lies the necessity for rites. Rites lead us from dependence to independence. However, because our rites are no longer sufficient for transitioning us, we are in need of re-establishing them. This underlying issue is readily recognizable in the recent town hall meetings about medical care reform.