By her own account, the writer Rebecca Solnit has never been an optimist. But this is not to say that she isn’t hopeful. “An optimist thinks everything will be fine no matter what, and that justifies doing nothing,” she tells me, just back from her early morning row in San Francisco bay. “But hopefulness as I define it means that we don’t know what is going to happen, and in that uncertainty there is room to act.
Action, moreover, may take many forms in this, the age of Trump, some of them very subtle. “How the American public responds to this unprecedented crisis has everything to do with what happens [next], which is why I feel like my job is trying to remind people we do have [some] power,” she says. “I see the well-justified fear among immigrants, trans people, Muslims. But I also think this will end badly for the administration, which is in free fall. He’s freaked out. He’s thrashing in panic.”
Her voice, which sounds almost merry, drops a little. “To use a Clockwork Orange word, this is a horrorshow.”
Such hopefulness is not only a matter of temperament. How could Solnit fail to be encouraged by the fact that, seemingly against the odds, the essay has made a surprise return to the near-centre of intellectual life, particularly as it is lived online? However much she dislikes the narrative that has her toiling away in obscurity “knitting socks for wild geese in my lean-to on the prairie” until 2008, when her piece Men Explain Things to Me suddenly went viral – “I was plenty visible before,” she writes to me in an email the day after we speak via Skype – it is an undeniable truth that she is now more in demand than ever. “When I started [Solnit is 56], the essay was belles-lettres, decorative. Essays by women, particularly, tended to be treated as memoir even when they were not. Now they’re seen as powerful and compelling again. We’re in a golden age.”
Her work has an impact she could once have only dreamed of. Last May a piece she wrote about Trump for Harper’s – “once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing” – had a million hits online in just three days.
What they’re saying is: I’ve judged you, and found you wrong, weird, insufficiently feminine
Solnit’s latest collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions, works as a companion to Men Explain Things To Me, the slim volume that preceded it in 2014 (Solnit did not invent the term mansplaining, but having been coined shortly after this book’s title essay appeared, it will now forever be associated with her name). Mostly, the new book, subtitled Further Feminisms, is about violence against women, and the various forms this takes, including the many ways in which they are silenced. But there are two essays involving books, among them 80 Books No Woman Should Read, Solnit’s response to a notorious (and notoriously male) reading list put together by Esquire magazine; a piece about the 1956 movie Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor; and, finest of all, the title essay, a deft and quietly furious polemic that chips away once again at the idea of motherhood as the sole key to feminine identity (Solnit, who has never married, is childless).
“Yes, the having-children dilemma,” she says, giving the finger to an imaginary interlocutor. “It’s about what makes a worthwhile life. The person who asks you that question – why don’t you have children? – doesn’t want to know you more deeply. In fact, it’s not a question. It’s an accusation. What they’re saying is: I’ve judged you, and found you wrong, weird, insufficiently feminine. What’s so maddening is this assumption that children fulfil a woman – as though we’ve never seen an unhappy mother. It’s the same with marriage. Guess what? There are unhappy marriages: I even saw a movie about one, once. These people see love as a commodity that is there to be gathered. It’s a very aspirational, even capitalist, view of love.”
She likes to tell her friends with children that she’s here to “de-nuclearise” the family, the idea being that in the 21st century, just as in centuries past, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends matter just as much (she loves being an aunt).
Isn’t it wearying still to be dealing with this stuff? Mightn’t we have expected more progress by now in the matter of equality? “I do come up against that frustration,” she says. “And yes, it would have been wonderful if as soon as we introduced the radical idea that women are people and have inalienable rights, everyone had just agreed and we could have moved on.
“But the patriarchy is rooted in the Old Testament: the fact that it didn’t get dismantled in a few decades doesn’t dismay me. When I look at how much things have changed since my birth and today, it’s pretty amazing.”
A new generation of women is, she believes, simply not going to take it any more when it comes to rape and gender violence. Sure, Silicon Valley was “built by white men in their own image”; it dismays her that these same men talk in terms of what women can do to avoid threats online rather than dealing with the attacks themselves, as if the victims were responsible (a state of affairs that harks back to the way rape used widely to be regarded). Nevertheless, she thinks of social media as “a Greek chorus of a million women reinforcing the message that we are not going to let this [violence] be erased or excused”.
Bewitched by stories, Solnit wanted to be a writer almost from the moment she learned to read. The third of four siblings – she is the only girl – she grew up in San Francisco. Her parents were leftists who marched against the Vietnam war, but her father, a town planner, was violent – she has written that he once woke her in the night by throwing chocolate milk in her face – and her parents eventually divorced, an event that cast a prolonged shadow over her teenage years.
Lots of people want to be me now, but they didn’t 15 years ago, when I was paying my dues
When she left school she enrolled at the American University in Paris, after which she studied English at Berkeley, California, where she also enrolled as a graduate journalism student: “Journalism was the only model for nonfiction then, and I still feel lucky that I didn’t end up in some MFA [master of fine arts] programme with a bunch of white kids writing memoirs about their suffering.” Afterwards she worked as an art critic until, under the influence of her brother, David, with whom she first visited the Nevada nuclear test site, she gradually became more interested in green issues.
Her frame of reference grew ever wider, and her writing more singular. Among her books are River of Shadows, an award-winning study of the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge; Wanderlust:A History of Walking; and The Faraway Nearby, which partly tells the story of her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and Solnit’s efforts to reconcile with her (their relationship was difficult, the mother having been envious of the daughter), but whose broader themes, as explored in essays on such subjects as Iceland and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, have to do with questions of empathy and human solidarity.
“Lots of people want to be me now,” she says. “But they didn’t 15 years ago, when I was paying my dues. I lived like a graduate student for a long time after I was one, and I still have fairly frugal habits.” Still, even in the leaner times, she never thought of giving up. “I’m an introvert who loves staying home alone, and it wasn’t as if I was yearning to be super-famous. I didn’t want to be the Stephen King of feminist prose style, or something.”
Grateful as she is to those who read her, she now worries about burnout: “So many people want so many things from me, and that makes it hard to clear the space to be deeply thoughtful, to have the unbroken time in which the best writing takes place.”
Carefully, she lifts a hank of her long hair and pushes it over her shoulder. “It’s not that I feel sorry for myself. These are Cadillac problems. But I’m not sure what great rebellion will give me the time in which I might do pretty good work.” She sounds almost wistful. “In a way, my golden age was 20 years ago, a young woman with a pick-up truck, travelling across the American west, participating in land right struggles. There was no internet, which gave me a certain quality of time. The writing was going somewhere, and I was making a modest living. It was a great adventure.”
•The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta (12.99) on 7 September. To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
In the fifth episode of The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers discuss the mythology of love — from kāma to agape to courtly romance — and the role of the female as the giver of life and form. In this clip, Campbell traces the beginning of the idea of love, as we think of it today, to troubadours in the 12th century.
Released in 1988,The Power of Mythwas one of the most popular TV series in the history of public television, and continues to inspire new audiences.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: “So through the eyes love attains the heart, for the eyes are the scouts of the heart. And the eyes go reconnoitering for what it would please the heart to possess. And when they are in full accord and firm, all three in one resolve, at that time perfect love is born from what the eyes have made welcome, to the heart. For as all true loves know, love is perfect kindness, which is born, there is no doubt, from the heart and the eyes.”
BILL MOYERS: One of Joseph Campbell’s most eloquent essays was called simply, “The Mythology of Love.” “What a wonderful theme,” he wrote, “and what a wonderful world of myth one finds in celebration of this universal mystery.” Stories of love fascinate the human race, and Campbell made their interpretation one of the great passions of his life as a scholar, teacher and philosopher. Like a weaver of fine cloth, he spun the tales and legends of love into an amazing tapestry of the human psyche.
He gathered his materials everywhere, from the erotic mysticism of India to the Old Testament Song of Songs; from the life of Christ and the teachings of the Ramakrishna, to Saint Paul and Bernard of Clairvaux, and William Blake, Thomas Mann and many others, for whom love was the controlling principle of art.
Campbell thought the greatest love stories were told in the Middle Ages, when “noble and gentle hearts,” as he called them, produced the romantic love that transcended lust. This love between individual men and women, Amor, was celebrated by wandering minstrels, who sang of “What the eyes have made welcome to the heart.” It helped create a distinctive Western consciousness that exalted the individual experience of men and women over the authority and traditions of the church and state.
(interviewing) Let’s talk about love.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Let’s talk about love, fine.
BILL MOYERS: But it’s such a vast subject, that if, in mythology, that if I had come to you and said, “Let’s talk about love, but where should we begin?” — what would your answer have been?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I think my answer would have been the troubadours in the 12th century, let’s begin there.
BILL MOYERS: Why the troubadours?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, because they’re the first ones in the West that really considered love in the sense that we think of it now, as a person-to-person relationship.
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about romantic love?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. It’s the seizure that comes in recognizing as where your soul’s counterpart in the other person, and that’s what the troubadours stood for, and that has become the ideal in our lives today.
BILL MOYERS: What had it been before that?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the idea of love as Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire, this is not the person-to-person thing, of the falling in love in the way the troubadours understood it. I have a definition for Eros, the erotic biological urge, as the zeal of the organs for each other, and the personal factor doesn’t matter.
BILL MOYERS: Where did Eros come from?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, Eros is Cupid, and in India the god of love is Kama, and he’s no Cupid, he’s a big, vigorous youth with a bow and a quiver of arrows, and the names of the arrows are such things as “Death-Bringing Agony,” and “Open Up,” and really, he just drives this thing into you, so that it’s a total physiological, psychological explosion that takes place. Then the other love, the Christian love of Agape, spiritual love, in love thy neighbor as thyself, again it doesn’t matter who the person is, I mean, it’s your neighbor, you must have that kind of love. But the kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, and the purely personal, person-to-person thing, as far as I know it originates as an ideal to be lived for, with the troubadours.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that what happened in the 12th and 13th centuries “was one of the most important mutations of human feeling and spiritual consciousness, that a new way of experiencing love came to expression.”
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And it was in opposition to that ecclesiastical despotism of the heart.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Which required people, particularly young girls barely out of adolescence to marry whomever the Church or their parents wanted them to marry.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And what had this done to the passion of the heart?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the … to say a word for the other before I do this, the usual marriage in traditional cultures is arranged for by the families. It’s not a person-to-person decision at all, and this is true to this day in many parts of the world. This is not to say that in arranged marriages of this kind there is no love; there is a lot of love, there’s family love and a rich love life on that level. So in the Middle Ages, of course, that was the kind of marriage that was sanctified by the Church. And so the idea of a real person-to-person marriage was very dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: Dangerous because it was heresy.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It was not only heresy, it was adultery, and that was punishable by death. For instance, in the Tristan romance, that’s the crucial romance, of.
BILL MOYERS: Tristan and Isolde?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. Isolde was engaged to marry King Mark. They had never seen each other. And Tristan was sent over to fetch Isolde to Mark. And Isolde’s mother prepares a love potion, so that the two who are to be married will have real love for each other. And these two youngsters, they think the love potion is wine, and they drink it and then they’re overtaken with this love. But Brangene, the nurse of Isolde, realized what had happened. She went to Tristan and said, “You have drunk your death.” And Tristan said, “If by my death you mean this agony of love, that is my life. If by my death you mean the punishment that we arc to suffer if discovered, which is namely execution, I accept that. But if by my death you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell,” in which thesc people believed, “I accept that, too.”
BILL MOYERS: That was quite…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s big stuff.
BILL MOYERS: For a medieval Catholic, because they believed in a literal hell and…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, these people did.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. So what’s the significance of what he was saying?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: What he was saying is that this love is bigger even than death, than pain, than anything. This is the affirmation of the pain of life in a big way.
BILL MOYERS: And I would choose this pain for love now, even though it might mean everlasting pain and damnation in hell.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And that was a marked change in how people…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that is, any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense, nobody can frighten me off from this thing.
BILL MOYERS: This is sort of the beginning of the romantic idea of the Western individual taking mailers into his or her own hands.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, absolutely. I mean, you can see, there are examples in Oriental stories of this kind of thing, but it did not become a social system. It has now become the ideal, at any rate, of love in the Western world.
BILL MOYERS: Love from one’s own experience.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Right. That’s a very mysterious thing, that electric thing that happens. And then the agony that can follow, which is that which the troubadours celebrate, you know, the agony of the love, the sickness that the doctors cannot cure; the wounds that can be healed only by the weapon that delivered the wound.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the wound is the wound of my passion and agony of love for this creature, and the only one who can heal me is the one who delivered the blow, you know.
BILL MOYERS: So we often hurt most the person we love, and heal the hurt by the love that hurt.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s something like that, that’s the paradox of the job.
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean, Joe, when you said that the triumph of Tristan’s view of love and vision of love, this beginning of romantic love in the West was “libido over credo”?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the credo, “I believe,” and I believe not only in the laws, but I believe that these laws were instituted by God, and there’s no arguing with God. I mean, these laws are just a heavy weight on me, and disobeying those is sin, and it has to do with my eternal character.
BILL MOYERS: And the libido?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The libido is the impulse to life.
BILL MOYERS: Comes from where?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Comes from the heart.
BILL MOYERS: And the heart is what?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The heart is the organ of opening up to somebody else. That’s the human quality, as opposed to the animal qualities, which have to do with, primarily with self-interest. Opening up to that which is other is the opening of the heart, and that’s as the troubadours saw it, it is the opening of the heart.
BILL MOYERS: I can certainly understand, though, why the Church was threatened by this, because how can you have a church if everyone’s libido is his or her own god?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Why not? Why can’t the Church handle that? If you can sanctify a marriage that has been arranged, why can’t you sanctify a marriage where two people have joined each other?
BILL MOYERS: So the courage to love became the courage to affirm against tradition, whatever knowledge stands confirmed in one’s own experience.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why was that important in the evolution of the West?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it was important in that it gives the West this accent, as I’ve been saying, on the individual, that he should have faith in his experience, and not simply mouth terms that have come to him from other mouths. I think that’s the great thing in the West. The validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system.
BILL MOYERS: Was there some of this in the legend of the Holy Grail?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. Wolfram has a very interesting statement about the origin of the Grail. He says the Grail was brought from heaven by the neutral angels. There was the war in heaven between God and Lucifer, and the angelic hosts that sided one group with Lucifer, and the other with God. Pair of opposites, good and evil, God and Satan. The Grail was brought down through the middle, the way of the middle, by the neutral angels.
BILL MOYERS: What is the Grail representing, then?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the Grail becomes the, what we call it, that which is attained and realized by people who have lived their own lives. So the story very briefly is of this — I’m giving it now as Wolfram gives it — but this is just one version. The Grail King was a lovely young man, but he had not earned that position. And the Grail represents the fulfillment of the highest spiritual potentialities of the human consciousness. And he was a lovely young man, and he rode forth from his castle with the war cry, “Amor!” And as he’s riding forth, a Moslem, a pagan warrior, a Mohammedan warrior, comes out of the woods, a knight. And they both level their lances at each other, they drive at each other, and the lance of the grail king kills the Mohammedan, but the Mohammedan lance castrates the Grail King.
What that means is that the Christian separation of matter and spirit, of the dynamism of life and the spiritual, natural grace and supernatural grace, has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been as it were, emasculated by this; true spirituality, which would have come from this, has been killed. And then what did the pagan represent? He was a person from the suburbs of Eden. He was regarded as a nature man, and on the head of his lance was written the word, “Grail.” That is to say, nature intends the grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet of natural life, not a supernatural thing imposed upon it. And so the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not obeying rules come from a supernatural authority, that’s the sense of the Grail.
BILL MOYERS: And the Grail that these romantic legends were searching for is the union once again of what had been divided? The peace that comes from joining?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The grail becomes symbolic of an authentic life that has lived in terms of its own volition, in terms of its own impulse system, which carries it between the pairs of opposites, of good and evil, light and dark. Wolfram starts his epic with a short poem saying, “Every act has both good and evil results.” Every act in life yields pairs of opposites in its results. The best we can do is lean toward the light, that is to say, intend the light, and what the light is, is that of the harmonious relationships that come from compassion, with suffering, understanding of the other person. This is what the Grail is about.
BILL MOYERS: When we say God is love, does that have anything to do with romantic love? Does mythology ever link romantic love and God?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s what it did do. Love was a divine visitation, and that’s why it was superior to marriage. That was the troubadour idea. If God is love, well, then, love is God, okay.
BILL MOYERS: There’s that wonderful passage in Corinthians by Paul, where he says “Love beareth all things, endureth all things.”
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s the same business. Love knows no pain.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, one of my favorite stories of mythology is out of Persia, where there is the idea that Lucifer was condemned to hell because he loved God so much.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, and that’s a basic Muslim idea, about Iblis, that’s the Muslim name for Satan, being God’s greatest lover. Why was Satan thrown into hell? Well, the standard Story is that when God created the angels, he told them to bow to none but himself. Then he created man, whom he regarded as a higher form than the angels, and he asked the angels then to serve man. And Satan would not bow to man. Now, this is interpreted in the Christian tradition, as I recall from my boyhood instruction, as being the egotism of Satan, he would not bow to man. But in this view, he could not bow to man, because of his love for God, he could bow only to God. And then God says, “Get out of my sight.” Now, the worst of the pains of hell insofar as hell has been described is the absence of the beloved, which is God. So how does Iblis sustain the situation in hell? By the memory of the echo of God’s voice when God said, “Go to hell.” And I think that’s a great sign of love, do you agree?
BILL MOYERS: Well, it’s certainly true in life that the greatest hell one can know is to be separated from the one you love.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: That’s why I’ve liked the Persian myth for so long. Satan as God’s lover.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah. And he is separated from God, and that’s the real pain of Satan.
BILL MOYERS: You once took the saying of Jesus. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven, for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” You once took that to be the highest, the noblest, the boldest of the Christian teachings. Do you still feel that way?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I think the main teaching of Christianity is, “Love your enemies.”
BILL MOYERS: Hard to do.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I know, well, that’s it — I mean, when Peter drew his sword and cut off the servant’s ear there, in the Gethsemane affair, and Jesus said, “Put up your sword, Peter,” and put the ear back on, Peter has been drawing his sword ever since. And one can speak about Petrine or Christian Christianity in that sense. And I would say that the main doctrine of Christianity is the doctrine of Agape, of true love for he who is yours, him who is your enemy.
BILL MOYERS: How does one love one’s enemy without condoning what the enemy does, accepting his aggression?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I’ll tell you how to do that. “Do not pluck the mole from your enemy’s eye, but pluck the beam from your own,” do you know?
Now, I have a friend whom I met by chance, a young Buddhist monk from Tibet. You know, in 1959 the Communists crashed down and bombed the palace of the Dalai Lama, bombarded Lhasa, and people murdered and all that kind of thing. And he escaped, he escaped at the time of the Dalai Lama. And those monasteries, I mean, there were monasteries with 5,000 monks, 6,000 monks, all wiped out, tortured and everything else. I haven’t heard one word of incrimination of the Chinese from that young man. There is absolutely no condemnation of the Chinese here. And you hear this from the Dalai Lama himself. You will not hear a word of condemnation. This recognition of the way of life through which that vitality of the spirit is moving in its own way. I mean, these men are sufferers of terrific violence, and there’s no animosity. I learned religion from them.
BILL MOYERS: Do most of the stories of mythology, from whatever culture, say that suffering is intrinsically a part of life and that there’s no way around it?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I think I’d be willing to say that they do. I can’t think of anything now that says if you’re going to live, you won’t suffer. It’ll tell you how to understand and bear and interpret suffering, that it will do. And when the Buddha says there is escape from suffering, the escape from sorrow is nirvana. Nirvana is a psychological position where you are untouched by desire and fear.
BILL MOYERS: But is that realistic? Does that happen?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, certainly.
BILL MOYERS: And your life becomes what?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Harmonious, well-centered and affirmative of life.
BILL MOYERS: Even with suffering.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Exactly. There’s a passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, isn’t there? Be as Christ, for Christ did not think godhood something to be hung on to, to be clung to, but let go and came down and took life in the form of a servant, a servant even unto death. Let’s say, come in and accept the suffering, and affirm it.
BILL MOYERS: So you would agree with Abelard in the 12th century, who said that Jesus’ death on the cross was not as ransom paid, as a penalty applied, but it was an act of atonement, atonement at one with the race.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the most sophisticated interpretation of why Christ had to be crucified. Abelard’s idea was that this … oh, this is connected with the Grail King and everything else … that the coming of Christ to be crucified and illustrating thus the suffering of life, removes man’s mind from commitment to the things of this world in compassion. It’s in compassion with Christ that we turn to Christ, and so the injured one becomes the savior. It is the suffering that evokes the humanity of the human heart.
BILL MOYERS: So you would agree with Abelard that mankind yearning for God and God yearning for mankind in compassion met at that cross.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. And by contemplating the cross, you are contemplating the true mystery of life. And that love for this experience, no matter how horrific the experience, the love for it
BILL MOYERS: So there’s joy and pain in love.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, there is. Love, you might say, is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love. And the stronger the love, the more that pain, but love bears all things. Love itself is a pain, you might say, but is the pain of being truly alive.
BILL MOYERS: As Joseph Campbell pursued his quest across Europe for the stories of love and chivalry, he paused often to visit the great cathedrals. They too reflected the glory of love, the love of Mary, mother of God. Reverence for the power of the female is another grand theme in ancient mythology. In the primitive planting cultures, woman contributed importantly to the economic life of the community by participating in the growing and reaping of crops. And as the mother and nourisher of life, she was thought to assist the earth symbolically in its fertility. In fact, some believe there was even a golden age of the goddess until she was driven from the imagination by the emergence of patriarchal authority.
Of late, however, scientists have resurrected the name of an ancient goddess, Gaia, to express the idea of Earth as a living body on which we depend for life. In the last half of this conversation with Joseph Campbell, he takes us back to the time when the love of God meant the love for mother goddess, and he unites these themes in one image, the virgin birth, which to him represents the birth of spirit from matter, the birth of compassion in the heart.
(interviewing) The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father which art in heaven.”
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Could it have begun, “Our Mother”?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a metaphorical image, this is a symbolic image, and to make the point that it’s not your father, your physical father, we have “Our Father who art in heaven.” But heaven again is a symbolic idea, where would it, heaven, be? It is no place. All of the references of religious and mythological images are to planes of consciousness or fields of experience potential in the human spirit, and these are to evoke attitudes and experiences that are appropriate to a meditation on the mystery of the source of your own being, I would say. So there have been systems of religion where the mother is the prime parent, the source, and she’s really a more immediate parent than the father, because one is born from the mother, and then the first experience of any infant is the mother, so that the image of woman is the image of the world. You might say that mythology is simply a translation of the world into a mother image. We talk of Mother Earth and so forth.
BILL MOYERS: But what happened along the way, Joe, to this reverence that in primitive societies was directed toward the goddess figure, the great goddess, the Mother Earth? What happened to that?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That comes in primarily with agriculture and the agricultural societies.
BILL MOYERS: Fertility and all of that?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It has to do with the earth, the human woman does give birth as the earth gives birth to the plants. She gives nourishment as the plants do. So woman magic and earth magic are the same, they are related. And the personification, then, of this energy which gives birth to forms and nourishes forms is properly female. And so it is in the agricultural world of ancient Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Nile, but also in the earlier planting culture systems, that the goddess is the mythic form that is dominant.
BILL MOYERS: Because of this obvious perception of creation issue, fertility.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right, and when you have a goddess as the creator, it’s her own very body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe. And in Egypt, you have the mother heavens, Nut, the goddess Nut, who is represented as the whole heavenly sphere.
BILL MOYERS: So it would be natural for people trying to explain the wonders of the universe to look to the female figure as the explanation for what they saw in their own lives.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Not only that, but then when you move to a philosophical point of view, the female represents what in Kantian terminology we call the forms of sensibility. The female represents time and space itself. She is time and space, and the mystery beyond her is beyond pairs of opposites, so it isn’t male and it isn’t female. It neither is nor isn’t, but everything is within her, so that the gods are her children. Everything you can think of, everything you can see, is the production of the goddess.
Oh, this is a wonderful story. The Vedic gods are together and they see a strange son of amorphous thing down the way, like a kind of smoky fog. And they say, “What’s that?” They don’t know what it is. And Agni, the god of fire, says, “I’ll go find out who that is.” So he goes up to this smoky thing and he says, “Who are you?” And from the smoky thing the voice says, “Who are you?” And he says, “I’m Agni, I’m the lord of fire, I can burn anything.” And out of the fog there comes a piece of straw, it falls on the ground, it says, “Let’s see you burn that” He can’t burn it. He goes back, he says, “This is strange.”
Well, Vayu, the lord of winds, says, ”I’ll try.” So he goes and the same thing, “I can blow anything around.” Throws it down, “Now, let’s see you blow that” Well, he can’t. He goes back. Then a woman arrives, a beautiful, mysterious, mystic woman. And she instructs the gods and tells them who that is. “That is the ultimate mystery of being, from which you boys have received your strength. And he can turn it on or off for you,” you know. And there she comes as the one who illuminates the gods themselves concerning the ultimate ground of their own being.
BILL MOYERS: It’s the female wisdom.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It’s the female as the giver of forms. She is the one who gave the forms and she knows where they came from.
BILL MOYERS: I wonder what it would have meant to us if somewhere along the way, we had begun the prayer “Our Mother,” instead of “Our Father.” What psychological difference would it have made?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it makes a psychological difference in the character of the cultures. You have the basic birth of civilization in the Near East with the great river valleys then as the main source areas, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and then over in India, the Indus valley and later the Ganges. This is the world of the goddess; all these rivers have goddess names finally.
Then there come the invasions. These fighting people are herding people. The Semites are herders of goats and sheep, and the Indo-Europeans of cattle. They were formerly the hunters. They translate a hunting mythology into a herding mythology, but it’s animal oriented. And when you have hunters you have killers, and when you have herders, you have killers, because they’re always in movement, nomadic, coming into conflict with other people and they have to conquer the area they move into. This comes into the Near East, and this brings in the warrior gods, like Zeus, like Yahweh.
BILL MOYERS: The sword and death, instead of fertility.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Right. Particularly the Hebrews. They really wipe out the goddess. The term for the goddess, the Canaanite goddess, that’s used in the Old Testament, is “the abomination.” And there was a very strong accent against the goddess in the Hebrew, which you do not find in the Indo-European. There you have Zeus marrying the goddess and then the two play together. I think it’s an extreme case that we have in the Bible, and our own Western subjugation of the female is really, I think, a function of biblical thinking.
BILL MOYERS: Because when you substitute the male for the female, you get a different psychology, a different cultural bias.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Particularly if you cut the female out and don’t have any — I mean, if the male is on top like this and the female is the subordinate all the way, you have a totally different system from that when the two are facing each other.
BILL MOYERS: And it’s permissible in your culture to do what your gods do, so you just…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s exactly it. So I would see three situations here. One, the early one of the sheer goddess, when the male is hardly a significant divinity, you see, she is the total thing. And then this other one of the Hebrew, of the goddess-the male the total thing; in fact, he takes over her role. And finally then the classical one where the two are in interaction.
BILL MOYERS: There are women today who say that the spirit of the goddess has been in exile for 5,000 years, since the events that you…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, not that… you can’t put it that far back. 5,000 years. She was a very potent figure in Hellenistic times in the Mediterranean. And she came back with the Virgin in the Roman Catholic tradition. I mean, you don’t have a tradition with the goddess celebrated any more beautifully and marvelously than in the 12th and 13th century French cathedrals, every one of which is called “Notre Dame.”
BILL MOYERS: What about the virgin birth? Suddenly the goddess reappears in the form of the chaste and pure vessel chosen for God’s action.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, in the history of Western religions, this is an extremely interesting development. The virgin birth comes in by way of the Greek tradition. When you read your four gospels, the only one with the virgin birth in it is the gospel according to Luke, and Luke was a Greek.
BILL MOYERS: And there was in the Greek tradition images, legends, myths of virgin births?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All of them. I mean, Leda and the swan, and Persephone and the serpent, and this one and that one and the other one. The virgin birth is represented throughout.
BILL MOYERS: This was not a new idea, then, in Bethlehem and…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No. What is the meaning of the virgin birth? In India, there is this system of the kundalini, as it’s called, the idea of the centers, psychological centers up the spine. And they represent the psychological planes of concern and consciousness and action. The first is at the rectum, and this is that of alimentation. The serpent represents this, you know, a traveling esophagus going along just eating, eating, eating, eating. And all of us are — we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t eating. And then the second, the second center is at the sex organ center, and that’s the urge to procreation. The third center’s called, is at the navel, and this is where you eat and want to consume. And it’s not the alimentary eating, it’s the mastering and smashing and trashing of others, do you see? This is the aggressive mood.
Now, the first is an animal instinct, the second is an animal instinct, the third is an animal instinct, and these three centers are located in the pelvic base, do you see. The next one is at the level of the heart, and this is the opening of compassion. And there you move out of the field of animal action into a field that is properly human and spiritual. Now, in each of these centers there is a symbolic form. At the base, the first one, there is the form of the lingam and yeni, the male and female organs in conjunction. At the heart chakra, there is again the male and female organs in conjunction, but in gold. This is the virgin birth. It’s the birth of spiritual man out of the animal man. Do you understand?
BILL MOYERS: And it happens?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: When you are awakened at the level of the heart to compassion and to suffering with the other person. That’s the beginning of humanity. And the meditations of religion properly are on that level, the heart level.
BILL MOYERS: You say it’s the beginning of humanity, but in these Stories, that’s the moment when gods are born, the virgin birth, it’s a god who emerges from that chemistry.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, and you know who that god is? It’s you. All of these symbols in mythology refer to you. You can get stuck out there and think it’s all out there, and so you’re thinking of Jesus and all the sentiments about how he suffered and all; what that suffering is, is what ought to be going on in you. Have you been reborn? Have you died to your animal nature and come to life as a human incarnation?
BILL MOYERS: Why is it significant that this is of a virgin?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it is that the begetter is the spirit. It is a spiritual birth. The virgin conceived of the Word, through the ear.
BILL MOYERS: The Word came like a shaft of light.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. And now, the Buddha was born from his mother’s side, at the level of the heart chakra. That’s a symbolic birth; he wasn’t born from his mother’s side, but symbolically he was.
BILL MOYERS: But the Christ came the way you and I come.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, but of a virgin.
BILL MOYERS: Which is a power greater than…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And then, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, her virginity was restored. So nothing happened physically, you might say. It’s not a physical birth. It’s symbolic of a spiritual transformation, that’s what the virgin birth is about. And so deities are born that way who represent beings who act in terms of compassion, and not in terms of the lower three centers.
BILL MOYERS: If you go back into antiquity, do you find images of the Madonna as the mother of the savior child?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, what you have as the model for the Madonna actually is Isis, with her child Horus at her breast. This was the actual model for the Madonna symbol.
BILL MOYERS: Isis? Tell me that story.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a prime myth in this period of the Goddess as the redeemer, the one who goes in quest of the lost spouse or lover, and through her loyalty and descent into the realm of death, recovers him. Isis and her husband Osiris were twins who were born of the goddess Nut. And their younger relatives were Seth and Nephthys, who were also twins born from Nut. Seth planned to kill his brother Osiris, and he took Osiris measurements secretly and had a wonderful sarcophagus built that would exactly fit Osiris. So there was a hilarious party in progress one time among the gods, and Seth trots in this sarcophagus, and he says, “Anyone whom this perfectly fits can have it as his sarcophagus.” And everybody at the party tried, and when Osiris got in, of course he perfectly fit. Just at that time, 72 accomplices come rushing out and they clap the lid on, strap it together and throw it in the Nile.
Now, this is the death of the god. Whenever you have a death of an incarnation, a god like this, you’re going to have a resurrection, you can wait for that. So he goes floating down the Nile and is washed ashore in Syria. And a beautiful tree grows up and incorporates the sarcophagus in its own trunk. So this is this wonderful tree with a glorious aroma. And the local king has just had a son born to him, and he is also at the same time going to build a palace. The aroma of this tree is so wonderful, he cuts it down and brings it in to be a central pillar in the main room of the palace.
Poor little Isis, whose husband has been thrown into the Nile, starts this wonderful quest for Osiris, So she comes to the place where the palace is, and learns of the wonderful aroma and she suspects this is Osiris. And she gets a job as nurse to the just-born little child. Well, she lets the child nurse from her finger. And she loves the little child, and she decides to give it immortality. So she does this by placing him in the fireplace in the fire, to burn away gradually his mortal body. But being a goddess she could keep that from killing him, you understand. And when that would happen, she would convert herself into a swallow, and fly mournfully around the pillar where her husband is.
Well, one evening the child’s mother came in to this room while this scene was in progress, saw her child in the fireplace, let out a scream, and that broke the spell, and they had to rescue the child from incineration. Meanwhile the swallow had turned into this gorgeous nurse, Isis, and the nurse gave an explanation of the situation, and she said, “By the way, it’s my husband that’s in that pillar there, and I’d he grateful if you could just let me take it home.” So the king came in and he said, “Certainly.” So he removes the pillar, gives it to Isis and it’s put on a barge. So on the way back to the Nile, she removes the lid, the cover of the sarcophagus and lies on top of her dead spouse and conceives of her dead spouse this is an image that occurs in Egyptian art all the time, out of death comes life and all this kind of business and when they land she in the papyrus swamp gives birth to her child Horus with the dead Osiris beside her.
This is the motif for the Madonna, actually, it becomes the Madonna. In Egyptian symbology, Isis represents the throne, the Pharaoh sits on the throne of Isis, as the child sits on the mother lap. And when you look in the cathedral of Chartres in the west portal, you will see the Madonna as the throne with the little child Jesus as the world emperor on her lap: That is the same image that’s come over.
BILL MOYERS: And you say the Christian fathers took this image?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Definitely, and they really say so. You read the second letter of Peter, and he says those forms which were merely mythological forms in the past, are now incarnate and actual in our savior. There was a mythology of the savior, the dead and resurrected god, and it’s associated with the moon, which dies and is resurrected every month. And you have the three nights dark, and you have Christ three nights in the tomb, and three days in the tomb, and all this kind of thing. It’s an intentional saying, that which was merely talked about is now fact. And no one knows what the date of Christmas ought to be, but it’s put on the date of the winter solstice, when the nights begin to be shorter and the days longer, the birth of light. And so there is an idea of death to the past and birth to the future in our lives and in our thinking all the time. Death to the animal nature, birth to the spiritual, and these symbols are talking about it one way or another.
BILL MOYERS: So when the…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And the goddess is the one who brings it about. The second birth is through the second mother. Notre Dame de Paris, Notre Dame de Chartres, our mother church, we are reborn by entering and leaving a church.
BILL MOYERS: And it doesn’t mean physically, it means…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Spiritually.
BILL MOYERS: That there’s a power that’s unique to the feminine principle.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It can be put that way. You can… it’s not necessarily unique to her, you can have rebirth through the male, also. But using this system of symbols, the woman becomes the regenerator.
BILL MOYERS: There’s that wonderful saying in the New Testament of Jesus. “In Jesus there is no male or female.” In the ultimate sense of things there is neither.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That would have to be. I mean, if Jesus represents the source of our being, we are all as it were thoughts in the mind of Jesus. He is the word that has become flesh in us, too.
BILL MOYERS: You and I would possess characteristics that are both male and female.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, actually the body does, And in that Yin-Yang figure from China, you know, in the dark fish or whatever you want to call it, there’s a light spot and in the light one there’s a dark spot. That’s how they can relate; you couldn’t relate at all to something that, of which you did not participate, into which you did not participate at all. That’s why the idea of God as the absolute other is a ridiculous idea, there could be no relationship to that which is absolute other.
BILL MOYERS: The question arises, in discussing the male-female principle, the virgin birth, the spiritual power that gives us the second birth. The wise people of all time have said that we can live the good life if we learn in fact to live spiritually. But how does one learn to live spiritually when one is of the flesh? Remember, Paul said, “the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.” How do we learn to live spiritually?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that was the in ancient times and in primitive times, the business of the teacher. He was to give you the clues to a spiritual life, that was what the priest was for. Also, that was what the ritual was for. A ritual can be defined as an enactment of a myth, by participating in a good, sound ritual, you are actually experiencing a mythological life. And it’s out of that that one can learn to live spiritually.
BILL MOYERS: These stories of mythology actually point the way to the spiritual life.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. You’ve got to have a clue. You’ve got to have a road map of some kind, and these are all around us. They’re here.
BILL MOYERS: And the road map to which the goddess stories are pointing is the map of elevating the spiritual to an equality with the physical, so that you live in union with those two.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. There you’ve come to the real sanctity of the earth itself, because that is the body of the goddess. When Yahweh creates, he creates the earth and breathes his life into it. He’s not there, she’s there. Your body is her body. And there’s that kind of identity.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s why I’m not so sure that the future of the race and the salvation of the journey is in space. I think it is well right here on earth in the body, in the womb of all of our being.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it certainly is. I mean, when you go out into space what you’re carrying is your body and if that hasn’t been transformed, space won’t transform it for you. But thinking about space may help you to realize something.
BILL MOYERS: You certainly thought about space in this wonderful passage. You were describing a page out of the National Geographic Atlas of the World, but you read this and something happened to you.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: “What these pages opened to me was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude and inconceivable violence. Billions upon billions, literally, of roaring thermonuclear furnaces scattering from each other, each thermonuclear furnace being a star and our sun among them. Many of them actually blowing themselves to pieces, littering the outermost reaches of space with dust and gas, out of which new stars with circling planets are being born right now. And then from still more remote distances beyond all these there come murmurs, microwaves, which are echoes of the greatest cataclysmic explosion of all, namely, the Big Bang of creation, which, according to recent reckonings, must have occurred some 18 billion years ago.”
That’s where we are, kiddo. And if you realized that, you realize how really important you are, you know, one little microbit in this great magnitude. And then out of that must come the experience that you and that are in some sense one, and that you partake of all of that
BILL MOYERS: And it begins here.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It begins here.
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