The Power of Myth
Although I am currently reading “The Power of Myth”, which is essentially the transcripts from the outstanding 1988 PBS six-chapter TV series, in which famed journalist Bill Moyers interviews, mythologist Joseph Campbell, this will not be a book review. Instead, Campbell makes a savvy case as to why marriages fail, today.
Perhaps in the future I will do so. But for now, I would only like to address something that Joseph Campbell said with regards to marriage. Mr. Campbell’s explanation as to why so many marriages fail, in our modern-day society, is quite uncanny and deserves some serious consideration. If anything, this knowledge might be quite helpful for those couples entertaining marriage, for the first time in their lives.
Why do many marriages fail?
We should also consider that, although divorce statistics in the United States are slightly better than what they were a decade ago, the numbers are still staggering. For a 1st marriage the odds go from 41% to 50% probability of divorce. For a 2nd marriage the divorce rate numbers range from 60% to 67%. And for 3rd marriage the range goes from a whopping 73% to 74%. In short, the odds are against married couples.
Since Mr. Campbell’s words and Mr. Moyers’ poignant questions are so eloquent and clear, I will go ahead and quote the complete dialog, and will let you, the reader, hear firsthand, what they had to say on the subject. Then you can reflect upon it, and come to your own conclusions. Of course, I would love for this to be of help to you, and if you can, why don’t you post your own comments on the subject, too?
MOYERS: How do you get that experience?
CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. Marriage, for example. What is marriage? The myth tells you what it is. It’s the reunion of the separated duad. Originally you were one. You are now two in the world, but the recognition of the spiritual identity is what marriage is. It’s different from a love affair. It has nothing to do with that. It’s another mythological plane of experience. When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is recognition of a spiritual identity. If we live a proper life, if our minds are on the right qualities in regarding the person of the opposite sex, we will find our proper male or female counterpart. But if we are distracted by certain sensuous interests, we’ll marry the wrong person. By marrying the right person, we reconstruct the image of the incarnate God, and that’s what marriage is.
MOYERS: The right person? How does one choose the right person?
CAMPBELL: Your heart tells you. It ought to.
MOYERS: Your inner being.
CAMPBELL: That’s the mystery.
MOYERS: You recognize your other self.
CAMPBELL: Well, I don’t know, but there’s a flash that comes, and something in you knows that this is the one.
MOYERS: If marriage is this reunion of the self with the self, with the male or female grounding of ourselves, why is it that marriage is so precarious in our modern society?
CAMPBELL: Because it’s not regarded as a marriage. I would say that if the marriage isn’t a first priority in your life, you’re not married. The marriage means the two that are one, the two become one flesh. If the marriage lasts long enough, and if you are acquiescing constantly to it instead of to individual personal whim, you come to realize that that is true — the two really are one.
MOYERS: One not only biologically but spiritually.
CAMPBELL: Primarily spiritually. The biological is the distraction which may lead you to the wrong identification.
MOYERS: Then the necessary function of marriage, perpetuating ourselves in children, is not the primary one.
CAMPBELL: No, that’s really just the elementary aspect of marriage. There are two completely different stages of marriage. First is the youthful marriage following the wonderful impulse that nature has given us in the interplay of the sexes biologically in order to produce children? But there comes a time when the child graduates from the family and the couple is left. I’ve been amazed at the number of my friends who in their forties or fifties go apart. They have had a perfectly decent life together with the child, but they interpreted their union in terms of their relationship through the child. They did not interpret it in terms of their own personal relationship to each other. Marriage is a relationship. When you make the sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship. The Chinese image of the Tao, with the dark and light interacting — that’s the relationship of yang and yin, male and female, which is what a marriage is. And that’s what you have become when you have married. You’re no longer this one alone; your identity is in a relationship. Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.
MOYERS: So marriage is utterly incompatible with the idea of doing one’s own thing.
Daddy will fall in love with some little nubile girl and run off.
CAMPBELL: It’s not simply one’s own thing, you see. It is, in a sense, doing one’s own thing, but the one isn’t just you, it’s the two together as one. And that’s a purely mythological image signifying the sacrifice of the visible entity for a transcendent good. This is something that becomes beautifully realized in the second stage of marriage, what I call the alchemical stage, of the two experiencing that they are one. If they are still living as they were in the primary stage of marriage, they will go apart when their children leave. Daddy will fall in love with some little nubile girl and run off, and Mother will be left with an empty house and heart, and will have to work it out on her own, in her own way.
MOYERS: That’s because we don’t understand the two levels of marriage.
CAMPBELL: You don’t make a commitment.
MOYERS: We presume to — we make a commitment for better or for worse.
CAMPBELL: That’s the remnant of a ritual.
MOYERS: And the ritual has lost its force. The ritual that once conveyed an inner reality is now merely form. And that’s true in the rituals of society and in the personal rituals of marriage and religion.
CAMPBELL: How many people before marriage receive spiritual instruction as to what the marriage means? You can stand up in front of a judge and in ten minutes get married. The marriage ceremony in India lasts three days. That couple is glued.
MOYERS: You’re saying that marriage is not just a social arrangement, it’s a spiritual exercise.
CAMPBELL: It’s primarily a spiritual exercise, and the society is supposed to help us have the realization. Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute.
MOYERS: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
CAMPBELL: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.
MOYERS: And you’d find?
CAMPBELL: The news of the day, including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.
The Power of Myth: Tribute to Joseph Campbell (2011)