Every so often, an academic finds the right forum at the right time and breaks out of the lecture hall and into the culture at large. Before American scholar Joseph Campbell died in 1987, he sat with PBS host Bill Moyers for a series of interviews about his lifelong interest in world mythology and its commonalities. Campbell wrote well-received books both prior to and following his retirement from Sarah Lawrence in 1972, and throughout his life, he was an in-demand lecturer, prized both for his insights and for the accessible way he presented them. But Campbell’s popularity exploded posthumously, after Moyer’s interviews with him aired as a six-hour miniseries in 1988. Though illustrated with film clips and old texts, Joseph Campbell And The Power Of Myth primarily consists of Moyers asking questions, and Campbell answering at length. And yet the series remains so beloved that even now, some PBS stations air it once a year, usually during pledge drives, with Campbell/Moyers coffee-table tomes and audiobooks as premiums. The phenomenon would seem to counter the conventional wisdom about TV-watchers: We’re supposed to be dumb, so why do we like this project so much?
Some have suggested that the popularity of The Power Of Myth is further proof that we aren’t as sophisticated as we pretend. The series isn’t especially complex, or overtly challenging to viewers’ beliefs. It’s pop-academia, contending that “all religions are true” and that the Star Wars films are magnificent. It offers no counter-claims stronger than Moyers’ sympathetic devil’s advocacy. But the Campbell naysayers are missing the real reason of the series’ appeal. It isn’t just Campbell’s reductive readings of world history’s most enduring stories, it’s his passion as he delivers them.
With the deeply engaged Moyers egging him on, Campbell recounts old folktales and explains the metaphorical meanings of religious texts, always recalling the arc of his own life, which he knows is nearing its end. He notes his frailty, and talks openly about his past struggles with embracing his own “follow your bliss” philosophy. The Power Of Myth’s six hours of conversation are intended to stir the imagination and to get viewers to see art and faith in a whole new way. But the series works because it’s a riveting performance-piece, in which one man sums up—for the last time, really—his understanding of the world we all share, and the way we fumble to find meaning in it. Fans of The Power Of Myth admire Campbell not because he had all the answers, but because—like all of us—he yearned to.
Key features: A 1981 Moyers/Campbell interview, and a more recent Moyers chat with Campbell devotee George Lucas.