Ron Eisenman shares how a PBS television series encouraged him to pursue his passions and turn to the humanities to help him make sense of the world around him. His engagement with “The Power of Myth” helped to connect seemingly disparate cultural contexts by illuminating the shared elements of the stories we tell about ourselves.
From a young age I thought I would be a mathematician, but when I became 18 or so, I realized that humanities, not math, asked the questions I was yearning to explore. Nobody did this better than Joseph Campbell in his series of interviews with Bill Moyers done for PBS in 1988.
At the time, this program rocked my world. I laugh today when I consider how boring teenagers might perceive it today because the cinematography basically consists of 2 people talking in chairs facing one another for hours. Yet, at the time, it set my mind on fire. I saw this series on TV just after graduating college with a minor in folklore and a year working in Japan. I was so enthralled that I eventually got the recorded tapes and companion book. Here was an intellectual who not only confirmed some of the ideas I had been exploring in the past few years, but also provided critical perspective and expanded my understanding.
Bill Moyers was able to capture the brilliance and gentleness of Joseph Campbell. He captured the idea that people all over the world try to understand themselves and the mysteries of the universe through story. He reminded to try to be humble and listen to those stories which can have incredible power and meaning. He also opened my eyes to the common threads that weave through global cultures. I truly loved his work on the hero’s journey, a story that is told with little variations across time and place. The hero’s journey is inspiring because it tells us to expect trials, be brave, and do things for others. Sometimes the journey is scary and we may not return in the same state as we left.
I also try to live by the motto, “follow your bliss.” When I found that I wasn’t happy as a lawyer, this idea gave me the inspiration to change my life and do what makes me happy without worrying about loss of money or status.
I also loved how Joseph Campbell could look at the pop culture of the time, like Star Wars, and demonstrate the relevance of the past. He talks about this series borrowed elements of Zen Buddhism and the bushido code of the samurai warrior. I have also been inspired by the wisdom Campbell shows when exploring an idea. He is able to draw on cultural practices from a wide variety of cultures to help bring understanding about the human condition. I want to emulate him in this area.
He also opened me to the idea that in addition to the past having value, one must recognize that culture is always changing. Although nationalism has made perhaps a last gasp comeback, Campbell was a true globalist who recognized the uniqueness and similarity of cultures. He talked about the development of a new global culture emerging. My eyes are looking out for signs of this.