Thursday, June 05, 2008

SOULSMITH: PHIL COUSINEAU—Myths to Live By: A Tribute to Joseph Campbell

I collect filing cabinets like other people collect DVDs or stamps. They stand in my library like sentinels sternly protecting my past and—opening their drawers—my past appears deceptively organized in rows of folders overstuffed, often overflowing, with paper. Long before I adopted the ease of electronic storage, I collected paper. As is usually the case with the tao of synchronicity, the other morning I was looking for something unrelated and came across my transcript of notes I'd taken at the 1989 commemoratory symposium Myths To Live By: A Tribute to Joseph Campbell, sponsored by U.C. Berkeley Extension and coordinated by Lynne Kaufman. I had completely forgotten about these notes, including that Phil Cousineau had shown outtakes from The Hero's Journey. How coincidental that I should find them now just as I'm commencing my overview of Phil's work! To accompany my previous entry on Phil, I offer these notes, transferred from the filing cabinet in which they have quietly hidden for nearly 20 years to my most recent—and perhaps favorite—filing cabinet: The Evening Class.

* * *

Lynne Kaufman's brochure notes state: "Joseph Campbell was fond of quoting Carl Jung's statement that the most important question we can ask ourselves is what myth we are living. This Saturday symposium brings together a diverse group of people—writers, poets, dancers, filmmakers, all close friends and colleagues of Joseph Campbell—to explore that question of their lives and work, and to foster participants' own self-exploration. Through lecture, performance, film, and discussion, speakers and participants examine the central myths that give meaning and structure to our lives and that help us, in Joseph Campbell's words, to become 'transparent to the transcendent.' "

Arriving early by taxi to the Scottish Rites Temple, the symposium's venue, I was amazed to already see a line forming at 7:45 A.M. As one of the first into the lecture hall, I was able to claim my favorite seat up front on the aisle. I spotted Phil Cousineau but left him alone since the program notes indicated he would be first to speak and I could see he was earnestly setting up the equipment to project his outtakes of The Hero's Journey.

Glancing over the program notes, I meditated on Campbell's assertion: "Myths come from where the heart is and where the experience is . . . Myth is a metaphor that points beyond the image to a mystery."

Introducing the day's event, Lynne Kaufman admitted to being overcome with emotion. The combination of speakers, the full house, the energy of the crowd, all felt "right" to her. Campbell's widow, Jean Erdmann Campbell, had just arrived that morning from Hawaii and had given Lynne a fragrant lei to wear; its perfume wafting all around her.

Lynne's association with Joseph Campbell began in the late 60's at the Esalen Institute where she heard him speak on the Arthurian legends and the quest for the Holy Grail. She was struck (as so many have been, including myself) with that part in the story where the Knights of the Round Table decide to quest for the Holy Grail and further decide that it would be disgraceful for them to enter the forest as a group and that they were each to enter at a place where it was darkest for them and where there was no trail. This inspired Lynne to take off on her own individual creativity, to become the playwright she had long dreamed of being, and to work with Campbell on seminars and symposiums over the ensuing 20 years. She recalled these programs covering a wide range of topics, including a birthday party at the Palace of Fine Arts when he turned 80 (which I was blessed to attend). Campbell wrote her after that birthday celebration to tell her that the image of it would stay with him through Purgatory until he passed the pearly gates. Lynne's audience laughed. How appropriate that Campbell would not send himself directly to Heaven without undergoing some initiation first. Lynne, along with Barbara McClintock, was one of Campbell's surrogate daughters in the Bay Area and he dedicated his book, The Inner Reaches Of Outer Space, to both of them.

Lynne then introduced Phil Cousineau who arrived on stage dressed in gangster fashion—dark blue shirt, red tie, black jacket, grey slacks. Phil started out his talk with a quote from Tennessee Williams: "Snatching the eternal out of the fleeting is the greatest trick." If that is the greatest trick, Phil offered, then Joseph Campbell was the greatest trickster.

His association with Campbell, like Lynne's, began at the Esalen Institute at roughly the same time. He was working 80 hours a week as a house painter and struggling to write in the evenings. It was Campbell's now-infamous advice to "follow your own bliss" that affected Phil deeply and turned his life around. Campbell's truism encouraged Phil to plunge into freelancing activities, which led him towards filmmaking, writing and, eventually, to co-producing The Hero's Journey. During the filming, Phil became good friends with Campbell and—as I've noted elsewhere—Phil takes great pride in profiling Campbell as a life-loving human individual; a man who could discourse deeply, intellectually, on the great themes of existence and then turn around and enjoy a glass of Glenlevit among friends.

Phil felt Campbell’s biography should have been entitled Metaphorphasis because of Campbell's great love for metaphor and metamorphasis. Having recently read Phil's manuscript Deadlines, and his gift for word play, I enjoyed this excellent titular suggestion. Phil relayed Jean Erdmann Campbell's description of Campbell's habit of pacing the floor, searching for the right word, the right turn of phrase, the word which (if captured) succeeded in sending a frisson shiver up the spine. This diligence made Campbell an eloquent writer.

Admitting to an "embarrassment of riches" when it came to the 15 hours of film and 52 hours of videotape gathered during the process of interviewing Campbell for The Hero's Journey, Cousineau detailed the enormous task of condensing this footage into a one-hour documentary. The outtakes he chose to screen for the symposium addressed Campbell's sources of inspiration and his working methodology, including how computers changed his life. Phil, in fact, was present the day Campbell sat down to work on a new computer for the first time. He remembered it clearly. He was in San Diego working on the documentary when a friend of Stuart Brown's, co-producer of the documentary, phoned to say he had just gotten a new computer and wanted them to rush over to look at it. This friend advised Campbell that—if he used word processing software—it would change his life. Campbell made it clear he was too old to have his life changed and was quite content with the way it was; however, he agreed to take a look at the machine. After watching Stuart's friend fiddle around with it for a while, Campbell slapped his forehead and painfully admitted, "You don't know what you're doing to me!"

Although Campbell did eventually purchase a computer, he never regretted nor denied the importance of all the years he had spent reading and reviewing by handwritten notes what he had read. He qualified that though computers are a wellspring of information, it's not only information that is involved in research and studying; it is the experience of information that is important; how the information affects your life; how you choose to assimilate and use the information. Computers cannot give you this. They're valuable for access of information. When it comes to footnotes and knowing the exact pages where quotes have been taken, then a computer is an indispensible tool, but, in and of itself, computers have little to do with how you experience information.

Campbell named his computer Parsifal after the main hero of the Grail legend. He likened the power of the computer to that of genies in the bottle. They can be either helpful and/or troublesome. Up until the purchase of his computer, Campbell always used a pencil. He considered the costly investment in a computer to be an incredible substitute for the pencil.

As for his working methods, during the years of the depression when Campbell was unemployed, he created a discipline for himself of researching in four daily four-hour slots. He would read and research for three hours out of each slot and allow himself personal time for the fourth hour. He found that reading and working consistently in this fashion for five years straight provided him the base of knowledge from which all of his subsequent studies diverged. This reminded me of when I first met Joseph Campbell and earnestly begged him to tell me how I could become just like him when I grew up. He laughed and said, "So you want to be like me when you grow up, eh?" Yes, I assured him, I do. Then you will have to read, he said, you will have to read constantly.

When Campbell was hired to teach at Sarah Lawrence College, he found that the opportunity to be in an all-women's college promoted his belief that the proper approach towards mythic material was not historical—when and where things had been written (as was promoted by the academics of his time)—but personal, how these myths were relevant to our lives. His female students made it clear that this is what interested them and what they wanted to learn. He credits his Sarah Lawrence students for helping him to break free of academic conventions to this more direct approach.

Then began for Campbell what he called "a real season of writing" with "very, very exciting, wonderful, wonderful material." The writing projects were prolonged interwoven projects, which covered a span of several years.

Campbell recalled: "So I get a phone call from my friend he says, 'Joe, Simon & Schuster is interested in a book on mythology and if you get up on your high horse and knock them down, he says, I'll never talk to you again.' So we arrange for a publisher's luncheon and, yes, we'd like a book on mythology. Well, what kind of book do you want? A sort of modern Bullfinch. Well, I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. He said what would you like to do? I said I'd like to write a book on how to read a myth. Some self-help book? Yeah. Okay. Write out a presentation and we'll talk about it.

"So I went home. Jean was on tour at the time. I spent one night just typing up a presentation of an idea for a book. And brought it up and—oh my God—I got a marvelous contract: $250 on signing, $250 when the book's half-finished, $250 on turning it in. So I worked for four or five years. It was The Hero With A Thousand Faces. What it is, is my first lecture to my students at Sarah Lawrence College."

Simon & Schuster rejected the book, as did a subsequent publisher, but, when Campbell offered the manuscript to Bollingen, they called it a "honey" and were happy to publish it.

At the same time the Indologist, Heinrich Zimmer, had left Europe during the Hitler years because of his opposition to the regime. He moved to the United States but was unable to land a teaching position since few departments dealt with Eastern material. Eventually, he was given a small room at Columbia to conduct his lectures, which Campbell attended. He recalled that at Zimmer's first lecture there were only four people in attendance: himself, the librarian who had arranged for the room, a woman with overwhelming perfume, and a nondescript fourth person. Zimmer made it clear to Campbell how pleased he was to see him there and—even though he was only teaching to four people, Campbell said—Zimmer acted as if he were teaching to a full auditorium. Tragically, Zimmer died a few years later from an improperly-diagnosed case of pneumonia. Zimmer's widow then approached Campbell to edit his Columbia lectures, which Campbell agreed to do.

Also at the same time, Campbell was asked to write the introduction and commentary to Maud Oakes and Jeff King's study of Navajo sandpainting, Where The Two Came To Their Father: A Navajo War Ceremonial. During this period of opportunity, Campbell discovered as he hopped from one writing project to another: "Whether it was Finnegan's Wake or the Navajo material, or the Hindu material or Heinrich Zimmer's . . . it was all the same material. . . .[T]his was when I realized—and nobody can tell me anything differently—that there's one mythology in the world, and it has inflected in the various cultures in terms of their historical and social circumstances and needs, and particular local ethic systems . . . but it's one mythology."

I appreciated so much hearing Campbell discuss his working methods. Phil accented the image of Campbell's role as scholar by relaying how Alan Watts once asked Joseph Campbell what his meditation was. Joseph replied, "I underline sentences."

Phil further described Campbell as an animateur, an individual who is able to animate dense intellectual material. Phil is convinced Campbell would have preferred this term to "popularizer." For myself, it was Campbell's artistry as an animateur that inspired me to work with the Maya material in such a way as to bring it to a wider public.

After the National Arts Club banquet where Campbell was awarded the Medal of Honor for his publication The Way Of The Animal Powers, Cousineau conversed with Richard Adams. Over Glenlevit, Adams admitted to Phil that the one thing he couldn't understand is that Shakespeare had never read Joseph Campbell!

Phil stressed that in the last decade of Campbell's life many people began to admit his influence upon their work. George Lucas claimed much of the Star Wars trilogy stemmed from his reading of The Hero With A Thousand Faces and David Byrne of the Talking Heads attributed influence to Campbell, as did the Grateful Dead. Phil was with Campbell when he was invited to attend his first Grateful Dead concert. Campbell described it as a modern example of a Dionysian frenzy and, inversely, a backstage Deadhead described Campbell as the "Jerry Garcia of mythology" because of his ability to play with mythological themes like Garcia played guitar riffs. Campbell had never heard of the word "riff" before, liked it, and said he would use it in his future work.

I was grateful for Phil's presentation, not only because these previously-unseen clips of Campbell made it seem that Campbell was physically present in the room with us again, but because Phil's own commentary and remembrances accentuated Joseph Campbell's humanity; Joseph Campbell the man. That Phil had been launched into his own career by the inspiration of Campbell's work matched not only my own sojourn but that of many others, making us all part of a comraderie influenced by this incredible individual.

Phil wrapped up his presentation with an anecdote he once related to Campbell about an experience he had ono a cross-country motorcycle trip. He stopped into a little town in New Mexico called Tombstone and hiked up to Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery where he found a gravestone with this inscription: "Be what you is and not what you ain't; otherwise, you ain't what you is." Campbell laughed when Cousineau shared this experience with him and agreed that, yes, that's exactly right.

If anyone has taken Campbell's advice of following a path with heart, following personal bliss, it has been Phil Cousineau. I am so honored to have befriended him.

During the first break I congratulated Phil on his fine talk. He grasped my hand firmly, grinned, "You made it!" (knowing the difficulty I was having getting a ticket) and I admitted that, yeah, I was a lucky so-and-so. During a later conversation in the day, Phil advised he has found someone to finance the first printing of Deadlines, which he had tightened up even more since the manuscript he loaned me; but, Deadlines seemed like an echo to him now since he has been working feverishly and had recently completed the companion book to the Campbell documentary. I look forward to finally seeing Phil's books in print!

* * *

All these years later, that final sentence makes me smile wistfully to myself. Were we really so young once? Has Phil really written 23 books since then? Am I really like the narrator in William Goyen's House of Breath who said that looking at himself now and looking at himself then, he felt like he was two people divided by a huge chasm, each wondering who the other could possibly be?

No comments: