There's precious little that qualifies as 'wisdom' in this modern world, that doesn't need qualification or a willing suspension of disbelief, but Joseph Cambell's teachings are an exception to the rule. They bring together aspects of anthropology, psychology, and theology in a very persuasive, all-encompassing vision of our existence that starts from the myths of antiquity - the myths that exist almost unchanged in the major religions. Their receding influence has, in Campbell's view, left modern man adrift without a buttressing belief system to give life a satisfying meaning.
Every college has its superstar lecturers; when I went to UCLA it seemed every department had some reigning sage wearing a halo of wisdom. We attended their lectures in respectful silence - these were the ones to listen to, even if you argued with their teaching assistants later. I even once listened to the notorious Angela Davis from a crowded doorway at the height of her notoriety - and she held her audience like a pro.
Joseph Campbell taught for over 50 years at the college level. At the end of his years he was no declining Mr. Chips, no dotard to whom everyone paid respect, but had forgotten why. He was a vibrant communicator to the end, to which these shows can attest.
Part of Campbell's credibility is that he's not selling anything - he's not a crackpot, and he hasn't any belief system or ideology he wants to inculcate. Everything's 'on the up & up', intellectually speaking. He's also not afraid to bring his truths out into the real world of controversial ideas and social hot topics. Sex and religion are simple realities to him - religious fundamentalists of all persuasions might be revulsed at his openness to new ideas and his acceptance of the beauty of older primitive ones. He acknowledges Eros as an important force in living, unrestrained by conservative dogma.
Mythos is a direct, quality recording of a series of his lectures, and we should consider ourselves lucky that someone had the presence of mind to undertake them while he was still in a state of health to do them. Using simple slides projected on a blackboard, Campbell takes us methodically through his concept of the human experience as 'one great story'. Instead of being prompted by an interviewer, the content is presented as if we were his undergraduates.
There's more direct psychology, as he graphs out Jungian concepts with simple line diagrams. He explicates ancient cosmologies, or 'world view' diagrams of how primitive societies perceived the universe, very clearly. And he uses humor well - not clever jokes, but self-deprecating asides, such as when he produces a 60 year old magazine and admits that he was a subscriber with its first issue.
Susan Sarandon's introductions and interpolated 'bumpers' between major lecture topics are mainly a commercial marketing hook, that don't quite mesh. They're rather dry, but you get the idea that the packagers are trying to make the show sexy. Susan exudes warmth, shall we say, in any environment. The show cuts away to her curled up in an armchair, in a veddy traditional dark-panelled, leather-upholstered room ... like she's the Aphrodite of Masterpiece Theater. Charming though she may be, the speeches prepared for her aren't very inspiring, and you're tempted to skip through to get to the professor once again.
Wellspring's DVD cannot faulted for quality. The video recording of the late '80s still holds up well. Whoever organized the shooting of the lectures did a nice job of catching Campbell's rhythm on the fly, with few technical problems. It's much closer to studio stage-lighting than the ragged quality we're used to seeing on Universities' own AV tapes of lectures ... not polished, but never distracting from the content itself.
Mythos has no real extras beyond a text biography and bibliography for Joseph Campbell. The educational utility of the show is obvious. Savant had no trouble watching both this show and its opposite number, the Bill Moyers' hosted Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth ... yes, about 16 cumulative hours, spread over a week.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Paul Moyer's PBS shows are always about pressing subjects few other
people will tackle - last year's was a series about Death and Dying that was very direct and personally
useful. When he tackles political subjects, you never know he's advocating directions opposed
180o to those of our government. A series show last year about
special interests controlling media in the country was called Free Speech for Sale. Before
it was over you wanted to march in the streets and protest the selling of our rights - the issue
in his hands came across as neither left or right in the political spectrum.