Responsibility and the Creative Writer

In the classic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, transcribed in the book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “A lot of people who write stories do not have a sense of their responsibility. These stories are making and breaking lives, but…the kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood [the responsibility of guiding people through the stages of their lives] is not there.”

Later on in the conversation, Campbell adds, “Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind of another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Taken alone, Campbell’s second statement might inspire creative writers to mine the ancient myths for new ideas, but when the writer combines it with the first statement, it becomes clear that what Campbell desires is a creative writer who can look at the world as it is — as opposed to as it was — and create new myths that speak to the people of today.

At one point in the conversation, Bill Moyers suggests that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance,” but Campbell corrects him, saying, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

According to Campbell, then, creative writers (and other artists) are responsible for helping the people of today connect with “the rapture of being alive,” while at the same time, devising ways to help the people of today understand how to pass from one stage of life to another, from becoming an adult, to finding a mate, to becoming a parent, to contributing to the wider community, to dying with grace.

Many people (myself included sometimes) would argue that an artist’s only responsibility is to the work of art, but Campbell seems to think that such an argument stems from a place of selfishness. “Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious,” he says, “and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The artist’s gift — and yes, for Campbell, artistic ability begins as a gift — is that he or she can become “the interpreter for others of things not seen.” If the artist eschews this responsibility, then the artwork becomes entertainment; it will never rise to the level of the myth.

But again, the mythologization that Campbell is talking about cannot be found in the past; the artist must  create the myth using the experiences that come from living in the world today. And unfortunately, as Campbell says, “what we have today is a demythologized world.”

Which means that we artists haven’t been doing our job. It’s time to fix that.