Book Review: Pathways of Bliss

Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation by Joseph Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Joseph Campbell’s work is always best consumed through audiobook. He’s a dry writer. Unfortunately, he’s an even drier speaker, as career academics usually are, so you’ve really gotta hunt for the audiobooks where they hired professional narrators to read it, instead of the recordings of his university lectures that they try to pass off as books.

The ideas contained in the work are gold, especially if you’re a Jungian or some other kind of witch. Human beings think in terms of the mythological. These archetypes help us understand aspects of ourselves, and we call on them the way that voodoo practitioners let the loa ride them, or how ancient Greeks invoked the protection of situational gods, color-coded for easy reference

The main idea of pathway to bliss is We Live in a Society and we lost the plot, which is why we have such a hard time figuring out what makes us happy. The first step is initiation, the transformation from the comfort and protection of childhood to suddenly having all the responsibility of adulthood thrust on us. In many cultures, this is a highly ritualized process. In American culture, it’s not, which is why there are so many cringy “adulting” jokes. Women get menstruation, which serves as a pretty undeniable threshold, but men just kind of stumble along and eventually segue into what their interpretation of proper adulthood and conduct is.

The other function of initiation is to unite the mentalities of the tribe with regard to what the values of the tribe are, and to provide a clear, concise set of rules for the aspiring initiated to follow and uphold. A code. We don’t have a code anymore. Instead, we have a selection of half-ass codes that we spend all our time arguing about, because as mythologically-minded creatures, we want the meaning and purpose provided by a unanimous code.

There’s a vague blueprint, though. You graduate. You get a job. You marry. You produce 2.3 offspring. You provide for them. You keep all those plates spinning until the kids grow up and launch along their own ill-defined trajectories, and then you retire, and then…

And then?

Campbell talks about how it’s at that point you’re free to pursue your bliss, even though time has almost run out. You spend your whole life working toward the golden years where you’ll finally be able to fish in peace, and once you’ve squared away the rest of your requirements and you have your lifetime boxed up nice and tidy, you get in your little boat and row out. And sometimes, after a week, you realize that fishing is boring, and holy shit, I wasted my entire life.

There is no formalized initiation. There is no clearly defined rule set. We have interpretations of the expectations foisted on us, but interpretations are all they are, since our culture is without a true moral compass. The main message of the book is that we don’t need to put our bliss off until we’re almost dead. In fact, it’s the worst move we can make. Our lives belong to us foremost, and we contain all the archetypes, and maybe some would resonate with us better than others if we gave ourselves the chance to explore those sides of ourselves.

Maybe you weren’t meant to be a fisherman. You thought you were, but you waited and scrimped and saved for 50 years, and now you’re out there, and fishing is boring. Maybe your true passion is base jumping. Well, you’re 70, so you’re not going to go base jumping. Not more than once, anyway. It’s tragic to deny yourself the best life you could have had, and the best you that you could have been, because instead of pursuing some ridiculous bliss dream off the beaten path, you followed what you thought was expected of you — but which was never really expected of you in the first place!

Go on out there, chase your bliss. The Gonzo kids would say “Let your freak flag fly”. Do that, if it makes you feel better. It’s your life. You’re the protagonist of the story, and I think that the real and deep-down origin of neuroticism is the cognitive dissonance that comes from knowing yourself to be the hero of your personal mythology while observing yourself constantly acting unheroic.



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Storming the Castle

August 10, 2018. Groton, Massachusetts. 

The itch was too much to resist. The Delf was getting claustrophobic. The skyscrapers were closing in, as were the perpetually growing mounds of garbage that have not once been collected from anywhere in the city since Ben Franklin invented both Philadelphia and garbage. I needed a breather.

The Girl and I opted for New Hampshire this time around. Our last few jaunts had been to the desert, and while they were about 50% fun, after a while you know what sand looks like. Colorado is on the agenda, but we needed something we could squeeze into three days, and I just did Maine and Massachusetts.

New Hampshire is laughably tiny. Once we set up base camp in Manchester, the suspiciously rustic “most populous city” in NH, we accidentally ranged out across state lines twice.

It was six hours from Philly. Toll roads remain arbitrary, but become much more considerate as you head north. It costs around $12 to get from the bottom of PA to the top. It’s $5 to escape from New Jersey, even if you just wandered in by accident. Passing through the godless snarl of NYC traffic is $15. After that, you plow up into New England and you can stay on the turnpike for hours, tolls will be like $1. One was actually 50 cents.

Really, guys? Like we don’t have it bad enough?

At some point in Massachusetts, we happened on an ambiguous temple “COMING SOON!” It didn’t claim a religion, but the only thing blocking the access road was a length of chain, and golden spires were visible in the trees. We parked and investigated.

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It was just rising up in the woods in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know any of the characters embossed on the spires. I concluded it had something to do with that black sarcophagus full of mummy juice.

I’ve since done a little more research and discovered that this is going to be a shared Muslim and Hindu temple, which I found bizarre. I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the specifics of Hindu scripture, but I’m fairly certain Islamic theology operates on that Judeo-Christian fan favorite about “No gods before me”, let alone a whole pantheon of them. I also seem to remember some strongly worded bits about “no idols nor graven image”.

(Leviticus 26:1-2 if you’re not a tahrif type, Quran 9.5 if you are.)

The shared temple cover story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. That was a spontaneously generating Nyaralthotemple. New England is filthy with Old Ones.

We bailed before we were descended upon by any unknowable horrors from the black spaces between the stars, stopping for the worst coffee in America on our way to Bancroft’s Castle.

Bancroft’s Castle is a deliciously American story. It starts in 1906 with a renaissance man named General William Bancroft, a soldier, politician, and businessman who decides he’s done enough for one lifetime and he’s going to settle down in the idyllic hills of the charmingly named Groton, Massachusetts. He looks at his 401k and says, “You know what? I’m gonna build a retirement castle.”

He badly underestimates how much it costs to build a castle, which makes you wonder how effective a businessman he was. Our man is over budget by the time he’s built the tower and the bungalow.

He lives in his little Iggy Koopa boss tower for 12 years, then sells it to Doctor Harold Ayers. Doc Ayers converts it into a sanatorium, raking in $20 a week per tuberculosis patient (that’s about $900 a month nowadays, adjusting for inflation), which must have pissed Bancroft off immensely.

He maintained that racket until the late 1920s, and when the sanatorium closed it was converted into a social center and lodge for the Groton Hunt Club. This continued until July 4, 1932, when the castle was burnt down by a firecracker. Must have been one hell of a siege.

Perhaps due to how badly and consistently it failed at being a castle, Bancroft Castle was abandoned. Since Groton Hill was used for hangings in the 1600s, and since it’s a ruin in New England, and since it was once a TB sanatorium, it is alleged to be chock full of ghosts.

 

Despite its inefficacy, I could understand the appeal.

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The bungalow had nothing on the tower proper.

 

In addition to all its other failings, it seemed like it would be pretty easy to scale.

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as seen with Adventure Hat, the stupidest functional headwear New Mexico had to offer

On the way back to the car, the Girl elbowed me in the ribs. Like I wasn’t already bleeding everywhere from my botched superhero landing getting down off the tower.

“Do you see that?”

“Ghosts? Or bears?”

My hands were up. Punching wouldn’t phase either of those things, but damn it, I had to try.

She pointed up into a tree.

 

our ornithologist friend confirmed it as a red-tailed hawk

I’d never seen a red-tailed hawk that close before. It wasn’t even a little frightened of us or the spectral bears. We gawped up at it for five minutes or so, watching it bop around and ruffle its huge clunky body, scoping for vermin, then the mosquitos got too bad and we got back on the road.

Next stop on our New Hampshire trip: actually New Hampshire.

Love,

The Bastard