The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Joseph Campbell, long known for his ability to deal with nonlinear subjects such as dreams and myths, has once again tackled the intuitive level of man’s understanding and attempted to present it in a logical, linear fashion. The result is a book that challenges the reader to bring to bear everything he has ever read about metaphysics, art, mythology, and religion and to connect these ideas into an intricate pattern that does indeed lead from outer to inner space. Arranged in a logical way, this book leads the reader from the overview of the prologue through three dense and articulate chapters: “Cosmology and the Mythic Imagination,” “Metaphor as Myth and as Religion,” and “The Way of Art.” These are not, however, separate entities but parts of a universal structure, a harmonious symbiosis, which Campbell believes, optimistically, to be the message of the future. In his search for meaning in metaphor, Campbell moves from the universal to the particular, from religious traditions to the human imagination, and thus from inner to outer space. For most readers, this journey through outer and inner space will require both attention to detail and faith that all the disparate parts will come together in the end.

After Campbell introduces certain concepts in the prologue that are common to all religious traditions, including the dread triad of god-given urgencies—feeding, procreating, and overcoming—he turns to the relevance and meaning of mythology and the modern world. Beginning with a reference to Immanuel Kant and the idea that the laws of space are known because they are of the mind, Campbell challenges our ideas about the universe. A major thesis states that outer space is within us, for outer and inner space are the same. With this metaphor, Campbell encompasses both art and religion. The reader must also travel through outer space (the realm of religious and philosophic theory) and inner space (his own dreams, visions, and intuitive connections) in order to follow Campbell’s connections between universal and local ideas. For example, he is intrigued by the importance of the number 432,000 and its significance in Indian Kali Yoga, Icelandic Eddas, Germanic and Babylonian legends, the Old Testament, and the writings of the ancient Greeks. Of more interest, perhaps, to the Western reader is his discussion of the split in Western religions: the ethical protest against an uncritical submission to the will of nature, the distinction between good and evil, rather than a belief in oneness. This division has been widened by the separation between science and religion and the failure of mythology to encompass the advances of science. Mankind is forced to choose one or the other. Campbell notes parallels between Western and Eastern mythologies. The fact that man has chosen not to go along with nature but to align himself with the good in nature to fight the bad is the beginning of divisions and distinctions where there, in reality, are none. All groups assert that “God is with us”: according to Campbell’s hypothesis, all are right. The path of chapter 1 leads to some sort of metaphysical transcendentalism. The point seems to be that man has outgrown this old concept of good and evil; man’s new knowledge of space and the universe requires that he create and learn a new mythology that fits the world as it is known today. Science and religion must be brought together as one, not as opposites. To begin with, Campbell suggests that man give up defined good for the experience of the transcendence. “The Holy Land is everywhere,” mythologized as home. Campbell’s use of Hindu parables for analogies may leave the Western reader stumbling along behind because the analogy is thick and complicated and the story is unfamiliar. At the end of one such story, the old man who tells the tale simply vanishes, as does the young boy listening to it; the king, Indra, sits “alone, bewildered and unstrung.” The reader may indeed understand how he feels; yet the logic and wholeness of Campbell’s argument are convincing.

Fortunately, the second section of this book begins to answer some of the questions raised in the reader’s mind. Campbell’s mind (best described by a metaphor from the future—a magnetic sponge) collects and assimilates information from diverse sources, fitting them together so that there is an unexpected coherence. Beginning with the accepted idea that what one people call myth another may call religion, Campbell suggests that much, if not all, of the misunderstanding in religion derives from a confusion between mythic metaphors and hard facts. Most religious events and concepts are, in reality, metaphors. Myths, productions of the human imagination, are psychologically symbolic; the rituals that sustain these myths are metaphors or direct expositions of life-sustaining patterns. Mythic figurations are both psychological and metaphysical. Thus, the concept of God is a metaphor in an unknowing mind, connotative beyond itself and beyond thought—the realm of metaphysics. “Our Father” is a metaphor; its import is psychological, but its meaning is transcendent or metaphysical. Contemporary allusions to the religious conflict in Beirut help pin down this point. Campbell believes that tribal literalism can contribute only agony to an intercultural world. He believes that all this division and conflict comes from misreading metaphors, mistaking denotation for connotation, confusing the message with the messenger, from sentimentality and banality, all of which throws life and thought off balance. Tribalism or ethnocentrism causes and perpetrates the old mythologies. His argument is both loaded and convincing.

Moving through an intricate discussion of the moon and sun as metaphor, Campbell takes on some of the basic concepts of Christianity: the Virgin Birth, Salvation, and the Fall. The metaphor of the Virgin Birth, for example, is that of a life lived not for economic or...

(The entire section is 2424 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, March, 1987, p. 1084.

Parabola. XI, Winter, 1986, p. 101.