Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Joseph Campbell’s The Inner Reaches of Outer Space is an investigation into the power of myth and its ability to convince people to live by the universalistic meanings that myth provides. By utilizing a Jungian literary perspective, Campbell elucidates mythmaking as a process of individual self-discovery. He argues that the perfection of people’s personal spiritual development will ultimately produce a kind of parity between their own beliefs and the predominant mythology of the day, regardless of their geographical location or place in time. His narrative is not organized chronologically, but rather thematically.
After considering the roles of myth and metaphor as producers of both religion and what people generally consider to be fact, Campbell moves into a discussion of art. His conjecture is that art is the highest expression of our consistently evolving consciousness, and he regards the artist as the creator of a conduit between the internal spiritual world and the external mythical one. For example, he writes,
finally, it must be asked: “How far does one’s mercy reach” (Romans 11:32)? For only so far do the inner and outer worlds meet. And just so far is the reach of one’s art.
Campbell’s general argument Campbell is that it is possible to form a bridge between the external expression of mythology in society and one’s internal representation of it. The formation of this bridge lies within the domain of art.
Campbell’s argument bears striking similarity to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his discussion of mankind as a kind of bridge that leads from the primitive world to the world of the Übermensch. Indeed, we can see Nietzsche’s influence both in Campbell’s notes and elsewhere throughout the text.
Campbell provides several other examples of mythmaking societies and explains the general function of myth in each. He describes, for example, Judeo-Christian theology, psychologist Karl Jung’s archetypes of unconsciousness, the chakras of Indian Kundalini yoga, and many others.
Campbell’s general conclusion is that myth in society has four primary functions: generating a general sense of awe and mystery of the universes, providing an explanation for the existence of that world, maintaining social order, and supporting an individual through the travails of life. His work beautifully illustrates the inextricable relationship between individuals in society and the myths that support that society, denying any possibility of their separation.