The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

by Joseph Campbell
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space was Joseph Campbell's last published work before his death in 1987. In many ways, it represents a culmination of his lifelong study of mythology as he looks to the incoming twenty-first century and the future of mythology and religion. As a result, this work seems most fitting as a kind of capstone to Campbell's long career, a summing up of one of the twentieth century's most influential thinkers on the role of myth in the lives of everyday people.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Due to recent discoveries and the increasing interconnectedness of cultures across the globe, Campbell feels that the mythological imagination of the future will not be the same as that of the past. Much of the book focuses on how the old ways of looking at the world, God, and humanity are changing in the face of new scientific discoveries and philosophical developments. Due to these developments, the way humans look at their place in the universe and their relationship with the transcendent is also evolving.

Campbell points this out bluntly in an introduction to his text:

For there are no more intact monadic horizons: all are dissolving. And along with them, the psychological hold is weakening of the mythological images and related social rituals by which they were supported. . . .

The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?

One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart, from recognitions of identities behind or within the appearances of nature, perceiving with love a “thou” where there would have been otherwise only an “it.”

As in his most famous work, the 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell observes the common traits and reoccurring motifs in legends, religions, and myths across the world, such as virgin births, gods both vengeful and merciful, and great floods. He argues that in an increasingly diverse, global society, religious literalism and the tribal mindset that often goes along with it will only lead to further bloodshed and division between groups. Instead, people must focus on the connectedness of all things, which is emphasized in multiple religious and mythical traditions.

Campbell's thoughts on the role of the artist also feed into his ideas about mythology and the transcendent. He believes artists, like mystics, have connections with transcendent reality, though unlike mystics, they try to make these experiences into concrete works. This also ties into Campbell's commentary on inner and outer realities, and how the two converge. In essence, people must not see God or the transcendent as "out there" and unknowable, but as accessible within themselves.

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2424

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 biological ends such as survival, progeny, prosperity, or pleasure, but for the metaphysical end. Thus, “folk heroes” who die for causes or who give of themselves totally often have virgin births attributed to them in folk legend and memory. This is metaphor confused as fact. As metaphors, rather than facts, these become only parts of universal mythology.

Yet this is no attack on religious beliefs but, rather, an exploration of metaphysical meaning. Connectedness is of central importance throughout this work; each time Campbell introduces something new, there is an attempt to link it with the concepts previously discussed. Thus, when he considers in depth the Indian Yogic schools and the spinal centers of consciousness, he connects this to his earlier discussion of the basic urgencies of life, and he attempts to integrate the psychological impact of man’s gods with cultural expectations. He synthesizes, seeing similarities and relationships between images and concepts that appear on the surface to have little in common. This book creates a whole greater than the sum of all of its parts. In order to make these connections, Campbell recognizes the necessity of threshold figures that stand at the interface of time and eternity. Readers of this book will find that Campbell himself becomes a “threshold” figure, helping them pass from one field of thought to another. One interesting example of this is his interpretation of the myth of the Garden of Eden. Campbell proposes that the serpent is a “threshold figure,” attempting to release mankind from the bondage of an unknowing god who had identified himself with the absolute and had blocked the way to the tree of eternal life. The frequent juxtaposition of concepts and images from different cultures and time periods is part of what holds his theory together. If the kingdom is within us, then immortality is already available to us if we detach our minds from mere mortal aims: Eden is here; there was no exile. This assumption finds validity in Sir James G. Frazer’s concept of “homeopathic magic,” Adolf Bastian’s “elementary ideas,” and Carl Jung’s “archetypes of the unconscious.” One becomes convinced that Campbell has surveyed the ancient writings and the artistic renderings of the world. The similarities in structure and the correlations create for Campbell macrocosm, microcosm, and mesocosm, all equal, all important. Similarities noted in images from Indian gurus, Tibetan rimpoches, and Japanese Zen masters from the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Ages are not surprising perhaps, but some of the same image patterns can be found in Navaho sand paintings. Here Campbell poses another possible connection, that of the hallucinogen experience, which he claims was common to the entire Mayan-Aztec culture field as well as to the Greek mysteries of Eleusis and the mysterious Vedic sacraments; he further suggests that some of these same experiences are produced through intense Yoga practice. If this hypothesis is true, it validates the idea that the source for metaphor, myth, and symbol is the individual psyche. This accounts for the appearance of the same symbols, independent and parallel, in many places at or near the same time—in other words, what folklorists and anthropologists call polygenesis.

Campbell’s study of American Indian culture, in particular that of the Navaho, seems to have provided much impetus for this section of his book. He is especially interested in parallels between the vision quest of the Ushumna, a tribe of ancient India, and that of the Navaho; both, Campbell suggests, may be interpreted as “a single mythological epic of the human imagination.” His detailed comparisons lead him to assert that Bastian’s “elementary ideas” are of the human psyche, regardless of culture, while differences in mores and ethical precepts reflect the geography, history, and societal expectations of local groups.

The question each reader of this work must answer is whether Campbell proves his case. Certainly there is no lack of evidence, but a certain leap of faith is required, for few readers will have read as widely as Campbell himself. When he asserts that what distinguishes all mythological thought and communication is an implicit connotation of a strong sense of identity of some kind which transcends appearances and unites behind the scenes the oppositions of the world, it is easy to believe that he has, indeed, studied all “mythological thought and communication” before making such a statement. With this theory, Campbell can encompass individual biographies and dreams as interlocking parts of the Indian image of the “Net of Gems,” the Buddhist doctrine of “mutual arising,” the Mahyna “Flower-Wreath stra,” the Japanese Avatamsaka-stra, the Hindu Cosmic Serpent dreaming the dream of the universe, and finally James Joyce’s vision in Finnegans Wake. Intuitively and logically, the universe becomes, at least for Campbell, one concise, coherent, metaphysical, and transcendent whole.

In the concluding section of this book, Campbell turns to the question of art. Beginning with the distinction between the mystic and the artist (the mystic has no craft to hold him to this world), Campbell connects the Indian god Vishnu the Preserver with the Greek god Apollo and Shiva the Destroyer with Dionysus. He continues to connect the roles of artist and priest: They are seen in the same light, for both must learn to master metaphorical language. Nevertheless, they do differ—the priest uses an established vocabulary while the artist must be creative and innovative to be effective. Thus, art is seen as the way of innovative insights, the mystic way, beyond mere religion. Campbell sees the microcosm of the artist’s nature and the macrocosm of the nature of the universe as two aspects of one reality. Having set the perimeters of theory, Campbell turns again to the concrete. Mixing art, symbol, and metaphor, he gives a detailed analysis of the Great Seal of the United States which is engraved on the back of all one-dollar bills. One is forced to confront the mystical in the mundane, to see mystery in this common symbol, for the idea of money itself is also symbolic. It is curious to contemplate the spiritual inspiration behind economic values. It seems that not only the message but also the vocabulary in which it is written has been lost. Moving back to focus on the artist and his work, Campbell turns to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus translates the values of art according to Aristotle. These ideas (beauty, harmony, and radiance) are relevant to myth and metaphor as well. Campbell presents these ideas as touchstones, noting their presence in the teachings of Buddha and in the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Such prodigious leaps of thought seem simple under Campbell’s guidance.

Somehow it all begins to come together with a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” Here is the transcendent vision, the classic goal of Yoga, Nirvana. Campbell has drawn convincing connections between Shiva, Dionysus, Joyce, Aristotle, Richard Wagner, Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Cervantes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Jung, and even the “antihero” created by Charles Chaplin. The “whatness” of Joyce is fused with the Indian term “Brahman.” Campbell poses a final question, however, not about individual psychology, alienation, or resentment, but about the irreducible conflict of metaphysics vis-à-vis morals within the jurisdiction of art, myth, religion, and social action. What can be done about the schism between materialism and industrialization and the world of the artist? Campbell seeks to unify coldness and passion; perhaps this is the fusion of inner and outer space. The book concludes with another quotation, from Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Natural Music,” which calls together the archetypal images that Campbell has been tracing: old voices, birds, rivers and oceans, divisions and one language, desire and terror, and the dreams of lovers, both personal and of the world. Poetry may be the answer to Campbell’s question, not in the language of the scholar or the priest but in the metaphors and symbols of the artist. Perhaps only in poetry, art, or music can one see the whole that Campbell proclaims and understand the unification of all and the one in metaphor, myth, and symbol.

Few books of such short length contain so much information. Campbell has combed the world’s mythologies and metaphors, bringing order to what on the surface seems scattered and disconnected. Because of the breadth and depth of this work, many readers will want to reread it. In addition, Campbell’s notes at the end of the book provide a reading list of sources. Although light in weight, this is not a book to be taken lightly. For those in search of a new mythology for a new world, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space is a good starting point.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8

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

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

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access