The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

by Joseph Campbell

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Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Joseph Campbell was one of the most prominent explorers of the global significance of myth. Drawing on the mythologies of multiple cultural traditions in many time periods, Campbell compiled a corpus of mythic themes and delved deep into the most widely used motifs. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space begins with the idea of the metaphor and investigates the concept’s use in both myth and religion; the essays were developed from a set of lectures that Campbell delivered in the 1980s.

The basic idea that there are primal compulsions common to all human beings is one of the fundamental underpinnings of Campbell’s cross-cultural analysis. He locates destruction as the first of these compulsions and the sexual, generative urge as second. Among these basic principles, the third motivation, which he identifies as the main generator of historic action worldwide since civilization developed in Mesopotamia, stems from—but is still distinct from—the bioenergetic impulses to feed. Calling this the “impulse to plunder,” the author suggests that it may be irresistible.

Psychologically this might perhaps be read as an extension of the bioenergetics command to feed upon and consume; however, the motivation here is not any such primal biological urgency but of an impulse launched from the eyes not to consume, but to possess.

Campbell explores the connection between “outer space,” the physical extent of space and universes beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and “inner space,” the interior states of psychological and metaphysical regions of human consciousness. Beginning with the mention of famed departures, such as the death and ascension of Jesus, Campbell speculates about where their spirit might have physically traveled.

Where those bodies went was not into outer space, but into inner space. That is to say, what is connoted by such metaphorical voyages is a possibility of the return of the mind in spirit, while still incarnate, to full knowledge of, that transcendent source out of which the mystery of a given life arises into this field of time and back into which it in time dissolves.

One of the recurrent motifs that he traces is the goddess as the underlying representation of nature and fertility. In the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley (India), for example, the Goddess of Many Names was the mother of all the gods. In many places, she is not only an originator but also is connected with eternal cycles of time. While these cycles indicate the natural phenomena that operate independently of human action, in certain manifestations this goddess also represents the human role in transformation of the landscape, especially through agriculture.

Divinities of her kind are the local representatives of those powers of nature that indeed are the creative energies of all life. They are not of this day or that, but forever. Mythologies of the ever-returning cycles of unending time are everywhere of her order of being.

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