The Myth of Staying Forever Young

If anyone understood the human condition, it was Joseph Campbell. This is him in 1949 on what he calls the ‘inverted emphasis’ of staying forever young:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un­-exercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love—which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan…

He is principally directing this criticism to men who refuse to grow up, but also to women for fulfilling the vacuum of finding good men by appealing to fantasy where reality comes up lacking. The youthful reluctance to pull away from the mother that he describes is very Freudian. At the end of life we are faced with another, this time Jungian, conflict:

What is difficult to leave, then, is not the womb but the phallus—unless, indeed, the life-weariness has already seized the heart, when it will be death that calls with the promise of bliss that formerly was the lure of love.

The purpose of these descriptions is to point out the place for myth in our lives. Myth and ritual help us to cease to cleave to our mothers when we are young, then to accept death when we are old. It moves us through life in a way that is sublimely, universally human. Without myth, we go through these transitions alone, clumsily. With myth, we are part of something bigger, part of the hero’s journey. As Campbell says, with his unique and chilling talent for language:

Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, un­predictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

That discovery, that our plight is not unique but is a “series of standard metamorphoses” should be liberating and unifying. It elevates our tribe from being the small group of people we know personally to being the human race.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces p. 10-11

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