You Are What You Read: How The Power of Myth Showed Me The “Penultimate Truth”

In my Critical Responses to Poetry course, we were discussing theories of identity in literature, and how literature not only expresses/records the world around us, but consciously shapes it by the very act of description. That is, people read these works and then imitate them, making a second-hand version of life into a performance of life itself. In Chapter 8 of his book, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, he writes,

“Literature has not only made identity a theme; it has played a significant role in the construction of the identity of readers...Literary works encourage identification with characters by showing things from their point of view. Poems and novels address us in ways that demand identification, and identification works to create identity; we become who we are by identifying with figures we read about” (113). 

In other words, the works we read become our very expression of identity. How many of our thoughts, tastes, beliefs, and even dislikes can be tied to this or that text (or film, etc.), often without even being aware of it? To this end, I gave my students the following prompt: “I want you to discuss a ‘literary work’ (a book, a film, a piece of music or art, etc.) that you feel profoundly shaped your adult identity. Why did you identify so strongly with this work? Did it seem to echo something deep inside you, reminding you of who you were all along? Or did it make you want to be something else, something that wasn’t “you,” but that you felt you could be? In other words, did you choose it, or did it choose you? You might also think about how the work—whether consciously or subconsciously—affected your outlook, beliefs, understanding, and appearance? How did you become a subject of this work, subjected to “regimes” you might not have clearly understood?”

The responses were wide ranging and fascinating, from the cutting edge—the musical Hamilton and You Tube videos—to the tried and true classics—Candide and Crime and Punishment. While we don’t often think about which works have shaped the alpha and omega of our existence, they’re always right there, just at arm’s reach, particularly whenever we re-connect with the source. So many books have served as signposts for my own journey of identity, particularly as a scholar/writer/professor, and even without squinting I can identify most of them in my intellectual DNA. However, no one book did more to jumpstart my academic career, even before I set foot in a college classroom, than Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth (1988).

The Power of Myth is a strange book: really a transcription of a late-80’s TV series which consisted of an interview between Bill Moyers, a famed journalist, and Joseph Campbell, an equally famous scholar of mythology, religion, and folklore. The book follows their conversations on topics focusing around “The Hero’s Adventure,” “Myth and the Modern World,” and “Sacrifice and Bliss,” among others. The book is an accessible distillation of Campbell’s general worldview, though far from being a breezy conversation, it’s remarkably detailed and bears careful reading. The man spoke like he wrote—in polished, literary utterances.

When I first picked up the book at the local library, what initially captured my interest was the cover: a Buddhist dragon embellished with what looked like psychedelic pinwheels—either flowers or waves, I couldn’t tell. And in big letters, I saw the word “Myth,” which at the time I found impossibly alluring. A high school teacher once told me myths were lies, ways that the devil tricked you, but I never believed that. I knew that myths were the truth, but told in a secret way so that you could misunderstand them, or simply dismiss them as fairy tales. They were a key to unlock many doors, but most people threw away the key, thinking it useless.

However, what really blew my mind were the references to Star Wars. For the first time, I read a book that connected popular culture with the world of ideas. Campbell read the trilogy through the lens of myth and folklore, and reportedly coached George Lucas as he penned his initial scripts. Those movies were always a guilty pleasure, one that inevitably had to be stored in the closet with the rest of my toys as I ventured into adulthood (this was before geek culture became cool, as did remaining an eternal adolescent). Speaking about the cultural significance of Star Wars, Campbell says,

“It is in an language that talks to young people, and that’s what counts. It asks, Are you going to be a person of heart and humanity—because that’s where the life is, from the heart—or are you going to do whatever seems to be required of you by what might be called “intentional power”? When Ben Kenobi says, “May the Force be with you,” he’s speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions” (179).

I had never heard of anyone connecting a character of fantasy, like Ben Kenobi, with ancient philosophical ideas—at least not with a straight face. He even ties Darth Vader into Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, and Luke with Siegfried killing the Dragon. All pretty heady stuff, which I never understood as a kid who simply delighted in the far away heroics of Star Wars. Of course, that’s the beauty of literature: you read it first for the story and characters, and later, for the ideas and implications. It thrilled me to think that Star Wars was part of this vast tapestry of literature and thought. Yet there was more to come...

When I first picked up the book, I was at a crossroads. I think I was a junior in high school, making mediocre grades, and just doing everything in a very listless, half-ass manner. I kind of played bass guitar, I kind of wrote stories, I kind of read books, I kind of studied astronomy, I kind of collected classical music, and so forth. I had no idea where I would go after graduation or what I would do, though I was firmly against going to college. More school seemed a pointless occupation. And yet, I loved reading and learning, and began to develop a passion for following a course of study. I just didn’t know how to go about it. Then I read this:

“Sit in a room and read and read—and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. The realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done...Just read what this one another has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view” (122).

This passage was a response to Bill Moyer’s question, “What about those [people] who are ordinary, those who are not poets or artists, or who have not had a transcendent ecstasy? How do we know of these things?” (122). You see, I was looking for that epiphany, that moment of awareness that would bring me to my ‘true’ identity. When I read this passage I suddenly understood. I had to isolate myself from the world and really work and study. School gave me nothing but busy work and never spoke to my mind and heart. I would have to do it myself. And so I did, reading everything I could by the “right” authors and seeing where it led me. Naturally, that term, the “right authors” is problematic today, but I think it needs some clarification. He simply meant writers that have lasted, that are trying to connect to a grand conversation that goes way back into antiquity and connects to our own world. Nothing wrong with a bestselling romance or a thriller, but you can only read so many of them (and they are ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow). Read books that last—that have lasted. Those are the ones that will repay the time and thought you put into them, especially when you’re just starting out and need to develop your mind and personality.

My first course of action was to read everything Joseph Campbell wrote, which in turn led me to some of my favorite works of literature: Tolstoy, Shakespeare (whom I knew, but not very intimately), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Tao te Ching, Homer, The Bhagavad Gita, and innumerable myths and legends. I consider this reading my first BA, and it paved the way to my actual BA in English that followed a few years later. The Power of Myth made me hungry for knowledge, but more importantly, it made me realize what knowledge I wanted. I wanted to study the works that most people dismissed, said were pointless, boring, dated, lies, myths, or overrated. The works that we keep reading and telling each other, even when we ought to know better and people are writing “better” works. Nevertheless, we keep staging Shakespeare, even when we know the stories and can speak the lines verbatim (some of us). I never believed people again—even my own students—when they told me studying such works was a intellectual dead-end. As Campbell says,

“No, mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told. So this is the penultimate truth” (206).

To Campbell, that is the true “hero’s adventure”—to seek the penultimate truth in art. Few take up the call, but I vowed to seek it for the rest of my life, and hopefully, pass on this call to others. It’s not something that can pay off in money or in any obvious status, but it’s a way of knowing yourself and charting your true identity—or as much of your identity as you can ever truly know. I continue to grow and change every year, and my understanding of life, art, and everything in-between is always challenged. However, the journey began here, with Campbell’s monumental work, which taught me to enjoy the journey and not look for the fabled Ithaca at the end of the road. To quote Cavafy, who probably inspired Campbell’s own journey,

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for,
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

We all journey home to ‘Ithaca,’ but the end of the voyage is the end of our life. What matters are the works that take us to the end, making us rich not with gold, but memories and experiences. The longer the journey, the more beauty we can hoard up in our minds. Like a twice-told tale, we know the ending, there are no twists and turns of the plot to discover. We all die in the end. But no one knows how we get there, or who we are when we turn the final page. 


  1. Beautiful. My first experience with "living out" what was presented to me was when I was a child, living amidst disorder and conflict in my home, and saw the picture of the girl on the Tinkertoys or Pick-Up-Sticks cylinder in her party dress and lacy socks and Mary Janes playing on a terrazzo floor. I moved a couple of pieces of furniture and rolled back a filthy area rug to expose our Terrazzo floor, then I dressed up and arranged myself on the floor as she was, and I played with the toys as she did, and I had created a better world than the one I lived in.

  2. Thanks so much for reading! Yes, we all have that moment when we live through something and it 'creates' us. This wasn't my first one, but it was my first literary one, and the one that has stayed with me the longest. I was actually able to teach parts of this book recently, so I feel my journey came full circle.


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