Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

“You know what? Fuck beauty pageants. Life is one beauty pageant after another. School, then college, then work… Fuck that.”

(Cover image taken from the trailer.)

I was 15 when Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006. My family and I went to see it in theaters, and we liked it enough to buy the DVD. It was one of the few “artsy” movies that I liked at that age. For the most part, I was happy to watch silly comedies and dumb action movies; Little Miss Sunshine is neither, and yet I watched it consistently and enjoyed it, although I could hardly say why. I’ve had the pleasure to encounter the film again (we played it in English class the week before spring break), and realized, upon re-watching it, that Little Miss Sunshine is a far deeper movie that I could have guessed.

The premise is simple: An adorable girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), wins a local beauty contest (she was runner-up, but the first-place winner was disqualified for taking diet pills), which qualifies her to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pangent—her dream come true.

Meanwhile, Olive’s family is in disarray. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who coaches her, is a heroine addict who’s been kicked out of his nursing home. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is trying to market his nine-step program for turning “losers” into “winners”. Her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is the only person who has a job, and she works desperately to support the family while she gradually loses patience with her husband’s scheme. Olive’s older brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a moody adolescent who has taken a vow of silence until he goes to the Air Force Academy. And Olive’s uncle, Frank (Steve Carrell), was a leading Proust scholar until he was fired for inappropriate behavior; the film opens with him sitting in a hospital room, after he tried to kill himself.

The task is simple: get Olive to California to compete in the pageant. But circumstances come together—Richard isn’t working so they’re short of money, Grandpa is Olive’s coach so he has to go, Sheryl can’t drive a stick shift, Frank can’t be left by himself since he is suicidal, Dwayne is only fifteen so he can’t stay home alone either—which force the family to pile in an old Volkswagen bus, all together, mostly against their will, to drive all the way there. Thus the adventure begins, a classic road trip movie.

On the surface, there is much to commend the movie. The acting is generally excellent, especially Toni Collette’s performance as the harried and impatient mother. The long shots of the Volkswagen bus driving through the country’s innards are pure Americana. There are some great comedic moments (Alan Arkin is responsible for most of them, even when he’s dead). I especially love DeVotchka’s soundtrack to the movie—at times kitch, at times bubbly, and tender when it needs to me, with a hypnotic preponderance of the root chord to the mediant, an extremely weak harmonic contrast that sounds like a bittersweet sigh.

What I realize now is how thematically tight this movie is, despite the superficially meandering narrative. Little Miss Sunshine is, at bottom, an exploration of what it means to be a winner and a loser. Those two words come up again and again in the movie, in large part thanks to Richard’s nine-step program; and each character interacts with these two poles of success in different ways.

Specifically, each character is defined by what they value in life, what it means to be a “winner” (and, consequently, a “loser”). For Olive, it means winning the beauty pageant; for Dwayne, flight school; for Richard, getting a publishing deal; for grandpa, hedonistic pleasure; for Sheryl, having a normal, happy family; and for Frank, academic prestige. And during the course of the movie, each one of them has to confront the implosion of their dream. Olive is no beauty queen, Dwayne is color-blind, Richard doesn’t get his deal, Sheryl faces the prospect of divorce, grandpa’s hedonism gets himself killed, and Frank witnesses his rival lauded and himself forgotten.

All of them, in other words, face becoming that most dreaded of words, a “loser.” They all have to confront life stripped of their definition of success. This is terrifying, because it means giving up their definition of themselves. Who is Dwayne without flight school? Who is Frank without his professorship? A nobody? A loser?

All of the characters face this moment, a moment of despair, when their dreams are stripped from them. They face this moment of having their own sense of themselves collapse, and their first reaction is to categorize themselves as a failure. Frank is the most extreme case of this, having attempted suicide, but to a greater or lesser extent this happens to everyone, even Olive, who cries in the hotel the night before the pageant because she’s afraid that if she loses her father won’t love her.

This question—”What does it mean to be a loser?”—is brought up explicitly several times. Grandpa says that a loser is “someone who’s so afraid of losing he doesn’t even try.” Richard says that the difference between winners and losers is that “losers don’t give up.” Frank says that Proust was a “total loser,” and yet points out that Proust’s suffering helped him write. Yet all of these are, at best, partial answers. The film’s final message is this: A loser is somebody who cares whether people think he’s a loser.

This is why the film’s climax, when the family gets up and dances to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” is so joyfully cathartic. For it is at that moment when each character finally stops caring about seeming successful, normal, smart, beautiful, cool, or anything else; they stop caring about what the audience thinks. They can be seen as losers and still be happy, which is exactly what it means to be a winner.

Perhaps the most nefarious part of the fear of being seen as a “loser” is that is separates us from one another. All notions of winner and loser require some sort of evaluative framework—how we’re determining success. Each one of these frameworks creates a pecking order, people who are higher up or lower down the hierarchy, and it naturally creates a lot of anxiety around losing status. What’s more, as we can see from just this family, the world is full of many different conflicting value frameworks: academia, business, family, the military, hedonistic pleasure. Even if we’re a winner in one world we’re inevitably a loser in many other worlds. And since we’re inevitably a loser, we will be avoided and shunned by people anxious to lose status in their world.

Giving up your fear of being seen as a loser allows people to engage one another as equals, without status anxiety, without either deference or scorn. In other words, you need to give up this idea of being a loser to have simple, healthy relationships with others.

This notion is symbolized in the movie’s Volkswagen bus. Not long into their voyage, the transmission breaks. From then on, to get it started, everyone is needed: the van doesn’t move unless the whole family is pushing together. Later on, the horn breaks too, constantly producing a squawking wail, drawing every passerby’s attention to the van.

In the same way, the family begins as a fractured group of people concerned with winning and losing. Eventually, each of them realize that their little value systems are silly, and they can connect with each other simply as people. (Frank ironically notes that he’s the “pre-eminent Proust scholar in the US” every time they push the van, underscoring how totally irrelevant his old value-system is.) Soon enough, they discard their old notions of winning and losing so completely that they can be publically goofy, as symbolized by the car’s persistent horn. (I’m not normally a fan of symbolic analysis like this, but it seems very obvious in this case.)

All this brings me, inevitably, to Donald Trump. “Winner” and “loser” are two of the president’s favorite words. Calling someone a loser is, for him, the ultimate insult. In Donald’s world, to win is to have value, to lose to be worthless. This mentality is perfectly demonstrated by Trump’s previous ownership of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. These pageants are such painfully obvious demonstrations of the way we gleefully use superficial standards to rank one another that they didn’t need someone like Trump to discredit them. The beauty pageant becomes one of the dominant symbols of this film, the archetype of every evaluative framework. And the point of the film is that it is far better to get yourself banned from beauty contests than to win them.

So it strikes me, now, that Little Miss Sunshine has only grown more relevant since its release. It both anticipates, analyzes, and rejects the entire worldview of the current president, showing how the beauty pageant, winner/loser view of life just leads to isolation and despair. And to help fight this sort of thinking, it seems we all need to get over our fear of being losers, limber up, let loose, and dance like a bunch of wild fools in public.

Quotes & Commentary #51: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #51: Montaigne

I set little store by my own opinions, but just as little by other people’s.

—Michel de Montaigne

Although nobody is free from self-doubt, I have long felt that I have this quality to an inordinate degree. The problem is that I can’t decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, doubting yourself is one of the keys of moderation and wisdom. If you think you already know everything you cannot learn. If you are sure that your perspective is right you cannot empathize. Dogmatism, selfishness, and ignorance result from the inability to doubt the truth of your own opinions.

There are no such things as self-doubting fanatics. The ability to question your own opinions and conclusions is what prevents most people from committing atrocities. I couldn’t kill somebody in the name of an idea, since there is no idea I believe in strongly enough.

And yet, this tendency to doubt my own beliefs and conclusions so often makes me hesitating, indecisive, and occasionally spineless. Never mind killing anyone: I don’t even believe in my political ideals enough to stand up to somebody I find offensive. I doubt the worth of my dreams, the reason of my arguments, the virtue of my actions; and I am not terribly sure about my professional competency or my literary skill.

No matter what I do, I have this nagging feeling that, somewhere out there, there are people who could make me appear ridiculous by comparison. So often I feel out of the loop. I hesitate to submit my writing anywhere because I think a professional editor would cut it to pieces. I hesitate to put forth arguments because I think a real expert could see right through them. I hesitate to commit to a profession because I doubt my own ability to follow through, to perform difficult tasks, and to do my duties responsibly.

My nagging self-doubt is more of a feeling than a thought; but insofar as a feeling can be expressed in words, it goes like this: “Well, maybe there’s something big out there that I don’t know, something important that would render all my knowledge and standards inadequate.”

The odd thing is that I have no evidence that this fear is justified. In fact, I have evidence to the contrary. The more I read and travel, the more people I meet, the more places I work, the less surprised I am by what I find. The contours of daily reality have grown ever-more familiar, and yet this fear—the fear that, somehow, I have missed something big—this fear remains.

The perilous side of self-doubt is that it can easily ally itself with baser qualities. I can argue myself out of taking risks because I am unsure whether I really want the goal. I can argue myself out of standing up for what I believe is right by doubting whether it really is right, and whether I could prove it. Self-doubt and fear—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of being publically embarrassed—so often go hand-in-hand.

I can’t say why exactly, but the thought of writing a flawed argument, with a logical fallacy, an unwarranted assumption, or a sloppy generalization, fills me with dread. How mortifying to have my mental errors exposed to the world! Maybe this is from spending so much time in a school environment wherein the number of correct answers was used as a measure of my worth. Or maybe it is simply my personality; being “right” has always been important to me.

This fear of being wrong is particularly irrational, since some of the greatest minds and most influential thinkers in history have been wrong—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, all of them have erred. Indeed, the fear of being wrong is not only irrational, but counterproductive to learning, since it sometimes prevents me from exposing my thoughts, increasing the likelihood that I will persist in an error.

Despite the negatives, I admit that I am often proud of my ability to doubt my own conclusions and change my opinions. I see it as a source of my independence of mind, my ability to think differently from others and to come to my own conclusions. After all, doubting yourself is the prerequisite of doubting anything at all. As Plato illustrated in his Socratic dialogues, from the moment we our born our minds are filled with all sorts of assumptions and prejudices which we absorb from our culture. The first step of doubting conventional opinion is thus doubting our own opinions.

But just as often as my self-doubt is a source of pride, it is a source of shame. I am sometimes filled with envy for those rare souls who seem perfectly self-confident. In this connection I think of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance artist who left us his remarkable autobiography. Cocksure, boastful, selfish, prideful, Cellini was in many ways a despicable man. And yet he tells his story with such perfect certainty of himself that you can’t help but be won over.

Logically, self-confidence should come after success, since otherwise it isn’t justified. But so often self-confidence comes beforehand, and is actually the cause of success. In my experience, when you believe in yourself, others are inclined to believe in you. When you are confident you take risks, and these risks often enough pay off. When you are confident you state your opinions boldly and clearly, and thus have a better chance of convincing others.

Confidence is often discussed in dating. Self-confident people are seen as more attractive, and tend to have more romantic success since they take more risks. The ability to look somebody in the eye and say what you think and what you want—these are almost universally seen as attractive qualities; and not only in romance, but in politics, academics, business, and nearly everything else.

The charisma of confidence notwithstanding, this leads to an obvious danger. Many people are confident without substance. They boast more than they can accomplish; they speak with authority and yet have neither evidence nor logic to back their opinions. The world is ruled by such people—usually men—and I think most of us have personal experience with this type. I call it incompetent confidence, and it is rampant.

As Aristotle would say, there must be some ideal middle-ground between being confidently clueless, and being timidly thoughtful. And yet, in my experience, this middle-ground, if it even exists, is difficult to find.

I suppose that, ideally, we would be exactly as confident as the reach of our knowledge permitted: bold where we were sure, hesitating where we were ignorant. In practice, however, this is an impossible ideal. How can we ever be sure of how much we know, or how dependable our theories are? Indeed, this seems to be precisely what we can never know for sure—how much we know.

For the world to function, it seems that it needs doers and doubters. We need confident leaders and skeptical followers. And within our own brains, we need the same division: the ability to act boldly when needed, and to question ourselves when possible. Personally, I tend to err on the side of self-doubt, since it easily allies itself with laziness, inaction, and fear; but now I am starting to doubt my own doubting.

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

What is the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? What should you do when, for example, you’re working for a company whose business practices you find exploitative? What if you’re working in a school system that embodies an educational philosophy you think is false or harmful?

Or consider the situation Orwell describes: When you are forced to choose between fighting in a war or capitulating to fascists?

This is a dreadful choice to make. On the one hand, fascism is ethically intolerable, and allowing fascism to conquer means allowing injustice to reign and persecution to run rampant. But to stop fascism means having to fight; and fighting means getting your hands dirty. “Getting your hands dirty” is, of course, a euphemism for all of the morally compromising actions that war entails. You will have to kill strangers, violently and indiscriminately; and in modern warfare the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, considering the weapons we use.

It is one question (which I don’t intend to address here) whether the so-called “collateral damage” of a conflict justifies the war. It is another whether the moral damage of participating in warfare compensates for the moral benefit of defeating an enemy. To use religious language for a moment, my question is this: Does inflicting violence for a good cause imperil your soul? Does the justice outweigh the sin?

Orwell thought the answer was yes, and he lived his principles. He fought passionately, both in word and action, against fascism, even taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. To pick another notable example, Malcolm X also agreed that violent means were justified when used against violent tyranny. If white people were going to violently oppress black people in America, then why shouldn’t black people fight back with any means necessary? Indeed, I think most people nowadays would agree that violence is sometimes justified by the outcome. Despite all the atrocities of the Second World War, fighting against the Nazis was morally preferable to letting them win.

On the other side of this debate are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The justification for pacifism is that violence corrupts, both the victim and the attacker. By committing violence, even in the service of a noble cause, we degrade ourselves.

This argument sounds religious, and it often is; but you can make this same argument from a secular perspective. James Baldwin, a man totally disillusioned with Christianity, was nevertheless a pacifist, because he thought violence, injustice, and oppression corrupts its agents. Baldwin thought this because the purveyors of violent oppression must create comforting myths for themselves so they don’t have to face their own immorality; and this leads to a disconnect from reality and an inauthentic life.

For my part, the risk with using unethical means for ethical ends is that it forces you to make exceptions in your moral code. You must create an inconsistency in your standards of right and wrong, and this may lead to a slippery slope. In other words, if you make a special rule to use violence against one type of person, this creates a risk that the rule can be abused.

For one, if you decide that violence is allowable against one special class of person—fascist soldiers, let’s say—this leads to the difficulty of determining whether any specific person falls into this class. If you make a mistake, you will commit violence to an innocent person. And it is clear that this rule can be abused (and certainly was during the Spanish Civil War), for example, by anyone who has a score to settle, through a false accusation or other forms of foul play.

The other risk is that, by creating one category of allowable violence, you set a damaging precedent. In the future, perhaps the category is expanded, or other categories of allowable violence are created, citing the first one for authority. In other words, you may unintentionally open the door for unscrupulous people, who wish to cloak their violence in legitimacy rather than use violence to accomplish a noble end.

I am not willing, for the moment, to assert that either Orwell or Baldwin are definitely right (although I admit I’m inclined to pacifism, if only because I’m cowardly). The “right” answer seems to depend heavily on the particular circumstances.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to decide whether to use violence against injustice. But by virtue of living in a society, we will certainly have to make many other, far less dramatic decisions about the right thing to do when given only undesirable options.

This question came to the fore during the 2016 elections, particularly among fans of Bernie Sanders. Many Bernie fans believed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were morally corrupt, and they were not content to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Now, in the case of Clinton and Trump, it seemed clear to me that Trump was incomparably worse than Clinton, so the choice wasn’t so hard. But in a general sense this question is certainly worth considering.

When faced with two unethical options, there is always a third option: don’t choose. That is, withdraw and refuse to participate. More generally, when you find yourself in a morally compromising environment, you can either attempt to navigate the environment in the least immoral way possible, or remove yourself from the environment.

Let me be a little more concrete. Imagine you are working in a business whose practices you disapprove of. Maybe you think the business exploits its workers—paying a low salary, with few benefits, and asking employees to work long hours—or maybe the business is selling a product under false pretenses, effectively fooling its customers.

Consider the latter case. To be even more concrete, imagine that you’re a salesperson selling a product you know is poor-quality. Your salary and your job security depend directly on how many units you sell. You have no way to improve the product. To sell it requires, if not lying, at least that you omit information—that is, that you fail to mention that the product is shoddy.

Maybe you’re first reaction is to say that the moral thing to do is to quit. If there is no moral way to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it, right? However, if you quit, do you really improve the world? The business will hire somebody else to replace you, perhaps somebody with less scruples, and the moral balance sheet of the universe will be unaffected. Indeed, by quitting, you inflicted harm on yourself by depriving yourself of the salary. And in that case is quitting the least moral thing to do?

This, I think, is the problem with morally compromising systems. By refusing to participate, all you do is damage yourself while allowing others to fill the same unethical role that you resigned.

True, you do have the option, in the example above, to try to create a movement against the business, to spread the knowledge that its products are shoddy (although this may be legally culpable if you signed a non-release form). Even so, when you think about it, the fundamental problem isn’t really that one business is selling a poor-quality product. The problem is that businesses can thrive by stretching the truth to sell products. (Or is the problem that consumers are not sufficiently well-informed? Where exactly does the business’s responsibility end and the consumer’s begin?)

Again, I’m unwilling, at least for now, to give a general prescription for conundrums like these. And yet the question cannot be put off. Life is one morally-compromising situation after another. How can we balance the need to look out for ourselves with the desire to harm as few people as possible?

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

“History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon does not merely assert this definition of history. In the thousands of pages of his magnificent book, he chronicles every type of vice, wickedness, immorality, imprudence, venality, depravity, villainy, and man-made calamity that has occurred beneath the sun.

For me, reading Gibbon was a thoroughly sobering experience. Nine out of every ten rulers was hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or malicious. Religious sects spilled each other’s blood over tiny differences of doctrine. Wives poisoned their husbands, fathers executed their sons. Whole cities were destroyed, whole populations slaughtered. Good men were disgraced, bad men elevated to the height of power and respect. Whatever lingering sense of cosmic justice I had before I read that book—the sense that, in the end, most wrongs are righted, most crimes punished—was destroyed. History has no moral compass.

As a writer, Gibbon was at his best when he was portraying decadence. The Roman Empire began as one of the most noble and impressive creations of the human species. Then, slowly but inevitably, the great edifice began to collapse. Sadistic and cowardly emperors took the throne. The love of wealth replaced the love of glory. The desire for gain, comfort, and security destroyed the old Roman ethic of respect, loyalty, and bravery. Institutions slowly crumbled from abuse and neglect. Respect for knowledge was lost, then knowledge itself. Tolerance of differences faded, then the society became pervaded with a sterile uniformity of opinion.

When I first read Gibbon’s book, I thought that his emphasis on moral decline—the decline in values and character—was, at the very least, a superficial explanation for Rome’s decline. Aren’t values and character just adaptations to, and products of, social and economic circumstances?

After witnessing this election, I am inclined to give Gibbon’s view more respect. The degree of incompetence, cowardice, short-sighted ambition—in a word, decadence—displayed by the political class, the media, and the populace, is nothing short of embarrassing.

The debate was rarely, if ever, substantive. We were not seeing two competing philosophies of government, or two rival solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.

Hillary was symbol of the political establishment. She explicitly linked her goals to her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. She would not do anything radically new, but protect (and maybe expand) the work that Obama accomplished against a Republican onslaught. And Trump, with his promise to Make American Great Again, explicitly placed America’s glory days in some idealized past, where white men with little education were able to work good blue-collar jobs and were socially superior to every other demographic group.

(And while I’m at it, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was hardly an exception to this. He more or less promised a return to FDR’s New Deal.)

In other words, Clinton promised a return to the 1990s, and Trump to the 1950s.

I can’t help but find both of these campaigns pathetic. Trump’s platform was emptier than a vacuum. His policy suggestions were bad jokes. He is so clearly, so obviously ignorant, and so transparently a con man. But I think it shows that there is something terribly wrong with the political establishment if the best defense they could put forward was Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

As a politician, Clinton has been consistently tone-deaf and uncharismatic. The entire ethos of her campaign was out of step with the country’s mood. The most persuasive reason to vote for her was to prevent Trump from winning. She had no new ideas, but only promised to continue the old ones—and I think it’s obvious by now that lots of people have no love for the old ideas. Many, including myself, were excited to have the first women president. But I think it’s significant that this was the most exciting thing about Clinton.

The media was also consistently pathetic during this campaign. Time after time after time, they predicted Trump would lose. This would be the end of the Republican party, a historic disaster from which they wouldn’t be able to recover. And yet, they gave Trump free air time. They treated his lies like valid opinions. His buffoonery brought them too much revenue, and they focused on profit rather than the truth. The old pundits analyzed, editorialized, and forecasted, and what they said had nothing to do with reality. Over and over, the political, economic, and social elite showed that they had no inkling of what was happening in the country.

In sum, I can’t help but see this election as an unmistakable sign of decadence in the United States. On both sides the campaign was intellectually empty, absent of any new ideas, explicitly focused on preserving or bringing back the past, and fueled by fear rather than hope. And I know from reading Gibbon that when you elevate a narcissistic, demagogic, and incompetent man to the height of power, the results are seldom pretty.

Why are we in the midst of a moral decline? I certainly cannot say. At the very least, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that this era will likely furnish ample material to historians of the future, as they document our crimes, follies, and misfortunes.

Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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