I spent the middle of last night in the company of Joseph Campbell, that great fisher in the oceans of the world's mythologies, through his books and a fine biography (Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind) by Stephen and Robin Larsen. The Larsens knew Joe Campbell well, and had access to his private papers, including his unpublished fiction and the journals in which he recorded and studied his dreams in the period of the gestation and delivery of The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the seminal work in which Campbell first succeeded in binding his protean mind into the form of a single great and neverending story.
In 1944, Campbell was struggling to find that form. The pressure was on, because an editor at Simon and Schuster was interested in publishing a book by him on mythology, and wanted to see a sample chapter. Campbell dreamed that he was fishing, and having trouble baiting his hook. The worm broke in two. He tried to stitch it together to make a plausible impression of a fine live juicy worm, but as he tried to get it back on the hook the bait turned into a large fish. He felt the pain of the hooked fish, all the way up his backbone.
It seems that this dream mobilized Campbell. He now moved beyond the idea of writing a book on "reading myth" that would range over many themes (and many libraries of material) towards the book defining a single mythic theme that became The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's not clear what he made of the cautionary elements in the dream. Simon and Schuster rejected his book proposal, and so did a second publisher, and it took five somewhat bumpy years before the Hero was brought to the world in the Bollingen series. (It was recently republished in a handsome new edition by New World Library.) Looking back at the dream, it may appear to have previewed this literary odyssey. Campbell's bait failed to hook the publisher, but his restitching brought up a big fish from the deep, at the cost of some real pain.
I was thinking about this as I walked my dog round the lake in the city park in the mid-morning sunshine. Several people were fishing in the lake. Among them was an old African-American man in suspenders, with his grandson. The boy was becoming impatient, and started running back and forth along the bank, casting his line then reeling it back in almost at once. "Patience," his grandfather counseled. "You have to stay in one place until something bites." Listening to this sage advice, I recalled how often a black man figured in Joseph Campbell's dreams - as a mentor, ally and intimate friend - in the period of the 1940s when he was journaling most industriously.
On the far side of the lake, a group of carpenters and builders were taking a break. "Measure," one of them said. "You gotta have measure." He spoke of other workers, clearly not present, who "just shoot in screws anywhere, without measuring." "That's what I was taught," one of his freinds chimed in. "Whatever the job, you have to get the right measure."
As I completed my circuit of the lake, I noticed half a dozen weekend artists with their easels set up. They were painting the lake house and trying the capture the light and shadow in the olive water around it. Their instructor leaned over one canvas and said, "You have to lose the copyist. You can't just copy things the way you see them. That doesn't work." He embarked upon a mini-dissertation on the mastery of light by Vermeer, and of contrast by Caravaggio.
I walked on, delighted by the gift of three unsought messages from the world, all delivered in plain English:
Patience. Stay in one place until something bites.
Measure. Get the right measure.
Lose the copyist.
I suspect Joe Campbell would have enjoyed these hermeions too. Hermeion? Oh, I'm sure he knew that word very well. A hermeion is something striking or unexpected that pops up in the midst of life and feels like a personal message from the deeper world. In the Hellenic world, such incidents were attributed to Hermes, the divine messenger and the "friendliest of the gods to men", who speaks through the play of coincidence.
My mind returns to Campbell's dream of the big fish that hooked itself, after the bait fell apart. I dreamed once that in a larger universe, very big fish are casting their lines to catch humans. Truly, fishers of men (and of women)! As we fish in the stream of life, the powers of the deeper world are angling for us.