The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-powerofmythThis book is a transcript of several conversations that took place between Joseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, and Bill Moyers, journalist. Campbell compares myths across cultures, looking for similarities, in an attempt to show us the importance of myth as man’s way of understanding his relationship to the world in which he finds himself. In essence, if a particular myth reappears in different cultures and epochs, chances are it represents a universal truth about mankind.

Myth is essentially a means of modelling reality using symbols. And when you think about, that’s exactly what science is, too. This point was not covered by Campbell, which I thought was a startling omission – perhaps left out because he does not share this view. Campbell laments modern man’s lack of meaningful myths, whereas I see science as the modern myth unrealised. Man cannot escape myth, because all attempts to explain reality are done by modelling the universe. And even in science, our models change over time as we learn new things that cast old assertions into disfavour – just as the old gods are now replaced my more meaningful symbols of forces in natures: electricity and atmospheric pressure in place of Thor, the god of thunder, for instance. Sadly, this insight, which I personally find vital to my worldview, was not covered.

Even so, I was mesmesised by the breadth of Campbell’s knowledge and his ability to articule it without preparation, when prompted by questions. The book covers so much ground that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what I got out of it, but it was definitely a unique and special read. Of particular interest to me was the notion that the modern man finds mythological significance in movies and television dramas. When I look back at old films and TV series that have endured in my mind as favourites, this is definitely true. Some of my favourites are Mad Max, The Prisoner, Blake’s 7, The Tripods, Forever Knight. The common denominator in all of these is the man who finds himself as an outsider, an individualist, a non-joiner, for reasons that are varied. There is the man who becomes a loner because of his brokenness, the secret agent who refuses to have his will broken, the cold realist who is not quite one of the good guys, the group of boys who fight against a brainwashed society, the vampire who attempts to better himself and conquer his nature. It’s not so much that myths were deliberately built into these fictions; only that it’s possible to draw mythological significance from them. Take Forever Knight, for instance. To many, it’s a tacky story about a vampire cop. To me, it’s about a man who is striving to be fully human – to conquer the beast (his vampire nature) within. He has done awful things in the past, but he remains ever cheerful. Tacky or not, this myth speaks powerfully to me as a human being, because it symbolically mirrors my own strivings.

When talking around the question of what life is all about, Campbell regularly employs the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which really stuck with me. It captures perfectly my own feelings about how the meaning of life is not one thing in particular, but consists in making of life whatever we want to make of it. A multiplicity of potential experience is open to us, but we can only follow one course. It makes the most sense, then, to follow the course that brings you the greatest sense of fulfillment: follow your bliss.

I hold a personal philosophy that I’ve developed through much study over a period of years. It could loosely be called non-dualism or pantheism. I’m always amazed when I read a book and discover that the author totally gets where I’m coming from, using certain words and phrases that reveal his inner depth. This was the case in the final chapter of The Power of Myth, entitled “Masks of Eternity.”

If you’re the sort of one-dimensional rationalist who is stuck with an entirely scientific outlook, presuming that ancient man’s beliefs were just exercises in silliness, you need to read this book. These interviews were also released as a six-part television series (now available on DVD), which might be an even richer way to enjoy them. However, the book does contain more content than the series. The Power of Myth is a book unlike any I’ve read.

O-Zone by Paul Theroux

The story is set in a slightly Blade Runner-esqe future. New York is a sealed city. Not physically sealed, but in the Orwellian sense – a place of constant ID checks, where the rich (known as Owners) can feel safe in their tower blocks and where aliens (illegals) are hunted down and expelled or killed. The sky is abuzz with jet-rotors, people walk the streets in masks because the air is dirty. It’s not what we would call normal life, but it’s normal to the citizens because it’s all they’ve ever known – until, that is, a rich family known as the Allbrights gets hold of a permit to fly to a place known as O-Zone, where they intend to have a New Year’s party. O-Zone is an abandoned city where nuclear waste was once stored in underground caverns. Due to a leak, the whole area became contaminated. Now, many years later, it is believed that no one lives in O-Zone. The Allbrights and their friends fly there in their jet-rotors, and discover that they are not alone.

The book is really about how this trip changes the Owners. They begin the story as incredible cowards, but by the end some of them are transformed – to the point where they cannot regard their heavily controlled indoor lives of luxury in quite the same way. Central to the story is the kidnapping of a young alien by an Owner, and the kidnapping of a young Owner by a group of aliens. This allows the author to explore the themes of racial prejudice, culture, wealth, poverty, freedom. You can tell this is a book written by a travel author. The mode of transport by jet-rotor allows Theroux to provide commentary on landscapes and cultures that are probably mirrors of some of his own experiences. We go from the extravagant waste of New York City to the poverty of Africa, and other locales. A great deal of the book is spent inside the heads of the protagonists, examining their motivations and attitudes. If you care about the author’s subtext, you’ll get a lot from this book, but if you’re looking for an exciting sci-fi story, you’ll likely be disappointed. There’s not really much drama in the story, and that’s its chief weakness. I get the feeling that Theroux had things he wanted to say, and he constructed a loose narrative around this desire.

Interesting novel, but much too long and drawn out for what little drama unfolds across its five-hundred pages.

Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith & Lawrence Pazder

The first book ever to be written on the subject of satanic ritual abuse (SRA) was Michelle Remembers in 1980, co-written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. Over a period of one year, Pazder records hundreds of sessions where Smith allegedly recovers repressed memories of herself as a five-year-old undergoing a prolonged period of ritual abuse at the hands of a satanic cult. She is tortured, sexually abused, locked in a cage, witness to murders, and painted in the blood of sacrifice victims. At one point, a Satanist sews horns and a tail into Smith’s flesh. The scars left by this surgery would have proved invaluable in authenticating the account, but there is no such evidence on Smith’s adult body.

The ceremonies were gory and bizarre, and bore no relation to the rituals of the Church of Satan. Nevertheless, Pazder wastes no time in naming this specific organisation as the perpetrator of Smith’s abuse. He also states, in total ignorance of known facts: “The Church of Satan is a worldwide organization. It’s actually older than the Christian Church.” Pazder was forced to withdraw his assertion of the Church of Satan’s involvement after the book’s publication, when Anton LaVey threatened to sue for libel.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Smith’s idea of Satanism suffers from the same faulty assumptions as Doreen Irvine’s account (see From Witchcraft to Christ); she depicts Satanists as worshippers of the literal devil of the Bible. The rituals are filled with pointless, nonsensical, sinister elements, and horror movie trappings, including at one point the appearance of a monstrous spider crawling across the altar cloth and a vampire bat with claw-tipped wings perched on the altar’s edge. In the final quarter of the book, Satan makes regular appearances in the flesh. And Smith’s depiction of him is an all-out horror movie cliché, right down to the horns on his head and the claws on his hands. Curiously, he has a pig’s snout and sports a tail that occasionally shape-shifts into a snake. Fire sprouts from his back. Amusingly, Satan insists on continually speaking in rhyming verse throughout the account:

The knife is ready. It is time to begin.
It has been poisoned and sharpened very thin.

I confess that when I began reading this book, I seriously considered that this child might have been the victim of some deeply unethical occult group. But by the time I finished, the entire tale had made a nosedive into total religious farce. In addition to enduring the devil’s bad poetry, Smith witnesses heads spinning, just like Linda Blair in the movie The Exorcist (1973). Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael appear to Smith at various points during her dark days in the ritual chamber. Absurdly, Mary sprinkles her sentences with French, which would not have been her native language, nor is it Smith’s. The two authors’ combined depiction of Satanism seems to be a fusion of their own Catholic prejudices and Pazder’s past encounters with unusual religion from when he was working and living in Africa in the 1960s. He goes as far as drawing this comparison himself in the book. It’s hard to see how Pazder maintained any credibility with his peers after publishing this unconscionable mix of psychiatry and superstition as fact.

It also turns out that some of Smith’s claims are provably false beyond reasonable doubt. Early in the story, she is allegedly involved in a car crash that is staged to look like an accident, as a means of the Satanists getting rid of a dead body. Conveniently, it happened so long ago that police and hospital records of the event were destroyed at the time of Smith’s therapy. However, Pazder overlooked the fact that it’s possible to check the newspaper records in library archives. No such incident was reported around the time indicated by Smith’s testimony.

The book features a photograph of a mausoleum at Ross Bay cemetery, at which a ritual allegedly took place. However, when this building is snapped from different angle (as another photographer has demonstrated), the mausoleum is revealed to be within eyeshot of suburban houses. Maybe the Satanists used one of Doreen Irvine’s invisibility spells!

Towards the end of the book there is an eighty-one-day non-stop ceremony. Yearbooks from Smith’s elementary school have revealed no indication of her being missing for a lengthy period of time.

There are many more problems with Smith’s account that I could raise, but these examples suffice to destroy her credibility. All that remains is to determine whether she is delusional or an outright liar. The coherency and detail in her account causes me to side with the latter.

Even without the evidence against Smith and Pazder, the simple fact that nothing can be corroborated ought to raise warning bells in the minds of readers. But many people have never made the mental effort to learn what criteria they ought to use in determining truth from falsehood. People tend to believe things if they merely feel true, or if they simply want to believe. The ability to believe claims in the absence of evidence is how witch-hunts are born. And in this instance, that’s exactly what happened.

Michelle Remembers opened the floodgates for countless reports of satanic ritual abuse. Pazder was considered to be an expert. He became involved in the Cult Crime Impact Network and lectured to police agencies about SRA during the late 1980s. By September 1990 he had been consulted in more than a thousand ritual abuse cases.

Closure of the Satanic Panic finally came with the publication of the Lanning Report (1991) by the FBI. Three hundred cases of multi-victim, multi-offender SRA were examined and no physical evidence of abuse could be found. Aside from the occasional unethical pseudo-Satanist, there was no evidence whatsoever of any underground occult organisation engaging in SRA. This document can be read in full on the internet. Conspiracy theorists still like to keep the phenomenon alive. I read this in an online forum: “The Lanning Report is load of pig shit, if you ask me. Written by the same people it claims ‘do not exist.’” Of course, the conspiracy theorist doesn’t require actual evidence of the FBI’s involvement in a cover-up; the mere suspicion of it is enough to warrant belief.

During the years of the Panic, the lives of many law-abiding Satanists (and other non-satanic occultists) were subjected to the judgements of a dangerously ignorant population (including its law enforcement) that was feeding on a diet of sensationalist propaganda.

By contrast, the uncovering of real, verified, widespread child abuse within the Catholic Church has to be one of the most spectacular reversals of expectation in history, as we discover that real evil lies within those who masquerade as the good, rather than those who merely enjoy the glamour of sinister symbolism.

The Satanic Panic must never happen again. That will only be possible through the widespread triumph of reason over superstition.

Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand

At first glance, the title of this book could easily be misunderstood as a statement about the pointlessness of philosophy. But the true meaning is the complete opposite; notice the curious absence of a question mark. This is a book about who needs philosophy, not a question of whether or not we do.

The opening chapter was excellent. It was a clear, rational discussion of why an interest in philosophy is important for everyone. Every person has a philosophy, whether they think they do or not. It is the driving force behind your actions. The question is not whether you possess a personal philosophy, but whether you are conscious of it. And if you are unconscious of it – if you have never asked yourself, “Why do I believe what I believe?” – then it is driving your life without you realising it.

I had high hopes for this book, because Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was highly influential on Anton LaVey (author of The Satanic Bible), who was highly influential on me. But after the first chapter, things became a bit of a mixed bag throughout the book. What I had hoped would follow was a thorough dissection of the important philosophical bases, such as whether the universe is all mind or all matter (idealism versus materialism). Instead, very little time is devoted to this, and the book becomes a collection of random essays with little in the way of common structure or logical direction.

Rand is definitely a highly rational person, but her brevity and preachy tone sometimes made her arguments difficult to follow. A recurring message throughout the book is anti-altuism, to the degree that it is portrayed as something close to the greatest evil of the current age. Her chief enemy, who is referenced often and somewhat obsessively, is Immanuel Kant. She makes good points, but it’s hard to get on board with all of her thinking, because she never stops to properly explain what it is that Kant asserts.

Rand denounces “idealism” (the view that mind is the primary reality and matter an illusion) far too quickly and unconvincingly. She is a materialist; she’s big on industrialisation and capitalism; has an alarmingly low view of those who take an interest in ecology. I couldn’t understand how anyone could malign those who are interested in saving the planet. There’s a lot of political philosophy in the book.

On epistemology, Rand asserts that man’s grasp of truth is objective – that, once found, a perceived truth is absolute. As such, she has little appreciation of the forward motion of knowledge throughout history, and the manner in which newly discovered contexts of enquiry (like quantum theory in the present age) make us reassess our notions about what we once thought was objectively true.

Another downside of the book was that several chapters were written as responses to influental books that were published around the time of writing. For a contemporary reader, who has little interest in past battles, these chapters would perhaps have been better written with a postitive voice directed at the reader, rather than an antagonistic voice directed at another writer.

On the plus side, it’s clear that Rand is a very rational person, and much as I disagree with some of the bases of her philosophy, I know I got something good out of reading this volume.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I’m always interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge, and evolutionary biology is a big one. For many years I was a believer in creationism, but since abandoning Christianity, I am more open to the idea of evolution (since I’m no longer being simply told what to believe).

I approached this book believing in evolution but doubting the precise mechanism by which it is claimed to work (natural selection). My objection is based on the fact that evolution has never been simulated in a computer. It’s supposed to be an automatic, non-conscious process, and yet we can’t replicate it artificially. Why? Time to learn from the experts.

Well, I didn’t get an answer to my question. I was delighted to read that Dawkins had taken it upon himself to attempt to simulate evolution on his little 64K computer (this was the 1980s, remember). He claims to have created insect-like creatures that he terms “biomorphs.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain the argorithms that he used to achieve that. I am left to wonder how much of his results were more akin to faces in the cloud than to actual complexity that gives an organism a definite survival edge. Certainly, Dawkins’s program has never been superceded by a better one that shows the principle of natural selection operating on a bigger scale.

Nevertheless, evolution happens; no question about it. Dawkins provides brilliant and very engaging accounts of the development of the eye and echolocation in bats. He expertly debunks creationist objections, explaining how cumulative selection works – nothing like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating a Rolls Royce by random chance.

The book unfortunately begins to falter about halfway through and continues plunging to the finish (at least for the lay reader), as it tackles the finer points of evolutionary theory, delving into obscure areas with the titles punctuationism, Lamarckism and taxonomy. He can be long-winded at times, and needlessly arrogant. I could stand the arrogance if he really was as right as he thinks he is, but when he strays out of his field of expertise into metaphysics, he’s completely inept. He has no concept of time other than as a forward-moving arrow, and so, when he thinks of the idea of God, he can only describe him/it as a highly complex organism needing a creator of its own. You can’t tackle metaphysics without delving into philosophy. Dawkins’s unexamined assumption of “materialism” doesn’t cut it.

In the end, I gained some valuable knowledge about evolution, but my main contention was only reinforced. How can you say natural selection is an unconscious process when the organisms doing the the evolving are conscious?

And what is consciousness? The Blind Watchmaker would have benefitted from a chapter on consciousness, discussing the theories on what it is, specifically whether it is an emergent product of evolution, or a metaphysical precursor to the evolutionary process. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, I side with the latter. Unfortunately, one may specialise in evolutionary biology, while knowing little or nothing about psychology and metaphysics. This lays the basis for making hugely wrong conclusions, when diverse fields of enquiry overlap. Nevertheless, The Blind Watchmaker is recommended reading.

Liber Null & Psychonaut by Peter J. Carroll

In 1978, Peter J. Carroll co-founded a magical order called the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), deriving its name from the two Greek gods Thanatos (death) and Eros (sexual love). Liber Null and Psychonaut are two books, collected here in one volume, which are aimed at the newcomer to the organisation, as well as those seeking entry, and those pursuing their own individual magical path. The books explain the fundamentals of Carroll’s brand of occultism, which he calls “chaos magic.” His two primary influences are, by his own admission, Aleister Crowley and Austin O. Spare. Carroll describes his order as a “satrap of the Illuminati.” Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with that one.

“Chaos” is a term that Carroll uses as a substitute for what a philosopher might call God, or what I, in my own personal vocabulary call the Infinite. Chaos is the ground zero of everything that exists. It is a useful term, because it removes any notion that the Infinite is a personal being, or is in any way sypmathetic to the human condition. “Gnosis” is the term used to describe a state of no-mind gained through the use of trance. “Kia” denotes the basis of consciousness, the essence of which is will and perception. These are just some of the terms employed in the IOT’s lexicon.

This book really hit the spot, in terms of what a reader like myself hopes to obtain from reading a magical text: fresh insights and new angles that I might be able to integrate into my own personal understanding of the universe. The book was a treasure trove in this regard. It was especially exciting in light of my own experiments in psychokinesis. Carroll’s system not only accommodates such phemonena, but mirrors the very techniques I’ve already discovered trough trial and error, and suggests avenues for improvement. Those who pursue psychic abilities from a purely scientific perspective are missing out, in my opinion.

So often a magical text is concerned with personal development and influencing others – what the LaVeyan system calls “lesser magic.” Refreshingly, Carroll is chiefly preoccupied with “greater magic” – acts of a genuinely paranormal nature. He describes a interesting technique using personal “sigils” – where a desire is written down in words, and the words are then visually reconstructed into a “glyph of desire.” I have nothing to say, presently, on whether such a technique works, but it certainly was interesting.

I was by no means in agreement with everything that Carroll asserts, especially in regard to reincarnation. There was the bold assertion that a magician could carry his life forward into a new body, by means of a particular visualisation at the moment of his death. Unless Carroll himself has all the memories of a past life and can demonstrate this, how on earth could such a claim be proven?

Nevertheless, this was a thoroughly engrossing read, full of insight. I finished it wanting to read it all over again.

Starstormers 5: Volcano by Nicholas Fisk

In this, the final Starstormers adventure, our heroes Vawn, Makenzi, Ispex and Tsu crashland their ship on Volcano. While waiting for their parents to rescue them, they must contend with the planet’s strange semi-sentient vegetation and bizarre animal life. Their “magical” friends from the previous adventure, the veils of Moloch, show up to lend a helping hand. Before long, their old nemesis the Octopus Emperor makes an appearance. The Starstormers, accustomed to running, decide to make a final stand against the ruler of Tyrannopolis.

With the exception of the first volume, the rest of the Starstormers saga has been fairly mediocre, including this final episode. That said, I found myself always captivated by the characters, if not the stories themselves. I think children, who are much more forgiving of plot-holes and unoriginality, will have a great fondness for the saga. It was my own childhood memories of volume 1 that led me to take this nostalgia trip in the first place, and I’m glad I did. I can’t help thinking it might have made a great little children’s TV series, given a chance.

Volcano provides decisive closure to the saga. Farewell, Starstormers. It’s been fun.

See also: