The Meaning of Life: 'Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers'

This is like a cozy, fireside chat, and because one of the participants is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and the world's foremost expert on mythology, it's also a bit like a lecture course -- the most fascinating you'll ever attend.

Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

Distributor: Acorn
Network: PBS
TV DVD: Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers
Release Date: 2010-09-21

"Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life," explains scholar Joseph Campbell near the beginning of the celebrated PBS series Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. His definition of myth, rather than being that myths are examples of the search for life's meaning, is that myths are the ongoing search for "the experience of life". According to Campbell, what myths—all myths—tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life: "Eternity isn't some later time, eternity isn't a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time! It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out ... This is it. If you don't get it here, you won't get it anywhere. The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life."

The Power of Myth first aired as a six-part series in 1988. Campbell sat down with Moyers, an award-winning journalist, for several conversations at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch over the previous two years. The two discussed Campbell's work and his theories on mythology, symbolism, the human experience and how the myths are strikingly similar throughout human history, with the same symbols, stories and themes repeated down through the ages across widely varied cultures.

This two-volume DVD set presents the series in its original six episode form, with introductions from Moyers. Campbell had passed away before any of the episodes were broadcast, so these introductions have a sense of solemnity, but the episodes themselves are lively and engaging. The energy and each man's genuine, obvious passion for the topics elevates these discussions far beyond the setting where they take place, which is essentially a warmly lit, almost nondescript room with two chairs facing each other. It's like a cozy, fireside chat. Because one of the participants happens to be a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and the world's foremost expert on mythology, it's also a bit like a lecture course, but it's the most fascinating lecture you'll ever attend.

The first episode, The Hero's Adventure, provides an overview of the structure of myths. No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters the same sorts of trials, completes his quest or fulfills his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way.

It's not just the sword-drawing King Arthur or light-saber-wielding Luke Skywalker-style heroes that take these epic journeys, either. The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well. Not in any way judging, refuting or discounting any of the world's myriad belief systems, Campbell notes how this mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses, Jesus, for instance; all embarked on spiritual quests, they met with allies or enemies, each was tested and each returned transformed.

Episode Two, The Message of the Myth explores how, at their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. This episode is where things begin to get really interesting, as Campbell, with a twinkle of glee point out that myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of "do this", "don't eat that", "be careful when traveling there", etc. "Myth," he explains, "is the field of reference...metaphors for what is absolutely transcendent". Myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. They reflect the concept of transcending duality (because while things do come in pairs and everything has its opposite, there can be no good without evil). Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

The First Storytellers discusses the ways in which ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through storytelling and rituals. These tales and customs, such as rituals in which a hunter thanks and honors the spirit of an animal which he has killed so that it will be willing to return to be hunted again, or a shaman re-enacts the hunt or the harvest to ensure the cycle continues, evolved as a way for humans to live in harmony with nature. These myths were passed down through the ages and have now become cautionary tales.

Campbell clearly has the storyteller's gift as he relates a version of "The Buffalo's Wife" and then goes on to marvel at how the Indians of the plains lost the entire basis for their societies in less than one generation with the buffalo massacre of the 1880s. Moyers questions him on the diminished impact of myths and Campbell concedes that as societies have moved forward without the guidance of these stories and rituals, crime has increased and resources have been depleted. He also admits that the modern world moves much faster than myths traditionally evolved in the past, which is one reason they may not seem so prevalent, or relevant, as they once were. However, he also points out that new myths are arising all the time (cleverly using the computer age as one example) and that artists increasingly fill the societal roles of shaman and teacher.

The fourth episode is about Sacrifice and Bliss. It reiterates many of the ideas already discussed using the concepts of renewal and/or transcending death through sacrifice, both literal (human, animal) and figurative (the ritual of Mass), and the idea of being dutiful to society versus following one's own bliss. Fifth episode Love and the Goddess, explores the age-old beliefs common to matriarchal religions, to virgin births and to the story of the crucifixion. Moyers was just as attentive as viewers will be, as Campbell holds forth on the everything from rise of romantic love in mythic tales, like that of Tristan and Isolde, to the Big Bang Theory. Most of this episode deals with the idea of the sacred feminine, Mother Earth, and images of fertility goddesses, but it's likely because of the focus on slightly more modern and/or western legends that viewers will know many more of the tales that Campbell refers to than they may have in other episodes.

The last episode, Masks of Eternity, was filmed at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. In it, the two men talk of the infinite and how one of the needs we have as part of the human experience is to identify with it. Campbell points out that all cultures create "masks", which are the names and images for God, and they serve as metaphors for an "inexpressible transcendence, the being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought". Throughout the series ,Campbell often brings the discourse back to examples from his own life, but no more so than in this conclusion. He was aware that he was approaching his own death, which he knew was not an end, but just another step in his experience of eternity, and he looked to it much as he looked to the myths he studied, with hope, with more questions than answers and, above all, a desire for discovery.

The Power of Myth is a powerful and riveting experience, and it's all the more so for its seeming simplicity. In that way, it too is like the myths Campbell loved. Joseph Campbell wasn't preaching from that chair as he sat across from Bill Moyers. He was sharing the clues that he had gathered in his ongoing search for "the experience of life".

The bonus features on this DVD set include an unreleased conversation with Campbell in 1981, Moyers' 1999 interview with George Lucas about how Campbell's work inspired Star Wars, photo galleries from the episodes, excerpts from the film Sukhavati and a 12 page viewer's guide with profiles of artists influenced by Campbell, an essay on mythology in everyday life, Campbell's biography, and an explanation of animal symbolism in myths.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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