Channeling Joseph Campbell

Chapter 1

Hello, I’m an English teacher, so this blog post is about sex.  All English teachers talk about in class is sex.  Just ask any of our students.

Above is a photograph of the finish line of the most important marathon in which you’ve ever competed. That sperm that helped bring you into existence went up against ~ 250,000,000 competitors.  You know that cloying cliché, “we’re all winners.”  Well, in the case of conception it’s true.

The image below is an artist’s rendition of a comet or meteorite’s crashing into our planet, an occurrence that scientists believe set in motion the series of chemical chain reactions that resulted in life.

Chapter 2

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Wordsworth.

           The  world is too much with us; late and soon,

          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

          Little we see in Nature that is ours;

          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

          The winds that will be howling at all hours,

          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

          It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be

          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10

          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


The world that Wordsworth laments in the octave of this famous sonnet isn’t the magical world he describes in the sestet.  No, the world of the octave is the dreary quotidian world of getting and spending, the world of the long line at Food Lion where you find yourself because earlier at Harris Teeter you had forgotten eggs, so now you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic headed home to a mailbox that holds a communication from the IRS.  No wonder as you walk back to the house with that letter in your hand that you don’t notice the hummingbird hovering above the impatiens in the forgotten flower box.

Wordsworth, of course, was big on childhood.  He believed in the pre-existence of the soul and that when children were born they brought with them traces of holy wonderment.  “The child is father of the man,”  he proclaims in “My Heart Leaps Up,” and “I hope my days to be/Bound each to each/By natural piety.”

Of course, what’s separating the Wordsworthian child attuned to the miracle of being and Thoreau’s wretched adult living a life of quiet desperation is school.

Chapter 3


Get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance,

learn to dance,

get dressed, get blessed,

try to be success.

Please her, please him,

Buy gifts, don’t steal, don’t lift.

Twenty years of schooling,

and they put you on the day shift.

Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

By the way, I’m not one of these people who grew up knowing they wanted to be a teacher.  To the contrary, I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school, for the world of school for me was a factory world, very much like the world depicted in the above photo.  Each class, though configured exactly alike in gridlike fashion, was its own little self-contained kingdom.  No teacher ever wandered outside her dominion to help us connect the dots.  For example, in geometry, when we were solving proofs, no one mentioned that we were also using deductive reasoning in the essays we were writing in English across the hall, which, in fact, might has been across the Gobi desert.  School seemed random, a series of disconnected facts and skills taught for the purpose of preparing us for employment – the factory, the day shift.

Now, if ever there was a place that should instill in us a sense of wonder, it is a school.  We should constantly be reminding our students of the mysteries of existence and how all the disciplines we teach are interrelated so that our students don’t end up like poor Charlie Kaufman, whom we’ll meet in the next chapter, a man leading a life of quiet desperation, despite the fact that he’s a bigtime screenwriter.  This clip is from the movie Adaptation, written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. In the film Kaufman – who has written himself into the script – asks the existential questions, who am I and how did I get here.

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

250,000.000 sperm

Now, we’ve seen how Charlie got to where he is, but what exactly the odds of his having gotten there? We’ve established that each ejaculation yields approximately 250,000,000 sperm, but then we need to factor in 300 or so ova an average post pubescent woman carries.  Humans have come up with a language that can compute these odds – mathematics, a sort of poetry in its own right – but what if we extrapolate those individual odds up the family tree to Genghis Kahn, and what if my great-great-great grand pappy hadn’t just ducked out of the way of that musket ball at the Battle of the Second Manassas – I wouldn’t be here in my this particular incarnation.

The odds of our existing are so infinitesimally small, it’s mind-blowing.  The idea that we possess self-consciousness on a pebble swirling around a hydrogen explosion wheeling through a vacuum shouldn’t drowned by the mundane.

Chapter 6

This is essentially the first lecture I delivered each year to my Honors tenth grade British Lit survey course when I was a teacher. To try reawaken student wonder of the world, I turned to mythology, and my guide was Joseph Campbell, he of the famous admonition – “follow your bliss.”  I used the word mythology, instead of religion, because, I know all too well that another person’s religion is a mythology.   However, as Campbell has eloquently demonstrated, myths are what make the world come alive for us, so each year, in British Literature, I began by talking about mythology and establishing science as the preferred myth of the class.

At first, students balked at the idea of science being a myth, but through the Socratic method, I led them to the idea that myths can be defined as symbolic configurations that attempt to explain the mysteries of Being – Being with a capital B – how the universe came to be and how we came to be.  I stressed, however, that although myths are not literally true, they can be metaphorically true.

But science is literally true they claimed.

Well, I said, let’s hop into my time machine.

Chapter 7

The year is 1970, and I’m in Mrs. Ballard’s physics class.  There I am center-right standing, tilting towards a desk (obviously, Mrs. Ballard’s classroom management left something to be desired).  Anyway, Mrs. Ballard asks, “What do we call the smallest component of an atom,” and my hand shoots up.  “A quark!”  I proclaim.   Mrs. Ballard frowns.  “No Rusty,” she explains, “we’ve been over this time and time again.  An electron is the smallest particle of an atom.”

Atom 1970’s style

Atom 2010’s style


Actually, though, I’m right.  Quarks are smaller than electrons, but in 1970, they hadn’t made their way into science books. By the way, Murray Gell-Mann, the discoverer of the quark didn’t know what to call it until he ran across the word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel so difficult it makes quantum mechanics seem like child’s play.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he hasn’t much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

But O Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark

To see that old buzzard whooping about for runs shirt in the dark

And he hunting round for runs speckled trousers around by Palmerstown Park?

Hohohoho, mounty Mark!

Of course, we could take this idea of science not being literally true back even further to Aristotle who had scholars convinced for two thousand years that the earth was the center of the solar system.

However, science does possess a significant advantage over older myths because it’s self-correcting, and that’s why it was the chosen myth of my British literature class.  I found myself needing to establish this standard because in past years I had had folks who took the Genesis myth literally, wasting class time challenging Darwin, whose theories had created a crisis of faith in Victorian England, a crisis that profoundly affected Victorian poetry and fiction.  In Wordsworth at the turn of the 19th century nature is paradisal; in Hardy you can hear the shriek of the raptors; nature is coldly indifferent to him.

Chapter 8

So on the first full day of class, I offered my students a history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, according to the myth of science.  In doing so, I hoped to engender in them a sense of wonder, but also to underscore the importance of science, how it is central in understanding the mechanics of the world, and how it informs the other disciplines they study.  I had a timeline that ran from left to right at the top of one of my white boards board, starting with the Big Bang.  The only two historical events (i.e. non-biological) I had listed on the timeline were the discovery of agriculture and the detonation of the hydrogen bomb at Hiroshima, eye-blinks apart in our species’ past. I would choose a student and ask her to plot the Eden myth on the timeline.  Of course, it comes after agriculture, right before Hiroshima.  Adam’s curse was farm labor.

Chapter 9

But what about the older myths – how can they be true?  Obviously the Greek myths are mere fantasy.

Well, let’s take a peek at the Greek creation story – Uranus the Sky mated with Gaea the earth to produce the first living creatures, which is more or less the current scientific theory a comet (sky sperm) impregnates earth to produce life. See, it’s true! The Greek creation myth and the scientific creation myth are essentially the same.

Chapter 10

Students love connections like this – love the integration of our disciplines, and, of course, what happens in outside of the realm of literature affects literature and the rest of the arts.  After Freud, the novel goes inward; after the invention of the camera, painting goes abstract; after Planck, poetry goes atomistic.

So, the more we can cross-pollinate across the curriculum, the more engaged our students will become, and the more connections they’re able to make, the more likely school will be a positive experience for them, and not the drag that Wordsworth bemoans.

A Buddhistic Approach to Kafka’s Metamorphosis

K-buddah_jpgA professor friend of mine at the College of Charleston who teaches a freshman course entitled The Nature of Solitude: Sacred & Secular, Voluntary & Involuntary invited me to come and cover Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” so I thought I’d share with any instructors out there the approach I took. Since the course is philosophical, not literary, rather than discussing the structure or aesthetics of the work or taking a Freudian or Marxist approach to the narrative, I’ve opted to approach the work more practically.

I decided to begin the hour-and-fifteen minute class with a keynote presentation that highlights the remarkable unlikelihood that any of the students sitting in the class actually have come into being (see “Slide 4” for further explanation) to underscore the horrible tragedy of the stunted life of the Metamorphosis’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa.  In addition, the presentation also suggests that mythology and its talented stepsister literature offer interesting ways to cop insight into, not only our lives, but science as well.  In fact, the presentation suggests that science itself is a myth, albeit a self-correcting one. Finally, I wanted to alert students to the human propensity of projecting our biology onto the cosmos as a way of explaining mysteries outside of ourselves. Of course, you can view the presentation all at once, but I have provided how I deal with each slide below the presentation.

Slide 1

As you can see, the first slide, the title slide, consists of two images, the first a sperm cell crashing into an ovum, the second, an artist’s rendering of a comet or meteor crashing into earth, which is science’s current best guess as to what engendered the chemical reactions that led to life.  I do the ol’ Socratic method, asking the students to identify what’s going on in each slide.

Slide 2

Slide 2 consists of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,”  as in the work-a-day world overwhelms me with its mind-numbing responsibilities and anxieties, which, of course, relates to “The Metamorphosis.”  As you recall, Gregor who has awakened in the form of a gigantic beetle seems more worried about getting to work on time than he does about horrible fact that he has been transformed from a mammal to an insect who still possesses a human consciousness.

The poem offers a plethora of potential Socratic questions as you relate the sonnet to the novella.  I actually talk about the structure of the sonnet, its volta in line 9, but the main focus is what the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet and Gregor Samsa have in common and what the sonnet and Dylan’s lyrics have in common.

Slide 3

Slide 3 quotes a stanza from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,”  which offers a beautifully truncated catalogue of childhood.  Note the anxiety inherent in Dylan’s ditty. (By the way, you can read my argument why Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize in literature HERE).

Slide 4

The fourth slide is an excerpt from the movie Adaptation, which didn’t successfully make the trip from my hard drive to the Internet, but you can view it here: 

Obviously, ultimately, Nicolas Cage’s character’s question how did I get here has a very complicated answer.  For him to exist on this tiny planet swirling around a run-of-the-mill star much has had to happen, much of which from my perspective seems random, the first meteor which brings life, the second meteor that brings death to the dinosaurs and their displacement by mammals; then you have to factor in the long odds of that particular sperm hitting that particular egg through the long line of his ancestors culminating with his parent’s coupling on that particular day of his conception, a day when his mother didn’t have a headache, a coupling that led to one of 250,000 sperm cells in what I call the most important-race-of one’s-life reaching the finish line of one of mother’s 300 or so ova, a process that resulted in him, and by extension, you, C of C freshman, or you, blog reader.

Slides 5 & 6

These slides underscore the long odds of existence, emphasizing just what a shame it is for poor Gregor to live such a stunted life given the enormous odds of existence.  Here, I sneak in Buddhist doctrine, and talk about the Samsa family dynamic, the office manager, etc.

Slide 7

I talk about myth here, not as untruths, but in the Joseph Campbell mode as symbolic structures that embody profound truths.

Slide 8

This slide suggests that science is often wrong about details (not theories).  If I had written “quark” instead of “electron” in my 1970 chemistry test, I would have been correct but had my answer marked wrong.  By the way, I’ve photoshopped my 1970 self into this slide (the redheaded one leaning over the desk) to show the freshmen what I looked like 45 years ago and to horrify them with the realization that they too one day will look like me now [cue maniacal laughter]

Slide 9

The discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann named it after a word from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, suggesting that scientists like literature, that disciplines are all interrelated.

Slide 10

A reprise of Slide 8

Slide 11

In Slide 11, I ask if anyone recalls the Greek creation myth of Uranus and Gaia.  If no one does, I retell it, which is essentially, the sky Uranus had sex with the earth Gaia and life began, which, brings us back to the first slide.  The current scientific theory and the Greek myth are essentially the same.

For the rest of the period, I let the students talk about “The Metamorphosis” and give them wide range.  Of course, given the title of the course, Gregor Samsa’s involuntary solitude should be brought up.