A Look At One of America’s Most Popular Sub Cultures Through the Lens of Joseph Campbell

In the spring of 1968 the master of myth himself, Joseph Campbell, was invited to give a series of lectures on schizophrenia by the Esalen Institute’s director, Michael Murphy. He recalls in his essay “Schizophrenia—the Inward Journey,” that he didn’t know a thing about schizophrenia and he couldn’t understand this invitation one bit.

Murphy explained to Campbell that he’d be giving this talk with Dr. John Perry who had an amazing insight. That schizophrenia was not to be cured, rather it was a natural process that needed to be helped along. What made Campbell so perfect a match to Perry was that the schizophrenic’s necessary journey looked remarkably similar to what Campbell called the hero’s journey.

The Schizophrenic’s Heroic Journey

Campbell goes on to highlight some of the key points he made during those lectures: that doctors now fill the role shamans once did, and that when a boy was stricken with madness in the old days he was not electrified and analyzed, but taken out into the woods where he could experience himself in nature and transcend the madness. Campbell suggests that schizophrenia, much like religious rites in tribal cultures, is a way for humans to interpret the symbols that have inspired them for ages.

It is so terrifying nowadays however because we are no longer taught a version of the monomyth as children. Because we no longer learn the symbols, we no longer have shamans who understand them, and so this madness has become an epidemic that doctors try to suppress rather than guide those stricken by it to self-identification.

Joseph Campbell quotes on myths and schizophreniaThere are two types of schizophrenia according to Campbell: ‘essential,’ marked by withdrawal from the outside world (these are those who talk to themselves, curl up in a ball, and rock back and forth), and ‘paranoid,’ marked by a remaining lucidity that’s extremely sensitive to the world yet through a skewed lens based on one’s own projected fantasies and fears.

This last type, paranoid schizophrenia, is the patron of the myth we call conspiracy, and of those who we affectionately call the conspiracy theorists.

Making a Mockery of Things

I recently sat down and watched the 2012 mockumentary, The Conspiracy, directed by Christopher MacBride. The movie is a fantastic insight into those who see patterns and those who suppress them. It explores something that has become a modern myth in face of globalization, invasive tech, and the lack of religion. Many can’t come to terms with the fact that the world is chaotic, that there are ten million organizations doing ten million things, and so they feel the urge to bring them together under a single umbrella.

Every event is connected and is part of some secret organization’s grand plan.

This is what Terrence, the subject of the documentary our two main characters, Aaron and Jim, are making, believes is the absolute truth. He’s pinned hundreds of newspaper articles to his wall and has built a web of connections between world events. We, as the viewer, believe the story will revolve around this man. That this movie will simply detail how his mind works and, on a larger scale, how the minds of conspiracy theorists in general work.

Terrence, from the 2012 movie, The Conspiracy

Not far into the film however, Terrence goes missing. Jim kind of gives up on the project, but Aaron obsessively presses on.

Pretty soon Aaron pieces together the mystery Terrence was trying to solve. He claims there is this secret society, this overarching group, that has been manipulating world events for centuries (reminiscent of the claims made by the YouTube sensation, the Zeitgeist: The Movie).

Jim, hesitant to press on, reluctantly follows Aaron on this wild ride. They eventually find themselves, despite numerous threats from strange CIA-style men, sneaking into a Tarsus Club meeting, Alex Jones style, where they encounter a ritual indoctrination ceremony.

The World We Live In

Before we continue, let’s go back to Campbell for a moment. The world is now absent of myth, he says, so people have a hard time coming to terms with pain and suffering. Long ago they blamed bad things on the gods. Nowadays, a time when the gods no longer exist to the vast majority, people must blame something else.

Man is now the creator, God is now in the image of man, and we as a collective group are forging forward with things that could have only been imagined in science fiction before. Because of that many claim that man is manipulating the weather, controlling the fate of the earth, and orchestrating humanity’s existence.

Truth is Relative

And to a degree nature is now more than ever tied to human actions. We are in a large sense controlling the fate of the earth. But truth, as postmodernism most certainly conveyed, is fickle. It is not an absolute. It’s dependent on perspective, propaganda, and so many other factors. It is easily manipulated and subjectified.

Even when a picture tells a thousand words, it often tells it out of context.

I myself don’t swing one way or another. There are ‘facts’ built into both ways of thinking. Both arguments have valid premises. What’s interesting to me is how this has become kind of a religion in and of itself. Instead of blaming Zeus, we now have hidden organizations like The Conspiracy’s Tarsus Group.

Conspiracy Propaganda In Current Events

ISIS, that terrible band of thugs currently marauding across the Middle East (as our own colonists once did here in the West), for example, has a curious name. Isis, in Egyptian lore, was the mother symbol that brought the pieces of Osiris back together when his brother Set dismantled his body.

Interesting that the only good thing, if we can call it good at all, that ISIS has done is bring the broken nations of the Levant together to fight for one cause.

And of course, ISIS, like all major events in the news, has its conspiracies already. It is part of the scheme, part of God’sThe Government’sThe Illumanati’s... [Insert Organization]’s grand plan. Funded by the CIA, just like 9/11. The beheading videos are the stuff of Hollywood, like the moon landing. Or something along those lines.

There are too many versions to be definitive.

What Are We To Make of It All?

What is definitive is that people are making connections. They’re validating their mythology. It’s easier to think someone is orchestrating this hatred and violence for some greater good or ultimate goal. And there are supporting facts, of course. It’s no secret the U.S. government has funded organizations like the Taliban in the not-so-distant past to fight Soviet forces. Our government has been manipulating the Middle East since the fifties.

But things aren’t so simple. There is a chaos. There is a natural progression and not everything fits simply into a box.

These symbols that people are seeing however are not a conspiracy. They are a natural function of man’s mind. They help us humans explain and understand the world around us. Dreams do it for our daily lives. Religions and nationalism once did it for our communal life (and still do in many parts of the world… see Daniel Dennet’s TED Talk, Dangerous memes). In the absence of that we’ve created our own personal religions where the gods are corporations and the heroes and villains are entire governments.

Life is a storybook and the fate of our race is an epic. We’ve woven a continual patchwork of narrative that extends from the beginning to the end over and over again throughout history. It is only natural, whether born of truth or paranoia, that we continue the tradition today.

Of course these name games and thought puzzles often are not serious critiques. Anyone who makes such an abstract claim such as the one that ISIS was given this name because it represents a figure out of the old religion likely knows deep down that this is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. It is a great insight into how the human mind works, placing symbols on groups and events, instinctually categorizing, well after the event.

This fault in logic comes when one places effect before cause because of circumstantial evidence.

Anyone who has ever formulated a plan with a group of people then tried to execute that plan to a T knows that grand schemes often take on lives on their own, dependent on each contributor’s personality and a multitude of external and unforeseeable factors. They never quite end up in the same place that was first conceived.

Implications of a Grand Conspiracy

The grand scheme of “The Conspiracy,” the big kahuna that brings every other conspiracy together into a simple and organized history of events, is damn near impossible. There are too many power struggles to make this work. Though it may be a simple, if not daunting, task to trace the history of a conspiracy back to the origins of civilization—even beyond it, to a race of ancient aliens that come down and teach humanity the secrets of the universe (see the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series for more one this)—it would likely be built on a mountain of conjecture. Order out of chaos.

Ancient Aliens' Giorgio A Tsoukalos answers his own rhetorical question

A claim like this one, that ancient aliens taught humanity it’s secrets, that this is where stories of gods and demons came from, begs the question: “Well, where did they come from?” Did an ancient race teach them also? How far does it go back? Where did the mind begin? God? Eternity?

Is humanity so stupid that we have to pin an organizing body on the events that surround it, on its very growth?

It is this question that brings us to the true concern of conspiracy theorists. Joseph Campbell talks often of the absence of religion and the gods. They are no longer necessary and we (the sane ones at least), according to Campbell, no longer can believe in them with all our knowledge of the universe. A void appears. An absence in the deepest recesses of our souls.

Without religion, that societal institution that allows us to interpret the abstract symbols our ancient mind created, symbols that picked us up out of the darkness and into civilization through our constant questioning and striving to understand, without that we all become schizophrenic. If the gods are no longer orchestrating our actions, then who is? Governments? Corporations? Secret Societies?

Zeus has become the man behind the curtain and his pantheon microbiological agents of mind control. We see the lesser gods in corporate logos and say a secret society of satanic priests have built an altar of the supermall. All without the consideration that maybe humanity thrives on this type of religious symbolism. That maybe man needs to make a religion of society, or else society may not function and grow as it has for the last couple million years.

Order Out of Chaos… and a Modern Day Magic Show

All this doesn’t really matter. The symbols we are attempting to interpret come from inside. From the subconscious. Reaching outward for answers only frustrates us and complicates things further.

A perfect representation of the subconscious and perennial human tendency to create order out of chaos, to fit pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent picture, is illustrated by David Kwong in his TED Talk, Two nerdy obsessions meet—and it’s magic.

“You are all wired to solve,” Kwong says after he asks a woman, Gwen, from the audience to come onstage and color a few animals with different colored markers. The participant amazingly colors the animals as Kwong had expected she would, his prediction validated by a coloring he completed before the show.

Kwong explains that he knew Gwen would color the drawings as he intended because he had added subliminal messaging to his speech. The phrase “You’ve all read Don Quixote, haven’t you?” became an indicator to color the donkey red for example.

Of course, Kwong manipulated his audience in one way or another. The subliminal messaging to begin with. But we all know magicians often have an accomplice in the crowd. This could have all been a grand conspiracy.

So it is with the events of the world. The pieces of the puzzle are certainly out there. It’s not hard—given time and patience (and a creative mind)—to piece them all together.

Does the Conspiracy Exist?

The question remains: is there really some grand conspiracy that’s persisted through the ages, or is it that many simply suffer a mass delusion, a strange cultural schizophrenia that’s become ever so prevalent in the absence of religion, without a vehicle by which to understand and interpret the symbols that surround us, those fundamental pieces of our intelligence that Joseph Campbell marks as the division points between man and the other animals, those primitive drivers of our natural instinct to solve?

Mithras Sacrificing the Bull

Jim and Aaron, our industrious filmmakers and main characters of The Conspiracy inevitably are caught during their foray into the Tarsus Club’s meeting. It appears to the viewer that Jim has given into the group while Aaron, still hell-bent on outing them, seems to be murdered as the Tarsus Group’s sacrificial bull. We are later told this was just a joke, meant to scare Aaron and Jim. Jim’s body language during his final interview and the fact that Aaron has disappeared much like Terrence, makes us question this claim.

Jim does however finally get the chance to interview William Jensen, COO of the Tarsus Club, who has a final thought for us (which again relates to Daniel Dennet’s TED Talk on Dangerous memes).

Jensen says:

“We’re living in the golden age of communication because of globalization.Unfortunately with the rise of the internet there is a dark side of globalization: Essentially that is anyone with a crazy idea can communicate it to millions of people, like a virus. The Tarsus Club has become a target of these viruses, including these crazy conspiracy theories.”

Jensen goes on:

“It’s true: Global leaders do get together and collaborate. Many of them are working hard to create a new world where people of all nations can come together in global community. If that’s a conspiracy, well then yes, we’re guilty.”

And this is where the myth truly falls: Somewhere between lies and truth. There is truth in all the conspiracies we tell ourselves (small and large), no matter if the conclusion is absolute truth or not. We get the pieces to the puzzles from true observations. And there are in fact horrible deeds, or devious actions, people in power take to orchestrate mass support or fear to accomplish some greater action (think of the many black flag operations governments throughout history have carried out). But at the end of it all, it is nearly impossible to discern the real, definitive truth. There is simply too much noise and, quite frankly, it is all a matter of perspective.

Schizophrenia or the Only Way Forward?

I turn back to Campbell now.

I can only wonder what he’d say about all this, what his stance would be. He talks much of globalization and of collaborating across governments so that we can end fighting among ourselves and move to the universe at large. He talks of the necessity and inevitiability that the wars in the middle east will cease in due time and that as a collective we will reach out past the moon (he experienced the moon landing on TV himself shortly before his death), and into the stars, where we will discover our true Selves.

I can only imagine that he’d take Jensen’s side. For Campbell, coming together collectively was representative of coming together on an individual basis. The further we reached outward, the further we’d understand our internal Selves. And of course, sacrifices are necessary for this. That is what the hero’s journey (the same as the schizophrenic’s journey) is all about. Reaching out and interpreting the symbols and reflecting what is learned in the macrocosm on a microcosmic level.

The Helix Nebula, or the Eye of Sauron?

In his conclusion at the end of his 1971 essay, “Envoy: No More Horizons,” the last of essays in his book Myths to Live By, Campbell reveals that “our depths are the depths of space,” before asking the question: What is to be the new mythology?

He answers:

“The old everlasting mythology, poetically renewed in terms neither of a remembered past nor of a projected future, but of now… the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves as centers of the Mind at Large.”

We must forge forward collectively to peace with each other, peace with the universe, and peace with ourselves, so that we can discover the myth that lives in us all.

This message is beyond politics, but if the new political mythology is a means to this end, then I say: let us forge forward with these delusions. We will find truth in myth somewhere.