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The Faces of Joseph


Campbell
Brendan Gill

SEPTEMBER 28,
1989 ISSUE

Thanks to
television,
people
comparatively
obscure during
their lifetimes
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enjoy the
possibility of
becoming
celebrated after
they are dead.
Indeed, they
may do better
than thatthey
may achieve
what amounts to
a substantial
measure of
Joseph Campbell; drawing by David Levine
immortality,
which is to say
that as long as TV tapes of them exist and as long as an
audience can be found of a size sufficient to make it
worthwhile to broadcast the tapes, they can go on
occupying a prominent place in the world for many
decades and perhaps evenwho knows?for centuries.
Of course I am thinking of a particular case: that of my
friend Joseph Campbell, who taught at Sarah Lawrence
College for almost forty years, his subject being the
role of myth in human history. He wrote a number of
books on this and related topics, the best known of them
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in his lifetime being The Hero with a Thousand Faces


and The Masks of God. He retired from Sarah Lawrence
in 1972 and was at work on still another book when, in
1987, at the age of eighty-two, he died after what his
obituary in The New York Times described simply as a
brief illness. That brevity was, so his friends thought,
characteristic of him: he died within a few months, and
in doing so he displayed what many of his friends took
to be a characteristicand enviablealacrity.

Icall Campbells alacrity enviable because, in our


present state of medical ignorance, the disease that was
killing him wasnt to be outwitted except in a negative
sense by the degree to which its duration could be
reduced: Why dawdle in the presence of the inevitable?
At the same time, however, for Campbell to have
consented to be sick at all seemed an impermissible
aberration. Ordinarily, it isnt a reason for astonishment
when an old man is called upon to die, but Campbell had
seemed to us never to grow old. If by the calendar he
had reached his eighties, in person he was a good twenty
years younger than that, or so any stranger would have
assumed on meeting him. He was slender and quickmoving and because of his erect carriage gave the
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ALSO IN THIS ISSUE

SEPTEMBER 28, 1989


A Poet and Her Myths
Al Alvarez
The Pizza Is Burning!
Murray Kempton

Oh What a Lovely War!


Noel Annan
Giacomettis Code
James Lord
About the European House

Neal Ascherson
MORE

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impression of being taller than he was. He had thick dark


wavy hair, bright blue eyes, unwrinkled skin, and a pink
complexion. He laughed readily, boyishly, and his
laughter remained especially attractive in old age
because, as far as one could tell, his teeth were his own,
neither false nor capped. He was, in short, an invincibly
youthful figure, so uncannily unaltered by time that I
used to accuse him, to his delight, of practicing some
hitherto unknown form of satanism.
We would encounter each other, Campbell and I, at
monthly meetings of the Century Club, in New York
City. Handsome in black tie, he would be standing near
one or another of the bars that were set up

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