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Bill Moyers is Back, So Let's Get Back to Moyers -- Starting with 'Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth'
January 11, 2012  | By Eric Gould

One of the greatest television miniseries ever made -- and made 25 years ago, no less -- is a documentary. Actually, a discussion: Two older men in chairs, talking. For six hours.

Be still, beating hearts -- it's not the lost footage of My Dinner With Andre. (Even though we love the action figures.)

Hard to believe, and harder to convey, but trust this: The 1987 PBS Bill Moyers interviews with Prof. Joseph Campbell] are impossible to turn off. Their discussions, ranging from shared mythologies and icons to beliefs in God, gods and the hereafter, carry along at the absorbing pace of the best scripted drama.


Entitled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the series is brilliant in its simplicity -- and simply brilliant. Call it The Power of Television.

The series is TV Worth Watching any time -- but all the more so now, as Moyers resumes broadcasting this Friday, Jan. 13, with a new show, Moyers & Company.

(Check local listings for times, channels and even dates. The program is distributed to local public TV member stations via American Public Television, not by PBS. In many markets, including New York and Philadelphia, it will be shown Sundays, prior to prime time. For Moyers' own website, and for details, visit HERE.)

Bill Moyers has had a short retirement, and is returning to television a scant year and a half after leaving PBS in 2010, at the age of 77.

Probably no one has been a more passionate and ardent advocate of the public interest than Moyers. A veteran newspaper editor, network reporter and commentator, he's given us four-plus decades of TV series and specials covering government, ethics, religion and everything in between.


Moyers & Company is scheduled to debut with an extended interview with Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

Moyers says of the co-authors, "Their account does better than any I've read to explain how politicians rewrote the rules to create a winner-take-all economy that favors the 1 percent over everyone else, putting our once and future middle class in peril." (Take that, Oprah's book club.)

Moyers is at his best when he digs at the root causes of issues, and he often goes to artists, poets and philosophers to get a bigger picture of the meaning laying underneath the surface of everyday news. Plenty of such guests are scheduled for upcoming shows.

In these days of vitriolic, poisonous polarization -- and that's just in the halls of Congress -- many people wish for a more thoughtful, civil discourse on the hard subjects. Moyers has been doing just that for almost half a century. And it looks like we're still in good hands.

But perhaps the biggest feather in his cap, and the most enduring, were six shows of interviews he recorded with Dr. Campbell in 1987. As Moyers threw out questions and ideas, Campbell effortlessly recounted his work on different cultures and mythologies, and -- more important -- how religious and civic rituals incorporated them.

Campbell talked at length about how these were a means to help us, as civilizations, usher ourselves through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.

When it first aired, The Power of Myth was a media phenomenon. In the relative early days of VCR recording, when not every household had one, many cleared their schedules to be home to see the PBS prime-time broadcasts when they first aired. (That's right, you had to be home to see it.)

It may have been cultural anthropology's one and only rock-and-roll moment.

And it still is today. The Power of Myth remains one of the few, true life-affirming and life-altering experiences television has offered. Here's a brief taste of one transcendent moment, as Campbell explains to Moyers -- and to viewers -- how, and why, to follow their bliss:

Campbell, 83 when he gave the interviews, had authored dozens of books on comparative mythology. He died before they aired on PBS in 1988, never having seen the series broadcast.

And If that brings to mind the story of Moses, on the banks of the River Jordan, never crossing over with his people, it's appropriate. Campbell was a student and teacher of the great cosmologies and stories of the world, perhaps like no other -- and was a bit of a mythic oracle in his own right.

He was so in command of his subject, and his alacrity with the story of human mythology was so definitive and expansive, you feel fortunate it was ever caught on videotape. You're getting it straight from a master who had pondered and written about this material his whole life.


We get a picture of the spectrum of the whole of human history and belief, from grail quests to symbols of the snake. As Moyers says in one introduction, "The human imagination that led to myths and rituals fascinated Joseph Campbell. For him, mythic stories were not simple entertaining stories to be told for amusement around ancient campfires. They were powerful guides to the life of the spirit."

Campbell showed us how to look at the symbols of folklore, and how basic concepts -- the hereafter, ascension to heaven, the hero's journey, sacred geometries, and others -- would emerge, surprisingly, across different millennia and different religions.

As Campbell says in Episode One, "We want to think about God. God is a thought. God is an idea. God is a name. But its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought...

"Myth is that field of reference: metaphors referring to what is absolutely transcendent."

The guilty pleasure here is that as accomplished as Moyers was at the time, he was, like the rest of us, at the feet of Campbell's authority.


Campbell's intellect was towering, as was his ability to speak at will, without notes, on his subject. It's somewhat of a struggle, at certain points, to stay with him -- and it's often comforting that Moyers' reaction is, at times, as visibly perplexed as our own, as Campbell skips from symbol to image to divine idea to yet another reference we hadn't been expecting.

But such is the stuff of existence and transcendence. It's vaporous. It's quick. It's fleeting.

And of course, it's timeless.

Through the power of television, videotape, and now DVDs, so is Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Even though it's been 25 years, and he's long gone.

Order the series HERE, to enjoy, and be inspired by, one of the best TV offerings Bill Moyers ever presented. Then tune in later this week, and watch for another.

Oh, and those My Dinner with Andre action figures? You can enjoy them HERE, courtesy of Christopher Guest and 1996's Waiting for Guffman.

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