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Saturday, December 07, 2013

Claude Levi Strauss's "The Structural Study of Myth"

"It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only  to be shattered again and that new worlds were built from the fragments." -Franz Boas

C. L. Strauss in his essay - "The structural study of the myth" (1958)  tries to give insight into the Sophocles play and explain the concept of myth. One must remember that the myth he speaks about is not the connotation of myth that we understand commonly. Myth, according to Strauss, is the form of a communication using language as its tool. He continues to say that some claim human societies merely express through their mythology the fundamental feelings common to the whole of mankind such as love, hate or revenge or that they try to provide some sort of explications for phenomena which they cannot otherwise comprehend - astronomical, meteorological, and the like. The basic problem of the contradiction of the myth is seen in the essay. The explanation for this situation lies to some extent in the fact that the study of the religion was started by men like Taylor, Frazer, Durkheim who were psychologically oriented. The difference between langue and parole which has been discussed already also notices a third referent. The myth like rest of the language is made up of constituent units.
These constituent units presuppose the present constituent units in language when analysed on levels namely phonemes, morphemes and sememes, hence they are called as gross constituent units. Each gross constituent consists of relation. It is well known to structural linguistics that constituent units on all levels are made up of relations and the true difference between our gross units and others remain unexplained. Strauss uses the Oedipus myth to explain the late forms and literary transmutations concerned with the aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Cadmus seeks his sister Europa ravished by Zeus.

Cadmus kills the dragon.

Spartoi kill one another.

Labdacos (Laius' father) =Lame

Oedipus kills his father, Laius.

Laius (Oedipus' father)=Left-sided

Oedipus kills the Sphinx.

Oedipus = Swollen foot
Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta.

Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices.

Antigone burries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition.

The first column has as its common features the overrating of blood relations. The second column expresses the same thing but inverted which is the underrating of the blood relations. The third column refers to the monsters being slain. The remarkable connotation of the surnames in Oedipus's father's line has also been noticed. All the hypothetical meanings refer to the difficulties in walking straight and standing upright. The dragon is a chthonian being which has to be killed in order that mankind be born from the earth. Since the monsters are overcome by men. The common feature of the third column becomes the denial of the autochthonious origin of man. In order to interpret a myth, some basic elements are missing such as Jocasta killing herself and Oedipus piercing his own eyes. These events do not alter the substance of the myth although are very significant.
In a myth anything can happen with any character and to any subject. Strauss believes the basic elements are not isolated relations but bundles of each relation. To understand the myth of Oedipus, one needs to go back to the origin of Greek civilization. Structures are timeless not content so argued by the structuralists. The myth has to do with the inability for the culture which holds the belief in mankind is autochthonous, to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that the human beings are actually born from the union of a man and a woman.


Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 02 Dec 2013. 

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 2 December. Prepared by Steve R. Mathew)

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