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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Claude Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” (cont.)

Claude Levi-Strauss attempts to demonstrate certain misinterpretations of mythical thought, such as Carl Gustav Jung's proposition that a given mythological archetype possesses certain meaning in itself.  He argues this to be an error comparable to early linguists' notion that a sound may possess affinity with a meaning—an idea which was discredited by the more scientific Saussurean principle of the arbitrary character of linguistic signs.  Nevertheless, though Jung's approach does not hold water from a structuralist standpoint, it is, in its own right, both interesting and useful.  (This is one manner in which theories in the social sciences differ from scientific theories—the latter, once disproved, are no longer considered valid.)


Staying with Saussurean principles, Levi-Strauss goes on to demonstrate how, while the particulars of a myth describing events having taken place long ago may continue to shift and evolve (like content words in language), certain underlying patterns remain timeless (like structure words).  At this point, it would be useful to refer to the tabular analysis in the post dated 7 December 2013.  In a similar fashion, if the fairy tales of Cinderella and Snow White were to be broken down "horizontally", one would discover the emergence of "vertical" relations between the two.  Likewise, a structural analysis of the Oedipus myth would necessitate consideration of all its constituent variants/versions over time.


In this context, it is pertinent to understand that the myths of many cultures essentially attempt to address, albeit in a far-fetched manner, complex questions concerning the basic origin of human life.  The word "human" comes from the Latin word humanus, thought to be a hybrid relative of homo, meaning "man", and humus, meaning "earth", suggesting the notion that man is firmly rooted to the earth.  An analogy is sometimes drawn with vegetables, which spring from the earth, decay, and then return to where they come from.  This is reflected in the Judeo-Christian creation story, in which God creates the first man Adam out of clay.  However, as per Greek mythology, humans did not emerge from the earth, unlike monsters and dragons.  Even in Hindu mythology, suras or deities are seen as benevolent supernatural beings and asuras or demons/power-seeking deities are viewed as naturalists.


Levi-Strauss believes that the Oedipus myth has to do with the inability of a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous to find a satisfactory transition to the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman.  The myth, he says, attempts to relate the original problem (was man born from one or born from two?) to the derivative problem (born from different or born from same?).  While Column III of the aforementioned tabular analysis provides instances of monsters overcome by men, thereby denying the origin of humans from the earth, Column IV indicates humans springing from earth with difficulty in walking straight and standing upright, thereby affirming the individual origin in the earth.  (The naming of characters based on their physical attributes or personality traits, as seen in Column IV, is not specific to Greek literature; it can also be seen, for instance, in Hindu mythology and Panchatantra tales.)


Let us also briefly examine the story of Adam and Eve from this perspective.  If Eve was created out of Adam's rib, should she be looked at as either his sister or daughter, thus meaning that their offspring come from an incestuous relationship?  Even Sigmund Freud's concept of the Oedipus complex, where a child is trying to overvalue one parent against the other, is regarded as the latest version of the same myth grappling with the original problem.  Hence, every version belongs to the myth—there is no single true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions.  It can therefore be said that even Levi-Strauss' essay/analysis is a version of the myth trying to make sense of the problem of origin.


Eventually, it is noted that a myth is an aspect of human expression which is less concerned with delivering the message than dramatising the intractable questions about the meaning of human life.  It is similar to theatrical performances, where conflict is dramatised and the eventual message or tying-up of loose ends, though necessary, generally appears tedious and does not hold the audiences' attention.  The last scene in Shakespeare's Othello and the spectacular depiction of Shiva's devotees vis-a-vis Vishnu's concluding message in Yakshagana performances are cases in point.


Levi-Strauss concludes by stating that the function of repetition of the same sequence in a myth is to render its structure apparent.  So while its growth is a continuous process, its structure remains discontinuous.  Consequently, the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science.



·                    Original text of Claude Levi-Strauss' essay "The Structural Study of Myth"

·                    M.A.R. Habib's "A History of Literary Criticism—From Plato to the Present" (United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005)

·                    Classroom discussions and slides used during the lecture

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 3 December 2013 by Dr. Anil Joseph Pinto; prepared by Vishal R. Choradiya)

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