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Claude Levi-Strauss and the Timelessness of Myth
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-04-28 09:44:36
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Claude Levi-Strauss, a Belgian born anthropologist (1908-) like Carl Gustav Jung does not consider himself a professional philosopher but he too, via anthropology, arrived at the fundamental insight that myths across different cultures, though distinct in content, share a universal structure; as such he has had a profound influence in 20th century thinking. His best known works are The Raw and the Cooked (1964) and The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).

The first is a landmark work of structuralist anthropology which looks at a collection of some 200 myths from tropical South America in order to use them as a basis for a non-structural approach to the study of mythology. He argues there that myths cannot be understood in isolation but only as part of a myth system. He analyses this myth system by examining the underlying structure of relationships between the elements of the stories rather than looking at their content. In the latter, which is prior chronologically, looks at how people organize their families. By examining those relationships from a structural point of view, he demonstrates how those relationships from different cultures are based on the same basic kinship structures.

What is intriguing about Levi-Strauss findings is that he extends them to the way the human mind operates. He begins his speculation by applying Saussure’s ideas to the study of myths. He borrows his distinction between “langue” and “parole” (i.e., the common structure of language and the actual use of language in a speaker) and in so doing realizes that the content of a myth, like the “parole” of linguistics, is unnecessary to the study of the structure of the myth.

Levi-Strauss further explains the genealogy of myth as one of continual evolution and adaptation of a structure whose content is irrelevant. He rejects the view of myths as unchanging, meaningful stories whose significance could be traced back to some original story lost in the fog of time, a sort of degraded history. Rather, he asserts that the content of myths have significance only in their transformation from one myth into another; hence the very identity of a myth consists in the sum total of its variants through time.

Using this vantage point, Levi-Strauss goes on to claim that myths are frameworks, or structures, in which human societies encode certain universal problems. He points out that in one South American culture there is a corpus of myths that use culinary themes to symbolize the transformation from nature, the “raw”, to culture, the “cooked”. Another corpus of myths uses dress and costume, the hiding of nakedness, to represent the development of society; another focuses on women as representing nature, men as representing culture. Levi-Strauss thus identifies a number of oppositions in human mythic structures: raw/cooked, naked/dressed, male/female. They all encode a universal dualism in human thought: nature/culture.

More particularly Levi-Strauss offers an example by way of a detailed analysis of the Oedipus myth, made much by Freud in his psychoanalytic theory, in which Oedipus unknowingly slays his father and marries his mother to become king. He points out that Freud’s reworking of that myth is another transformation of the story into a modern myth and thus it belongs to the identity of the whole story. It is, in other words, just another way of expressing the dualism nature/culture; which is to say that man must suppress, or as Freud put it, sublimate his natural desires and conform to rules in order to create a stable society.

What Levi-Strauss draws from this analysis is the idea that language encodes certain dualistic elements common to human experience. This has echoes of Chomsky’s innate hard-wiring of the human mind with certain innate properties that constrain what we are like and what we may know, but Levi-Strauss’ program claims to be scientific, designed to clear away the inessential details of how different cultures encode problems and leave the fundamental structures and their relationship exposed.

The startling conclusion is that the Western dualisms of subject/object, mind/matter, are nothing else but another version of a myth, like the raw and the cooked. They do not name any essential metaphysical categories but signify an anthropological curiosity. The dualism there represented is merely that of the individual in contrast with its environment. Once we get down to the level of structure and relations, what remains are merely the actions and words of a physical organism in a physical environment. So, the transformations of myths comes down to nothing more than the structural facts about the human body according to how sense-organs transmit data from the environment.

What is most fascinating to me in this approach to myths as an ongoing transformation is that they mirror the constantly changing reality of the ever-changing universe and suggests not only how misguided is the rejection of myths as children’s fairy tales unworthy of rational scientific man, but also that science itself may well be another developing myth of the Western imagination and its human activity. Here Giambattista Vico would supply a better explanation of myths as integral part of human history via his New Science, but that is another issue already treated in the virtual pages of this magazine.

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Alexandra Pereira2008-04-29 09:43:29
He has incredible works, though the one I know better is Tristes Tropiques, or A World on the Wane. Fascinating indeed.

Stephanie2008-11-26 02:57:30
I was trying to find information on this man and I really didn't find it useful.

John Cer2009-03-22 02:43:53
I think you come up with a mythical conclusion as well, cause not even the "physical" escapes a certain way of defining/creating a story, a world, a set of characters. But all this is strictly and philosophically problematic. Thanks for posting your thoughts in here. Take care

Gila2010-07-03 22:34:20
I found it interesting, finally I understood a bit of all these theories that make literature so difficult to enjoy nowadays!

alamin2011-07-16 19:59:36
its excellent. the portray of myth is so generous.

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