Lvi-Strauss on Structural Analysis of Myth

Lvi-Strauss Against Psychoanalysis:

        First, Lvi-Strauss has to explain why the psychoanalytic explanations of myths are deficient.  Briefly, Jung, Fraser, Durkheim and others all disagreed about the psychological function of myths, and they all arrived at strikingly different interpretations of myths' significance.  Like all Structuralists, Lvi-Strauss views this situation with distaste as non-scientific, impressionistic thinking.  His most subtle and devastating coup occurs on page 181 when, after asserting that all versions of any myth are equally true as long as we continue to feel they represent the myth, he lumps Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus myth (all young boys desire their mothers and wish to kill their fathers, etc.) as yet another version of the myth.

Lvi-Strauss and Saussure's "arbitrary sign," "langue," and "parole":

        " . . . myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told [but] it is both the same thing as language, and also something different from it.  [ . . . ]  This is precisely what is expressed in Sassure's distinction between langue and parole, one being the structural side of language, the other the statistical aspect of it, langue belonging to a revertible time, whereas parole is non-revertible" (172-3).  [Note: "revertible" is roughly synonymous with "reversible," in the sense that the structural rules of the langue operate in all times, so chronology is unimportant and "synchronic reading" is necessary to observe those rules, reading events out of sequence for their functional relations and abstract significance.]

Lvi-Strauss Breaking with Saussure to Create a Special "Time Referent" for Myth:

        " . . . myth uses a third referent which combines the properties of the first two [i.e., langue's timeless referent and parole's time-bound referent].  On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages--anyway, long ago.  But what gives myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future.  [ . . . ]  It is that double structure, altogether historical and anhistorical, which explains that myth, while pertaining to the realm of parole and calling for an explanation as such, as well as to that of the lange in which it is expressed, can also be an absolute object on a third level which, thought it remains linguistic by nature, is nevertheless distinct from the other two" (173).

Translation and Paraphrase--no longer "heresy," but "necessity":

        "Poetry is a kind of speech which cannot be translated except at the cost of serious distortions; whereas the mythical value of the myth remains preserved, even through the worst translation.  [ . . . ]  a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader throughout the world.  Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells.  It is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at 'taking off' from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling" (174).  [Note that translation and paraphrase allow the Structuralist interpreter to transform the text's surface features into the abstract concepts to which they are functionally related, so the actual Greek text of Sophocles' play in which Oedipus describes having killed the Sphinx can be compressed to "Oedipus kills the Sphinx" even though the Sphinx and her/its killing never actually occurs in the play.]

Lvi-Strauss's Myth-Study Rules:

        "1.  If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, this cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of the myth, but only in the way those elements are combined.  2.  Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it, language in myth unveils specific properties.  3.  These properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level; that is, they exhibit more complex features beside those which are to be found in any kind of linguistic expression" (174).  [Note he varies the typical Structuralist reference to structuring rules below the surface features by describing myths' extra-linguistic properties as existing above the surface features.  I do not believe this is an important difference, but I could be wrong.]

Doing Structuralist Myth Analysis and Testing a Structural Explanation for Quality [steps one and two, data gathering and data manipulation]:

        "The only method we can suggest [for discovering the basic units of which myths are composed] is to proceed tentatively, by trial and error, using as a check the principles which serve as a basis for any kind of structural analysis [are]: economy of explanation; unity of solution; and ability to reconstruct the whole from a fragment, as well as further stages from previous ones.  [ . . . ]  The technique which has been applied so far by this writer consists in analyzing each myth individually, breaking down its story into the shortest possible sentences, and writing down each sentence on an index card bearing a number corresponding to the unfolding of the story.  Practically each card will thus show that a certain function is, at a given time, predicated to a given subject.  Or, to put it otherwise, each gross constituent unit will consist in a relation" (175).  [Note this same procedure (trial and error) and principles will be those which guide your analysis of literature and my evaluation of it.  A "function" which is "predicated to a subject" is a fancy way of saying that each "mytheme" is made up of a noun or noun phrase attached to a verb or verb phrase, like "Oedipus kills the Sphinx."]

The "Gross Constituent Parts" or "Mythemes" in "bundles" [step three, data analysis and reintegration to develop and insight/thesis]:

        "the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning.  Relations pertaining to the same bundle may appear diachronically at remote intervals, but when we have succeeded in grouping them together, we have reorganized our myth according to a time referent of a new nature corresponding to the prerequisite of the initial hypothesis, namely, a two-dimensional time referent which is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic and which accordingly integrates the characteristics of the langue on the one hand, and those of the parole on the other.  To put it in even more linguistic terms, it is as though a phoneme [e.g., "da"] were made up of all its variants [i.e., "ta," and "pa" and "ka"--all "stopped" consonants attached to the open vowel]" (175-6).  [Note--these "bundles" are what you see in each of the stacked columns in his analysis of the Oedipus myth (178).]

The Alien Archeologists and the Card-Ignorant Fortune-Teller Observer [two metaphors for how the Structuralist discovers the mythic system hidden within the narrative's "moves"]:

        "Let us first suppose that archeologists of the future coming from another planet would one day . .  excavate one of our libraries.  [After having discovered that almost all its books contained symbolic information that could be decoded left-to-right and top-to-bottom <because there apparently are no Hebrew or Chinese books around!>] they would soon find out that a whole category of books did not fit the usual pattern: these would be the orchestra scores . . . [but] they would probably notice that the same patterns of notes recurred at intervals, either in full or in part, or that some patterns were strongly reminiscent of earlier ones.  Hence the hypothesis: what if patterns showing affinity, instead of being considered in succession, were to be treated as one complex pattern and read globally?  By getting at what we call harmony, they would find out that an orchestra score, on order to become meaningful, has to be read diachronically along one axis--that is, page after page, and from left to right--and also synchronically along the other axis, all the notes which are written vertically making up one gross constituent unit, i.e., one bundle of relations" (176).

        "Let us take an observer ignorant of our playing cards, sitting for a long time with a fortune-teller.  He would know something of the visitors: sex, age, look, social situation, etc. in the same way as we know something of the different cultures whose myths we try to study.  He would also listen to the sances and keep them recorded so as to be able to go over them and make comparisons--as we do when we listen to myth telling and record it.  . . . if the material available to him is sufficient, he may be able to reconstruct the nature of the deck of cards being used, that is: fifty-two or thirty-two cards according to case, made up of four homologous series consisting of the same units (the individual cards) with only one varying feature, the suit" (176-7).  [So the Structuralist analyzing literature would be seeking to describe the structuring rules of the author's "deck" of character-types (nouns) and action-types (verbs) and quality-types (adjectives, adverbs), looking for the "bundles" of homologous character-verb or character-adjective or verb-adverb relations which form synchronic "harmonies" within the "melody" we see when the text is read diachronically.]

Repetition, Doubling, and Other Forms of Sequence Variation in a Myth (or in an Author's Work):

        "First, the question has often been raised why myths and more generally oral literature, are so much addicted to duplication, triplication or quadruplication of the same sequence.  If our hypotheses are accepted, the answer is obvious: repetition has its function to make the structure of the myth apparent.  For we have seen that the synchro-diachronical structure of the myth permits us to organize it into diachronical sequences (rows in our tables) which should be read synchronically (the columns).  Thus, a myth exhibits a 'slated' structure which seeps to the surface, if one may say so, through the repetition process.  However, the slates are not absolutely identical to each other.  And since the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real), a theoretically infinite number of slates will be generated, each one slightly different from the others.  Thus, myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has originated from it is exhausted.  Its growth is a continuous process whereas its structure remains discontinuous.  If this is the case, we should consider that it closely corresponds, in the realm of the spoken word, to the kind of being a crystal is in the realm of physical matter" (193-4).  [So the Structuralist who finds a structuring bundle of relations in one of an author's works would do well to look at other works by the same author for variants on those relations, based on the notion that authors are working with a kind of "master deck" of structural possibilities that gradually evolves, work by work, into permutations which re-express those structuring relations.]