Mythical Brief

A review of Claude Levi- Strauss's Myth and Meaning

Erik Empson, Italy, March 16, 2004

This volume arrived with a postman’s knock and packaged in reinforced cardboard. Disappointment is therefore too weak a word to describe the discovery that the book is so thin that it could have been popped into an envelope and slid under the door. For a book entitled Myth and Meaning that promises insights into human existence, forty eight pages of well spaced text that can be read comfortably in an hour, certainly makes you think profoundly…about your lost tenner!

If you can stomach the price for such a miniscule intellectual snack then the Levi-Strauss lectures reproduced here will not spoil your digestion. Divided into five, lets say ‘bite sized chunks’, the author explicates a little of his notion of science and its relationship to anthropological and structural analysis of myth. Debunking the idea of the ‘primitive’ Levi Strauss endeavours to show certain correspondences between societies ‘without writing’ and methods of science in the modern western world. We can not think of ‘primitive’ societies as backward, rather, through myths they develop often sophisticated and communally shared symbolic orders of meaning. Some of these such as the pan-American myths discussed in the second and third chapters, contain elements that describe manners of thought that we are only dimly aware of in the western world because our cultures and social circumstances have not demanded the development of this mental sector. As such the myth of the Skate and the South Wind of the American Indians is related to binary processes in computers (1) and tribal narratives have parallels with the science of history.

The type of explanation Levi-Strauss gives of these myths is at best tenuous but some of his suggestions are delightfully innovative and sincere and the fieldwork is of interest in itself. However, the lecture context is altogether too ephemeral to allow one to see the extent to which the various explanations arise out of systematic treatment rather than authorial whim. The case is not helped by at least three lazy editing mistakes that obscure the meaning of the argument, and dare it be said some needless repetition, which if omitted would make this poor emaciated script even thinner.

(1) Basically the story runs that there was a stage when we were all half human half animal when man's plans were always being upset because the south wind prevented him from gathering or cultivating food. The animals and half humans ganged up to battle the south wind and in the story the skate has a particularly important role in fighting the wind. For Levi-Strauss the myth functions through the role of the skate in helping to think through the idea of the wind blowing and not blowing. This is because as an animal the skate has a special mode of being: it is supposedly vunerable to attack because it is broad but when it turns on its side it becomes nearly invisible. Thus the skate is the symbolic apparatus whereby man can think through presence and absence, or as Levi-Strauss says; binary processes.

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