Myths have a quasi-objective collective existence, unfold on their own “concrete logic” with supreme disregard for the vagaries of individual thought, and reduce any particular consciousness to a mere function of themselves.
T he human penchant for life-stories is an integral part of human consciousness. People all over the world cannot help but think of their lives as stories and proceed to tell them as such. Autobiographical stories have an inherent logic all their own that imparts sense and purpose to the teller’s life, not simply mirroring what happened to the teller during h/er lifetime, but exploring and interpreting it for h/er. Such storytelling is as fundamental to human psychic life as breathing is to physical life. Indeed, the “narrative instinct” is as much a part of the constitution of Homo culturalis as are any of h/er physical instincts.
The workings of the narrative instinct are also manifested in the founding stories, known more specifically as myths, that form the basis of all cultural life. These are to cultural character what life-stories are to personal character. Only after a culture has grown to maturity is there any question as to the “truth” embodied in its myths. For example, it was only after the ancient culture of Greece had matured that there emerged a debate over the truthfulness of its founding myths. Plato, for example, criticized these trenchantly, exalting reason instead as the only trustworthy means for probing reality. But neither the ancient debate nor the entrenchment of the rational scientific method after the Renaissance succeeded in eliminating the need for myth in Western civilization. On the contrary, even today there is an urgent penchant in all human beings to make use of and produce narrative accounts—factual and fictional—to explain who we are and why we are here. The details of the stories change from culture to culture, but they all reflect the same narrative structure: i.e. the same kinds of thematic units, plot lines, character types, etc. The study of this structure in ancient myths comes under the semiotic rubric of mythology, and the general study of storytelling under that of narratology.
In this chapter, our journey through the realm of culture takes us to the region inhabited by Homo mythologicus, the storyteller. We will stop in various areas of this region to look at the many fruits that the narrative instinct has yielded and continues to allow human beings to harvest. Studying the ways in which narratives give sense and purpose to human existence is, needless to say, a fundamental focus of any semiotic approach to the study of culture.
A narrative is a text that is constructed to describe a sequence of events or actions that are felt to be logically connected to each other or causally intertwined in some way. The narrative sequence may be purely fact-based, as in a newspaper report, a psychoanalytic session, etc., or fictional, as in a novel, a fairy-tale, etc. Needless to say, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine the boundary line between fact and fiction. Indeed, even in the recounting of life-stories, fiction is often intermingled with fact in order to give the stories more coherence and thus credibility. Incidentally, this is called the “Othello effect” by psychologists, who characterize it as a kind of lying in order to emphasize the truth.
The narrative text typically shows a three-layer structure; i.e. its meaning is anchored in (1) the main text, (2) a subtextual layer, and (3) an intertextual layer. The term subtext designates any implicit narrative within the text that is not immediately accessible to interpretation. A subtext is, in other words, a text within the main text, which is subject to the interpretation of the listener/reader. An intertext is a narrative to which a text alludes by implication. It is a text from outside the main text. Access to that intertext requires knowledge of the signifying order. Subtextuality and intertextuality reveal that the narratives of the signifying order are interconnected with each other (the interconnectedness principle). For example, the main text of the movie Blade Runner (chapter 8, §8.5) unfolds as a science fiction detective story, but its subtext is, arguably, a religious text—the search for a Creator. This interpretation is bolstered by the many intertextual allusions to Biblical themes and symbols in the movie. Many narratives are constructed in this way. Understanding the narrative, therefore, is dependent upon the listener’s/reader’s knowledge of the culture’s intertextuality, i.e. of the culture’s network of existing texts to which the maker of a text alludes. In dimensionality terms, the narrative is perceived as a text at a firstness level, i.e. as something constructed to convey meaning. At a secondness level, the meanings the maker of the narrative is presumed to want are perceived as implicit within the text. This is the subtextual dimension, which is in large part subject to secondness (individual) interpretations of the text. At a thirdness level, the narrative reveals what textual resources already existing in the signifying order the narrative-maker has drawn upon, linking h/er narrative to the culture’s meaning pathways (intertextuality):
Narrative texts can be verbal, nonverbal, or a combination of both. An example of a verbal narrative is a short story; an example of a non-verbal narrative is a silent movie that tells the story through image sequences; and an example of combined verbal-nonverbal narrative is a comic book. The three structural features of all narratives are plot, character, and setting. The plot is basically what the narrative is all about; it is a kind of macro-referent, to which the narrative draws attention. Character refers to the embodiment of human personality features in the people who are the perpetrators and/or participants in the plot. The setting is the location where, and the time when, the plot takes place. The teller of the story is called the narrator. The narrator can be a character of the narrative, the author of the narrative, or some other person. Each type of narrator provides a different perspective on the story for the reader. The reader can thus feel a part of the narrative, looking at the action as if s/he were in it (looking from within); or aloof from it, looking at the action as if from the outside (looking from without).
The novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, written by the literary critic Edwin A. Abbott (1838–1926), is an exceptional case-in-point of a narrative that provides the reader literally with both perspectives. The characters of the novel are personified geometrical figures, known as Flatlanders, living in a two-dimensional universe called Flatland. Flatlanders can only see each other as dots or lines, even if they are, from our vantage point as readers, circles, squares, triangles, etc. The novel provides us with this perspective by projecting us into the mind of a Flatlander. To grasp what kind of perspectival view this entails, one should imagine Flatland as the flat surface of a table. A Flatlander can see figures in only one dimension: i.e. as dots or lines depending on their orientation (looking from within). For example, if one looks at a paper circle lying on the table, with the eyes level with the table’s surface, s/he will see the edge of the circle as a line. The same applies to any other shape. The only way, then, to distinguish a circle from a straight line, an ellipse, or any other figure is to view Flatland from a vantage point above it, i.e. to look down at the shapes from above the table. This three-dimensional viewing of the figures constitutes a looking from without perspective. It literally provides the reader with a different view of Flatland and its inhabitants. Similarly, although the perspective in most novels is not “virtual” as it is in Flatland, the reader’s understanding of any narrative is invariably conditioned by one of these two mental vantage points—looking from within and looking from without.
By and large, people think of narrative as fiction (from Latin fingere “to form, make, put together”). But fictional narration did not become prevalent until the Middle Ages. That was the era when people started inventing romances, novellas, and, a little later, novels. Before the Middle Ages, people may have indeed created fictional stories, such as fables, tales, and legends, but these did not serve the same function that fiction has fulfilled since the medieval era—the telling of stories for the sake of the telling. The ancient dramas, fables, tales, etc. were not fictional in the post-medieval sense. They were imaginative portrayals of mythic themes.
But there is some evidence that fictional narrativity has ancient roots nonetheless. Papyri from the fourth Egyptian Dynasty report on how King Cheops (2590–2567 BC) delighted in hearing the fictional stories that his sons told him. The Greek statesman and general Aristides (530?–468? BC), moreover, wrote a collection of what we would now call short stories about his hometown, Miletus, to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis. The Latin Golden Ass of Apuleius (125?–200? AD) was also a fictional narration aimed at providing social and moral commentary. But by and large the ancient world told tales of the gods or of human foibles. These were hardly perceived as fictional. Fiction became a standard narrative craft only after the Middle Ages, especially after the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) wrote the Decameron (1351–1353), a collection of 100 fictional tales set against the gloomy background of the Black Death, as the bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the fourteenth century was called. The Decameron is the first real example of fiction in the modern sense. To escape an outbreak of the plague, ten friends decide to take refuge in a country villa outside Florence. There they entertain one another over a period of ten days with a series of stories told by each member of the party in turn. Each day’s storytelling ends with a canzone, a short lyric poem. The Decameron is thus crafted from fictional stories, unfolding as a penetrating analysis of human character.
Ever since, fictional narration has been a yardstick for probing human actions and human character. This is probably because its structure (plot-character-setting) is felt to reflect the structure of real-life events, of which the narrator may not even be consciously aware: i.e. the narration is felt to be already implicit in the form of the actions and events that are manifest in actual human lives. In a sense, narrative creates reality as a sequence of purposeful actions connected by its very structure to each other.
The reality-inducing effect of narrative structure was evident a few decades ago in a popular program on American television called Wild Kingdom. The show purported to explain animal behavior in scientific terms. Each week, a film would be made of animals eating, hunting, mating, etc. Unedited, the actions of the animals caught on film would hardly make up a meaningful story line. But with the help of film editors and scriptwriters the program produced an intriguing narrative account of the actions dispersed randomly on the unedited film. Although the program’s creators may have extracted their ideas from scientific sources, the particular ways in which they explained the animals’ actions constituted a human plot. The result was a weekly dose of human narrative about animals put together by the program’s film editors, directors, and scriptwriters.
The serious study of narrative structure in semiotics can be traced to the work of Vladimir Propp (1928), who argued persuasively that ordinary discourse was built upon this very structure. According to Propp, there exist a relatively small number of “narrative units,” or plot themes, which go into the make-up of a “plot grammar.” The term sometimes used to refer to these units is narrames. Propp then went on to suggest that plot grammar was as intrinsic to human cognitive processes as was linguistic grammar.
Propp’s theory would, in effect, explain why narrative is the medium through which children learn about the world. Stories of imaginary beings and events allow children to make sense of the real world, providing the intelligible formats that mobilize the child’s natural ability to learn from context. The psychologist Jerome Bruner (1986) has argued, similarly, that narrative thinking underlies how we come to understand ourselves and the social world in which we live. Narratives give pattern and continuity to the child’s raw perception and experience. They impart the sense that there is a plot to life, that the characters in it serve some meaningful purpose, and that the setting of life is part of the human condition. Children respond to plot, character, and setting without training. They instinctively understand any discourse that links events in a narrative way. By age four or five, children are able to manage and negotiate narratives by themselves, especially during play, when they create imaginary narratives designed to allow others watching them a framework for interpreting their actions.
A. J. Greimas
After Propp, the semiotician who most influenced the study of narrative was Algirdas Julien Greimas (1917-1992). Greimas’ main contribution to the theory of narrative was his discovery that the stories of different cultures were devised with virtually the same stock of actions, characters, motifs, themes, and settings. These make up what he called a “narrative grammar.” This grammar, Greimas remarked, seems invariably to involve:
- a subject (the hero of the plot)
- who desires an object (a person, a magic sword, etc.)
- and who encounters an opponent (a villain, a false hero, a trial situation, etc.)
- and then finds a helper (a donor)
- who then gets an object from a sender (a dispatcher)
- and gives it to a receiver;
In order to explain the passage from these categories, which Greimas called actants, to actual narrative discourse, he posited the presence of a “generative trajectory” in the human mind that maps the actants onto other constituents of a social interaction to produce the discourses that make up a large portion of human communication. An actant can be converted into various story roles at a certain number of specified positions on its narrative trajectory. At the actual level of telling, one actant can be represented by several actors, and several actants by one and the same actor. In a mystery novel, for instance, the subject, or hero, may have several enemies, all of whom function actantially as an opponent. In a love story, a male lover may function as both object and sender. A simple application of actantial theory to a novel such as Madame Bovary (1857) by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) would go somewhat like this:
|=||Charles, Yonville, Rodolphe, Homais,|
The word myth derives from the Greek mythos “word,” “speech,” “tale of the gods.” A myth is a narrative in which the characters are gods, heroes, and mystical beings, the plot revolves around the origin of things or around dramatic human events, and the setting is a metaphysical world juxtaposed against the real world. In the beginning stages of human cultures, myths functioned as genuine narrative theories of the world. This is why all cultures have created them to explain their origins: the Zuñi people, for instance, claim to have emerged from a mystical hole in the earth, thus establishing their kinship with the land; Rome was said to have been founded by Romulus, who as an infant had to be suckled by a wolf, thus alluding to a certain fierceness; and the list could go on and on. Myths create a metaphysical knowledge system for explaining human origins and actions. And this system is the one to which we instinctively resort even today for imparting knowledge of values and morals initially to children. It also manifests itself latently in other ways. Climatologists, for example, refer to the warming of the ocean surface off the western coast of South America that occurs every 4 to 12 years as a person, El Niño (“the little one” in Spanish). Although modern people do not believe El Niño to be a person, they nonetheless find it somehow more appropriate to blame an imaginary being for certain weather repercussions. The difference between a current-day imaginary being like El Niño and an early cultural one is that the latter was believed to be a real being (a god, a hero, etc.).
Types of Myth
The most important myth in a culture, known as the cosmogonic myth, explains how the world came into being. In some cosmogonic accounts, the world is created from nothing; in others it emerges from the lower worlds. Eschatological myths, on the other hand, describe the end of the world. These usually predict the destruction of the world by a divine being who will send human beings either to a paradisiacal existence or to one of eternal torment, depending on the ways in which people have lived their lives. An apocalypse, i.e. a universal fire and a final battle of the gods, is a central theme of eschatological mythology. To counteract the apocalypse, many cultures tell myths of birth and rebirth which inform people how life can be renewed or which tell them about the coming of an ideal society or of a savior. Myths of the culture hero are also common. These describe beings who discover a cultural artifact or technological process that radically changes the course of history.
Rarely do we realize how much of the representational fabric of modern cultures is cut from myth. From the Germanic and Roman myths we have inherited, for instance, the names of most of the days of the week and months of the year: e.g. Tuesday is the day dedicated to the Germanic war god Tiu; Wednesday to the chief god Wotan, Thursday to Thor, Friday to the goddess of beauty Frigga; and Saturday is dedicated to the Roman god Saturn, January to Janus, and so on. Our planets bear a similar pattern of nomenclature: Mars is named after the Roman god of war, Venus after the Roman god of love, etc. The residues of mythic thinking can also be seen in the fact that we continue to read horoscopes, implore the gods to help us, cry out against Fortune, and so on.
The narrative structure of myths imparts coherence and plausibility to forms of cultural representation. The characters in myths are the beings that early peoples imagined to be the perpetrators of, or master minds behind, the events that occur in Nature and in human life. Notions of destiny, fate, fortune, etc. are all derivatives of this form of thinking. The mythic plots revolved around the actions of these characters. For example, to explain climatological events, the ancient Romans invented Neptune, the god of the sea and brother of Jupiter, the supreme god of the skies. Originally a god of springs and streams, Neptune became identified with the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. The myth of Neptune is a story created to explain the interconnectedness of natural phenomena, thus giving a metaphysical coherence to the world. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-) even saw myth as the original source for the parts of speech in language. Lévi-Strauss (1978) pointed out that certain clusters of relationships in myth, as expressed in the narrative text, conform to the systematic order of the language’s structure.
Views of Myth
The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (chapter 2, §2.1) claimed that the original mythic stories led to the foundation of the first cultural spheres and institutions (chapter 1, §1.6). The gradual increase of control humans had over their environment and the increasing complexity of human institutions were then reflected in the functions that new gods assumed. For Vico, myth was constructed on the basis not of a rational logic but of what he called a poetic logic, a form of thinking based upon, and guided by, conscious bodily experiences that were transformed into generalized ideas. The course that humanity runs, according to Vico, goes from an early mythical age, through a heroic one, to a rational one. Each age has its own kind of culture, art, language, social institutions, and narratives—the poetic mentality, for instance, generated myths; the heroic one, legends; and the rational one, narrative history.
In myth, psychoanalysts find traces to the psychic motivations and complexes of individuals. Sigmund Freud (1913), for instance, saw the conflicts recounted in myths as attempts to come to grips with unconscious psychic life. In the myth of Oedipus—the king who was abandoned at birth and unwittingly killed his father and then married his mother—he found a narrative paradigm for explaining a subconscious sexual desire in a child for the parent of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by hostility to the parent of the same sex. Carl Jung (1965) saw in such stories evidence for a collective unconscious in the human species which seeks expression through narrative. The American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) added that the mythic characters were essentially the first archetypes (chapter 1, §1.2)—literally, original models of abstract concepts.
Two interesting views of myth were set forth by the Romanianborn historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) and the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). In Eliade’s interpretation, myth reveals an explanation of the nature of being. This is why modern peoples use mythic stories to rediscover and reexperience their own nature. Durkheim rejected the notion that myth arises in response to extraordinary manifestations of Nature. To Durkheim, Nature was a model of regularity and thus predictable and ordinary. He concluded that myths arose as emotional responses to social existence, thus constituting a narrative moral code and a system of historical reasoning. Myths and the rituals stemming from them sustain and renew moral systems, keeping them from being forgotten, and they bind people socially. Durkheim thus argued for a psychic continuity between myth and religious experiences. He explained the remarkable similarity among the world’s myths with a pre-Jungian theory of “collective conscious,” by which the basic ingredients of myth—the plots, characters, actions, themes, etc.—were actually part of the human brain and thus common to every human being. These mythic patterns were molds, or templates, from which the different myths were made:
The collective conscious is the highest form of the psychic life, since it is the consciousness of the consciousness. Being placed outside and above all individual and local contingencies, it sees things in this permanent and essential aspect, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas...it alone can furnish the mind with the molds which are applicable to the totality of things and which make it possible to think of them (Durkheim 1912:12).
Most semioticians would agree with Durkheim. The work in narratology has revealed, above all else, that the narrative structure of myths provides the categories of the plot grammars that underlie all the stories we tell, from the ancient tragedies to the detective stories of today. In this explanatory framework, stories are said to have a denotative surface structure and an unconscious mythical one. The surface level narrates the story as a series of connected real-time events or images. But the events themselves, and the nature of their connectivity, are reflexes of the mythic categories hidden below; i.e. the surface elements cohere into a signifier that has an underlying mythic signified that works at a subtextual level. As Key (1989: 149) has aptly put it: “Humans label consciously, but symbolic significance remains at an unconscious level.”
The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (chapter 1, §1.1) further refined this sociological and evolutionary conception of myth. For Malinowski, myth fulfilled an indispensable function—it expressed, enhanced, and codified belief, safeguarding morality by providing practical rules for the guidance of individuals. So, Malinowski suggested, the mythical perception of plants, for instance, was the practical and cultural basis for the domestication of plant life, and agriculture itself became part of a perception both of cosmic order and of the structure of society. Certain other myths and rites had as their function the replenishment of life. Such myths and rites were so generalized in their relation to the signifying order that religious and mythical meaning was given to the entire culture. For example, in Indo-European cultures myth reflects a tripartite structure that is extended to the social structure, with a priest or ruler at the top of a hierarchy, warriors in the middle, and farmers, herdsmen, and craftsmen at the base. These classes are correlated with cosmic deities; and in the narrative plots of the myths the interrelationships, antagonisms, and conflicts among these three classes are dramatized. This structure operates as an archetypal language for the statement of ideal meanings within Indo-European cultures. In effect, Malinowski argued that, in its primitive form, myth was not merely a story, but a lived reality. It was not fictional, and like any sacred story it lives on in our rituals, governing our modes of perception and controlling our conduct.
The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1946) allied himself, instead, with those who saw myth as arising from an emotional response to Nature—awe of thunder, fear of lightning, etc. He stressed, however, that myth was not identical with the emotion from which it arose, but that it was the expression—the objectification—of the emotion. In this expression or objectification, the identity and basic values of the group were given an absolute meaning.
The most popularized studies of myths in the twentieth century were those of the American scholar Joseph Campbell (e.g. 1949, 1969). In his bestselling books, Campbell combined insights from Jungian psychoanalysis, theories of history, and linguistic analysis to formulate a general theory of the origin, development, and unity of all human cultures. If there is thunder in the sky, and one lacks the notion of “thunder,” then it can be explained as the angry voice of a god; if there is rain, then it can be explained as the weeping of the gods; and so on. A myth is a telling of events that holds past, present, and future together for a specific culture. For this reason, Campbell claimed, the earliest myths constituted the foundational fabric of culture.
The gist of the work in semiotic mythology suggests that the original mythic themes and symbols continue to reverberate in the signifying orders of modern-day societies. To distinguish between the original myths and their modern-day versions, the semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-1980) designated the latter mythologies (1957). Mythologies are modern-day reflexes of mythic themes, plots, and characters. In early Hollywood westerns, for instance, the mythic theme of good vs. evil manifested itself in various symbolic and expressive ways: e.g. cowboy heroes wore white hats and villains black ones.
A mythology often manifests itself as ritualistic behavior. Sports events, for example, are mythological dramas pitting the good (the home team) against the bad (the visiting team). The whole fanfare associated with preparing for a “big event,” like the Super Bowl of American football, has a ritualistic quality similar to the pomp and circumstance that the mythic armies engaged in before going out to battle and war. Indeed, the whole event is perceived to be a mythic battle. The symbolism of the home team’s (army’s) uniform, the valor and strength of the players (the heroic warriors), and the skill and tactics of the coach (the army general) have a powerful effect on the home fans (one of the two warring nations). The game (the battle) is somehow felt to unfold in metaphysical terms, i.e. as a struggle of Herculean proportions between the forces of good and evil in the universe. Sports figures are exalted as heroes or condemned as villains.
A mythology can also take the form of a concept or social trend. Childhood, for instance, emerged as a mythology during the Industrial Revolution, when for the first time in Western social history children were considered to be at a stage of life as yet uncorrupted and untainted by civilization (chapter 9, §9.2). This concept did not exist in previous eras, nor is it a universal one today in other cultures. Children are different from adults, not any better or worse. They may lack adult social, cognitive, and linguistic skills, but their behavior ranges considerably. The image of children as pure and innocent is part of a mythology, not a psychology or sociology, of childhood. A child has no awareness whatsoever of being pure or innocent—adults do. In medieval and Renaissance paintings there are no children as such, at least not in the mythological way we think of them today. The new social order brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the idealized notions of childhood expressed by the Romantic artists of the nineteenth century, generated the mythology, proclaiming children vastly different from adults, giving them a new pristine identity as innocent, faultless, impressionable, malleable creatures.
Barthes emphasized that most of our rituals and social concepts are mythological. Whether or not people are conscious of this, Barthes’ theory would explain rather well why it is that so many of us become involved emotionally in such spectacles as sports events and such notions as childhood. As Barthes claimed, mythologies tap psychically into ancient themes that continue to inform our daily life schemes. If Barthes is right, then mythological thinking, which originally served a mystical and cosmological function—explaining what the universe is all about and how we fit into the scheme of things—has gradually taken on sociological and pedagogical functions, supporting and validating a certain social order and instructing individuals of that order how to conduct their lives.
Mythologies are carved into the stories we tell, the laws we enact, the behaviors we perform ritualistically, and so on. A contemporary medium for shaping mythologies is television—a topic to which we will turn in chapter 11. The situation comedy (sitcom), for instance, is where many modern-day mythologies related to family life are made, developed, and even eventually discarded. Consider, as a case-in-point, the mythological development of TV fatherhood from the 1950s to the late 1990s.
In the 1950s television programs like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet sculpted the father figure to fit the mold of the traditional patriarchal family. Most of those early sitcoms painted a rose-tinted picture of the family. The father was in charge, with his wife working behind the scenes to maintain harmony through subservience. This mythology was given a narrative form for people to enjoy on a weekly basis, allowing them to evaluate their own family situations by comparison. There were two notable exceptions to this, The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, both of which revolved around strong-willed wives who were, in effect, precursors of later TV feminist characters. But in general the subtext to the 1950s TV sitcom was: father = godlike know-all and be-all.
In the 1960s and early 1970s sitcom mythology changed drastically. The TV father was becoming more and more of a ludicrous character. The sitcom that reflected this new subtext most clearly was All in the Family. America was divided, ideologically and emotionally, into two camps—those who supported the views and attitudes of the TV father, Archie Bunker, a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, and those who despised them. What was happening inside the Bunker family was apparently happening in families across the continent. American society had entered into a period of emotional turmoil and bitter debate over such controversial issues as the Vietnam War, racism, the role of women in society, and the validity of the patriarchal family. The new subtext that was informing the sitcoms of the late 1960s and early 1970s was father = a fallen god, an opinionated, ludicrous character. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman, Rhoda, Maude, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Cagney and Lacey, and others started focusing more on women, portraying strong, independent women who were attempting to survive, socially and professionally, in a world that was disassembling patriarchal structures.
It is interesting to note that in the midst of that mythological reconfiguration, a program like The Bill Cosby Show achieved unexpected success in the 1980s. In hindsight, we can see a number of reasons for the success of that apparent throwback to the patriarchal programs of the 1950s. First and foremost was the fact that Bill Cosby himself was a great comedian who could easily endear himself to a large audience. But, more importantly, the Cosby Show was appropriate for the 1980s. Throughout the 1970s, programs like All in the Family and The Jeffersons were reflexes of a social movement to tear down patriarchal authority. But during the 1980s, with the ascendancy of a new right-wing moralism, the mythology of the family patriarch was making a comeback. Once more, audiences were searching for TV father figures who were morally strong, but gentle and understanding at the same time. Bill Cosby fit this image perfectly. But there was a difference. Unlike the wife in Father Knows Best, Cosby’s wife had an assertive role to play in the family. This “new-look” patriarchal family provided reassurance of the strength of traditional values in a world that was, and continues to be, in constant moral doubt and flux.
The total deconstruction of the 1950s mythology of patriarchal fatherhood became apparent in many of the 1980s and 1990s sitcoms. A typical example was Married...with Children, a morbid parody of fatherhood and of the nuclear family. The father on this program, Al Bundy, was little more than a physical brute, a reprehensible character who was hardly deserving of the title of father. Indeed, as the name of the sitcom suggested, he was merely married and just happened to have children, who were just as shallow and despicable as he was—Bud, his boorish, sex-crazed son, and Kelly, his empty-headed and over-sexed daughter. There was no sugar-coating in that sitcom. Married...with Children was implanted on a new parodic subtext: the father = moron.
There are many types of narrative. But perhaps the most widely influential one in history, before the advent of cinema, has been the novel. Although we read a novel like a text, we recall and interpret it as a sign with a specific meaning. That is why we say “The novel meant...” and then proceed to provide a single interpretation of its meaning. The meaning can, of course, occur on various connotative levels. But all connotations seem to coalesce around a basic core interpretation.
The plots, characters, and settings that well-known novels portray are subsequently diffused throughout the signifying order of culture. Hence, children are sometimes named after characters in novels, real places after places described in novels, and so on. The general meaning of the novel, moreover, is often used as a template for evaluating some real-life event or action in a society. It is amazing indeed to contemplate that a text that is essentially a lie (fiction), is used nevertheless to get at the truth, about people, life, and the universe. This suggests that human representational activity is a way of telling lies in order to grasp truth.
As mentioned above (§10.1), fictional narratives were composed in the ancient world, and to these the term novel is sometimes applied. But the novel did not emerge as an autonomous narrative fictional form until the Middle Ages. Actually, for the sake of historical accuracy, many scholars regard the eleventh century Tale of Genji, by the Japanese baroness Murasaki Shikibu (978?-1026?), as the first true novel, since it depicts the amorous adventures of a fictional Prince Genji and the staid lives of his descendants. The novel paints a charming and apparently accurate picture of Japanese court life in the Heian period. Among the novel’s chief delights are the portraits of the women in Prince Genji’s life. These women are individually characterized, with their aristocratic refinements, talents in the arts of music, drawing, and poetry, and love for the beauties of nature. As the work nears its conclusion, the tone becomes more mature and somber, colored by Buddhist insight into the fleeting joys of earthly existence.
Fiction can be said to start in the West with the long verse tale, the prose romance, and the Old French fabliau in the medieval period, culminating, as mentioned above (§10.1), with Boccaccio’s Decameron. Advances were made in Spain during the sixteenth century with the socalled picaresque novel, in which the hero is typically a vagabond who goes through a series of exciting adventures. The classic example is the novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part I, 1605, Part II, 1615), which is considered the first truly great novel of the Western world.
The novel became the dominant and most popular form of narrative art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as more and more writers started devoting their lives to this art form. Novels became more psychologically real, depicting and often satirizing contemporary life and morals. During this same era, the novel spawned its own genres, including the didactic novel, in which theories of education and politics were expressed, and the Gothic novel, in which the emotion of horror was evoked by depictions of supernatural happenings. The first Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). But perhaps the most well-known example of the genre is Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851). One of the most enduring genres of the period is the comedy of manners, which is concerned with the clash between characters from different social backgrounds. The novels of Jane Austen (1775–1817) are considered by many to be the most important of the genre.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and for most of the twentieth, the novel was a powerful medium for probing human nature and human society. Novelists were as popular and well known as media personalities are today. Their critiques of society led to social change; their portrayal of human actions gave the early psychologists insights into how to investigate human character. The French writer Marcel Proust (1871–1922), for instance, explored the nature of memory; the German author Thomas Mann (1875–1955) searched for the roots of psychic angst in social systems; and English authors Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and James Joyce (1882–1941) plumbed the emotional source of human thoughts and motivations. Since the end of World War II the novels of an increasing number of writers in developing or socially troubled countries have come to the forefront. Many of these portray with vivid realism the clash between classes and races, the search for meaning in a world where materialism reigns supreme, and the desire to reform the world.
Narrative techniques in novels vary from simple first-person storytelling to complex stream-of-consciousness narration, designed to reveal a character’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, often following an associative rather than a logical sequence, without commentary by the author. The latter technique is considered by many to be the maximal achievement of the novel form. Not to be confused with interior monologue, it attempts to portray the remote, preconscious state that exists before the mind organizes sensations. The term “stream of consciousness” was first used by William James (1842–1910), the American philosopher and psychologist. Major exponents of the form were American novelist William Faulkner (1897–1962), British writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), and Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941), who perhaps brought the technique to its highest point of development in Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). In these novels the inaccessible corners of human memory and the recurrent repertory of feeling and form within the psyche are laid bare before us.
As mentioned previously, cinema has taken over from the novel as the main narrative art form of the contemporary world. But often a novel is the inspiration for a movie script. The conversion of novel to cinematic form is possible because the two tap the same narrative structures. In many ways the movie is a visual novel, with the role of the narrator taken over by the camera, and narrative perspective by the camera’s angle.
Functions of the Novel
We have discussed above how narratives create meaning, imparting sense and purpose to human actions and natural events. This is why historical accounts are so believable—they are narratives that examine and interpret actions in ways that only narrative representation can. From myths to novels and comic books, narrative has had both a social and a philosophical function, helping people give expression to their unquenchable search for a purpose to life.
Traditional literary criticism has been dominated, in fact, by the concept of literature as an imitation of life. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, novelists were thought to present realistic accounts of real life, with careful attention to lifelike detail, so as to commemorate historical events, encourage moral living, or inspire piety or patriotism. Others thought, moreover, that narrative art had the function of criticizing society so that it could be reformed. In the nineteenth century, however, a new view of writing emerged, which came to be known as the principle of “art for art’s sake.” Works of art were thought to have no other purpose than to give human intuitions material form. In the early twentieth century this principle was incorporated by writers such as August Strindberg (1849–1912) and Frank Wedekind (1864–1918) into their narratives.
Several powerful movements, however, came forward shortly thereafter to attack this principle. Twentieth-century Marxist critics, for instance, saw literary works as great only when they were progressive; that is, when they supported the causes of the society in which they were created. Freudian critics, instead, believed that the value of narrative art lay in its therapeutic nature. The conflicts, fantasies, and daydreams of fictional characters, they claimed, are those of ordinary people, and thus the narrative text can be used to provide a means for coming to grips with real-life conflicts, fantasies, and daydreams. The French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), on the other hand, saw narrative art as an “escape hatch,” so to speak, from inner psychic turmoil, because he saw it as eradicating the guilt from which people ordinarily suffer, thus opening the way for genuine emotional freedom.
Perhaps the most radical view of narrative ever to have been formulated comes from the pen of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–), who has contended that the traditional, or metaphysical, way of interpreting literary works makes a number of false assumptions about the nature of such texts. A traditional reader believes that the author of a text is the source of its meaning. Derrida has challenged both this belief and the idea that a text has an unchanging, unified meaning. The author’s intentions in writing, Derrida has claimed, cannot be unconditionally accepted. There are, in fact, an infinite number of legitimate interpretations of a text.
In closing this chapter, a comment upon a modern-day form of narrative, the comics, is in order, not only because it has become a target of great interest among cultural semioticians, but also because it exemplifies how narrative can involve the verbal and the nonverbal (visual) modes of representation in tandem. The predecessors of the modernday comic book are the caricatures or satirical portraits of famous people that became popular in seventeenth century Italy. This art form spread quickly throughout Europe. In the early nineteenth century, caricatures were expanded to include speech balloons, giving birth to the modern comic. The modern form of the comic book came about between 1938 and 1945, the so-called “golden age” of comics.
Comics are narratives told by means of a series of drawings arranged in horizontal lines, strips, or rectangles, called panels, and read like a verbal text from left to right. The term applies especially to comic strips in newspapers but also to comic books. Comics usually depict the adventures of one or more characters in a limited time sequence. Dialogue is represented by words encircled by a line, called a balloon, which issues from the mouth or head of the character speaking.
One of the first American works with the essential characteristics of a comic strip was created by Richard Felton Outcault and appeared in the series Hogan’s Alley, first published on May 5, 1895, in the New York Sunday World. The setting was squalid city tenements and backyards filled with dogs and cats, tough-looking characters, and ragamuffins. One of the urchins was a flap-eared, bald-headed, Oriental-looking child with a quizzical, yet shrewd, smile. He was dressed in a long, dirty nightshirt, which Outcault often used as a placard to comment on the cartoon itself. Two other early comics were the Little Bears by James Guilford Swinnerton, which first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1892, and The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks, which first appeared in The American Humorist in 1897. Newly formed newspaper syndicates, such as King Features, founded in 1914, made the mass circulation of comics possible. Every small-town newspaper could obtain, for reprinting, templates of the strips from the syndicates, which employed comic-strip artists. Eventually American comic strips were distributed worldwide. Blondie by Chic Young became the most widely syndicated comic strip of the mid-twentieth century.
Mutt and Jeff first appeared as Mr. A. Mutt in a November 1907 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. The comic strip subsequently was introduced to a wide audience by newly formed newspaper syndicates, and it became the first successful daily comic strip in the United States. To satisfy demand, newspapers published collections of the cartoons, and a 1911 Mutt and Jeff collection was one of the first comic books to be published. But the first comic book published independently of any newspaper, containing material specially prepared for it, was The Funnies, which ran for 13 issues in 1929. Starting in 1933, a number of comic books, again reprints of well-known newspaper comic strips such as Joe Palooka and Connie, were published and distributed as premiums with certain merchandise. The first comic book to be sold on newsstands was Famous Funnies, which appeared in 1934.
A great impetus was given to the publication of comic books by the phenomenal success in 1938 of Action Comics, of which the principal feature was the Superman comic strip, later published in Superman comic books. Since that time hundreds of comic books have been published, some containing collections of noted comic strips, others consisting of new material. Some deal with contemporary American life; some are condensations of literary classics; still others are adventure stories. Today the comic has become an intrinsic part of the Western signifying order’s narrativity and intertextuality. Indeed, nearly all young people between 5 and 17 years of age read comic books regularly, catering to their narrative instinct through this “bimodal” (verbal and nonverbal) narrative medium.
Comics are narratives for the modern world, both reflecting modern life and helping to mold it. Even before the advent of television, they set the style for clothing, coiffure, food, manners, and mores. They have inspired plays, musicals, ballets, motion pictures, radio and television series, popular songs, books, and toys. Modern discourse is permeated with idioms and words created for the comics. For example, the code word for the Allied Forces on D-Day was “Mickey Mouse,” and the password for the Norwegian Underground was “The Phantom.” Numerous contemporary painters and sculptors have incorporated comics into their art works; motion picture directors have adapted techniques of the comics into their films.
A number of strips have also found a devoted following among intellectuals. Krazy Kat, for instance, has been regarded by many as one of the most amusing and imaginative works of narrative art ever produced in America. The art of Charles Schultz (1922–), too, falls into this category. His comic strip Peanuts, which was originally titled Li’l Folks, debuted in 1950, becoming one of the most popular comic strips in history, appearing in more than 2000 newspapers and translated into more than 24 languages. His characters—Charlie Brown; his sister Sally; his dog Snoopy; his friends Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, and Marcie; and the bird Woodstock—have become icons of pop culture.
The comic book genre is, in sum, extremely well-suited for a generation used to watching television and going to the movies. It is a visually oriented narrative form that fits in well with the populist view of art as a consumable commodity.