Mental processes are queer. (It is as if one said: “The clock tells us the time. What time is, is not yet settled. And as for what one tells the time for—that doesn’t come in here.”)
Ask yourself: Would it be imaginable for someone to learn to do sums in his head without ever doing written or oral ones?—“Learning it” will mean: being able to do it. Only the question arises, what will count as a criterion for being able to do it?—But is it also possible for some tribe to know only of calculation in the head, and of no other kind? Here one has to ask oneself: “What will that be like?”—And so one will have to depict it as a limiting case. And the question will then arise whether we are still willing to use the concept of ‘calculating in the head’ here—or whether in such circumstances it has lost its purpose, because the phenomena gravitate towards another paradigm.
PHILOSOPHERS like Hegel and Schelling devised world-constructs, explanatory systems that were intended to hold generally for psychological processes, social organization, historical successions, as well as for questions about epistemology and ontology. This all-embracing aim may still be traced in the explanatory procedures of such semi-empirical thinkers as Marx and Freud. It may even be seen in the enterprise of later philosophers, who turn to the roots of verbal behavior for expianation. Wittgenstein does so by asking questions about what happens before the fact of the word. Heidegger locates his inquiry in the task of spelling out the implications of verbal usage after the fact. And it may be said that Derrida tries to combine these two procedures by deriving an epistemology from the conditions for using and transcribing verbal utterances. All these philosophers, in their various ways, address myth and questions about myth, at least by implication; and usually they do so explicitly.
In a sense the anthropologist has taken this lead and engaged himself in the old enterprise of providing a world-construct. Instead of doing so directly, however, the anthropologist asks what principles of organization underlie some alien culture, a culture in some ways radically incapacitated for asking this question about itself. The subject of world-construct has thus found a new home by distancing or disguising itself as the Other. It is Tylor or Radcliffe-Brown, Mauss or Malinowski, Lévy-Bruhl or Lévi-Strauss, who provide generalizing classifications or organizing principles for a society other than their own.
In the home culture of the anthropologist, to be sure, there are survivals, practices that resemble those of the alien, more primitive culture. There must be survivals, since the whole anthropological enterprise finds its justification in the analogy or homology between Us and Other. But the Herodotean process of comparing Us and Other, Greek and non-Greek, is not carried through much more systematically than it was by Herodotus. And so all the comparison between Us and Other is kept in the form of something like an enthymeme, a logical proof in which one premise remains unexpressed.
Such an enthymematic presentation of the likeness between Us and Other still, in its very form, leaves unexamined, or insufficiently examined, what the differences between the two cultures in question may amount to. And in not assessing how far or in what respects the likeness holds, the anthropologist is finally not in a position to assess it any more than he can assess the differences. In particular, he may assume too quickly that the function of myth remains fixed for both cultures in its relation to language and other central features of a society. He may assume that myth is either simply present or simply absent.1
Lévi-Strauss throws into relief both the difference between our own thought processes and the primitive’s, and the fundamental likeness between them. He does this by choosing as the object of his investigation a society where the “divergence” (that is, the difference) from his own society will be the most “marked” (accusé) by the rules of his (different) method, and will thus reveal a system (réseau) of basic and universal laws (contraintes) (RC; p. 11). This “supreme gymnastics” of seeking likeness by applying difference finds the likeness as a kind of deep structure under a surface structure of different social facts. Lévi-Strauss’s procedure, however, locks likeness from difference as form from content, and fixes him in a series of discontinuities. Therein an adequate account of the interaction of myth with language is radically attenuated in the very process of elaborating the structures of a mythic system by itself.
The realm of myth, finally, like the realms of art and religion, does not lend itself easily to the subject-object distinction on which Lévi-Strauss insists to justify mythology as his object (HN, p. 563), because the sign-systems in those realms attempt, by their very coherence and economy, to provide a means for bypassing that distinction. As Adorno says, “The subjectifying and the objectification of music are the same” (1958, p. 145).
In Structural Anthropology Lévi-Strauss systematized Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis of kinship classes. He proposed that a ratio of relationships among kin, rather than the relationships themselves, could serve as a formula that would order any known set of kinship rules: “The relation between maternal uncle and nephew is to the relation between brother and sister as the relation between father and son is to that between husband and wife” (p. 40). In that same work and elsewhere he defined totemic systems as modes of classification: a totemic system serves to mediate one or more ways of relating the general to the particular. The Mythologiques subsume both these procedures, that of ratios and that of classificatory modes, showing how myths include and deploy kinship and totemic systems, along with much else. Much earlier he had presented the Oedipus myth as providing a ratio to account for and contain an instability, “to find a satisfactory transition between this theory (mankind’s autochthonous origin) and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem: born from different or born from same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it” (L-S 1, p. 212).
In the Mythologiques likeness and difference, or homology and contrast, between individual items (mythemes) of a mythic story generate the binary oppositions that permit the ordering of elements in nature and culture, while at the same time revealing the rigor of the ordering principle. Thus the opposition between earth and sky is mediated by water (belonging to the earth) and by the fire of the sky, brought to earth in cooking fire. Water is the inversion of fire in the South American mythic systems with which he begins, but also, homologously, through all the transformations in the mythologies of the tribes of the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest. Water is the opposite of fire because water produces raw vegetable food and the fire cooks animal food (either by boiling in water or by roasting directly, the former raising a possible confusion with the rotten as an intermediate natural term between the natural raw and the cultural cooked). Each contains in itself the binary opposition of a creative side and a destructive side. Water is the realm of the dead in the Bororo myths, and a place where one drowns or gets inundated as well as where fish and plants are produced. The cooking fire mimics the approach of the celestial fire to earth, but then (RC, p. 289 and passim) this implies the danger of universal conflagration: “Thus closes a vast system, the invariant elements of which can always be represented in the form of a combat between earth and sky for the conquest of fire” (HN, p. 535). While Lévi-Strauss scrupulously limits himself to his American terrain, his analyses permit and even encourage extrapolation to myths from other terrains. Here, then, is an explanation for the resonance of a Prometheus myth in any culture. The fire-stealer also brought to men an ignorance of when they would die (an inversion of knowing that one is mortal) and paid a penalty for providing cooking fire by having his liver eaten raw.
Mediating terms are the operators of the combinatory process. As both fire and water mediate between earth and sky, so the zoologie order mediates between the cosmic and the social (RC, p. 327). The mediating term, say the act of cooking, does not disappear, though it is sometimes suppressed, as the wife of the jaguar (RC, p. 83) is necessarily suppressed after having served between man who used the raw and the jaguar who knew the cooked. The new term could be taken as the locus of a whole system; marriage, a union of earth and sky in miniature (RC, pp. 328-29), produces a birth. Birth, in turn, itself serves as a new mediating term in this ongoing dialectic. The five senses are five interrelated codes, where taste, in its rapport with the alimentary mediation of nature and culture, holds a privileged position (RC, p. 164). The binary contrasts, mediated, allow for transpositions from set to set, “from noise-making (vacarme) to eclipses, from eclipses to incest, from incest to unruliness (désorde), and from unruliness to the colored plumage (la couleur) of birds” (RC, p. 312). This process serves to “bear witness to the fact that there is an isomorphic relation between two types of order, which may be either the cosmic order and the cultural order; the cosmic or meteorological order and the social order; or one or other of the orders above and the zoological order, which is situated on an intermediate level in relation to them” (RC, p. 316).
Moreover, the armature of an entire system including paired terms is convertible, at a further, second level of abstraction, into the armature, point for point, of another. The system (S1) whose axis is the cooking fire (uniting sky and earth) can be transformed into a system (S2) on the axis of meat, his diagrammed analysis of myths about the origin of obtaining meat as food. This system offers paired oppositions where the role of edible pigs in one myth corresponds to the role of bird plumage in another on the axis of ornaments (S_2), whose own inverse is the system aligned upon honey (S_3) (HA; pp. 29-32). Fire in the myths about meat is a means; in the myths about tobacco fire is an end, organized on another axis (S3). A parallel opposition is found in the myths and ceremonies surrounding honey (S_3), set systematically into relation with bird plumage and also with game, whose supply the honey ceremonies are supposed to ensure (HA, pp. 29-32).
And at still another, third level, the whole series of myths encom-passing the “second-level” systems, the Bird-Nester (Dénicheur des Oiseaux) series of Brazil, the Canadian Star-Husband series, and the Plains Star-Husband series, form a vast closed system, transformable, through the deformations (HN, pp. 528-31) they evidence, each into the other (“Le Mythe Unique,” ΗΝ, pp. 502-58). “A group of myths constitutes in itself a code, one of a power superior to each of those it utilizes . . . a veritable intercode” (ΗΝ, p. 38). Thus (Lévi-Strauss says in partial refutation of Max Müller) “the myth does not admit of reduction by any single code taken by itself, nor does it result from the addition of several.”
The procedure of analyzing the sacred, from Varieties of Religious Experience through Dürkheim, Mauss, and Malinowski, is carried by Lévi-Strauss to the point of absence or neutralized immanence.2 He maps the whole perceptual universe of myth as an unconscious science not different as a primitive theory from Frazer’s sympathetic and imitative magic, though far more powerful in the manifold calculus of its applicability. Lévi-Strauss’s system provides the relational calculus among items in a myth’s story. However, in his system we lack—he would say we must lack—a specific meaning for, or even a flexible relation between, the elements of a story and the sense of mystery that accompanies the sacred. No meaning is offered, for example, to explain the metamorphoses in which the myths abound. Now a metamorphosis is an awesome thing. This sense of mystery that arises when the bound־ary between animal and human is in some way crossed is still exploited in the considerable literature of metamorphosis (Massey 1). When Maba (Honey), the wife of M233, changes into a bee, Lévi-Strauss charts algorithms which may link marital exchanges to the gathering of a complex natural product; but he does not offer a reason why the myths so consistently choose transformations between the animal kingdom and the human as a means of expressing this food-gathering notion. Whatever reticulations of significance may be activated between the wife and the bee, there is a radical discontinuity between the two, definable in terms of the different human existence in and awareness of time, as well as between nature and culture, as this difference touches on the sacred. Lévi-Strauss takes Kroeber to task (HN, p. 95) for assuming that myths reflect ethnographic reality, rather than dialectical relations that “often violate that reality,” but his own demonstrations of dialectical relations themselves become a simple delineation of an ethnographic reality whose functional circularity is offered as a proof of its all-inclusiveness, at least within a given culture. Still, the bearing towards time and death is not simply either parallel to or derivable from attitudes towards nurture and kinship and astronomical phenomena, but rather—this is only the conventional view, which must be accorded its weight—the other way around. Lévi-Strauss is moving onto a terrain where the distinction between functionalism and structuralism is reciprocally definable; yet the opposition between diachrony and synchrony must finally yield before the preeminence of time in any human existence, and myths are framed to address the riddle of mortality.
It is not, as Hartman says (1, pp. 19-20) that Lévi-Strauss fails to deal with repetition, but rather that he reduces repetition to mere recursion.3 All the psychological force inherent in repetition is lost, all that makes repetition so important to Freud and Lacan. The force of striving in myths is lost too, and the succession of generations becomes just a formulable demographic balance (HN, p. 244).
Thus, the tribal groups among whom myth is alive are deprived of their history (which, given the ahistorical nature of nonliterate, “cold” societies, would be difficult to retrieve in any case). And they are also deprived of any equivalent for history, by having their myths translated into an atemporal dialectic, reducing analogies between their functions and our religion or art to spatial ones (the analogy between the zones of a city and the interlocking sections of a tribal hut pattern) or simply functional ones (the use of noisemaking at certain seasons or as a protest against a mating incongruous with social rule).
In Van Gennep’s own discussion—it is from his compendium (2) that the last practice is illustrated—the rites de passage take place on thresholds, spirit-haunted loci where space and time converge in a moment that is unique for the individual undergoing the rite even if periodic in the society. It does not bear on this question to say of an abstract model of such a process that consciousness or unconsciousness does not affect the nature of the model (L-S 1, p. 273).
Literate societies, with the self-consciousness towards the nonrecursive aspect of time that written records spanning past rememberable generations may develop, produce a literature with a “tradition” that can change its frames of reference as well as its formulas. In any society each poem is ultimately fixed in time, and correspondingly the order of words is fixed in it. This can happen even in an “oral” society: the Ṛgveda is handed down orally in a fixed state. The necessarily temporal character of language is invariant with respect to means, having a fixed order in a given poem (even if the poem was composed by a process wholly or partly improvisatory), but variant with respect to end. In preliterate societies, on the other hand, in the myths or in poems with unchanging frames and formulas, the single nonrecursive destiny of a given man is unself-consciously doubled by a recursive conception of time. Myth in a tribal society performs some of the functions later assigned to written literature; but myth, too, must be recounted in language, where the temporal character of the language cannot be abrogated; it does matter what order the events of a myth are told in. It is not just that Lévi-Strauss redefines the syntagm of temporal order as a paradigm of logical relations, but rather that the linguistic formulation of myth, variable as it is spoken now one way and now another, is variant with respect to means but invariant with respect to end: the myth, as Lévi-Strauss abundantly demonstrates, can only obscure one of its elements and leave a “gap” in the story that one may fill out elsewhere in the “field” of the mythic system.
Lévi-Strauss’s insistence on the preeminence of the mythic paradigm has its counterpart and converse in the theory of Propp (p. 20), who takes the presence of story “functions” (roughly equivalent to Lévi-Strauss’s “mythemes”) to constitute an underlying morphology in which “the sequence of functions is always identical.” Propp outlines a supposedly invariant sequence in the Russian fairy tale of thirty-one steps. But when it turns out that a single function can have a double or treble meaning, that no tale perfectly preserves the order, that any function may be omitted (p. 64); that, further, the functions may even “switch positions” (p. 97); then the supposedly invariant time-order becomes quite variant, and the argument must be reduced to the weak form of identifying type-clusters in stories, the sequence amounting to not much more than that a hero must leave home before he returns, and that if he is tested by a villain his trials may involve trickery but will certainly happen between these two events, and before his efforts are crowned by marrying the princess.4
Such analyses as Lévi-Strauss offers would not, then, make his relational operations a substructure; rather they would be a tested series of relational constructs whose object would have disappeared, as the myths themselves cannot. His recourse to a sort of graph where the “decades” are given either cardinal or fractional reading according to position happens exactly to reproduce the Pythagorean triangle (the tetroktys) or one version of it (“La Balance Egale,” OMT, esp. pp. 289-91). In centralizing ratios he may anyway be said to be Pythagoreanizing Cassirer, and there is a sort of residual Pythagoreanism in the uneasy mystique with which he introduces the musical analogies and title-groupings that order the text of the entire first volume in the Mythologiques.
The giant advance he furnishes in our power to analyze myths has been made, for the time being, at the cost of obscuring and ignoring questions that should be asked about the sacred or mana or the numinous. Of course Lévi-Strauss has maintained, in his critique of Jung (L-S 8, p. xxxii), that such questions would frustrate his relational analyses by an attention to semantic questions. The analogy with lin-guistics is meant to hold here; Saussure would have been similarly frustrated in his linguistic theory if he had not bypassed the priority of semantic questions.
Now, in linguistics the phonological, lexical, and syntactic components can be discussed separately. But in a myth there is no point when an item, a name, or a mytheme, does not carry both lexical and syntactic content, as Lévi-Strauss himself on occasion asserts. “Apollo” signifies many things and embodies (the syntax of) many stories.
Thus, the achievement of the Mythologiques leaves us not only with the question of how all this deep-thought correlation underlying myths bears upon the sacred; even more important, we would have to ask how Lévi-Strauss’s algorithms of mediation among mythemes accord with the generation of such binary, or ternary systems in the accounts given of the sacred by prior cultures. And we would have to explain, as well, the tendency in such cultures to intensify key terms. Even in the economic relations of the Polynesian society that Marcel Mauss analyzes, the hau, or spirit, clings to the goods passed along an exchange network. And if all systems in a society are interrelated, then the hau would be present or relatable to any item—and consequently to any mytheme. Indeed, Sahlins (p. 1011) goes further than Mauss, as against him and implicitly also Lévi-Strauss, to demonstrate the non-distinguishability for the Maori of spiritual and material in the hau.
The jaguar of the Mythologiques is just such an intensified key term, explained by systems of relations (S2 and S3 of HA, pp. 37-42). The jaguar functions globally by both a likeness to, and a difference from, man. Both likeness and difference are bound up together in a single figure whose numinous presence is guaranteed by what amounts to his figurative supersession of the law of contraries, though Lévi-Strauss analyzes the stories in ways that make it seem as though a thought process is actively factoring out all contradictions. The jaguar also gathers his functions comprehensively into himself, of relating implicitly to all the categories of the South American systems (as of course any figure could be made to do by relational analysis), since he eats raw meat, teaches the cooking of meat (M12), gathers wild honey (M188), and has tobacco coming from his body. The ara-birds eaten by the jaguar (M7-12 are changed into serpents eaten by a divinity (M300a, M303), a divinity who may himself be a form of the jaguar, in what Lévi-Strauss speaks of as possibly the older Aztec level of the myth. The jaguar generates fear (as in M14, RC, pp. 82-83), and the recounted myths are full of fear, flight, danger, impulsive marriages, risks, deaths, and transformations—at once connecting and disconnecting the intensifying terms—of woman into frog or bear or buffalo, of man into bird or porcupine. The trickster figure of North American mythology—who is an allomorph of the jaguar—does not just serve as a mediator, his function in Lévi-Strauss’s structural analysis; he also preserves the ambivalence between terms. And, concordantly, he acts the beneficent demiurge, by bearing the quasi-moral onus of a name, Coyote or whatever, that points up not just a successful transfer between categories but the thorny impossibility of carrying a transfer through cleanly.
“The false antinomy between logical and prelogical mentality . . . once dispelled, it remains no less true that, contrary to Lévy-Bruhl’s opinion, [its] thought [that of the savage mind] proceeds through understanding, not by confusion and participation” (L-S 3, p. 268). Thus Lévi-Strauss dismisses one false antinomy (in the process, however, dangerously collapsing the dialectic between the likeness of primitive thought to our own and the difference) only to replace it with another. Aflectivity, and indeed spirituality, does enter into the classification systems; for “confusion and participation,” the “distinctions and oppositions” of early societies, spiritual or affective elements often intrinsically constitute what is classified. The Yin and Yang of the Chinese function as such comprehensive systems of classification. So do the Muntu (“human being”), Kuntu (“modality”), Kinto (“thing”), and Hantu (“place and time”) of the Yoruba (Jahn, p. 100 and passim) and the even more comprehensive terms Ntu and Nommo. The cosmic opposition between good and evil, or creation and destruction, is incorporated, sometimes ambivalently, in the Indian Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu; in Iranian mythology, and in early Chinese mythology. The Urubu divide their universe into “hard” and “soft,” thus categorizing discourse, conduct, kinds of life, and aspects of the world. Overriding categories for the Navajo are round and linear. The connection between the disposition of the body and spiritual states in yoga (the term itself indicates “conjunction”) goes back to the earliest recoverable state of Indian thought, to the third millennium B.C. (W. Norman Brown in Kramer, pp. 304-305).Mudra, the conventionalized hand gestures, “are among the oldest known religious phenomena in India.”5
Lévi-Strauss does attempt to account for such phenomena in his discussions of magic, religion, and sorcery.
In contrast with scientific explanation, the problem here is not to attribute confused and disorganized states, emotions, or representations to an objective cause, but rather to articulate them into a whole or system. The system is valid precisely to the extent that it allows us to understand the intellectual condition of man, in which the universe is never charged with sufficient meaning and in which the mind always has more meanings available than there are objects to which to relate them. Torn between these two systems of reference—the signifying and the signified—man asks magical thinking to provide him with a new system of reference . . . but we know that this system is built at the expense of the progress of knowledge, which would have required us to retain only one of the two previous systems (L-S 1, pp. 176-78).
Shuttling, as ever, between the likeness and difference of the logical to the prelogical, Lévi-Strauss allows at once too much and not enough to the classification of spiritual elements: too much, because the mere logical relations are given a comprehensiveness of reference they cannot attain to if their referents are re-translated into terms of exchange; not enough, because it is the spiritual elements, after all, precisely as systems of understanding, that they are classifying.
Lévi-Strauss, for what would seem to be quite arbitrary reasons (unless it is simply a deep-rooted assumption that the spiritual element in myths must be eliminated as a continuation of Frazer’s implied attack on Christianity), pulls up short whenever there is an opportunity to apply his combinatory systems to the spiritual element that is demonstrably a main constituent of myths, inseparable and finally untranslatable. Instead he asserts—in the last analysis, quite categorically—that the preparation and gathering of food, as these activities are resumed in the exchange-system of the market whereby a homogeneity of diet is diversified, dominate every aspect of the myth: “cosmic, meteorological, zoological, botanical, technical, economic, sexual, social, etc.” (ΗΝ, p. 287). Only in passing does he concede that drinking water and the cooking fire stand outside this defining system and that the market itself, the locus of Mauss’s principle of the centrality of exchange-systems to a society (HN, pp. 245-64), acts as a “reducing mirror” (HN, p. 265). Through all this analysis and qualification, water and fire, even when they are extended into the heavens, remain confined to their function of furthering or restricting nurture. For Lévi-Strauss, neither the Flood nor a Conflagration, whether apocalyptic or perpetual, would be anything but a mask for these processes.
Yet man does not live by bread alone. The miracles of multiplying bread in the New Testament deal wholly with nurture, yet must be defined in their sign-system (quite apart from whether they are true or false) by categories other than nurture. An analysis of this spiritual element in the New Testament would, of course, have to deal with this asserted transcendence directly. In such an analysis, the elements of myth subsumed in the account of Christ’s life would have to be analyzed without final reference to nurture or exchange. In effect, the text of the New Testament tells us this quite directly, offering an overriding (and binary) opposition between the nurture which is perishable and that which is not: “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27).
This passage follows on a distinction between the act of eating and the act of observing “signs” (semeia, John 6:26; rendered as “miracles” in the King James Version). The verb sphragizo closes the circle of this allegation, since it is itself a sign. “Seal” (sphragizo) includes within itself a whole structurable repertoire of senses from pre-Christian uses, going back at least as far as the Babylonian Third Millennium, when seals were already common, indicating by their use: property, authority, relation to god, kingship, proper linguistic designation, and plenipotentiary legitimation (Kittel, vol. 7, pp. 939-54 sub voc.), while the physical seal itself indicates “an object with a sign, picture, letter, word, or combination of these elements.” It also serves linguistically as a noncehieroglyphic.
The seal was later used in pre-Christian practice to close off objects or mark them as secret or holy or precious or valuable. In both the Old and the New Testaments the seal serves as a designation for circumcision, with all that rite’s constellation of anthropological signification. And it was used, too, for the sealing of graves.
No one of these significations or uses is irrelevant to the New Testament verse quoted above. This verse is itself assumed and redeployed in the seven seals of Revelations. In Austin Farrer’s reading of the latter, a series of relational transformations logically equivalent to those offered by the Mythologiques takes priority over, and neutralizes, the ascription of particular readings to the mythemes of Revelations, such as the number 666 or the four horsemen, around which generations of interpreters have ramified confusions. Farrer notably both anticipates and transcends the Mythologiques: in Farrer’s interpretation, as distinct from the practice of Lévi-Strauss, the images themselves, while relational, are neither neutralized nor reduced to their material equivalents: they are a syntax as well as a paradigm: “In a long concatenation of images, each fixes the sense of the others, and is itself determined by them” (p. 18). Thus they do not disappear into their paradigmatic function, as the jaguar of Lévi-Strauss tends to do.
Lévi-Strauss’s jaguar shuttles back and forth between technological-nurtural significance and a merely relational or mediatory function. A central weakness in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis is that he assigns a zero significance of “saturation” to the plurisignificant terms that, for reasons discussed by Cassirer, tend to occur in the very accounts of myth he addresses. For him a term like [mana] is only a sort of smoke-screen permitting the cybernetic function, the symbolic function as he calls it, to proceed uninterrupted.6 “In the system of symbols that every cosmology constitutes, it [mana] would be simply a zero symbolic value” (L-S 9, p. 1, italics Lévi-Strauss’s). In this drive to disambiguation, Lévi-Strauss thus leaves aside a fundamental attribute of the terms he handles, thereby parting company with the information theory he draws upon. If put through the entropy and redundancy formulas of information theory, terms like mana would still offer enough content to contain a message. And, in fact, it is an inescapable ethnological datum that they do contain a message in their social context, indicating, if nothing else, the presence of the sacred.
Nor does it follow, as Lévi-Strauss asserts in his critique of Jung (L-S 8, p. xxxii), that to invest a store of such archetypal symbols with significance precludes understanding or performing Lévi-Strauss’s rational transformations. This is the crux of the issue between Lévi-Strauss and his predecessors. He feels not only that the algebraic power of his com-binatory operations will supplant other explanations, but that the items entering into combination are, in effect, thereby voided of separable content. Actually, Jung could have failed—like almost everybody else!—to see the cybernetic function of the unconscious, and it would still be at least logically possible to read Jung’s significations into the terms. Lévi-Strauss insists, rightly, that the terms, the mythemes, must constantly be seen in relation to one another. But, it is still the case that their “charge” must be preserved, if we are to see the proportional force of those relations in the light of their actual significance; if their syntax, ultimately, is to carry the full sense they “intend.”
Lévi-Strauss’s initial analogy for his “linguistic” procedures is the Jakobson-Troubetskoi system of phonetic contrast in natural language. Now, this system applies predominantly to lexical elements, whereas myth is predominantly syntactic. And, it is revealing that Lévi-Strauss overdefines their system as “precisely permitting the definition of a Ianguage by a small number of constant relations” (L-S 8, p. xxxv), whereas in fact the system does not permit the definition of a language at all, but only a schematic description of its phonological component.
In ordinary language, once the contrastive value of a phonetic component is activated, it becomes phonemic: the raw sound is combined with another raw sound and thereby invested with sense. Before the fact, this assignment is arbitrary. After the fact, once it has entered into combination, it is fixed. The function of the contrast between voiced and silent terminal dental in led and let is fixed, and constant, and (most important) not susceptible of further combination as involving this pair; the contrast is single.
Now a mytheme is already invested with sense, as Lévi-Strauss himself says (L-S 1): it never floats neutrally the way raw, unassigned phonetic sound does, though Lévi-Strauss’s concentration on its relational combinations makes it seem to do so. Indeed, a mytheme would have to be invested with sense—to be already a sort of charged constant—to enter into so many series of permutations, something that also cannot happen to a contrastive phoneme, which is absolutely free before being assigned a function and absolutely fixed to just that one function afterwards.
Having rendered the sense of a mytheme as its relational function, he can then permit the interchangeability of signifier and signified in myth (HA, p. 421). The sense itself is left floating in a sort of limbo. The two functions, of mirroring the structure of the society^ culture and of mediating the technological and astronomical practices by which it controls nature, never come into the trans-societal signification at which, within the cultures, they are “intentionally” aimed. Yet in a full linguistic account the mythic terms must be accorded “the sacred” linguistically, independently of whether or not credence is assigned to it. In the process Lévi-Strauss spells out, the syntax of myth must always at best be underdetermined in its structural translation.
Myth is linked to language more complexly than a simple initial contrast can account for; the link is not a void (HN, p. 579). Myth must always be coded into language or into some communicative system of iconic cues. We have no other way of knowing about it. And this is the crucial difference between myths and Lévi-Strauss’s cybernetic equivaient for a Freudian or Jungian unconscious. It is confusing, and a kind of exaggeration, to say that syntagmatic chains in myth “contain no definite meaning” (RC, p. 307) and are only accorded sense when a paradigmatic ensemble is imposed thereupon, linking them to other syntagms in other myths. To reveal relational substructures is not to cancel the initial syntactic structure of temporal presentation, inescapably primary.
Lévi-Strauss sets himself the goal of “transcending the contrast (l'орposition) between the tangible (sensible) and the intelligible by operating from the outset at the sign level’ (RC, p. 14), “where logical properties, as attributes of things, will be manifested as directly as flavors or perfumes.” By so doing, he would have his lexical-relational constructs, in effect, cancel out their own mediation. Drawing on the process from the “arbitrary character of linguistic signs’ to their relative “motivation” (the marking of a word by morphemic combination, in plus amicus giving inimicus), he characterizes his own abstractive procedure—the context is that of primitive numbering and categorization, but it also applies to his analyses of myth—as the simple reverse (L-S 3, pp. 156-57). “For Saussure, therefore, language moves from arbitrariness to motivation. The systems we have been considering so far on the other hand go from motivation to arbitrariness.” But the sign, in myth or any other linguistic construct, does not lose its “motivation” by being set into the “arbitrariness” of combinatory patterns. There is at no point a state of myth like the “noise” or “chaos” of possible, un-differentiated phones.
Nor does all sense really escape from his lexemes through the levels of systemic combination; throughout the Mythologiques the lexemes do in fact stubbornly retain the Frazeresque function of putting the seasonal world into perceptible order so that agriculture, food-gathering, and hunting can proceed in successful patterns.
A total transfer would be necessary for such a lexical system to come into being, and Lévi-Strauss’s astonishing inference is that such would have had to have taken place. His creation ex nihilo is none other than language: in the beginning was the word; “language could only have been born at a stroke . . . the whole Universe, at one stroke, became significative” (L-S 8, p. xlii, italics and capitalization Lévi-Strauss’s).7
His mythic system thus is seen as a floating linguistic function, one that lacks fixed significant content for its lexemes while it contains a whole systemic set for modes of connecting nature and culture in a society. Such a system is at once pre-and post-linguistic. Its likeness to, and its difference from, natural language are kept in a state of irresolution by systematically excluding a consideration of its interactions with natural language. Lévi-Strauss bypasses the whole fundamental question of the linguistic substructure of plurisignificance and the sequent mode of its linguistic presentation, by a vague reference to “subject matter” (contenu): “I propose to give the name armature to a combination of properties that remain invariant in two or several myths: code to the pattern of functions ascribed by each myth to these properties; and message to the subject matter of an individual myth. . . . I can define the relation between the Bororo myth (M1) and the Sherente myth (M12) by stating that when we move from one to the other, the armature remains constant, the code is changed, and the message is reversed’’ (RC, p. 199). At this point he proceeds to the derivation of some “second-level” transformations between myths, translating them into mathematical equations, a process whose concentrations of abstract properties continue to leave obscured the mode of their interaction with language. He goes on to make the arbitrariness of the contenu in the myth explicit: “The truth of the myth does not lie in any special (privilégié) content. It consists in logical relations which are devoid of (dépourvus de) content or, more precisely, whose invariant properties exhaust their operative value, since comparable relations can be established among the elements of a large number of different contents” (p. 240). And so they can, as he, with remarkable expansiveness, teaches us. But the exhaustiveness of this function in spelling out relations does not render entirely arbitrary the plurisignificance of the contents that are thus shown to be entering into combination.
Oddly enough, Lévi-Strauss distinguishes a third level of linguistic function for myth, above langue and parole, which operates to free it from those functions rather than to provide the ground for its combining with them:
. . . langue belonging to a reversible time, parole being non-reversible. If those two levels already exist in language, then a third one can conceivably be isolated. . . . It is that double structure, altogether (à la fois) historical and ahistorical, which explains how myth, while pertaining to the realm of parole and calling for an explanation as such, as well as to that of langue in which it is expressed. . . . [there] can also be an absolute entity on a third level which, though it remains linguistic by nature, is nevertheless distinet from the other two (L-S 1, pp. 205-206).
How myth may be both “linguistic” and distinct from the constitutive features of language is precisely the question, and we owe thanks to Lévi-Strauss for having brought us to the point of asking it, however suspended his own answer may be.
Within mythic thought itself, he sees the plurality of systemic levels as the price paid for the passage from the continuous to the discrete (RC, p. 34); though, if we accept his analysis, it is not clear why the plurality of levels between systems is not equivalent to normal concessive or other qualifying conjunctions that indicate the relation between one sentence and another in ordinary discourse. It may well be that metaphor itself rests at least partly on logical relations (RC, p. 339), but it is hard to see how myth “proves” this, even if it exemplifies the process. Nor is it clear why, if mythic systems are to be assigned no credence (HN, p. 571), metaphor can be seen as returning language “to its initial purity,” unless Lévi-Strauss is once again shifting back and forth between the likeness of such logical discourse as his own to mythic accounts and their difference. Still, he does not bring to bear on an analysis of the shift between language and myth anything like the discriminatory subtlety which he applies to the myths themselves.
Lévi-Strauss maintains a barrier between conscious thought and unconscious, when a connection between them always obtains in language as elsewhere. On the one hand, he accords equivalent combinatory powers to both conscious and unconscious. On the other hand, he wants to retain the conceptual element of the counters in mythic thought as a blank by virtue of their operation below the level of consciousness: “scientific thought . . . works with concepts . . . mythic thought. . . with significations; and if the concept appears as the operator of the opening of the whole ensemble, signification appears as the operator of its reorganization” (OMT, p. 290). And again he has explained, “Images (l’image) cannot be ideas (idée) but they can play the part of signs or, to be more precise, co-exist with ideas in signs and, if ideas are not yet present, they can keep their future place open for them and make its contours apparent negatively’(L-S 3, pp. 20-21). Here he goes on to characterize as “bricolage” the combination of idea and image in mythic thought, a perpetual Penelope’s web where the weaving always changes the figures. Even this fluidity in analysis, which any plurisignificant image may lend itself to, is now and then criticized for the ambivalence of its connections: “this regression of culture towards nature often appeals to procedures of a metalinguistic order: confusion of signifier and signified, or word and thing, of figurative and literal sense, or resemblance and contiguity” (OMT, pp. 62-63).
Plurisignificance, however, must be taken whole to be understood. It must be viewed not as confusion, but as a Gestalt, a matrix of connections that cannot be fully accounted for by being reorganized into binary series. After the analysis has provided all its explanations, the tendency to form a matrix would still not have been explained. And this tendency seems always to characterize myth, whereas a counter tendency towards specification of terms manifests itself in languages. The Egyptian Hathor is such a matrix, the good world cow who equals the sky who also equals: water, the woman Nut, a roof, the bad Eye of Atun, and the Eye of Re. All of this, as Kramer sensibly concludes (p. 21) “proves that the combination of various concepts of the sky was accepted as valid at the very beginning of Egyptian history.” The dual god Ometeotl of the Aztecs is both a Master and a Mistress (p. 449), and as Lévi-Strauss quotes the Arawak proverb (OMT, p. 103), “Every thing has its jaguar.”
Lévi-Strauss is a sort of anti-Mallarmé. Mallarmé endowed the word flower with a generalizing power which “other than the known petals” (autre que les calices sus) gave the “absent one of all bouquets” (p. 368). Lévi-Strauss is curiously dizzied by the very same sort of term (which is as central to myth as it is to poetry), “a sense very blurred (flou), almost empty. . . . a word like ‘flower’ or ‘stone’ designates an infinity of very vague objects, and the word only takes its full sense at the interior of a phrase” (L-S quoted in Charbonnier, p. 101). Here he characteristically, if casually, uses the primacy of syntax to empty diction of its significative function, performing upon ordinary language what he tries to perform upon myth, a concreteness-misplacing disambiguation.
As his procedure now stands, Lévi-Strauss diagrams the structural relations of his mythic “bits” so fully that he deprives himself of the capacity for bringing all of them, in turn, truly into relation with their function in a society’s discourse, verbal and non-verbal. By factoring plurisignification into oppositions he posits a saturation point of about ten informational items (five times two) for a term, or series, when in fact many more can on occasion be accommodated.
If myth is “open” like langue, in the sense that it admits of further combinations according to its laws (RC, p. 7), still a given area of myth like the Greek or the Pacific Northwest would be a closed system, a formed set or network of lexical relations. The langue does not constitute such a set, since its lexical entries can always be differentiated from its syntactic rules, whereas the system of a myth must combine the lexical and the syntactic: the sequence of events attributed by syntactic combination to Apollo is identical with the sum of lexical entries under the word “Apollo.” The relation between myth and language can only be worked out by inspecting the continuities between myth and language as well as the discontinuities.
Lévi-Strauss’s own vast articulation of these gives us every reason to expect that the articulations between myth and language would not be a simple homology, but rather would contain a complexity no less rich than that which his analyses reveal within a mythic system. The simple nomenclature of rudimentary processes—like metaphor and metonymy or symbolic, real, and imaginary, even as algebraized by Lacan (HA, pp. 246-49 and passim)—cannot serve as a full analytical instrument. We must account for the function of myth within culture in some more comprehensive way than as an object sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit in its relation to ritual (HN, p. 598). This last characterization dismisses with a truism a vast, complex historical and comparative terrain, much as does his classification of science as metonymie and art as metaphoric in its interesting, but not definitive, penchant for miniaturization (L-S 3, pp. 20-29). “Myths travel the same road but start from the other end. They use a structure to produce what is itself an object consisting of a set of events (for all myths tell a story). Art thus proceeds from a set (object plus event) to the discovery of its structure. Myth starts from a structure by means of which it constructs a set (object plus event)” (p. 26). This circular process of definition is clarifying only so far as it goes. It would not really help to explain how art, and especially literary art, appropriates and transforms myth.
To put myth and language into a relationship which is alike in that it always has those two primary components but different as to the conditions of their relationship would help account for both the likeness and the difference between primitive and modern society. Shamanism, for example, resembles psychoanalysis both functionally (it effects a cure) and structurally (it manages the type-patterns of the unconscious). It differs though, both in the account it gives of the mythic element and in the way the mythic element in the unconscious is managed by the structures of the ego. Establishing such a two-termed relationship between language and myth would provide the ground where the “literary side,” the content, of myth could be understood interactively, and also the mythic element in literature. Just such an understanding h lacking in Lévi-Strauss’s rather pedestrian collaborative analysis of Baudelaire’s Les Chats. This analysis ends where it should have begun, with the question of why power resides in the implicit analogy between inanimate and animate, then between the cat and the woman. What kind of hieratic interest is invested in a cat? How does the tangential domestication of awe-tinged power in a modern city differ from the sacralization of such animals in Egypt, often evoked by Baudelaire? Lévi-Strauss is content just to categorize the rhyme-words, and other pairings of words, mostly by grammatical classification. But whole sets of further, more powerful relationships, some of them of the very sort analyzed in the Mythologiques, are suggested (and left unmentioned by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss) in the bald juxtapositions of those very rhyme-words: austères, saison, maison, sédentaires, volupté, ténèbres, funèbres, fierté, attitudes, solitudes, fin, magiques, mystiques. Which do we take for granted; the binary grammatical tendency of verse, or the power residing in the implicit predications lying below the surface of its rhyme-junctures? Neither should be taken for granted, but either is obvious without the other; it is their interaction we cannot avoid asking about.
It is such interaction that, ultimately, must provide both the grounds for definition and the justified source of attention to both myth and literature.
In the lexicon that Lévi-Strauss provides us for myth itself, where relations are paramount, no modalities are admitted: possibility, contingency, likelihood—to say nothing of Jungian “synchronicity”—which haunt the savages, and radically define us as we lay out our lives, cannot be accounted for. “The sun is new every day,” says Heraclitus (Diels 22. B6), echoing old myths of the Near East that have parallels in such other cultures as the Aztec. It is the regularity of the sun, transferred from the contingent to the certain as well as from the discontinuous to the continuous (contingency is not just a form mediating between these two), that makes possible stability and the planning of life. This in turn, we may infer, allowed for the mapping of astronomical and therefore vegetational certainties to bring about “the Neolithic revolution.” It is not philosophy in just a quasi-Whorfian sense, or just a classificatory relationship, that determines these messages as well as these codes, when “from Paraguay to the banks of the Amazon, honey and the Pleiades are interconnected both linguistically and philosophically (dans la langue et dans la philosophie)” (HA, p. 271).
Ritual, a code of language and gestures, thereby carries a comparable message. Ritual includes thought, as well as running a course between continuous and discontinuous differently from both myth and language (HN, p. 607), both of which it embodies and so also resembles. If laughter is caused by success of symbolic connection and anxiety by failure (HN, p. 609), then symbolic connection itself must carry a message which involves a fixing of probabilities for an outcome of something beyond a statistical analysis. Manners, diets, utensils (OMT, p. 421) may isolate persons and transform signification by suppressing the charge between the poles of ambivalent terms. They may serve as instruments of measure, like the canoe of the South American sun-and-moon myths, which keeps a proportion between separating men and uniting them, a proportion the loss of which would make them impotent or insane. Manners, though, must be defined in a gestural and verbal context of language. They must be coded to gain signification. Signification already resides in the canoe; it has already taken symbolic form. Manners are random; we may use them on given occasion or not; they are “casual.” The canoe is always part of the myth system. It is hieratic.
On all these matters the myths themselves often include a metalinguistic commentary. Tests occur in the grail legends, for example, and in the Gilgamesh epic. And tests may be taken as metalinguistic comments, within the myths themselves, on what their events signify. In such myths the knowledge and ignorance of the persons are ultimately inclusive categories. There is a fundamental connection between riddle and incest (Paz, pp. 32-33, following Lévi-Strauss), not only in the cerebral solutions provided for kinship matrices in early societies, but in the questions asked. A myth is the inverse of a riddle, in Jolles’s treatment of both myth and riddle as “simple forms” of expression. The Quest is itself a question laid out on a temporal (and also spatial) form. In a society where the Bible is the Book of God and God created the world, there is a tradition that takes physical nature as a text to be deciphered; in this sense the unknown time of the future and the unknown space of a new country would be a thicket of unsolved significations, a Forest of Broceliande, involving danger —the Chapel Perilous.
I have moved, of course, into the forms of a society in some senses literate, and therefore into a radically different period of incorporating myth into the linguistic accounts of a society. It is such periodization, however, which implicitly underlies the Mythologiques themselves. And the periods ought to be defined as changes in the mode of interrelation between language and myth, rather than simply by a before־and־after or whole-and-part, where beforehand the society wholly explained its existence by myth and was unconscious of the process, while afterward our society, capable of consciousness, preserves mythic gestures as residues. More characteristically, civilized practices are seen as inversions of primitive ones: we should eat silently, where noise while eating is desired in some primitive societies; we think of the world as corrupt and ourselves as pure and drink through straws, the savage conversely seeing himself (OMT, pp. 418-419) as corrupt and the world as pure.
It is possible, indeed, that the same substructure of unconscious mythic transformations underlies our eating habits and our perception of the universe, and that this unconscious structure functions in a way comparable to the function of myth in pre-literate societies. But for such a comparison to be more than casual, for it to hold with the same complexity of correspondence that Lévi-Strauss’s analyses hold for North and South American Indian mythology, we should have to subsume all our verbal structures—mathematics, philosophy, legal systems, comic discourse, poetry, grand opera, and of course also the expansive discussions of the anthropologist—into the reticulations of unconscious structures. And this would, very likely, be impossible. Our highly literate uses of myth do admit of such a modality, as Freud knew; and yet taken by themselves the mythic structures are to some degree incidental. They must interact with the ego’s instruments, with language and all its mechanisms of sublimation.
The mind, if inescapably binary in its deployment of mythic units, must also inescapably use language to accomplish that deployment, and it uses language in fundamentally different ways at different points in social development.
Literature can only be understood, in its relation to myth, as a product of a comprehensive consciousness that deeply defines and expresses these phases.
By cyberneticizing myths, Lévi-Strauss has stayed, after all, within the assumptions of Cassirer, for whom myth is a symbolic form that resembles the permutations of language and thus both reflects and structures the epistemological process. “The problem of the origin of myth,” he rounds out (HN, p. 539), “thus is bound up with (se con-fond avec) that of thought itself, for which the constitutive experience is not that of an opposition between self and other but of the other apprehended as an opposition. If this intrinsic property were lacking—the sole one, in truth, which is absolutely given—no constitutive act of consciousness of the self would be possible. Not being apprehendable (saisissable) as a relation (rapport), being would be equivalent to nothingness.” This last attribution may also be transferred to his own myth analyses, purely relational within their own closed system, but not, for all that, apprehensible in their interactive relations with formulating language. So they stand on the verge of offering only an empty series, or of being open to the assertion that they correspond in no way with reality but merely exhibit a process of thought—of equating being with nothingness.
In Lévi-Strauss’s system, language, deprived of its constitutive function for the very subject he is investigating, shrinks to its phatic attribute of courtesy or insult, its function of disjunct naming, on his scale of song-speech-signal (HA, p. 328). Music itself, which serves ambiguously as a rhetorical marker in the organization of The Raw and the Cooked, a mid-point as he teaches us between language and myth, loses its full function of structuring the affections significantly when the pole of language is thus weakened. This Principia Mythologica does not offer us a language equivalent to the realm explored by Wagner, but rather an application of language thereto, a functional examination rather than in any sense a homologue. The analogy offered between music and “any language” (RC, p. 24) will not hold because the system of musical language is more simply generated than any natural language. Musical language is exhausted by the significative function of its sequences: it offers only a syntactic axis, and nothing that corresponds to a lexicon (unless the tonal associations of certain instruments and the significations of Greek modes or modern key signatures be taken for a feeble equivalent).
Music suspends, as myth does not, such aspects as the performative, the constative, and the metalinguistic in language by making them equivaient: a piece of music, by exhibiting the bare bones of its structure, is metalinguistic; it designs the mood it manages and evokes; and it carries through the illocutionary intention of evoking the state, which lacks any other content but itself, into which it places the auditor. Music, not because it draws its materials from an arbitrarily selected hierarchy of sounds and is therefore “cultural” in origin, but because of the internal relations of its own syntax, is a sort of dead center between myth and language, sharing and identifying any of the properties of each, but not admitting of the relational extrapolations they demand of us.
Ritual draws music to itself, whether the monodie “molima” of the pygmies or the polyphony of a Bach Cantata. Silence, as the suspension of both music and language, is equally drawn to ritual; it clears the terrain before a dromenon. It is this function which is invariant for silence, not the reversible silence or noise before eating but the silence surrounding a noise before eating or cooking (RC, p. 293), the silence before prayer, and also the silence of the auditors at a sung mass. The Orphic initiate, like initiates all over the world, has a silence enjoined upon him; he must keep “an ox on the tongue,” (as this phrase of Aeschylus’ is sometimes interpreted). Moreover, if all myth has an astronomical correlative, it begs the question to say that the opposition between silence and noise refers in particular to the solar cycle. All of Lévi-Strauss, in this sense, begs the question. The myths are seen in relation to many recursive social processes. He does not see them in the light of what they most fundamentally express, the sacred; nor does he allow for their interactions with what they most intimately utilize, language.