In the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, specifically as detailed in his essay “The Structural Study of Myth,”1 myths are important insofar as they are meaningful. The difficulty for Lévi-Strauss, as an anthropologist working after the birth of structural linguistics, is that the myth, which “is language” (430, his emphasis), cannot derive its meaning from language itself, as the fundamental tenet of Saussurian linguistics, the arbitrariness of the sign, makes clear. Language in itself, Saussure’s langue, the unconscious, socially generated and maintained structure of language, is arbitrary. It is only through relation with its parleurs and their parole that the arbitrary structure gains objective, statistical significance. To put it more concretely, the word “pink” has no literal connection to the colour, but is, rather, arbitrarily associated with it by collective and traditional usage. Thus, for Saussure, and Lévi-Strauss, language has a “double structure,” existing simultaneously in “revertible” and “non-revertible” time (Lévi-Strauss 430). Together, these contrary but cooperative “time referents” of language, langue and parole, produce what we refer to, simply, as language.
On this foundation Lévi-Strauss begins to construct a new, scientific model of the myth as an expression of language under Saussure’s formulation. For my purposes here, I will refer to myth as both function and product, and to distinguish the two, I will use the term myth for the former and mythos for the latter. In this way, the “double structure” of language is seen to be reproduced. But, unlike with other genres of linguistic expression (i.e. poetry or the novel) which similarly share in the double structure of language (genre [e.g. novel] ≡ langue; book [e.g. The Sun Also Rises] ≡ parole), the myth function is significant to Lévi-Strauss in its unique application of said doubling. Where a novel or poem functions primarily in the domain of speech (more on this later), parole, the myth, exists in the relation between the two halves of language, both in speaking and in structure, making use of a “third referent” somewhere between the two. Any given mythos “always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time” but its “operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future” (430). Lévi-Strauss sees the operative value of the myth function at work in narratives of the French Revolution, specifically as used by politicians. Where the historian of the Revolution aims to describe “a non-revertible series of events” the politician applies that same sequence as an “everlasting pattern” to the present and the future. Thus, the myth function is able to produce a linguistic utterance, a mythos, that is simultaneously “historical and anhistorical,” existing as an “absolute object on a third level” informed by, but apart from, langue and parole.
Now, as a student of literature, far from privileging the myth as a better linguistic genre, Lévi-Strauss’s formulation allows me to approach other genres of literature not traditionally viewed as “mythic” through this lens. If the myth function reproduces the double structure of language in its products, why cannot a poem or a novel do the same? Indeed, for Lévi-Strauss, the distinction between a history of the French Revolution and the political mythos of it lies not in the mythos itself but in the interpretation of it. And, as I have discussed previously, because the act of reading is always interpretive, and is thus productive, no text can exist primarily in the realm of non-revertible speech, but rather, all texts, as myths, exist somewhere in the realm of Lévi-Strauss’s mythic third referent. Even history, as I have discussed through the lens of Hayden White’s “literary artifact,” is not free of this interpretive and productive function. Better, then, to apply Lévi-Strauss’s formulation of the myth function to all textual genres, than to limit it to just the one. All texts are myths. But some lend themselves to such a reading more freely than others. Why?
For a simple answer, I would argue that certain texts are more easily read through the lens of myth due to their cultural reach and historical depth, texts such as the American Constitution, the Bible, or Oedipus Rex (the interpretation of which Lévi-Strauss undertakes in his paper). Such texts have the combined force of widespread dissemination and centuries of continuous usage that give them the necessary “anhistorical” frame in which mythic (that is, atemporal) readings can take place. A text must be able to transcend its own context, primarily through the act of reading and rereading, if it is to persist from generation to generation and gain a mythic, universal applicability. The reader of Exodus, for instance, firstly encounters the contextual, non-revertible account of the Israelite flight from Egypt, and then continues to apply this non-revertible narrative as a revertible, atemporal, absolute framework for appraising her own life. It is precisely this potential for an absolute reading (a potential that all texts, to some degree, share) that allows us to step outside ourselves, outside the “happenings” of our own lives, and look at them from an objective, total perspective, as a “pattern” or structure, an action that I have advocated for as a necessity of social existence.
For a more complex explanation of this phenomenon I turn to a relatively recent paper by Wai Chee Dimock, a professor of English at Yale, entitled “A Theory of Resonance.”2 For Dimock, the “semantic fabric of the text, like the fabric of the universe, can be theorized as a space-time continuum” (1060, my emphasis). It is precisely at the semantic level, that is, the level of meaning and significance, that a text breaks out of its “statistical” (in Lévi-Strauss’s terms) expression and into the “eternal.” Treated in this way, as a four-dimensional, “diachronic object” (Dimock 1060), instead of a three-dimensional, “synchronic” one, the text is invested with an interpretive resonance. The meaning of a text is not, as the historicist school would argue, a “property of the historical period in which it originated” derived from a “cross-section of the temporal axis” (1060-61). This view looks only at “relations of simultaneity, between concurrent events, rather than extended relations emerging with time’s passage” (1061). Dimock advocates for an extension of the “hermeneutical horizon” (that is, our interpretive field of view) “beyond the moment of composition” (1061). One must take into account the resonance of a text, its depth and reach (as above), as well as its context, in order to achieve a fuller picture of the object in question.
By looking at the “traveling frequencies of literary texts: frequencies received and amplified across time … [a] theory of resonance puts the temporal axis at the center of literary studies” (1061). To frame the discussion in a slightly different way, to interpret a text along the breadth of its “temporal axis,” rather than at a single point, is to step outside the text, to put oneself out of circuit with it, and so see it as a whole—in other words, as a mythos. So, it can be seen, then, that the myth function is primarily an interpretive act, and is thus, a choice. Any text can be read diachronically or synchronically, revertibly or non-revertibly, thus extending Lévi-Strauss’s praxis to the entirety of literary studies, not simply the religio-anthropological ones.
For a closing application, then, I will refer you to the icebergs3 of two previous posts in which I discuss Ernest Hemingway’s final work, A Moveable Feast,4 and his first, The Sun Also Rises,5 respectively. Looking at both through the diachronic, resonant lens (which is the lens of myth), we can see how the hunger which pervades A Moveable Feast, and is explicitly discussed in the chapter “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” exists, already, in the work of early Hemingway. Jake, Hemingway’s protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, is precisely one of those characters whom Hemingway found to “ha[ve] very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food,” the direct result of Hemingway’s hunger as a writer (due, firstly, to his poverty, and secondly, to the times and the ennui of he and the other members of the “lost generation.”) Looking at hunger, then, as a trope, or as Lévi-Strauss would call it, a “gross constituent unit” (431), of the Hemingway myth function, a dedicated reader can extend his analysis beyond the two texts mentioned above and interpret other works of Hemingway through the same resonant field. Further, looking at the synchronic relation of the two texts (and any others brought into the discussion) alongside the diachronic expression of the myth allows the reader to see the pattern in its temporal development and atemporal expression. To read Hemingway’s work as myth is to see it as both contextually and presently relevant, and to invest his œuvre with a future-oriented value as well. As people continue to read Hemingway, and so continue to interpret him in new, uniquely productive ways, our understanding of the myth he wrought, the myth he channeled, will only become deeper and richer. And as different readers with different interpretations encounter each other while interacting with the selfsame myth, perhaps they will be able to find a way outside themselves as well, and so come to a better, more perfect relationship with each other in the process.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68.270 (1955): 428-44. PDF. ↩
Dimock, Wai Chee. “A Theory of Resonance.” PMLA 112.5 (1997): 1060-1071. PDF. ↩
Hemingway, Earnest. A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition. Palo Alto: GoodBook Classics, 2014. Kindle. ↩
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2012. Kindle. ↩