The Anatomy of Mythology

THE RAW AND THE COOKED by Claude Lévi-Strauss Harper & Row, $10.00
Two young anthropologists I know are doing fieldwork with some (presumably) lapsed headhunters in the Philippines. They wrote to me the following:
We were working on a tale which described how our tribe became separated from another tribe. When we had taken down the story, I asked if everyone believed it. “No,” they said, “that’s all lies from our ancestors, just like your Bible.”
Not knowing the headhunters, I can’t quite imagine where they could have gleaned such a fine insight into the way we modern Westerners have fallen away from our own myths.
Though our best writers, including Joyce, Eliot, and Lowry, try to breathe new life into myth for us, tee are unwilling to let ourselves be played upon in die dangerous depths of our experience where myths strike people. Instead, we examine and we analyze. Hating codes and symbols, we seek to break them as fast as we can, since once we have broken the code, we have defused the bomb and it cannot harm us. Most people learn to recognize metaphor in poetry and to say “That’s a metaphor,”which translates as “I have enclosed a dangerous thing in a glass bell and we are safe from feeling anything about it.”
But though we have culturally deprived ourselves of our own myths, the mythmaking function remains a special and important activity of the human mind. Unsurprisingly, social anthropology’s most renowned living theoretician, Claude LéviStrauss, has turned from the contemplation of the social structure of primitive peoples to a three-part consideration of myths.
Denying the old functional and moral-code theories of why myths are born, Levi-Strauss asserts that myths are the most free and spontaneous inventions of the mind. Having no other subject matter, myths are the mind’s picture of the mind. And if Lévi-Strauss can find limits on the patterns myths take, he can find limits on what the mind can think of itself. His latest book translated into English, The Raw and the Cooked, continues a hunt begun long ago. Once again, the huge intellectual machinery of Lévi-Strauss’s own invention, Structuralism, is rolled out to capture the elusive mind of the savages.
Levi-Strauss understands the two great difficulties presented by any mythological study. Of all the utterances people make, their myths are the most deeply encoded, the most arcane. Myths come in a language of pure symbol, what LeviStrauss calls “emphatic" language. He quotes Plutarch, who likened myths to rainbows: the sun’s rays are variegated by reflection through a cloud into the hues of a rainbow: a cultural doctrine (somewhat akin to one of Jung’s racial memories) is variegated by the prism of the human mind into myths.
The other difficulty, also understood by Plutarch, is that myths affect the hearer on a pure level of consciousness—somehow in the way music (and, I would add, dreams) affects him. At least in The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss absents himself from the felicity of considering the effect of myths on the listener. As a scientist, his job is not to give us the experience of primitive myths a believer would have, but to produce a dispassionate logical analysis of them.
Imagine, then, Lévi-Strauss as a scientist who starts with the rainbow as evidence—187 differently shaded myths, most of them from tribes in Brazil. He will conduct these various hues back through a cloud, the prism of the human mind, and will reproduce the light of the sun, a major event in the culture-history of the people. The particular event Levi-Strauss seeks to derive is man’s acquisition of culture—fire and cooked food, and agriculture—the event which separated man from the natural world, and an acquisition he paid for with his immortality.
Before describing the merits of Levi-Strauss’s new method of working, we should recall the familiar ways that myth has been dealt with. Most of us accept a functional approach. The mythology of a people explains how they got to a certain condition: since our God is a good God, we have the Garden of Eden myth to explain why He would force us to the dreary task of living by the sweat of our brows. Myths are lumped into functional classes and put aside by anthropologists who recognize that the internal patterns of any mythology are the least available artifacts of the culture. Most investigation readies some enlightening conclusion like: this is a Navaho creation myth, that is a Netsilik one; they are quite different, but then cultures are also different.
Levi-Strauss has been applauded by anthropologists because Structuralism has shown them how to turn around within the small corner they had painted for themselves. Before Lévi-Strauss, ethnography had become a highly sophisticated, descriptive enterprise with only one serious injunction: you should describe exhaustively, but do not impose “meaning” on what you see. The result was usually a linear and displeasing collection of facts. Without seriously controverting the encomium, Lévi-Strauss took a series of logical “structuring” devices from linguistics and used them to find internally coherent patterns and to give order, richness, and “structure” to the bundles of facts ethnographers had meticulously collected.
Exactly how he does his structuring has been kept a trade secret, because few people have really understood it, and because the method itself is incredibly complex. Some people smarter than I am doubt that Structuralism is a scientific method at all, since only Lévi-Strauss seems to know how to play by its eccentric rules.
Without repeating a Levi-Strauss argument, I shall try to give some idea of the way he works. Imagine a myth as a picture on a plastic sheet. Lévi-Strauss takes a stack of these and holds them up to the light. If the forms and the clear spaces generally correspond, he declares the myths to be about the same subject, regardless of differing details. For example, in my tribe we believe fire was given to us by the jaguar, and that man’s loss of immortality came from intermarriage with jaguars. In your tribe you believe cultivated food was a gift from a supernatural opossum, and that man’s immortality was lost through coupling with opossums. In Levi-Strauss’s analysis of our various myths, the details— jaguars, fires, opossums, and agriculture—lose importance. The two mythologies are structurally the same once a transformation is made: by the medium which gave us culture (fire and cultivated food), we both lost our right to live forever.
Though the Structuralist sometimes overlooks details to prove one point, he may also turn around and stress small matters to prove another. Lévi-Strauss willingly connects two otherwise disparate myths on the basis of a single shared detail, or even on the more tenuous ground that two myths lack the same detail.
The mind at play with the data is an attractive one. Levi-Strauss can hold in his head more possible mind functions than most of us can—reasoning by contraries, free associations, transformations, sets, so-called “chromatic” thought. In wresting significant patterns from myths, Lévi-Strauss operates as widely and as freely as we must individually when we try to dope out our own dreams. When I remember that in a dream I was either very brave or very cowardly, I have to think about why I’m currently fixing myself on the courage scale. If I dream about an ancient man and a young child, I am at least worrying about mortality. A dream about a I inker may also be about Evers and Chance.
Despite all of the excellences, there is also a good supply of flimflam in what Levi-Strauss does with myths. Many of his associations and sets cannot really be proved, and the towering structure rests on way too many shaky sticks. In the interpretation of one myth, for example, he notes that . . the opossum personifies a kind of anti-agriculture which is at one and the same time pre-and-pro-agriculture.” Well— maybe.
Though Levi-Strauss conceives of himself as a scientist, I find him more of a Mannerist, an intellectual descendant less of Bacon than of Montaigne. The similarities are striking. Montaigne never feared contradicting himself and saw no reason to make his thinking regularized. Lévi-Strauss writes about presenting a “constellation" of myths which he can tie to one another only with various tentative logical links. Montaigne would have liked the image. It is hazy and smoky enough to satisfy his sensibility. The seigneur proclaimed his book of essays was himself, a mirror of all lie knew to exist, a single mind which was, alas, fickle and changeable. Levi-Strauss says his book is not only about myths, it is itself a myth. At bottom, he has only applied one human mind to the consideration of the human mind in general. (This last thought, in translation, comes out in a sentence which is characteristic of Lévi-Strauss’s brevity and clarity.)
What matters is that the human mind, regardless of the identity of those who happen to be giving it expression, should display an increasingly intelligible structure as a result of the doubly reflexive forward movement of two thought processes acting one upon the other, either of which can in turn provide the spark or tinder whose conjuction will shell light on both.
It is strange to think that Montaigne met some Indians from Brazil who knew some of the myths Levi Strauss analyzes. Montaigne learned three things from them, but later could only remember two for his essay on cannibals. Mannerists of any century believe, finally, in the existence of their own minds. They find the world chimerical and shadowy and do not like it much. They retreat to the safety of their own good gray matter more quickly than an interpreter of the minds of others should.
Lévi-Strauss says that believers of a particular mythology, like speakers of a language, are too deeply involved in the subject ever to analyze it correctly. I think belief is so meshed with mythology that analysis by a nonbeliever will always be not only inadequate but wrong. But then my only alternative to Lévi Strauss is methodologically sloppy it demands you let your mind float downstream.
Doing fieldwork with Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas, I sometimes felt I understood a myth. Once we were drunk and sitting on a hill above a village, and I asked why one of the two village churches was abandoned. I was told that San Sebastian, who was a shepherd, lived in that church long ago. But one day he got his sheep together and got on his horse and went away, so no one tended his church. Then his brother, San Juan, invited him to come back and live in the larger church, so he did. I looked at the two buildings, we had another drink, I watched the sheep pulling grass along the ruined walls, and the story seemed a more than adequate explanation of the situation before us.