Historicity in/of Myth

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brook Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 206-231.

The antinomy of myth: arbitrariness or flexibility (myriad variations of a myth) vs. the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions (208).

The double temporality: “On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place long ago. But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless”: the myth as a past segment in a non-reversible sequence of events vs. the myth as a timeless pattern that is detected in the contemporary social structure (209) → the synchronic-diachronic structure.

“It is that double structure, altogether historical and ahistorical, [that deserves close attention]…Poetry is a kind of speech which cannot be translated except at the cost of serious distortions; whereas the mythical value of the myth is preserved even through the worst translation. Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but it the story which it tells. Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling” (210). In other words, “mythemes…cannot be found among phonemes, morphemes, or sememes, but only on a higher level” (211).

The double nature of myth makes a myth assume a ‘slated’ structure in that it comes to the surface through the process of repetition. But the slates are not absolutely identical and each one is different from the others (217-8 and 229).

Will Wright, Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berleley: U of California P, 1975).

Unique (not linear but circular, not analytical but analogical) ways in which myth allows us to approach history, which bears some affinity to Benjaminian vision of brushing history against its grain (returning to the origin).

Historicity in and of mythical thought

Mythical elements in the Western invite us to a peculiar sense of history: the analogical sense of history.

Historical societies [the modern world]…rely on an analytical (causal and linear) mode of explanation in which the present follows from the past and the reference for explanation–the past–is infinite and temporally unavailable. Primitive societies [the world of La pensée sauvage and mythical thinking], on the other hand, rely on an analogical mode of expression where the reference is discontinuous, finite and present to experience; that it, they explain themselves through an analogy to nature (204 and 205).

In mythical thought, the flow of time is like the recurring cycle of seasons; each cycle is just like the last cycle; no changes are acknowledged and no records are kept (205).

Mythical thought uses signs, whereas science attempts to understand the world primarily through abstractions, that is, concepts (205).

The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness (Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 263). It is not concerned with history; for its course of explanation is contemporary with–but different from–what is to be explained, and its mode of understanding is analogy across the difference. In mythical thought, past and present are juxtaposed (analogically related) into two timeless series. By contrast, historical thought stresses continuities. What is to be explained–the present–is not separated from, but is continuous with, what explains it–the past. Its mode is not analogy but analysis. The past explains the present through linear cause and effect. In science, there is one unending series whose terms are causally and temporally related (206). While the temporality in mythical thought is cyclical or circular, the temporality in the modern world is irreversible. The past causes the present, not the other way around (210); history is a one-way street.

Since the past in mythical thought is not unavailable in the present, but existent in the present, mythical thought is systemic and synchronic rather than temporal and diachronic (206).

The Western as a myth creates the present in the past. It is not concerned with actual events…; rather, it uses the western setting to code certain kinds of social relations that are existent, fundamental, and often problematic in modern life. Unlike history that describes the present in terms of the past, the myth of the Western describes the past in terms of the present. While history relates the present to the past, mythical thought relates the past to the present (the present is mapped onto the past). Myth reproduces the conditions and concerns of the present in the past; the past no longer simply causes the present; it is also like the present, something analogous to (or existent in and relevant to) the present (210-11). To go further, since the past is like the present, it also explains how to solve the problems in the present; the future is in the past.

Why history is not enough and why/when mythical thought is needed

Why does our society tend towards the mythical, that is, analogical and synchronic, sense of history? When does the mode of historical representation return and what function does it have in modern society? What critical value does it have in the present anti-mythical world? Does it have anything to do with the notion of passive revolution? If it does, what connections can we find between mythic thought and the world of change without a change?

While the primitive thinks with myths, modern man has science and history (203); while myth provides a society with a unique, synthetic pattern of thought through which the society explains its relationship to history and nature, modern societies are seen to have an analytic mode of thought through which we express in history and science and therefore we cannot have myth (187).

History, however, is not enough: “it can explain the present in terms of the past, but it cannot provide an indication of how to act in the present based on the past, since by definition the past is categorically different from the present. Myths, however, can use the setting of the past to create and resolve the conflicts of the present. Myths uses the past to tell use how to act in the present. [In mythical thought, history is not linear, but cyclical and circular; the past is not the domain of bygones empirically unavailable to the present, but analogous to, relevant to, coexistent with the present]” (187).

Science alone does not provide sufficient ground for action; as a ground for human action, our understanding of the world and history is as much indebted to traditions, customs, folktales, legends, fashions, stardoms, and so on–those sociocultural elements that are either justified nor supported by science–as to scientifically sanctioned knowledge. Although the strength and validity of mythical thoughts is weaker in modern societies than in primitive ones, they still exist and are necessary on various occasions in our everyday life (210). In modern societies, myth provides the ground for action excluded by the logic of history. Modern society relies on historical or scientific abstraction (the analytical mode of explanation and the linear sense of time); it has replaced myth as a mode of explanation of society. Still it has not and probably cannot replace myth as a ground for ordinary social actions. In our everyday life, one can find human social actions often and to a significant extent governed by something else than conceptual thinking. For this reason, myth is important to make sense of social change (211-12).

The mythical use of the past as a model for the present

However, the mythical dimension should not be something that is always already there. It has history: it emerges, grows, and declines. Mythical thinking is not always fundamental; there are specific historical junctures that require a return of the savage mind. Mythical thought emerges and gains its momentum in a special terrain in modern societies and at a specific historical juncture. The question to be posed, then, is when and how the mythical dimension comes to require close attention.

The peculiar nature of the mythical use of the past is worth close attention. The setting of the past “may no longer be practically useful or important, but through the myth they become conceptually important and take on meanings that have little if any relation to actual meanings associated with the setting as it was experienced in the past. In more concrete terms, some aspects of the American West in the late nineteenth century have become quite significant in modern America, but for reasons that are clearly different from the reasons for their actual significance in the historical West. One obvious case is clothes. Western attire is perennially popular and makes periodic forays into the ‘mod’ look for both men and women. Yet in the West, these clothes–boots, jeans, vests, wide-brimmed hats–had a utilitarian function, whereas now they are worn because of their association with the myth, not because they offer any particular advantage as clothing or because of sentimental attachments to the real West.” A more revealing chase is the Western landscape. In the historical West, vast open spaces like plains, deserts, prairies, and mountains were something to be cultivated and populated. Today they are considered meaningful, but not in the same sense as before; now they function as a source of inspiration. At stake here is not the historical West as it was, but the modern feeling for the West (188).

This entry was posted in Film Theory, Historicity, Movement/Action, Mythic Violence, The Western and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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