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Myth And Structure

Lévi-Strauss calls his approach to myth "structuralist" to distinguish it from "narrative" interpretations, or those that adhere to the plot of myth. Nonstructuralists deem myth a story, progressing from beginning to end, be the story interpreted literally or symbolically. Where the plot of a myth is that, say, event A leads to event B, which leads to event C, which leads to event D, the structure, which is identical with the expression and resolution of contradictions, is either that events A and B constitute an opposition mediated by event C or, as in the Oedipus myth, that events A and B, which constitute the same opposition, are to each other as events C and D, an analogous opposition, are to each other. Apparently, all oppositions for Lévi-Strauss symbolize the tension between humans as part of nature and humans as part of culture.

Lévi-Strauss is not the only or even the earliest theorist of myth labeled a structuralist. Notably, the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp (1895–1970) and the French Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil (1898–1986) wrote both before Lévi-Strauss and independently of him. The French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a contemporary of Lévi-Strauss but was his own person.

The common plot that Propp deciphers in Russian fairy tales is his structure, which thus remains on the narrative level and is no different from the kind of structure found by Rank and Campbell. By contrast, the structure that Dumézil unravels lies as much beneath the surface level as Lévi-Strauss's. But it reflects the order of society rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, that of the mind, and is three-part rather than two-part.

Barthes is concerned with myth as ideology. In Lévi-Straussian terms, he writes to expose the way that French bourgeois culture creates myths to make itself seem natural—a fusion of culture with nature rather than the mere alleviation of the opposition between them. For Barthes, the function of myth is social rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, intellectual. For Barthes, the structure of myth is its cultural context. By "myths" he means artifacts and activities more than stories. His clearest example is of professional wrestling, which, much more than a sport, is an attempt to alleviate lingering misgivings over the behavior of some French citizens during the Occupation by presenting clear-cut Good (the wrestler) as triumphing over clear-cut Evil (his opponent).

A group of French classicists headed by Jean-Pierre Vernant (b. 1914) have proved the most faithful followers of Lévi-Strauss's brand of structuralism, though even they have adapted it. Lévi-Strauss has regularly been lambasted for isolating myth from its various contexts—social, cultural, political, economic, even sexual. In his essay on the American Indian myth of Asdiwal, he does provide a detailed ethnographic analysis of a myth. But he does so almost nowhere else. Vernant and his fellow classicists—notably, Marcel Detienne, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Nicole Loraux—have taken the analysis of Asdiwal as their model. As the heirs of Lévi-Strauss, these classicists have sought to decipher underlying, often latent patterns in myths, but they have then sought to link those patterns to ones in the culture at large.

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