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Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of…

Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture (1978)

by Claude Lévi-Strauss

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: CBC Massey Lectures (1977)

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(from the cover) Cracking the Code of Culture
  LanternLibrary | Nov 5, 2017 |
easy to read but not suitable as an introduction to mythology
  R-Ash | Nov 12, 2016 |
This book consists of five talks given on the CBC Radio series “Ideas” in December 1977, with a short introduction from religious scholar Wendy Doniger from the University of Chicago. The names of the lectures themselves won’t provide but the barest of insight into the material that Levi-Strauss covers, but since there are only five, I will name them here. They are 1) “The Meeting of Myth and Science,” 2) “‘Primitive’ Thinking and the ‘Civilized’ Mind,” 3) “Harelips and Twins: The Splitting of Myth,” 4) “When Myth Becomes History,” and 5) “Myth and Music.”

These lectures are some of the very few popularizing work that Levi-Strauss did in his extremely long life. As Doniger says in her fine introduction, they “touch upon all of Levi-Strauss’s great methodological paradoxes between myth and science, myth and history, myth and music,” and present the most difficult concepts in “La Pensee Sauvage” (“The Savage Mind”) for the educated lay audience (p. xii).

These lectures don’t really lend themselves to summary terribly well. As you can see above, the entire book itself, including the introduction, is a mere 80 pages. They do, however, give you brief glimpses into the abiding concerns and problems that have, more than anything else, given structure to Levi-Strauss’s unique intellectual path within the field of anthropology, and those related to structuralism in particular. I read this together with Patrick Wilcken’s biography, “Claude Levi-Strauss: Poet in the Laboratory,” which I found added a lot of appropriate background material that was useful in dealing with these talks.

If you find the topics of his lectures interesting, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed in their relative lack of depth. (I suppose you have to sacrifice detail when you’re presenting complicated ideas to a non-professional audience.) However, there are wonderful resources out there with much more detail. Wilcken’s biography is a good place to start, but can be variously supplemented with Christopher Johnson’s “Levi-Strauss: The Formative Years” (an imprint from Cambridge) and “Tristes Tropiques.” And if you get really adventurous, you can try “The Savage Mind” or his two-thousand-page, four-volume “Mythologiques.” With any hope, I’ll get there eventually. ( )
  kant1066 | Jul 17, 2012 |
As an anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss strives for an understanding of humanity and its nature. As a social anthropologist Lévi-Strauss searches for this understanding by studying humanity as it functions in groups. In his book, Myth and Meaning Lévi-Strauss presents a personalized narrative from his anthropological perspective of how and why humanity uses mythology to not only gain understandings about themselves and the world, but also to maintain an understanding of their history both as individuals and as members of a larger social network. Myth and Meaning consists of Lévi-Strauss personally responding to questions asked by an interviewer on topics ranging from The Meeting of Myth and Science to Primitive Thinking and the Civilized Mind to When Myth Becomes History.
In her introduction, Wendy Doniger discusses Lévi-Strauss’ ideas in a previous publication entitled, Structural Anthropology, where he developed a anthropological system that has influenced all of his work to follow. Lévi-Strauss argues that humanity’s tendency is to separate everything into pairs. Mythology is the language used by humanity in attempt to understand their natural environment. Therefore, according to Lévi-Strauss, humans understand everything through a dualism. “Each dualism (such as male/female) produces a tension that seems to be resolved by the use of a mediating term (such as androgyny), but then that new term turns out to be one-half of a new dualism (such as androgyny/sexlessness)” (viii). For Lévi-Strauss, these dualisms are present not only in how humanity understands the world, but are even exemplified in the anatomy of the human form – two eyes, two hands, two feet, etc. By dividing everything in half through binary distinctions humans are “reformulating every question so that there are only two possible answers to it, yes or no” (ix). This process of division is a major factor in how mythologies are interpreted and understood.
Because myth is the language used for understanding, it is continually in use. “Myths, like all things in constant use, break and are fixed again, become lost and are found” (ix). The material used to repair or discover myths Lévi-Strauss calls, mythemes, and the “handyman who recycles [the myths]...[is called] a bricoleur” (ix). Therefore, the bricoleur uses the mythemes to fill in gaps of lost or forgotten material in myths. By doing so, the bricoleur brings in mythemes (pieces) to the story that has its “own previous life-history” from binary pairs with which it was formerly attached (ix). Thus, “myth can be translated only by another myth, never by a scientific formula (x). Throughout the rest of the book Lévi-Strauss applies his system to various subjects and concepts by answering questions asked by an interviewer from the Canadian Broadcasting Company radio program, Ideas, in 1977.
The body of the book begins with The Meeting of Myth and Science. In this section Lévi-Strauss confronts the split that occurred between myth and science in the 17th Century. For Lévi-Strauss, Rationalism closed the curtain on mythology and much of the mysticism and religiosity of earlier time periods. Giants like Newton and Descartes developed scientific theories that quickly became accepted as fact and Truth, which functioned as explanations for the mysteries of human experience and the universe. Yet Lévi-Strauss argues, “I think there are some things we have lost, and we should try perhaps to regain them” (5). He warns that to champion reason over experience creates an imbalance in human understanding. Yet, Lévi-Strauss does not argue that science should be completely disregarded, but that science aids understanding through strucualistic or reductionalistic processes. Lévi-Strauss maintains that it is, “impossible to conceive of meaning without order” (12). Order is found in words and their use in language. To illustrate this, Lévi-Strauss asks the question, “What does ‘to mean’ mean” and answers himself by stating, “ ‘to mean’ means the ability of any kind of data to be translated in a different language. I do not mean a different language like French of German, but different words on a different level” (12). For Lévi-Strauss rules (order) and meaning are one in the same. Yet, he is not willing to concede that science can answer all the mysteries of the universe, myth must be considered as well.
Lévi-Strauss goes on to discuss his distinction between ‘primitive’ cultures – those typically understood to consist of individuals with underdeveloped or lesser mental abilities, and ‘civilized’ cultures – cultures understood as consisting of persons more advanced and accomplished. Lévi-Strauss redefines ‘primitive’ arguing that these cultures should be described as ‘without writing’ instead (15). He goes on to explain that ‘primitive’ peoples have been traditionally “determined by the bare necessities of living – finding subsistence, satisfying the sexual drives, and so on” (15-6). This is a misconception according to Lévi-Strauss, these people traditionally understood as “subservient…are perfectly capable of…thinking; that is, they are moved by a need or desire to understand the world around them, its nature and their society” (16). For Lévi-Strauss the function of the ‘savage mind’ versus that of the scientific mind is significantly different.
“We are able, through scientific thinking, to achieve mastery over nature…myth is unsuccessful in giving man more material power over the environment. However, it gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and that he does understand the universe” (17).

Lévi-Strauss hopes for a great melding of the sciences and mythology that he argues could allow for greater understanding of both humanity and the universe.
Lévi-Strauss approaches the issue of historiography in the section of his conversations entitled, When Myth Becomes History. Difficulty arises when anthropologist and/or historians attempt to study and understand these cultures ‘without writing’. Lévi-Strauss quickly identifies two major problems individuals encounter when attempting to study these cultures. Firstly, what is to be done with myths and stories that are disjointed, that is to say, give differing accounts of the same or a similar historical event? One way Lévi-Strauss says this disjointedness can be interpreted is, “that whenever we find myths as disconnected elements, this is the result of a process of deterioration and disorganization” (36). He continues, “Or we could hypothesize that the disconnected state was the archaic one, and that the myths were put together in an order by native wise men and philosophers who do not exist everywhere” but, that these individuals are unique to a specific culture or society (35).
The second major problem encountered when attempting this type of study is that it demands the understanding that “mythological material was collected mostly by anthropologist, that is, people from the outside” (35). Even with the assistance of Native members, anthropologist (in the specific example given by Lévi-Strauss - the work of Franz Boas and Marius Barbeau with western Canadian Native communities) struggle ascertaining specific understandings of Native myth and experience. Lévi-Strauss argues that these “native collaborators….were turned into anthropologists themselves”, thus negating the ‘inside perspective’ of the Native assistants. (35-6). This becomes apparent when the organizations of the Native myth stories are analyzed. Lévi-Strauss argues that the organization of the myths reflects the influence of the anthropologists’ Western understanding and experience and negates the ‘inside’ understanding of the story. Because there are no written documents in these types of communities Lévi-Strauss ponders, “where does mythology end and where does history start?” (38).
This is the question many anthropologist and historians are attempting to answer. In the case of oral traditions, the anthropologist and the historian search for the meaning and purpose of the stories told. Lévi-Strauss explains that for many traditions ‘without writing’ many times the same stories (or at least very similar ones) are used to explain and describe different aspects of experience. This phenomenon helps to explain the issue of organization discussed above. For the Native people, the order (chronology) of the story may change. Even the roles of characters may change depending on who is telling the story and the point the orator is attempting to make. “Its basic structure is the same, but the content of the cell is not the same and can vary” (39). Lévi-Strauss argues that by studying these myths in an attempt to understand them, “not as fanciful account[s]” but as information given by the Native peoples about their experience and understanding, as well as through archeology and attempting to decipher “correspondences” within the stories, “we may in the end reach a better understanding of what historical science really is” (42). Thus, if both mythological and historical scientific techniques are considered, perhaps through this melding, a better understanding of communities ‘without writing’ can be achieved.
Lévi-Strauss has identified the historiographical problems that are encountered when attempting to study mythology and oral cultures. He illustrates how traditional historical method (what he deems scientific history) can taint the unique perspectives of Native and non-western societies and cultures. In this work Lévi-Strauss draws a much needed distinction between historical events, events that have happened in the past, and the meaning that these historical events possess. Therefore, Lévi-Strauss presents a new understanding of mythology by arguing that myth is a language used by individuals in order to understand themselves and their place in the world. Mythology can and should no longer be understand within the dualism of true or false, but as a mediating term, a mytheme, that is but a piece of a much more complex system. These systems or understandings are not concrete or absolute. They are in flux, ever changing and evolving as they are applied to greater and greater mysteries. Modern science has given humanity a different understanding of self and the universe, yet it does not have to negate the importance or the validity of myth. Perhaps science is the new myth, for a good scientist would claim to have proven nothing, they would state that their understanding or hypothesis works for the present time, but they cannot know that their understanding will always suffice. Mythology remains as an important reminder for the western world. It illustrates the importance of interpretation (the contextualization of information and understanding) and perspective. The presence of myth demands consideration perhaps more so for the historian than any other individual. For it is the historian that is the interpreter of the past and must continually reflect on how they perceive it. From what position (context) are they viewing material or hearing the story, and how can these multiple perspectives be synthesized to create a historical interpretation? ( )
2 vote Reed_Books | Sep 28, 2011 |
I was a bit disappointed. I think I need to read something longer. This is a transcription of a CBC radio program he gave in 1977 ( )
  jaygheiser | Jul 23, 2008 |
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Doniger, WndyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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PHILOSOPHY. In this short book, Levi Strauss distils a lifetime of writing into a few sharp insights, providing a cyrstalline overview of many of the basic ideas underlying his work, above all the importance of myth in understanding human culture.

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