[NB] Myth and structuralism

I often lament the rapid transition between structuralism and post-structuralism, between modernity and postmodernity. While there are many figures grouped under the latter’s banner that are vital and important, in most cases it seems like the sort of rapid transition that hides more than it reveals. In the refusal to dwell with structuralism and with modernity, there seems to be a missed opportunity. Or, rather, a whole field of missed opportunities.

Take Claude Levi-Strauss’s most basic insight that myths aren’t singular, that the understanding of a myth requires establishing a sense of the family of myths that share and redistribute its elements. The myth comes to occupy a field defined by its variations. These variations are defined by sharing overlapping elements and themes, even as those elements and themes are constantly redistributed.

Contrast, for example, the more popular myths of Isis and Osiris alongside that of Inanna and Dumuzi, to highlight a common set of themes and elements. The relationship of Osiris and Dumuzi is an obvious one, as is that between Isis and Inanna. Yet, the patterns do not allow one to collapse into the other. Note that while Isis cries for Osiris, it is Dumuzi’s sister that cries for him. In the myth of Osiris, the agent of his death is his brother, Set, while Dumuzi suffers from Inanna’s rage (though it is her minions, the demons, that lay hold of him). In one telling, Osiris is taken apart and put back together, but in the other it is Inanna who suffers the humiliation of being stripped to the corpse. And so on.

The urge is to say that there is something in common going on beneath these myths and there is probably some truth to that impulse. That impulse often leads in the wrong direction, though, toward trying to sort out the ‘true’ story and derive some sort of monomyth for each scheme of variations. What the myths hold in common, though, is precisely the variations between them. It lies in the darkness that gives fuel to the light. It is that darkness that gives the myths and rituals their force and that darkness to which spiritual work returns.

That said, there is another feature of structuralist work that we ought not ignore. What Levi-Strauss and others have noted is that these variations aren’t random but are connected to the way in which they support social structures. The myths do double duty, not only describing spiritual relationships but establishing codes that guide proper relationships between individuals and polities. Who can marry who, how to behave toward your mother’s brother, and so on, are worked out alongside the spiritual material.

There is a tendency to look to this and reduce the spiritual material to the social, to find in totem and taboo nothing more than the play of human interactions dressed up in fancy. That’s a mistake. The copresence of religious and social experience isn’t accidental or contingent, but forms an essential part in the function of myth. The entanglement of the two is what joins the spiritual realm to the forms of mundane life. The interweaving of myth and life through the medium of ritual produces a synchronicity engine, a vehicle through which the subtle aspects of spirit are given manifest form.

That manifest form is also dense and dark, being material, but it is susceptible to understanding in a way that the original darkness is not. To receive a mystery is to receive the darkness distilled in a way that make it capable of comprehension. That way in which it then becomes subject to variation is thus an exploration of it, akin to the way a turn of the kaleidoscope is an exploration of its possibilities.

Those possibilities include its possibilities for manifesting and transforming the material world. The rules that govern the mystery develop as ways of preserving this or that aspect of the manifestation, even if they tend to decline into a mimetic rigor that limits the possibilities of the manifestation and, even, come to foreclose a clear relationship to the mystery. A rite may become so banal as to be nothing more than a curtain set against a blank wall. This is arguably both the blessing and curse of human mimesis. It makes possible the preservation of complex rites, but the mechanism of such preservation rests in the human responsiveness to other human beings rather than to the mystery.

As a society, a myth, a ritual, cease to attend to the mystery, they become less articulated with it, to the point when the myth and ritual lack most any direct connection to the mystery. They can then serve only for someone who has had the fortune to encounter the mystery again, who may catch sight of their use to gain insight into the mystery.

Of course, it becomes virtually impossible to identify whether the mystery that now animates such dead forms is the same mystery or another that may make passable use of them. More problematically, the same forms my be deployed and organized by different mysteries. The danger of the simulacrum arises here. How can one mystery be distinguished from another if they manifest under a common set of symbols?

Structuralism provides the lineaments of an answer by making clear that the distinction cannot be made at the level of variation. The mysteries are differentiated in their embodiment, where the forms enter into a dialogue with the events of life, where they answer or fail to answer to them.  The question is not about making firm differentiations between this or that spiritual entity, but in identifying the degrees of compatibility or incompatibility between different forms of spiritual life. It matters less and less whether or not the same spirit can distinguished behind different masks. What matters are the forms of life under which these mysteries manifest and the sympathy or antipathy of them with specific individuals.

Ethics trumps ontology.

Which leads toward a few other elements of modernity: the fascination with dreams, and with death, as a gateway to truth.

17 thoughts on “[NB] Myth and structuralism

  1. One of the things that I really liked about seminary was the degree to which we were instructed in how literary theory and analysis had changed our understanding of The Bible over the last three hundred years — that Isaiah, for example, was written over a period of two hundred years by at least three major authors and a couple of editorialists. Or that the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, had at least four sources, code-named J, E, D and P. Or that, in the New Testament, not all the letters bearing Paul’s name could have been written by him; or that two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, worked from a third common source which Mark didn’t have and which is now lost; and John knew all the other gospels, and the common source, but only hinted at them instead of quoting them directly.

    In other words, there’s this family of myths and traditions there, which has been hidden behind the monoculture and Monomyth of “the Church”. And there’s value in learning to appreciate those differences, either as an antidote to the Christianity or Judaism of one’s youth, or as a richer and fuller diet of the same.

    I think there’s genuine benefit in writing or rewriting myths for the modern world, with old characters illuminating new situations. This is kind of what we see in Nativity and Easter plays, or in things like the initiation rites of freemasonry— an effort to reawaken the Mystery. However, as these forms attain to the rigor of Scripture, it becomes harder to find the mystery through the performance or the tableaux.

    All of this is my way of saying, “I think you’re on to something here.” At the same time, you’re exploring it in terms of very abstract, reflective language. Can you pull it into the realm of more direct experience, rooted in image and emotion?

    1. Io

      “…you’re exploring it in terms of very abstract, reflective language. Can you pull it into the realm of more direct experience, rooted in image and emotion?”

      Hmm. Yes and no. Maybe. Hopefully my explanation of that won’t be as insufferably perverse as that sounds.

      Yes, but this is that image and emotion.

      The abstract reflective language is a deliberate part of what I think gets pasted over in the movement away from structuralism. The abstraction reveals something basic to the medium of imagination and the danger of all work that rests too easily in it. This is the black dragon or the long confrontation with the tomb of Christ. Not new or richer stories, but their silencing, the bones that go here and there without flesh to join them.

      Osiris is black god, as it is sometimes said.

      No, because the grimness of language rests atop the direct experience of wonder of what lies on the other side of the end of a language that tries to express it. I can try to be a little poetic, but poetry is already on the return trip back from the wonder, and it’s the mute wonder, the near dissolution where we pass in proximity to the movement of creation itself, that I want to point at (and, there, see, me, trying to speak again about it).

      The death from which life is rebuilt, but always with a troubling difference, the partial and inadequate resurrection. “But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” as T. S. Eliot says.

      Maybe, because I want to have some better tools for sharing around the mystery, perhaps just the sort of thing that make it easier for someone to go partway down and return the better for it…whew, okay, that’s a whole other discussion, surely. And that’s a step (or two, or three) up from what I’m doing here…painfully slow, I know, but that seems to be part of it.

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