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KRONOS Vol IV, No. 1
THE RARE AND ROASTED PHOENIX: A VIEW OF CLAUDE LEVI STRAUSS
The disagreements of Velikovsky and his defenders with orthodox physical science are well known to the readers of KRONOS, as are the challenges to the Velikovskian conceptualization from the historical and archeological establishments. We may also agree that these challenges have been met on their own grounds with telling counter-arguments from the Velikovskian camp. Butz that the results over the years have not been commensurate with the solidity of Velikovsky's arguments is doubtless a tacit commentary on the nature of orthodoxies in general, and scientific orthodoxy in particular.
Notwithstanding, there is one major component of the contemporary intellectual climate that seems to have not been examined in Velikovskian circles to any great extent, namely, the structuralism of the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, which represents a major, if oblique, challenge to any point of view which has a foundation that lies (if only in part) in the establishment of historical and cosmological fact through the comparative analysis of the content of myths from a wide sampling of societies around the world.
Levi-Strauss, whose receipt of the 1966 Viking Award for his Pensee Sauvage(1) marked, perhaps, his consecration as a major figure not only in the social sciences but also in humane letters, is the author of a body of work that is, in the words of George Steiner, a notable Anglo-French literary critic, "highly technical". But Steiner also adds: "The bearing of that work on our understanding of language and mental processes, on our interpretation of history, is so direct and novel that an awareness of Levi-Strauss's thought is a part of current literacy".(2) What brings us to consider his work here is that he posits a view of myth that is generally regarded as entailing an uncompromising rejection of any historical considerations, a view, we suggest, of which the ascendancy in contemporary intellectual circles may be one significant factor in the prevailing deafness to the theses of Immanuel Velikovsky.
For Levi-Strauss, the function of myth is in essence logical: the formation and transformation of patterns of binary opposition, the particular terms of which are arbitrary. His models are linguistic, specifically the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. To these structural linguists whether we call a bird a bird, or Vogel, or ucello, or pajaro, or oiscau, is unimportant. What is germane is a function of "alteration or opposition" between elements which "in spite of having no meaning of their own, participate in meaning".(3)
According to Levi-Strauss, in the creations of human societies the rules of kinship, just as much as myths, are of "the same type of phenomena as those of linguistics" only "on a different plane of reality".(4) Their difference lies, in his perspective, not in any contrast between the rational and the fantastic, for both are systemic structures of paired opposites governed by a code which is simultaneously both rational and unconscious. The rationality of these structures lies in their coherence, in the systematic and rigorous interrelatedness of their component elements - a change in one element brings about a necessary shift, reorganization, and corresponding transformation of the other elements of the whole: "When the pattern undergoes some transformation all the elements are affected at once".(5) Their unconscious character lies in the fact that we manipulate them effectively according to the inner logic of structural system with no need for any explicit understanding of that logic; a child learns to use language coherently and rationally long before he is able to give any account of the rules of grammar, much less the principles of linguistics, that underlie his mastery of his native tongue.
"Language is an unreflecting totalization of human reason which has its reasons and of which man knows nothing; and if it is objected that it is so only for a subject who internalizes it on the basis of linguistic theory, my reply is that this way out must be refused, for this subject is one who speaks: for the same light which reveals the nature of language to him also reveals to him that it was so even when he did not know it, since his discourse never was and never will be the result of the conscious application of linguistic laws."(6) "The individual who conscientiously applied phonological and grammatical laws in his speech . . . would lose the thread of his ideas almost immediately. "(7)
Since, in Levi-Strauss's view, the difference between ordinary language and myth is merely a difference of level, he proposes we should be able to find building blocks of myth, much like phonemes the building blocks of articulate speech - devoid of intrinsic meaning, but giving rise to meaning through interrelated patterns of mutual and reciprocal contrast. These he calls mythemes, themselves composed of language but constituting a higher order of integration that transcends language. "Syntactic structure is to myth what phonological structure is to syntax. If investigation succeeds in isolating mythemes the way phonology did with phonemes we will have at our disposal a network of those relations that form structure. The combination of mythemes ought to produce myths with the same inevitability with which phonemes produce syllables, morphemes, words, and texts - what a myth says is not what the words of the myth say."(8)
It is at this juncture where the spectre of structuralism casts its shadow over the Velikovskian enterprise. If the words of the myth, its references, for example, to blood-red rivers or failures of the diurnal cycle, are not what a myth really says, and if content is but incidental to a meaning which is essentially structural, then is not Velikovsky's approach pathetically naive?
To a good many sophisticates in an intellectual milieu, where Levi-Strauss and structuralism are as "in" today as Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism were during the post-WW II years, the answer would be simply an assumed, unstated "yes". - Velikovsky's approach is ingenuous. The natural response to such a dismissal is reciprocity, and without doubt many who find Velikovsky's arguments convincing, or at least worthy of consideration, are inclined to remove the thought of Levi-Strauss from their own consideration. Should this be the case, the opposing team has been allowed to score unnecessary points.
The weight of the structuralist position against any historical approach to myth is essentially psychological - not logical - since the refusal to attribute intrinsic significance to content is axiomatic and methodological, part of a definition of myth qua myth that simply does not consider (and therefore cannot contradict) the historical and factic raw material out of which a mythos is constructed. In fact, there are in the Levi-Straussian opus occasional suggestions that the structuralist effort may even, indirectly, open new pathways for historical and archeological investigation. In what is perhaps best described as an introductory-aside in the first chapter of The Raw and the Cooked, Levi-Strauss allows himself a comment that would strike one as almost Velikovskian in portent, were it not for the deft negation of what he suggests in the same sentence: "Divergence of sequences and themes is a fundamental characteristic of mythological thought which manifests itself as irradiation: by measuring the direction and angles of the rays we are led to postulate their common origin, as an ideal point on which those deflected by the structure of myth would have converged, had they not started from some other point and remained parallel throughout their entire course. "(9)
Apparently "what the right hand giveth the left taketh away". Nevertheless, one is entitled to ask just what Levi-Strauss means by his denial of the facticity of that point of "convergence". Two interpretations immediately come to mind: either such convergence is historically false or it is structurally irrelevant. In the first case, of course, the comment is a perfect non sequitur since what has just been said would lead us to assume the opposite. In the second case Levi-Strauss has simply climbed back to structuralist high ground after dipping his toes in the turbulent waters of history. Yet, he has not contradicted the historical import of his earlier comment, since he has merely returned to a different level of abstraction.
Suggestion, ironic denial, and renewed suggestion: such is the stuff of Levi-Strauss's rather exasperating stylistic elegance. Point-counterpoint. The musical analogy is explicit in The Raw and the Cooked (the first chapter we are considering here is entitled Overture), and it should come as no surprise that we find the following remarks a few pages later:(10) "Structural analysis - by demonstrating that myths from widely divergent sources can be seen objectively as a set - presents history with a problem and invites it to set about finding a solution. It is the business of ethnographers, historians, and archeologists to explain how and why [the set] exists." At this point we can say with confidence that, at the very least, the door which might at first glance appear to have been slammed shut has been left open, (11) and by Claude Levi-Strauss himself. If nothing more than this were to be said light would be cast on unsubstantial shadows which have unnecessarily clouded the reception of Velikovsky's views.
There is, however, more. A perspective which may very well further remind us that, more than occasionally, support is to be found precisely in those corners where it is least expected. In The Savage Mind Levi-Strauss observes that the vast majority of societies which have ever existed have dedicated their intellectual resources to the denial of history, and it is for this reason that we call them primitive, and not because of any rational incapacity. "Myth offers a solution . . . to abolish the singularity of history. In [primitive] systems of classification, in myths and in rituals, history enters into the cycle of recurrent phenomena and so loses its virulence."(12)
The savage mind, incidentally, is not exclusively the mind of savages; rather it is the human mind at work, contrasting, organizing, and combining experience, unchecked by the hard edge of experimental proof or scientific criticism. Moreover, Levi-Strauss finds in much contemporary ideology the kind of self-contained, self-confirming patterns of creation that is the hallmark of the mythmaking mind. His comments about the work of Sartre are illustrative: "There is little difference between the way in which this opposition (between myself and others) is formulated in Sartre's work and the way it would have been formulated by a Melanesian savage, while the language of the practico-inert quite simply revives the language of animism".(13)
One is immediately tempted to ask questions which are of course outside the scope of Levi-Strauss's self-defined territory, but which are nonetheless sharply suggested by the shape of that territory. If the function of myth is to deprive history of its virulence one might then well ask - even rhetorically - from whence comes the virulence? If myth represents man's attempt to master history through stereotyping and ritualization, are we not faced with what is almost the classical psychoanalytic mechanism of repression, and is it not just possible that the uniformitarian dogmas which have confronted the multifarious evidence produced by Velikovsky rest on precisely that kind of thought process? If so, the work of Levi-Strauss may be, paradoxically, one more key - albeit to the back door - of the Velikovskian labyrinth.
It is hoped that this brief essay will have served its purpose if it rouses the curiosity of readers of KRONOS about the fascinating perplexities upon which we have only superficially touched. Levi-Strauss's work can be rather formidable, and we suggest here that it is a territory best approached with a good map in hand. Prior to reading Levi-Strauss himself, Octavio Paz's book will serve as perhaps the best introduction, although Edmund Leach's Claude Levi-Strauss (London 1974) provides a good critical overview, but somewhat more narrowly anthropological. Of Levi-Strauss's own works, the nontechnical Triste Tropiques(14) is likely a logical point of departure. But, of his more rigorous productions, The Savage Mind is probably the most accessible and comprehensive, and should be thoroughly digested before the reader ventures to feast his mind on The Raw and the Cooked, or else to tease his ingenuity in the mazy corridors of Structural Anthropology or The Elementary Structures of Kinship.(15) Paz's book incidentally can be re-read with fresh insight at successive stages of one's pilgrimage through the Levi-Straussian perplex.
REFERENCES AND NOTES1. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, UC Press: Chicago (1966).
2. George Steiner, Language and Silence, Atheneum: N.Y. (1967), "Orpheus and his myths: Claude Levi-Strauss, " pp. 239-57.
3. Roman Jakobson, Essais de Linguistique General, cited by Octavio Paz, Claude Levi-Strauss, El Nuevo Festin de Esopo, Ed. Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico (1967).
4. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Basil Books: N.Y. (1963).
5. Ibid., The Raw and the Cooked, Harper & Row: N.Y. (1969), p. 11.
6. Ibid., The Savage Mind, p. 252.
7. Ibid., The Raw and the Cooked, p. 11.
8. Claude Levi-Strauss: La Structure des Mythes, cited by Octavio Paz, op. cit., p. 29.
9. The Raw and the Cooked, p. 5.
10. Op. cit., p. 11.
11. Whether Levi-Strauss himself would consider our use of him abusive is a matter of speculation, but that he would not be surprised is suggested by his comments from Le Totemisme Aujourd'Hui, Presses Universitaires de France (1962): "To accept, as a theme for discussion, a category which one believes false, always exposes one to a risk, that of entertaining some illusion of its reality. To better grasp an imprecise obstacle, one must underline those very contours of which one merely wished to show their unsubstantial and inconsistent character; so, by attacking an ill-founded theory, criticism begins by rendering it a form of homage. Such a phantom, imprudently evoked in the hope of exorcising it, will not have vanished, but will rise anew and not nearly so far as one would imagine from the place where it first appeared." [All Paz translations are the author's as well as previous quote.
12. Octavio Paz, op. cit., p. 9.
13. The Savage Mind, p. 249.
14. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, London (1973).
15. Ibid., The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Beacon: Boston (1969).