Wednesday, November 4, 2009

“Myths communicate with each other by means of men and without men knowing it.”

Claude Levi-Strauss has died at age 100.

I’ll be honest; I didn’t realize that he was still alive.

I quite enjoyed reading his books long, long ago in the ‘70s. The influence his writings had on me is hard to measure. I never read Levi-Strauss in any sort of academic setting which might have been a good thing for someone like me.

I’ve said it before and this is as good a time to say it again. One of the things I learned from Duchamp is that an artist can read philosophy and science and pick and chose the bits and pieces, and stir it into the recipe of the art piece he or she is baking. I definitely did that with Levi-Strauss. The fact that I used a cooking reference to make that point is kind of Levi-Strauss-ian. That’s definitely what I did with the shards and fragments of Levi-Strauss’ writings as they found homes in my thought processes.

I can’t claim that I understand most of his writing, it’s very dense. But I fixated very early onto one idea of his: myths aren’t just false stories or silly fairy tales but that underneath the nonsense of mythology there is a message that makes sense.

What the words of the myth describe isn’t what the myth is about. Underneath or inside the myth with all its outlandish and puzzling plot twists and character transformations there are messages from some other time and place. The thing to study in mythology is its structure.

I drive my friends crazy as I poke around looking for the underlying structure of films TV shows, books, and comics. It was through Levi-Strauss that I discovered the structure of the Grail Myth which can be summarized as this: The bumpkin must prove himself worthy to be in the presence of great the Grail's enormous power.

So that can be Parsifal not asking the Fisher King what the Horn of Plenty is, Dorothy not asking what all the excitement is about regarding the Ruby slippers, or Luke Skywalker flipping up the mechanical gun sight and trusting the Force.
And on and on.

Levi-Strauss’ writings compared about 800 myths of the South American bands of the Ge language group. The one myth that had the most profound influence on me was The Origin of Cultivated Plants (which pretty much means maize/corn).

So many of these stories started out with something like “in addition to the meat they hunted, the people mostly ate rotten wood.”

Rotten wood?
What’s up with that nonsense?

Depending on the individual transcription there would follow all sorts of crazy adventures, but generally in the end, a deity most often named Star-Woman (often in the shape of frog or mouse) would reveal the existence of corn to the worthy, and they no longer had to eat rotten wood.

After I had a few Beanworld stories under my belt, I decided to see if I could try to write a story like that.

The result was Big Fish Story, now found in Wahoolazuma!
I got close enough to my goal to be pleased with the result.

Levi-Strauss famously said “Myths communicate with each other by means of men and without men knowing it.”

I can’t exactly explain why I think that is true, but I do.

Whatever Beanworld is, it is nestled in a tradition of storytelling that goes way, way back into….hmmmmm…where does it go back to?
Not so sure.

It shares a structural foundation with all sorts of myths that lead to other myths that lead to other myths. I think that is why a common appreciation of Beanworld is that it somehow resonates inside the imagination of the reader. I think that goes back to Levi-Strauss' observation that “Myths communicate with each other by means of men and without men knowing it.”

Well, anyway, I learned a lot from reading pretty much all of Levi-Strauss’s published works, and I learned even more from reading about Levi-Strauss.

Two survey books were pretty important to my thinking about of Levi-Strauss. Claude Levi-Strauss: An Introduction by Octavio Paz and Claude Levi Strauss by Edmund Leach.

Both highly recommended.


carol said...

I'm with you. I hadn't realized he was still alive.
I love this post. I love what it says about the deeper truths of mythology. I got a chill when you were talking about eating rotten wood before being worthy enough to eat the corn and I knew before you said it what story it had inspired in the Beanworld.
It was so good to see you at APE. Thanks for the cleverly done 12-page preview on one sheet of paper.

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