Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Between Myth and Reference: Puig and Ionesco

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Between Myth and Reference: Puig and Ionesco

Article excerpt

What is myth? Why link it to reference? We have shown elsewhere that myth and reference are diametrically opposed to one another, given their different relationship with time.(1) Myth eschews specific spatiotemporal coordinates. As Levi-Strauss put it, "Tout se passe comme si la musique et la mythologie n'avaient besoin du temps que pour lui infliger un dementi. L'une et l'autre sont, en effet, des machines a supprimer le temps."(2) Vagueness of location and temporality(3) necessarily undermines definite reference, whose role is to identify singular entities in time and space.

Myth blurs the coordinates of time and space; it cannot particularize. Identity is muted, if not virtually absent. Thus the great mythical figures--Don Juan, Prometheus, Electra, etc--remain relatively constant across time and cultures, to the point that they seem to be cut out of the same cloth.(4) They are therefore not singular entities (referents), but classes, that is, abstractions. It is not surprising, then, that they tend not to evolve psychologically.

At issue in the mythical enterprise, consequently, is the status of identity. What happens, though, when identity per se is systematically undermined in a literary text? This is precisely what occurs, in various ways and in differing degrees, in the work of Puig, gorges, Ionesco and Beckett, to cite obvious instances. Contrary to theatrical convention, the often depersonalized cues in plays by Ionesco and Beckett (say the Smiths vs the Martins in La Cantatrice chauve or Vladimir vs Estragon in En attendant Godot) in no way identify the characters speaking the lines. Despite obvious differences between Borges and Puig, the status of individual characters in their work is precarious. Reversal of roles, merging of characters, repetition of segments of dialogue and similar strategies are often brought into play by these two writers. gorges's "The Immortal", "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero", "The Shape of the Sword", and likewise Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Under a Mantle of Stars immediately spring to mind. By undermining identity and thus the psychological concept of character, Borges and Puig privilege repetition and hence the mythical.

If reference is muted in myth, the conceptual must automatically become dominant. When time and space are deemphasized, the conceptual (i.e. abstraction) is foregrounded. Now the dominant feature of the conceptual is, of course, similarity.(5) Characteristic of myth is the recurrence, across time and place, of the same or similar concepts. Recurrence itself seems paradoxical. If myth belongs to the realm of the conceptual, one would expect it to favor the formation of new concepts. Yet instead, myth tends to recycle the same elements ad infinitum. Accretions are confined to what is congruent with the existing pattern. Since myth does not foreground difference, and since concept formation is contingent on the latter,(6) it stands to reason that myth is unlikely to generate new concepts.

What are the cognitive implications of a medium characterized by redundancy? If myth precludes new concepts, it must elicit recognition, rather than cognition. Recognition is a function of memory that entails linking on the basis of similarity. Being repetitive, it is a passive process that cannot have any impact on our conceptual hierarchy. In short, what is involved is no more than matching the new to the already encoded. The afterlife of a myth is thus contingent far more on memory than on thought processes.

It is our contention that memory is not designed to produce concepts. The two main functions of memory are the recording and recalling of units of information, stored in the long term or short term.(7) We posit that long-term memory can only store conceptualized information (i.e. the product of thought). Definite reference is the responsibility of short-term memory(8) and thus cannot loom large in myth.

Now we find in Manuel Puig's novels a universe of popular myth based on a systematic recycling of stereotypes. …

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