Academic journal article Western Folklore

Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect

Article excerpt

In 1928, Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp published his pathbreaking Morphology of the Folktale in a limited printing of only 1600 copies (Bravo 1972:45). In his Morphology, Propp delineated a syntagmatic sequence of thirty-one functions which he claimed defined the Russian fairy tale (Aarne-Thompson tale types 300-749). Unfortunately, few Western scholars read Russian and Propp's important monograph had little impact upon the direction of folk narrative study. Only famed linguist Roman Jakobson in his 1945 folkloristic commentary for the Pantheon edition of Afanas'ev's Russian Fairy Tales referred to Propp's research in a brief summary of his findings (1945:640-641) . It was not until Professor Thomas A. Sebeok of Indiana University arranged for an English translation of Propp's Morphology in 1958 that Propp's remarkable analysis became accessible to Western folklorists (cf. Breymayer 1972; Bremond and Verrier 1982; and Cardigos 1996:33-36, but see Chistov 1986:9).

Three years earlier, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had responded favorably to an invitation issued by the same Professor Sebeok who was then the editor of the Journal of American Folklore to participate in a symposium on myth. (Among others in that symposium were David Bidney, Richard M. Dorson, Reidar Th. Christiansen, Lord Raglan, and Stith Thompson.) Levi-Strauss's paper, entitled "The Structural Study of Myth" which initiated a veritable flood of 'structural' enterprises, was written without any knowledge of Propp's Morphology. The 1955 JAF issue was published as a separate book under the title Myth: A Symposium in 1958, the same year Propp's Morphology appeared in English.

In his essay, Levi-Strauss contended "that mythical thought always works from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation" and further that "the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction" (1955:440, 443). LeviStrauss has persisted in his "definition" of myth or mythical thought. In The Naked Man, the final volume of the four-volume Mythologiques, in a chapter entitled "Binary Operators," he has this to say of "mythemes," his neologism intended to refer to basic units of myth: "Of course, all mythemes of whatever kind, must, generally speaking, lend themselves to binary operations, since such operations are an inherent feature of the means invented by nature to make possible the functioning of language and thought" (1981:559). To be sure, Levi-Strauss is well aware that he has been "accused" of "overusing" "the notion of binary opposition" (1995:185) .

Like Propp, Levi-Strauss had proposed a formula for the structure of narrative, but unlike Propp, his formula was totally algebraic involving "functions" and "terms" (1955:442; for a discussion of the formula, see Mosko 1991). Whereas Propp had extrapolated his thirty-one function sequence from the linear order of events recounted in his 100 fairy tale corpus, Levi-Strauss sought to discover what he felt was the underlying paradigm (of oppositions). Levi-Strauss did recognize the "order" of events as presented in narrative as told, but he elected to ignore that "order." In his terms, "The myth will be treated as would be an orchestra score perversely presented as a unilinear series and where our task is to re-establish the correct disposition" (1955:432, my emphasis). The use of the descriptive label "perversely" seemed to suggest that the linear sequential order (utilized by Propp) was an obstacle to be overcome by Levi-Strauss in his efforts to arrive at the supposed underlying paradigm. As Champagne puts it, "Levi-Strauss regards such linear, sequential forms as obvious and superficial" (1995:42).

Levi-Strauss is certainly cognizant of the difference between syntagmatic and paradigmatic structure (1988:205). Moreover, throughout his four volume Mythologiques series, Levi-Strauss repeatedly denigrates the sequential syntagmatic while at the same time praising the virtues of the paradigmatic. …

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