Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

World, first to Martinique and Puerto Rico, then to the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was in the United States through the war until 1947. During this period, his interest in linguistics emerged, in large part through contact with Roman Jakobson. His first major book of structural anthropology, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, appeared in French in 1949. He had returned to France the previous year, where he taught initially at what was then the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. In 1958, he was named to a chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France, the highest academic honor his country bestows. Among his numerous books are Tristes tropiques ( 1955), which is must reading for anyone who cares about the intellectual pleasures and challenges of anthropology; Structural Anthropology, two volumes of collected essays; and the three-volume Mythologiques.

The selection, "The Structural Study of Myth", first appeared in 1955 and is generally considered the original manifesto for the structural study of culture. Here, Lévi- Strauss performs a deep structural analysis of the Oedipal myth without any explicit reference to a concept of the unconscious. Lévi-Strauss's sources were much more Durkheimian and Saussurian than Freudian. Two terms used in the selection might require some explanation. Literally, a chthonian being is one who is thought to live beneath the surface of the earth (the monsters in the third column on pages 312-313). Thus, an autochthonous origin would be one from the soil or from beneath the earth. In the myth, monsters are considered of autochthonous origin. Thus, in the Oedipus myth, the slaying of monsters is taken as a denial of man's origins as a creature of the earth. As Lévi-Strauss shows throughout his interpretation, the method is an attempt to understand meaningful elements in their structured relation to each other. In this case, he argues that one of the natural human dilemmas resolved by the Oedipal story is concern over how we can be born both of human and of primitive natural origins. In his way, Lévi-Strauss was also dealing with existential questions.


The Structural Study of Myth

Claude Lévi-Strauss( 1958)

Despite some recent attempts to renew them, it seems that during the past twenty years anthropology has increasingly turned from studies in the field of religion. At the same time, and precisely because the interest of professional anthropologists has withdrawn from primitive religion, all kinds of amateurs who claim to belong to other disciplines have seized this opportunity to move in, thereby turning into their private playground what we had left as a wasteland. The prospects for the scientific study of religion have thus been undermined in two ways. . . .

Of all the chapters of religious anthropology probably none has tarried to the same extent as studies in the field of mythology. From a theoretical point of view the situation remains very much the same as it was fifty years ago, namely, chaotic. Myths are still widely interpreted in conflicting ways: as collective dreams, as the outcome of a kind of esthetic play, or as the basis of ritual. Mythological figures are considered as personified abstractions, divinized heroes, or fallen gods. Whatever the hypothesis, the choice amounts to reducing mythology either to idle play or to a crude kind of philosophic speculation.

____________________
Excerpt from Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, trans., Structural Anthropology, I ( New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963), pp. 202-212.

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