Claude LÚvi-Strauss

The raw and the cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology

Vol. I. New York: Harper and Row1969 [1964].

From the overture

The aim of this book is to show how empirical categories-such as the categories of the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed, the moistened and the burned, etc, which can only be accurately defined by ethnographic observation and, in each instance, by adopting the standpoint of a particular culture-can nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions.

The initial hypothesis demands therefore that from the outset we place ourselves at the most concrete level-' that is, in the heart of a community or of a group of communities sufficiently alike in regard to their habitat, history, and culture. However, while this is undoubtedly an essential methodological precaution, it cannot mask or restrict my intention. Using a small number of myths taken from native communities which will serve as a laboratory, I intend to carry out an experiment which, should it prove successful, will be of universal significance, since I expect it to prove that there is a kind of logic in tangible qualities, and to demonstrate the operation of that logic and reveal its laws. (p.1)

In fact, the Bororo myth, which I shall refer to from now on as the key myth, is, as I shall try to show, simply a transformation, to a greater or a lesser extent, of other myths originating either in the same society or in neighboring or remote societies. I could, therefore, have legitimately taken as my starting point any one representative myth of the group. From this point of view, the key myth is interesting not because it is typical, but rather because of its irregular position within the group. It so happens that this particular myth raises problems of interpretation that are especially likely to stimulate reflection. (p.2)

As I shall show in my conclusion, this multiplicity is an essential characteristic, since it is connected with the dual nature of mythological thought, which coincides with its object by forming a homologous image of it but never succeeds in blending with it, since thought and object operate on different levels. The constant recurrence of the same themes expresses this mixture of powerlessness and persistence. Since it has no interest in definite beginnings or endings, mythological thought never develops any theme to completion: there is always something left unfinished. Myths, like rites, are "in-terminable." And in seeking to imitate the spontaneous movement of mythological thought, this essay, which is also both too brief and too long, has had to conform to the requirements of that thought and to respect its rhythm. It follows that this book on myths is itself a kind of myth. If it has any unity, that unity will appear only behind or beyond the text and, in the best hypothesis, will become a reality in the mind of the reader. (p. 6)

It was necessary to mention at least the concrete results achieved by structural analysis (certain others, relating only to the peoples of tropical America, '' will be explained in the course of this book) to put the reader on his guard against the charge of formalism, and even of idealism, that has sometimes been leveled against me. It may be said that the present book, even more than my previous works, takes ethnographic research in the direction of psychology, logic, and philosophy, where it has no right to venture. Am I not helping to deflect ethnography from its real task, which should be the study of native communities and the examination, from the social, political, Î and economic points of view, of problems posed by the relations among individuals and groups within a given community? Such misgivings, which have often been expressed, seem to me to arise from a total misunderstanding of what I am trying to do. And what is more serious, I think, is that they cast doubt on the logical continuity of the program I have been pursuing since I wrote Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, a work about which the same objection cannot reasonably be made.

The fact is, however, that La Pensée sauvage represented a kind of pause in the development of my theories: I felt the need for a break between two bursts of effort. It is true that I took advantage of the situation to scan the scene before me, to estimate the ground covered, to map out my future itinerary, and to get a rough idea of the foreign territories I would have to cross, even though I was determined never to deviate for any length of time from my allotted path and-apart from some minor poaching-never to encroach on the only too closely guarded preserves of philosophy.... Nevertheless, the pause that some people misinterpreted as marking a conclusion was meant to be a merely temporary halt between the first stage that had been covered by Les Structures and the second, which the present work is intended to open.

Throughout, my intention remains unchanged. Starting from ethnographic experience, I have always aimed at drawing up an inventory of mental patterns, to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, and to attain a level at which a kind of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of liberty. In Les Structures, behind what seemed to be the superficial contingency and incoherent diversity of the laws governing marriage, I discerned a small number of simple principles, thanks to which a very complex mass of customs and practices, at first sight absurd (and generally held to be so), could be reduced to a meaningful system. However, there was nothing to guarantee that the obligations came from within. Perhaps they were merely the reflection in men's minds of certain social demands that had been objectified in institutions. If so, their effect on the psychological level would be the result of mechanisms about which all that remains to be determined is their mode of operation. (p. 9-10)

I believe that mythology, more than anything else, makes it possible to illustrate such objectified thought and to provide empirical proof of its reality. Although the possibility cannot be excluded that the speakers who create and transmit myths may become aware of their structure and mode of operation, this cannot occur as a normal thing, but only partially and intermittently. It is the same with myths as with language: the individual who conscientiously applied phonological and grammatical laws in his speech, supposing he possessed the necessary knowledge and virtuosity to do so, would neverthekss lose the thread of his ideas almost immediately. In the same way the practice and the use of mythological thought demand that its properties remain hidden: otherwise the subject would find himself in the position of the mythologist, who cannot believe in myths because it is his task to take them to pieces. Mythological analysis has not, and cannot have, as its aim to show how men think. In the particular example we are dealing with here, it is doubtful, to say the least, whether the natives of central Brazil, over and above the fact that they are fascinated by mythological stories, have any understanding of the systems of interrelations to which we reduce them. And when by appealing to such myths we justify the existence of certain archaic or colorful expressions in our own popular speech, the same comment can be made, since our awareness is retrospective and is engineered from without and under the pressure of a foreign mythology. I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact.

And, as I have already suggested, it would perhaps be better to go still further and, disregarding the thinking subject completely, proceed as if the thinking process were taking place in the myths, in their reflection upon themselves and their interrelation. For what I am concerned to clarify is not so much what there is in myths (without, incidentally, being in man's consciousness) as the system of axioms and postulates defining the best possible code, capable of conferring a common significance on unconscious formulations which are the work of minds, societies, and civilizations chosen from among those most remote from each other. As the myths themselves are based on secondary codes (the primary codes being those that provide the substance of language), the present work is put forward as a tentative draft of a tertiary code, which is intended to ensure the reciprocal translatability of several myths. This is why it would not be wrong to consider this book itself as a myth: it is, as it were, the myth of mythology. (p. 11-12)

Final paragraphs on myth, thinking and the human spirit

It can thus be understood how mistaken those mythologists were who supposed that the natural phenomena which figure so largely in myths for this reason constituted the essential part of what myths are trying to explain. This mistake forms a simple counterpart to another, committed by those mythologists who, in reacting against their predecessors (the latter were themselves reacting against the other type of interpretation), tried to reduce the meaning of myths to a moralizing comment on the situation of mankind and made them into an explanation of love and death or pleasure and suffering, instead of an account of the phases of the moon and seasonal changes. In both cases there was a failure to grasp the distinctive character of myths, which is precisely emphatic statement, resulting from the multiplication of one level by another or several others, and which, as in language, serves to indicate areas of meanings.

The layered structure of myth to which I drew attention in a previous work (L: S. 5, chap. 11) allows us to look upon myth as a matrix of meanings which are arranged in lines or columns, but in which each level always refers to some other level, whichever way the myth is read. Similarly, each matrix of meanings refers to another matrix, each myth to other myths. And if it is now asked to what final meaning these mutually significative meanings are referring-since in the last resort and in their totality they must refer to something-the only reply to emerge from this study is that myths signify the mind that evolves them by making use of the world of which it is itself a part. Thus there is simultaneous production of myths themselves, by the mind that generates them and, by the myths, of an image of the world which is already inherent in the structure of the mind.

By taking its raw material from nature, mythic thought proceeds in the same way as language, which chooses phonemes from among the natural sounds of which a practically unlimited range is to be found in childish babbling. For, as in the case of language, the empirical material is too abundant to be all accepted indiscriminately or to be all used on the same level. Here again, it must be accepted as a fact that the material is the instrument of meaning, not its object. For it to play this part, it must be whittled 1 down. Only a few of its elements are retained-those suitable for the expression of contrasts or forming pairs of opposites.

But, as with language, the discarded elements are not thereby eliminated. They are always present in latent fashion, behind those that have been singled out, and are always ready to answer in the name of the whole row behind them and, on occasion, to bring forward one or another of the concealed elements. In other words, the virtually unlimited totality of the elements always remains available. The internal order of each row may be modified, and their numbers may vary through fusion or fission on the part of some of them. All this is possible, on two conditions: any internal change affecting the organization of one row is accompanied by a change of the same kind in the others; and the principle of arrangement in rows continues to be respected. It is vitally necessary that the terms separated by the shortest intervals should be grouped together and reduced to the state of reciprocal variants, so that each series of rows can have room in which to operate and to maintain an adequate distance between itself and the other rows.

The multiplicity of levels appears then as the price that mythic thought has to pay in order to move from the continuous to the discrete. It has to simplify and organize the diversity of empirical experience in accordance with the principle that no factor of diversity can be allowed to operate for its own purposes in the collective undertaking of signification, but only as a habitual or occasional substitute for the other elements included in the same set. Mythic thought only accepts nature on condition that it is able to reproduce it. By so doing, it limits itself to the choice of those formal properties by which nature can signify itself and which consequently are appropriate for metaphor. That is why it is pointless to try to discover in myths certain semantic levels that are thought to be more important than others. Either the myths treated in this way will be reduced to platitudes, or the level we imagine we have singled out will elude our grasp and automatically resume its place in a system involving a multiplicity of levels. Then, and then only, can the part be fitted into a figurative interpretation, through the operation of a whole capable of fulfilling this function, because a tacit synecdoche has in the first place isolated the part that the more eloquent metaphors of the myth now refer back to the whole for significance.

 

 

Wednesday, August 28, 2002