Wednesday, September 7, 2016

2016 #5 Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture (Lévi-Strauss)

This is not actually number five--I read this last semester while prepping my Orpheus and Music seminar. But I temporarily mislaid the book, so I wasn't able to write the review until now. :-)

 Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of CultureMyth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Lévi-Strauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others; it is only under conditions of under-communciation that it can produce anything. We are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from every culture, but of losing all originality." (20)

Observations like this abound in Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture. Lévi-Strauss, whose blending of anthropology and philosophy made him one of the most interesting scholars of myth, here offers a set of expanded lectures originally broadcast in 1977 on a CBC radio program called Ideas. In the second essay, "'Primitive' Thinking and the 'Civilized' Mind", Lévi-Strauss reveals the "totalitarian ambition of the savage mind" as distinctive from scientific thought, and how the former results in only the illusion of understanding. He also notes, however, that primitive people had the capacity for "civilizing" the mind, but simply had no need of it, calling upon instead a "fantastically precise knowledge of their environment and all its resources" (19)--something we have (regrettably) lost in our "civilized" state. This supports his concept of myth as a conceptual framework for binaries. It is these binaries that move us toward more qualitative scientific thinking, helping us to "understand a great many things present in mythological thinking which we were in the past prone to dismiss as meaningless and absurd." (24)

This collection of five essays would be a great introductory primer for the reader not yet ready to dig into The Raw and the Cooked or The Savage Mind. The most sage advice comes from Wendy Doniger in her most excellent foreword: "The trick is to jettison Lévi-Strauss right before the moment when he finally deconstructs himself." Indeed, those words apply to the works of many of our great contemporary thinkers.