Saturday, March 15, 2014


In Part 6 I wrote:

But if one continues to define the "myth-essence" in terms of inspiring "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration," then I would say that it appears irrespective of overt fantasy-material.

My use of the word "define" overstates the case a little, since by the end of that essay I'm not depending *solely* on an affective demonstration to define the essentialist version of myth.  What I asserted there might be considered a combination of affective and cognitive factors:

 I think that we are closer to the essence of myth when we regard it as a continuous elaboration of symbolic interactions; Yeats' "endless inter-marrying family." 
The symbolic juxtapositions of myth and literature often if not always have both cognitive associations (recapitulating what we think about nature, life and death, our own societies et al) as well as having an emotional appeal intrinsic to storytelling and probably language itself.  But like the humans who formulate them, no symbol is an island.  The "family" of myths continually "inter-marry" because it's the nature of human beings to think in terms of larger-than-life symbols, which are inevitably defined by a process of opposition.  Thus the Greeks pictured Ares ("War") cohabiting with Aphrodite ("Love") in spite of the fact that they ruled over radically opposed departments of divinity.

Oppositions seems integral to the therory of structuralist ethnographer Claude Levi-Strauss, who made his own attempt to deduce common ground between "myths" (in the functionalist sense), folktales, and literature in general.  In the 1980 anthology LITERARY CRITICISM AND MYTH, contributor Patricia Carden asserted that Levi-Strauss took exception to the tendency of some folklorists to see "tales" developing in a dependent relationship to "myths."

[Levi-Strauss] proposes the following model: the tale does not succeed the myth in time but is part of a total system of oral literature.  In this system the tale is related to the myth as a complementary satellite.  The tales deal with the same substance as myth but in a different fashion, being constructed on weaker oppositions of a local, social, or moral character, while the myth is constructed on cosmic oppositions.
I've had some problems with Levi-Strauss's structuralism in part, and I would not agree that his characterization of tales having "weaker oppositions" applies across the board.  Nevertheless, I agree that on the average "religious myths" are much more symbolically elaborated than tales are, probably because the former are seen as responsible for asserting the ways in which human rituals can renew or even sustain the world, or some part of the world.

Philosopher Susanne Langer goes even further than Levi-Strauss in preferring the "cosmic" nature of myths to the "nonsense" of tales:

"..the psychological basis of this remarkable form of nonsense (the fairy tale] lies in the fact that the story is a fabrication out of subjective symbols, not out of observed folkways and nature-ways [in contrast to "myth," with which Langer contrasts fairy tales]."-- Susannne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 173.
As different as these two scholars were, it's interesting to see them concur that myths are stronger and/or more cosmic than tales in terms of their symbolic interactions-- though I personally would favor "more complex" over either term.

Thus, when I try to see a "myth-essence" in literary works that do not promote any strict religious content-- be it Milton's PARADISE LOST or SUPERMAN-- I find that it shows itself most in this form of "symbolic complexity."  I don't assert that such a definition occurs to anyone else who uses "myth" to mean something other than a literal religious story.  But I believe that the "essence" communicates itself to the highbrow and the hoi polloi with equal facility.

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