Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Levi-Strauss is Deeper than Propp

And not so well understood

Some years ago a friend began getting interesting in the study of narrative. He thus asked me: What should I read? Start with Propp on the folktale and Lévi-Strauss on myth, I told him.

That seemed right then and it still does. Of the two, however, I believe Lévi-Stauss is deeper, though Propp has been more influential. Not generally influential. No, there Claude beats Vladimir by a mile. But in the study of narrative, yes, Vladimir wins.

Take, for example, David Herman’s 2002 Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, which brings narratology into confluence with cognitive science. The Propp entry in the index runs for five lines while the Lévi-Strauss entry is only one line. That seems typical.

What Propp is up to is obvious. He wants a set of general categories that will describe the plots of any and all folk tales. One can wonder whether or not Propp’s proposed functions are adequate to a general theory of folktales much less narrative in general – they are not; but at least the nature of his argument is obvious enough. And so, one supposes, is the route to improvement.

Lévi-Strauss on myth is a more enigmatic project. Yes, there are the binary oppositions, always the oppositions. But what he does with them, how he deploys them, is embedded in his treatment of examples. And that treatment changed from his earliest work, say on the Oedipus myth in the mid-1950s, to his more mature work only a few years later in Mythologiques. It’s that more mature work that concerns me in this little note.

Whereas Propp was concerned specifically with the narratives themselves, Lévi-Strauss has always been concerned with how the narrative arises out of basic categories and modes of human thought. That seems to me, in principle, a deeper scope of investigation. The simple point of this note – and it really IS a simple point – is that the type of analysis Lévi-Strauss performs in Mythologiques presupposes the ‘transparency’ of a ‘Proppian’ match between pairs of narratives.

Where in his earlier work Lévi-Strauss had taken myths one at a time, in Mythologiques he’s always comparing one myth with another, A with B, B with C, C with D, then D with A, and so on. In order to make such comparisons it is necessary to align the myths, character to character. And Lévi-Strauss does that – though he doesn’t say as much – on the basis of the roles characters play (protagonist, antagonist, etc., which has been recognized since the ancient Greeks) and, in effect, their Proppian function.

Thus his analytical process presupposes the sorts of things that Propp advanced as the focus of his analysis. Propp was seeking a comprehensive list of functions. While Lévi-Strauss paired characters across myths by function, he did not presuppose a finite list of functions. Whether or not the list is finite, or even just what the list is, that is immaterial. What matters is that one can spot the same functions across different narratives. Once one has done that, then the real work begins.

And that work seems to consist in demonstrating that some sort of closure, some sort of economy, obtains within the myth such that if you change the valence, shall we say, of one character, then the valences of other characters must change as well. It’s these correlated changes that reveal the operations of the human mind.

That, you may observe, seems awfully abstract. Yes, it is. And Lévi-Strauss never really pulled if off. Nor, to my knowledge, has any progress been made since the completion of Mythologiques. Rather, the project has been dropped.

That, however, is neither here nor there. My only point in this brief note is that Lévi-Strauss’s mode of thinking presupposes Propp’s and attempts to build upon it. Correlatively, one could get all the Proppian functions right, not only for Russian folktales, but for all folktales, even for all narratives, without even beginning on the project Lévi-Strauss has outlined. I believe that he was successful to the point of demonstrating that, indeed, there is something more there, and in pointing in the general direction of where to look – say the "Northern Territory" rather than the "Southern". But it’s up to us to actually deliver the goods.
I’ve written two other posts meditating on Lévi-Strauss’s approach to myth: The King’s Wayward Eye: For Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Lévi-Strauss 2: Subject and Object.

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