Monday, December 2, 2013

Lévi-Strauss and Contemporary Myth: Heart of Apocalypse

I want to pick up and extend the final remarks from my previous post on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now and then I want to quote and comment on some passages from Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked.

Contemporary Myth

Lévi-Strauss accounted for the similarity between myths with the notion of a formal economy, which he expressed in terms of algebraic group theory. That economy he regarded as a function of the human mind. He accounted for differences from one myth to another by reference to the specific function of the myth and by external cultural circumstances. In this tribe it was the father’s brother who had certain duties; in that tribe the mother’s brother had those duties. And so on. The topography of this tribe was dominated by a mountain, that by a river. And so on.

I have been making a similar argument about Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. The formal economy is the same for both. Hence each exhibits center point construction (ring forms are a particular kind of center point). But the external circumstances are quite different. That one is set in the Congo on the cusp of the 20th Century while the other is set in Southeast Asia deep into the century, that’s superficial. But the political circumstances are not.

Apocalypse Now was made several years after the war in Vietnam had ended. That war was widely unpopular; it provoked to widespread protest and unrest in America; and it cost a gifted politician, Lyndon Johnson, a second full term as President. People DID feel under threat from the state. Some fled to Canada to avoid the draft and there was a fair amount of revolutionary rhetoric, though nothing approaching a serious revolutionary movement.

Apocalypse Now thus focused on the state and its legitimacy. The movie didn’t preach or even talk of revolution nor is it obviously an anti-war film. But the state and its authority was nonetheless firmly in the film’s crosshairs.

The story focused on Kurtz, a highly skilled and highly decorated officer, one who was groomed for promotion to the highest level within the Army. He went rogue and so had to be killed. The man selected for the assignment was an experienced assassin, Captain Willard, a man who’d been on several missions so secret that they left no official record. This was another such mission, one that would take Willard, and the men who supported him, into Cambodia, where the military wasn’t supposed to be.

Officially, the mission couldn’t and therefor did not exist. The state, or rather its agents, felt that public knowledge of this mission would compromise the state’s legitimacy. The state itself felt that the mission compromised its legitimacy.

It’s in that very special sense that I say Apocalypse Now is framed by the question of the state, its legitimacy and power.

Heart of Darkness is quite different. It centers on a commercial venture. A station manager named Kurtz has stopped shipping ivory to the coast. Marlow was contracted to sail up river, retrieve the ivory (and Kurtz), and bring it to the coast. He wasn’t supposed to kill anyone.

Further, Kurtz and Marlow are the only two characters mentioned by name. All the others were referenced by title (e.g. Director) or some other indicator (e.g. the Intended). No company was named, nor any country, though we know one man was Russian and there was a Dane. But we don’t know under what flag Marlow was sailing. We can draw what inferences we will from the fact that Marlow told his story to four other men on the deck of a boat anchored in the Thames, but that’s all we can do, draw inferences. We don’t actually know what nations, what states, were involved.

Conrad saw the horrors of the Congo for himself in 1890, but it’s not clear to me how widespread that knowledge was at the time Blackwood’s Magazine began publishing Heart in 1899. Though reports had been made before then, it appears that the major public exposure happened just at and after the turn of the century and, as a result, Leopold II was forced to give up the Congo. In any case, Conrad himself knew what was going on and that, presumably, is what drove his writing.

Conrad stages the story as one of Europe, in the large and the abstract, against Africa, in the large and the abstract. As I’ve already said, only two people were given names, Kurtz and Marlow. Conrad sets the story up in this way from the beginning, with both the “outer” narrator – the one telling the story to us, the readers – and Marlow evoking the sweep of world history. At the same time the story plays against love and marriage, the subjects of a century’s worth of European novels.

In contrast, Apocalypse Now opens on a montage of Capt. Willard sleeping off a drunken binge in Saigon while we awaits a new assignment. We learn that he’s divorced and that he’s a trained assassin. He is thus a man who exists without substantial social ties. His only tie is to the military, and the military is about to hide him on yet another secret mission.

And yet, as I’ve argued in that previous post, the two narratives share center point construction. Both have a central incident where people are killed and both have a final incident where a myth is preserved. Marlow lies to the Intended about Kurtz’s last words, thus preserving her faith in love and marriage, and perhaps, in a strange way, Marlow’s as well, but not ours. Willard does kill Kurtz, thus following the orders of the state, albeit order given in the dark, as it were, and thereby affirming the legitimacy of that state. But the circumstances are such that other reasons may well have been paramount, such as his survival. And perhaps even an odd kind of warrior’s compassion for Kurtz himself.

Both narratives, however skillfully executed, are brutal.

Lévi-Strauss on Myth

To use a term from Lévi-Strauss, the two narratives share the same armature. Here’s how Lévi-Strauss defines the term in The Raw and the Cooked (p. 199):
I propose to give the name armature to a combination of properties that remain invariant in two or several myths: code to the pattern of functions ascribed by each myth to those properties; and message to the subject matter of an individual myth. Referring back now to the remarks with which I concluded Part Three, I can define the relation between the Bororo myth (M1) and the Sherente myth (M12) by stating that when we move from one to the other, the armature remains constant, the code is changed, and the message is reversed.
I note, first of all, that our two narratives, HoD and AN, differ from one another more than any pair of myths that Lévi-Strauss analyzes, yet the fact that both involve a river trip to find a lost man allows us to bring them into register – what I called cardinal points in that earlier post. Once that registration is made we find that, yes, the armature is the same.

Though Lévi-Strauss talks of one myth being a transformation of another, that is not genealogical talk. He is not saying that one myth was created by transforming another. The transformation is a formal, a logical, relation and can be specified in either direction. In the case of AN and HoD there is an obvious sense in which AN really is a transformation, or, better, a transmutation, of HoD. In that sense the fact that it shares the same armature is not surprising; but it isn’t obvious either. The many differences between the two texts serve to obscure the similarity.

The fact is, these are very complex objects. It’s one thing to immerse yourself in the story and follow it to the end. It’s something else entirely to stand outside it and attempt to describe it. Where to you begin? What things do you note down, which do you pass over?

Still, despite the historical relationship between the two texts, it’s the formal relationship that interests me, for it is the form that speaks to the demands and powers of the human mind.

While I’m happy to adopt the term “armature” I’m not sure about “code” and “message,” terms which Lévi-Strauss has from general structuralist thinking (cf. Jakobson on the functions of language). I don’t see that they help and, in fact, they imply a model that I don’t find useful.

That model is one of sending a message from one person to another through a (virtual) conduit. Myths may be told by a story teller to an audience and so auditory signals pass from the teller to the members of the audience. But everyone – except perhaps for some children – already knows the story. They’re not learning anything new; they story teller does not confer any new information on them. Rather, the story serves to couple them together in shared cultural information. The model implicit in talk of code and message obscures that.

Let’s now consider a passage from earlier in the book (p. 56):
The symbols have no intrinsic and invariable significance; they are not independent in relation to the context. Their significance is primarily positional.
Lévi-Strauss has that idea from Saussure. I’m not sure just what it means and thus in what sense I can subscribe to it or object.

But let’s consider an example. Take the sacrifice of the water buffalo at the end of AN. That was in fact a real ritual that Coppola’s crew was in a position to film. It certainly has a meaning to the Ifugao villagers who performed it. But is that meaning irrelevant to the film? I’m not sure. That it was a real ritual was important to Coppola, otherwise he wouldn’t have filmed it. There is a significance there that is important to its use in the film.

But that use in the film has positional aspect in the sense that Lévi-Strauss means. That incident is one of many in the film. It certainly resonates with Willard’s killing of Kurtz, with which it is juxtaposed. It may even pick up resonance from an incident earlier in the film where a cow is being lifted into the air by a helicopter; it’s something that humans do to animals.

Every element in the narrative is positional in that sense. And it is that iridescent and shifting network of mutual resonances that gives the narrative its form. That invariant armature is a function of that pattern of resonance.


Finally, here’s a passage that’s only a few paragraphs from the end (pp. 340-41):
The layered structure of myth to which I drew attention in a previous work [“The Structural Study of Myth”] 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 another myths. And if it is now asked to what final meaning these mutually significant 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.
One of the problems in Lévi-Strauss’s conceptual repertoire, and not only his, is that he can only conceive of symbols, meanings, matrices as referring to others, as pointing to others. And so we have the familiar structuralist and post-structuralist trope of signs ever chasing and retreating from one another in a funhouse of endlessly mirrored reference.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The network formalism I learned from David Hays, and that he learned from Sydney Lamb and others, allows us to conceptualize signs in a network of relations where reference is only one kind of relationship among others. But that’s an aside, and one which would require a bit of work to explicate in a satisfactory way. (For some notes in that direction, see this post, Pursuing Lust in the Web of Language).

I want to look at the last sentence in Lévi-Strauss’s paragraph: “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.” That, I think, is more or less what I have in mind when I talk of people being coupled together in a shared narrative.

The mind really is collective – in a sense I worked out in the early chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil and which I explicate in various posts on the theme of coupling. Myths really are creatures of that collective mind. The evolutionary psychologists tell us that the human mind has been shaped by an adaptive history that trails millions and millions of years into the past, though that’s not what Lévi-Strauss had in mind nor is it what I have in mind either, though I have no objection to that notion. Rather, just as the body must make its way in and through the world, so must the mind assimilate the world to its own categories and needs. Myth is the vehicle through which that happens.

And the process does not stop with myth. It lives on through Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, and tens of thousands of other tales we tell one another, whether in face-to-face presence, through marks inscribed on paper, or in lights flickering on a screen while sounds reach out and envelope us in the story world.

No comments:

Post a Comment