Monday, December 9, 2013

Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola: A Working Paper

I've uploaded another working paper to my SSRN page. It is edited from two blog posts, From Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now and Lévi-Strauss and Contemporary Myth: Heart of Apocalypse. I have removed some redundant material and shifted emphasis here and there.

Here's the link to the full working paper. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Heart of Darkness (HoD) and Apocalypse Now (AN) both exhibit center point construction. Each narrative is constructed about a central incident that is, in effect, a précis of the whole. In HoD that incident is the death of the helmsman, into which Conrad inserted a long paragraph giving Kurtz’s history. In AN that incident is the (needless) massacre of the crew of a sampan. The two narratives, however, are thematically different. HoD is about European imperialism while AN is about the American state. These differences are reflected in differences in the ways the two narratives utilize center point construction.
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I have had two anthropologists standing over me as I’ve worked on these two texts, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. I was influenced by both of them, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas, early in my career. It is Lévi-Strauss who inspired my overall approach to (literary) texts and it is Douglas who gave me the structural clue I’ve followed in these two texts. Let me think about Douglas in this introduction. I’ll turn to Lévi-Strauss later on.

Given my interest in form, it was easy for her to enlist me in her inquiry into ring forms, which I have since broadened into an inquiry into what I have been calling center point construction. But we differed on one issue. She believed that the writers of ring form texts knew what they were doing whereas I was and am skeptical. Certainly, they worked with skill and deliberation. But it is by no means obvious to me that they deliberately set out to craft such forms. I find it plausible that such tales are the emergent result of other factors.

Let Me Tell You about the Journey I Took

Consider a simple story. Louise Crimson travels from her home in Townsville to visit her Grandma in Centerville and then she returns by the same route, thus:
A. Louise Crimson travels to Townsville to visit Grandma.
B. Louise arrives in Little Glenn.
C. Arrives in Corner Cove.
D. Arrives at Grandma’s in Centerville. Grandma bakes her a peace cobbler
C’. Louise travels back to Corner Cove.
B’. And then on to Little Glenn. After a little rest she departs…
A’. …and arrives home in Townsville in time to share the last bit of peach cobbler with her best friend Ruth.
He route is symmetrical and any story she told about that journey would most naturally take the form of a canonical ring. Yet, in telling her story, Louise did not set out to produce a ring-form. Rather, it came about as a consequence of the route she travelled, on the one hand, and of the normal mode of story telling–list the incidents in chronological order–on the other.

If we now hang some more substantial events from that same journey, we have a somewhat more interesting, albeit conventional, tale:
A. Louise Crimson leaves home in Townsville to visit Grandma for Christmas.
B. Bike breaks down in Little Glenn. Leaves it with repair shop and starts walking.
C. Arrives in Corner Cove where she hitches a ride with a tall handsome Stranger, who agrees to the ride as long as she promises to have Grandma bake one of her famous peach cobblers.
D. Stranger drops her off at Grandma’s in Centerville with a promise to pick her up on the way back. Has Christmas with Grandma, who bakes a peach cobbler for the stranger.
C’. Stranger picks Louise up, along with the peach cobbler. They arrive in Corner Cover, where the Stranger gives the cobbler to his mother, who tells her son to give Louise a ride to Little Glenn.
B’. He does so, happily. They arrive in Little Glenn. She gets her bike. He proposes marriage. She accepts.
A’. And they go to her home in Townsville, bike in tow, where they live happily ever after.
It’s a long way from that little just-so story to existing texts and, in the case of Apocalypse Now, the actual making of the film was so chaotic that that story would seem to be of little value.

But it is worth thinking about for this reason. It is a story structured around a journey, around movement in space. And that is something that all animals have to do. Survival requires that they be very good in making their way about the world. The neural equipment for navigation is thus very old and very reliable.

If I am going to take an ape’s brain and refit it to tell stories, that’s the system I’d start with. That is, I am inclined to believe that the neural underpinnings of many human behaviors are enacted by structures and systems that arose for other purposes and were then harnessed – to borrow a metaphor from Mark Changizi (Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man) – to other tasks. And so story telling is built on the navigation system.

As for the difference between the obvious symmetry in my little made-up examples and the apparent formlessness, the chaotic flow of one incident after another, in these two texts, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, that’s skill, skill and civilization.


Let Me Tell You about the Journey I Took
Prelude: Modern Myth
Cardinal Points: Heart of Darkness
Cardinal Points: Apocalypse Now
What’s Going On? Frames for a Narrative
Interlude: Where Are We Now?
Two Narratives, Same Formal Economy
Lévi-Strauss on Myth
Coda: Coupling

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