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Friday, November 13, 2009

The King’s Wayward Eye:  For Claude Lévi-Strauss

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/13/09 at 07:43 PM

Farewell to freedom in the Adriatic and to days of wild abandon.
– Hayao Miyazaki via Porco Rosso

The news of his death has, by now, no doubt spread to every region of cyberspace where his ideas have seen use and remembrance. I am speaking, of course, about Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), tamer of wild flowers, pollinator of myth, and diviner of opposites. I learned of his ideas in the days when Structuralism was something in its own right rather than being a doormat at the threshold of Poststructuralism, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism. I thought his ideas about myth were quite profound, but not fully-formed. 

This note is an attempt to indicate what I saw in his study of myth despite the fact that I cannot give a concise account of what he did nor can I recommend such an account. You have to read the man himself. First I say a little about his ideas, then I suggest their implications for literary study by giving an example from early modern English literature, a comparison of Robert Green’s Pandosto with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I then suggest extensions of that analysis both into Shakespeare and into the novel (Wuthering heights). (There’s small collection of Lévi-Strauss links at the very end.)

The Structural Study of Myth

I first learned of Lévi-Strauss during my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins in the late 1960s. I believe it was in one of Dick Macksey’s courses, The Idea of the Theater. I forget whether Macksey assigned “The Structural Study of Myth” or merely suggested it. No matter. I read it, didn’t understand it, and was hooked: “The true constituent units of myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce meaning.” First Oedipus; then the Zuni emergence myth, compared with those in other Pueblo tribes, finally a Plains myth to round things off. “In all cases, it was found that the theory was sound; light was thrown, not only on North American mythology, but also on a previously unnoticed kind of logical operation, or own known so far only in a wholly different context.” Yippie kayo git along little dogies!

But what did it mean? Lévi-Strauss presented theoretical tools from structural linguistics: the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, langue vs. parole, synchronic and diachronic all did yeoman work in that essay. But those concepts were invented to illuminate words and sentences, phonemes and grammar, not whole texts, which have traditionally been outside the remit of linguistics-the-discipline. And such strange texts. You had to follow his mind as he worked his way through those myths. Even then, it was a bit obscure. Perhaps even to Lévi-Strauss himself, as though he followed his nose because the trail wasn’t quite visible to the eye.

That first essay on myth was originally published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1955, two years before Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures went huffing and puffing against the walls of linguistics – and blew them all down (well . . . ). But his major study of myth was a four volume work, Mythologiques, that appeared between from 1964 to 1971. The first volume appeared in English translation in 1969 as The Raw and the Cooked. From M1 Bororo, o xibae e iare, “The macaws and their nest,” on through to M187 Amazonia, “The visit to the sky,” Lévi-Strauss explicated the inter-linking logic of these 187 stories, dressed the whole in musical terminology–The “Good Manners” Sonata, Fugue of the Five Senses, Well-Tempered Astronomy, and such–all the while failing to gain a high ground from which he could see the figure in the carpet rather than following the lines where they led, inevitably crossing and re-crossing in endless variation.

That is to say, a decade after he began the study of myth Lévi-Strauss still hadn’t figured out what he was doing. Thus he designated the first myth as the “key” myth, but then asserted that it was but an arbitrary starting point. If arbitrary, then how key? And what does one make of this: “As the myths themselves are based on secondary codes (the primary codes being those that provide the substance of language), the present work is put forward as a tentative draft of a tertiary code, which is intended to ensure the reciprocal translatability of several myths. This is why it would not be wrong to consider this book itself as a myth; it is, as it were, the myth of mythology.”

Ah, no, it is not. Not a myth. Not the myth of mythology. It is more like A Prolegomenon to a Theory of Myth that No-One has been Able to Write because the Human Mind has Proven more Devious than the Structuralists could have Guessed and the Poststructuralists haven’t Helped at All by Jumping up and down and Pointing to the Sky in Fear and Wonder and the Cognitivists didn’t get it (not yet) and the Evocritics? Fugeddaboudit.

The key idea is that of transformation. For analytic purposes we start with some myth, call it M1. Apply some transformation to it and we have M2, thus:

t(M1) –> M2

Now we apply some (other) transformation to M2 and, voilà! M3. And so on and so forth, transformation by transformation, myth by myth. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. But that’s enough to give a crude sense of what Lévi-Strauss was attempting.

Just what does Lévi-Strauss mean by transformation? While one might think that he’s making a genetic argument, that some myth X is derived from some other myth W by applying some transformation to W to yield Y, that is not at all what he means. It’s not at all clear that these transformations are anything but analytic tools, or fictions, if you will. The idea is that myths are expressions of underlying mental structures, including kinship systems and the associated roles, all the arts of living, lore about local flora and fauna, the local geography, and so on. Beyond an insistence upon binary oppositions, Lévi-Strauss has no explicit account of how that knowledge is organized and so cannot offer a very explicit account of how myths are derived from that knowledge, which is largely unconscious. That is, he was unable to say: 1) Here is a body of knowledge organized in such and such a way. 2) Here is a procedure that operates on that body so that, 3) upon execution, we have a myth.

What he does, instead, is offer an indirect argument. Let us say that the cognitive base (CB) for a myth is that “region” of cognitive structure, and no more, that supports the myth. When Lévi-Strauss talks of a transformation obtaining between M1 and M2 he’s saying that CB1 and CB2 are the same except in some limited respect. That limited respect is what he incorporates into the transformation. If you transform CB1 in that limited respect, then you have CB2. Notice you could easily think of the difference as going in the other direction as well, from CB2 to CB1. The point is that there is a limited and specific difference. If one then generates myths M1 and M2 from CB1 and CB2, respectively, those myths will be different in a way that can be attributed to the difference between the two cognitive bases.

If this seems rather abstract, well, yes, Lévi-Strauss’s procedure is rather abstract. Rather than fleshing things out with a few of his myth examples I want to turn to a comparison between Robert Greene’s Pandosto and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. What I am about to do isn’t quite like what he did in The Raw and the Cooked, but then neither are the texts I’m working with. In particular, I will not talk of his beloved binary oppositions, not here and now. I will say, however, that the following analysis wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t first struggled my way through Lévi-Strauss.

Family Problems

Greene first published Pandosto: The Triumph of Time in 1592 while The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611. The similarities between the two are so striking that it is all but certain that Shakespeare derived his plot from Greene’s—in this respect my example is quite different from Lévi-Strauss’s since, as I’ve already remarked, his argument isn’t a genetic one. My argument isn’t genetic either; I would make it even if we had no reason to believe that Shakespeare had read Greene. The genetic relationship is a matter of history. But the argument is about matters of structure: character for character, the major characters are mirrored in the two stories and perform pretty much the same actions in each.

But they are not quite the same. In fact, since The Winter’s Tale ends in happy triumph while Pandosto’s ending is, at best, bittersweet – Pandosto commits suicide even though the young lovers are united – one might reasonably judge them to be quite different. That is what makes these two texts so interesting. This table lays out the correspondence between the characters in the two texts:

Neutral           Pandosto       Winter’s  Tale
King              Pandosto       Leonato
Queen             Bellaria       Hermione
King’s son        Garinter       Mamillius
King’s daughter   Fawnia         Perdita
King’s Friend     Egistus        Polixenes
Friend’s son      Dorastus       Florizel
Shepherd          Porrus         Old shepherd

The basic story goes like this: The King and Queen have been married for a number of years and have a son. The King’s childhood friend is visiting and the King decides that his wife, the Queen, has been having an affair with this Friend, also a King. The Queen denies it, but the King is convinced they’re lying. The Friend leaves and the Queen is imprisoned. A messenger is sent to consult an oracle on whether or not the Queen is guilty. In Pandosto, it is the Queen who requests this; in Winter’s it is the King. Meanwhile, the Queen gives birth to a daughter who is brought before the King. The King denies his daughter. The infant daughter is set adrift in the ocean. Meanwhile, the messenger returns from the oracle and declares the Queen to be innocent. The son dies and, upon hearing that news, the Queen faints. In Pandosto the Queen dies; in Winter’s she does not, she hides away.

In Greene, the oracle says:

[Para. 29] The Oracle.
 Suspition is no proofe: Jealousie is an unequall judge: Bellaria is chast: Egistus blameless: Franion a true subject: Pandosto threacherous: his babe an innocent, and the King shall live without an heire: if that which is lost be not founde.

In Shakespeare, this:


[Reads] Hermione is chaste;
Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that
which is lost be not found.

Notice that Shakespeare retained the phrase, “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” This seems quite important, both for its import – the continuity of the King’s bloodline – and for its form, the phraseology is the same.

In both stories the daughter miraculously ends up in the country of the King’s childhood friend where she’s raised by an old Shepherd and his wife. In time the daughter matures and falls in love with a prince, who returns her love. The prince is none other than son to the King’s childhood friend. The prince’s father finds out about his beloved and forbids them to marry; after all, she is but a shepherd’s daughter. So the prince and the daughter decide to flee the country. They end up back in the King’s land where the daughter’s true identity is discovered. Now that she is known to be of noble birth, the marriage can proceed. 

In Pandosto, the King commits suicide. The Winter’s Tale ends quite differently. Hermione comes out of hiding and all are amazed. The King is thus reunited with his Queen and his daughter is about to marry her prince.

That’s most, but not all, of the pattern that interests me. Obviously, Pandosto cannot be reunited with Bellaria because she is dead. But why does he commit suicide? For shame, in part over the compounded mistakes he made long ago, but there is another reason for shame. When he first saw his daughter, whom he did not recognize as such, he experienced sexual desire for the young woman, and even propositioned her. Thus, the desire:

[Para. 101] Having thus hardly handled the supposed Trapalonians, Pandosto contrarie to his aged yeares began to be somewhat tickled with the beauty of Fawnia, in so much that hee could take no rest, but cast in his old head a thousand new devises: at last he fell into these thoughtes.

The proposition:

[Para. 105] Fawnia, I commend thy beauty and wit, and now pittie thy distresse and want: but if you will forsake Sir Meleagrus [Dorastus in disguise], whose poverty though a Knight, is not able to maintaine an estate aunswerable to thy beauty, and yeld thy consent to Pandosto, I wil both increase thee with dignities and riches.

She refuses him. The point is that he had the desire, and he made public expression of it. One of reasons he gave for his suicide was thus “that contrarie to the law of nature hee had lusted after his owne Daughter.”

And that’s the difference that I find most intriguing. In Winter’s Leontes does not proposition Perdita, nor does he even formulate explicit sexual desire for her. There is a hint of such desire in words he speaks upon first seeing her, but only a hint (act 5, scene 1, near the end):


Sir, my liege,
Your eye hath too much youth in’t: not a month
‘Fore your queen died, she was more worth such gazes
Than what you look on now.


I thought of her,
Even in these looks I made.

But nothing comes of this. If Leontes felt sexual desire for Perdita, he gave no public expression of it, much less asked for her hand in marriage. Thus, when the truth was revealed, he was able to take pleasure in regaining his daughter, having a son-in-law, and in regaining his wife.

My contention is that whatever it is that either prevents Leonato from feeling sexual desire for Perdita, or prevents him from making any public expression of it, that is the Lévi-Straussian “transformation” that differentiates the cognitive base for Pandosto from the cognitive base for The Winter’s Tale. Given the potency of incestuous desire in the human imagination, Shakespeare’s decision to (all but) eliminate it from his play cannot have been a casual one. Note that there is no logical reason why Shakespeare could not have Leontes feel, speak, and act as Greene has Pandosto do. That is, Shakespeare could play it as Greene did but, since Hermione remained alive – unlike Bellaria – he could also bring her out for a happy reunion with Leonato. Somewhere along the line he’d have to deal with that incestuous proposal, and surely that could have been done – at least, it’s logically possible. Leonato would have been embarrassed, Paulina and others might have scolded him, but he could have survived the embarrassment and lived to have a happy hereafter.

And yet Shakespeare didn’t do that. He kept everything else from Greene’s plot, but not the incestuous desire. And not the six paragraphs (101-106) Greene used to express that desire. Those paragraphs take some minutes in the reading. Had Shakespeare proceeded in this fashion, we’d have some minutes on the stage devoted to the incest theme. That’s enough to make a substantial impression on an audience. No, we can only assume that he eliminated the incestuous desire and its expression because they would no more have afforded him a happy ending than they afforded one for Greene.

Yet “eliminate” doesn’t seem quite right. That’s the surface effect, something that was there in one text was eliminated from the other. But I rather suspect that, down in that cognitive base, Shakespeare had constructed something that Greene had not, and it is that that afforded him the happy ending. But what?

I don’t know.

My point, rather, is to ask you to ponder: what has to be true of the human mind in order for that argument to be correct, that it’s the incest that makes the difference? What constraints, biological and cultural, are operative? For that is what Lévi-Strauss was attempting to illuminate in those four volumes of myth analysis. Those constraints characterize the human mind. And they are universal.

And Beyond: Toward a Comparative Morphology of the Text

Can we extend this comparative analysis, this comparative morphology of the text, if you will, to other texts. Of course we can. I offer three suggestions without, however, attempting even so sketchy an analysis as I’ve offered above.

In the first case, The Winter’s Tale is one of four late Shakespeare plays – variously typed as romances or tragicomedies – where the action extends across two generations. Pericles, Cymbaline, and The Tempest are the others. Note, however, that The Tempest is plotted in such a way that we learn about the first generation conflict only in flashback, as the story is related to us in the course of the second generation tale, in which Prospero brokers a marriage for his daughter.

In the second case, Shakespeare has two other plays in which a man wrongly suspects his beloved of betraying him, as Leontes suspected Hermione. These other plays take place within (a few days in) a single generation. One of them is a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, while the other is a tragedy, Othello. There are numerous points of comparison, which I’ve discussed in some detail in “At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation?” (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 21(3), 259-279, 1998). For example, consider the point in the relationship when the suspicion falls. In Much Ado Claudio comes to suspect Hero before the wedding takes place. Othello’s suspicion falls on Desdemona shortly after the wedding and, arguably, before the marriage is consummated. Leontes and Hermione had been married for several years and had a six year old son before Leontes lost his mind and banished Hermione.

My third case preserves the two-generation plot: Wuthering Heights. Roughly speaking, the first generation story centers on a close relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, who were raised as brother and sister. Since there is no genetic relationship between them it would have been permissible for them to marry. But they did not. Rather, they became painfully estranged at adolescence and parted ways. In time, Catherine died in childbirth, thus eliminating any (apparent) possibility of a reconciliation with Heathcliff. Her daughter, Catherine Linton, eventually marries Hareton Earnshaw (they are cousins), and that marriage allows Heathcliff to die a happy man. That is to say, Heathcliff is like Pandosto in that he dies at the end of the story, but he is like Leontes in that he is happy at the end. The actual configuration of relationships is rather more complicated than that, there are more players, and another marriage. Those details are important, but more than I need to spell out here and now.

But there is another matter that must be mentioned. Wuthering Heights displays a complex narrative strategy that is quite unlike either Greene’s comparatively simple novella or Shakespeare’s four romances. The stories in Wuthering Heights are presented to the reader through a complex double narration. Nelly Dean lives in the world of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, observing all, and even meddling a bit. She narrates those events to Mr. Lockwood, an outsider, and he, in turn, narrates them to us. I am, by way of general principle, sure that this narrative strategy is crucial to the novel’s effects. Just how this narrative strategy bears on the intricate events in the two-generation plot, I haven’t got a clue.

* * * * *

Where are we? We started with Lévi-Strauss on myth, and then considered a comparison between a novella by Robert Greene and the play that Shakespeare based on it. I then suggested that the comparison could fruitfully be extended to 1) other plays that share the two generation structure, 2) other plays that share a conflict-generating motif – mistaken sexual betrayal – but not the two generation plot, and 3) a novel with an even-more complicated two-generation plot and a complex narrative strategy. My general point is that these various texts are related to one another in the way similar to that Lévi-Strauss asserted of the myths he examined. They share specific underlying cognitive base that motivates the set of comparisons, which hinge on limited differences among them.

What kinds of surface differences must be accounted for?

Most of our examples have a two generation plot: Greene’s novella, four Shakespeare romances, and a classic 19th Century novel, Wuthering Heights. But we have different kinds of second generation resolutions. That difference was central to the comparison between Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale and is important when considering Wuthering Heights as well. It is not obvious to me that the other three romances can simply be assimilated to the same model as The Winter’s Tale. In particular, The Tempest presents the two-generation story in a very different form. That formal difference must somehow be taken into account. As must the formal difference between Wuthering Heights, with its sophisticated double-narration, and the other two-generation stories.

Formal differences are also central to the comparison between The Winter’s Tale, Othello, and Much Ado About Nothing. They may share a central plot point, mistaken male distrust of a beloved woman, but they otherwise unfold quite differently. How do we account for differences between comedy, tragedy, and romance in terms of differences in the underlying cognitive base? Can we do so at all?

But there is one last thing to say It is about nature and culture, a binary opposition that was one of Lévi-Strauss’s major themes and that was central to his analytic work in The Raw and the Cooked. This opposition, or rather, a closely related opposition, that between nature and nurture, is thematically important in these two-generation plots. That is to say, it is not something that emerges to view only upon analytical inspection, as was the case in The Raw and the Cooked. Rather, it is a matter of explicit thematic concern to the characters in these stories. In Pandosto, The Winter’s Tale, and in Wuthering Heights, in each case we have discussions about how and to what extent a child’s nature derives from the natures of his or her parents and what is owed to upbringing.

That question, in turn, is one of the most deeply contested issues in the current intellectual scene. Any attempt to deal with the questions I’ve raised in this essay must confront that issue. How do we tease apart the cultural and the natural in these texts? The newer psychologies – cognitive, neuro, evolutionary – no doubt have roles to play in this effort. But so does the careful comparative analysis of the texts themselves. In that task we would do well to learn from Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth.

* * * * *

I continue this discussion in another post, here.

And here: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/levi_strauss_3_whats_the_subject/

And here: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/into_levi_strauss_and_out_through_kubla_khan/

* * * * *

Levi-Strauss on the web, a few links

New York Times, archive, the obit

Literary Saloon, links

Scott Atran, a (personal) memory

Savage Minds, Remembering, links (& links)

Marshall Sahlins on L-S (long)

Neuroanthropology, Thinking Through ...

Dan Sperber, L-S at 100


I really enjoyed this, Bill. A very interesting discussion.

A quick observation, followed by some questions.

a decade after he began the study of myth Lévi-Strauss still hadn’t figured out what he was doing. Thus he designated the first myth as the “key” myth, but then asserted that it was but an arbitrary starting point. If arbitrary, then how key? And what does one make of this: “As the myths themselves are based on secondary codes (the primary codes being those that provide the substance of language), the present work is put forward as a tentative draft of a tertiary code, which is intended to ensure the reciprocal translatability of several myths. This is why it would not be wrong to consider this book itself as a myth; it is, as it were, the myth of mythology.”

Ah, no, it is not. Not a myth. Not the myth of mythology. It is more like A Prolegomena to a Theory of Myth that No-One has been Able to Write because the Human Mind has Proven more Devious than the Structuralists could have Guessed and the Poststructuralists haven’t Helped at All by Jumping up and down and Pointing to the Sky in Fear and Wonder and the Cognitivists didn’t get it (not yet) and the Evocritics? Fugeddaboudit.

Reading this immediately makes me think of Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (which I’ve just finished re-reading off the back of your piece). I suspect it’s probably irritating to have his work mentioned yet again, particularly given your ambivalence towards it, but I have to mention it simply because a massive chunk of that essay engages precisely with the above questions (albeit, not always directly). I could go through and recap D’s reading of Levi-Strauss and how that reading affirms Levi-Strauss against your criticisms, but I won’t unless you want me to…

On to the questions:

1: what defines a cognitive base? what are its limits such that we can speak of “a” cognitive base distinct from any other? what kind of significance can one attribute to the “specific difference”? is the specific difference determined from the relation of one cognitive base to another, or is it that by virtue of which we may speak of a cognitive base distinct from another? I’m trying to get a handle on the terms of your approach here, and not seeking to criticise it. So, while we’re at it, what would be the difference, if any, between “cognitive base” and, say, “conceptual base”?

2: Re. “what has to be true of the human mind in order for that argument to be correct...?”

This is the kind of question that I just don’t quite get. I don’t mean to say this as a challenge or as a rejection of the legitimacy of your approach or whatever. I literally can’t cash that sentence in semantically, since “true” as a general concept is, for me, empty of much content, and since “human mind” — to the extent that I can detach it from a significantly determining liberal-humanism — signifies to me a discontinuous field of seething potentiality, such that it’s extremely difficult to define “its” limits. Which I guess takes us right back to the regionality of a given cognitive base(?)

I want to be able to think the question through, but I’d really appreciate some guidance. I guess I can almost make sense of the question in Kantian terms, i.e. by replacing the phrase “human mind” with “Reason” and by replacing “true” with “conditions of possibility”, but would I be doing your argument/approach an injustice by doing so?

By on 11/15/09 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rob. I’m not surprised you were led to the Derrida piece. I studied it quite closely back in the day. & I still have it around here, with its underlinings and annotations in both blue and red. Feel free to bring it up, if you wish. Can’t say how I’ll respond, but . . . How about a diversion?

In 1976 Umberto Eco published A Theory of Semiotics, in which he adopted a Model Q (pp. 121 ff.). The “Q” is for Quillian, Ross Quillian, an AI researcher who’d come up with a model for natural language semantics in the late 60s (which is about when such research really began). It took the form of a structured network where concepts were related to other concepts by various associative relationships. It’s a highly structured model. Of this model, Eco asserts (p. 122) “As can be seen, this model anticipates the definition of every sign, thanks to the interconnection with the universe of all other signs that function as interpretants, each of these ready to become the sign interpreted by all the others; the model, in all its complexity, is based on a process of unlimited semiosis. [And we’re off to the races! Yippie! BB] From a sign which is taken as a type, it is possible to penetrate, from the center to the farthest periphery, the whole universe of cultural units, each of which can in turn become the center and create infinite peripheries.”

My problem with Eco is that he seems rather more interested in this “unlimited semiosis” than in the structure inherent in the model (clearly visible in the diagram on p. 123). And so, while he does say a bit more about that structure, he always ends up tap-dancing and hand-waving at the infinite reverberating recursivity of it all. And there’s not much one can do with that except, sigh, break off, and go about one’s business. There’s no sense at all that this infinitely various and recursive system of interlinked interpretants, after all, has to do its work in real time. So, a few weeks ago one might have heard someone say “the Yankees in six” – in fact, now that I think of it, Bérubé said just that on his blog somewhere. There we’ve got four words, each its own center with an infinite periphery, and yet the assertion is readily and quickly interpretable. Go figure.

In any event, Model Q would be one way to think about that cognitive base. At this level of discussion I’d say that there’s no difference between “cognitive base” and “conceptual base.” For that matter, you could throw in the Chomskyian “mentalese.” It’s a structure of interpretants (Pierce via Eco) or signifieds (Saussure). It’s not the words, the signifiers, but whatever it is that gives them meaning. 

What I really think, and I didn’t say it in my post, is that, if you want to understand the “logic” of myth, you’re going to need some kind of formal system in which to construct a model of that logic. Lévi-Strauss gestures in that direction with his quasi-mathematical formulas – as Eco gestures in that direction by including some of Quillian’s diagrams of his computer model – but he can’t really pull it off. It’s not at all clear to me how to do this. There’s been a great deal of work on such models since the late 60s, but I don’t know whether we’re in a position to take the work a step further (deeper) than Lévi-Strauss did. So, when I criticize him, it’s not in favor of something else, immediately at hand, that I know/think will work. Rather, I’m criticizing us and saying “Lévi-Strauss has gotten us this far, lets push on.”

Alas, it is easier to say that than to do it. Back in 1976, after I’d gone over to the cognitive side, I published a paper in MLN in which I mapped out a portion of the cognitive base for Shakespeare’s sonnet 129. You can download that paper here. If you look though it you’ll see a bunch of diagrams, some rather simple, some rather complicated. That’s the model I’d adopted for thinking about the cognitive base of a text. Is that model robust enough to do those myths? I’ve not tried, but I’ve got my doubts.

As for those “specific differences,” that’s a bit of hand-waving. I figure we’ve got two general cases. In one case we’re dealing with myths from two different cultures; the cultures may be closely related, or they may be distant. In either case, they differ. For example, they may have different kinship systems. Such a difference would count as a “specific difference.”

The other case involves the comparison of myths within the same culture. In this case they share the same cognitive base in the large. But, different myths do not take the same path through that base. The “specific difference” obviously has to do with the difference between those paths. But just how one characterizes that difference depends on the model.

And so it comes back to that, the model.

And that brings me to your second question. What I have in mind is something called “reverse engineering.” It’s a technological notion that got introduced into psychology sometime in the late 1950s I believe, and I think Donald Broadbent is the one who did it, though I’m not sure. Here is Steven Pinker’s formulation from How the Mind Works (pp. 21-22):

Reverse-engineering is what the boffins at Sony do when a new product is announced by Panasonic, or vice versa. They buy one, bring it back to the lab, take a screwdriver to it, and try to figure out what all the parts are for and how they combine to make the device work. We all engage in reverse-engineering when we face an interesting new gadget. In rummaging through an antique store, we may find a contraption that is inscrutable until we figure out what it was designed to do. When we realize that it is an olive-pitter, we suddenly understand that the metal ring is designed to hold the olive, and the lever lowers an X-shaped blade through one end, pushing the pit out through the other end. The shapes and arrangements of the springs, hinges, blades, levers, and rings all make sense in a satisfying rush of insight.

Reverse-engineering olive pitters, or radios, or computer chips, even software, is easier than reverse-engineering the minds that produce myths and literary works. The people who reverse engineer such things start with a rich knowledge of the relevant general principles and techniques of operation and construction. Their problem is to figure out a particular selection and arrangement from among then that is sufficient to build the device at had.

We’re not so lucky; we don’t have that “rich knowledge of the relevant general principles and techniques of operation and construction,” at least not in a form suitable to the task. Still, I think that Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale are so close to one another in structure that it’s worth thinking about in such cases.

By Bill Benzon on 11/16/09 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the response, Bill.

Unfortunately, I’ve no time for distractions at the moment, so I can’t offer anything in return. Hopefully I’ll get to come back to this soon.

By on 11/17/09 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation?

no no no, not this!

By Bill Benzon on 11/17/09 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Damn! Just when I saw the possibility of the kind of conversation I’ve been looking for ever since I signed on here. Do whatever it is you have to do, Rob, and get back to me. (Please)

By Bill Benzon on 11/17/09 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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