A Theory of Myth: or, Why We Need Stories and Can Never Get Enough of Them

All right, I’ll admit it: I am a sucker for episodic network dramas–not the serials, with their long, continuing plot lines that unfold over a whole broadcast season, but the ones in which each weekly installment is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. These programs fall into various genres–science fiction, detective series, police / law procedurals, and (much less fashionable now, but a big part of the television past) Westerns.

The pleasure I take in watching these has as much to do with their utter predictability as with any unique characters or plot elements in a given episode. So why am I not bored or brain-dead after a weekend of binge-watching old episodes of Law and Order, Star Trek, or Perry Mason? Or for that matter, why are the movie theaters filled with reboots, remakes, and new installments of almost every conceivable storytelling franchise in our popular culture–not just TV shows, but comic books, graphic novels, and so forth? Why do we crave the same story and the same characters over and over again?

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests that these phenomena can be explained in terms of human beings’ hunger for mythology. According to Lévi-Strauss, a myth is a basic story form that addresses a fundamental question or contradiction in the society in which that myth is found. What interests or engages us is not so much the particulars of a given version of that myth, but the way in which the myth in all its various versions presents a problem or question of enduring importance to us as a culture or community.

The example Lévi-Strauss discusses in his essay is the Greek myth of Oedipus. Maybe anyone reading this will be familiar with the main plot points of Oedipus’s story: in part because of his lack of knowledge about his own origins, he ends up killing a man who turns out to be his father and marrying a woman who turns out to be his mother. These facts, when they finally become known, are devastating to Oedipus and to everyone around him.

Lévi-Strauss notes that there are many variations of this myth in ancient Greek mythology and drama, but underlying them all is a basic tension or contradiction in Greek culture of the era. The Greek view of human nature at this time (at least as parsed by Lévi-Strauss) was basically torn between two irreconcilable ideas.

On the one hand there was the idea of the individual person as essentially a “new creation,” sprung directly from nature and from the land itself (the Greeks called such beings “autochthones”); and on the other hand there was the concept of the individual as determined by the Fates and by one’s blood relations, beginning with a biological mother and father. In a pattern that will become typical of “tragedies” in the Classical era and beyond, Oedipus acts out the idea that his individual abilities can trump fate and blood inheritance–but circumstances check this notion with devastating consequences.

In Lévi-Strauss’s view, what makes the Oedipus story so powerful and enduring is not just the particular details (some of which are extreme and extraordinary), but the underlying pattern in which the “autochthonous” view of the individual is pitted against a view of the fate of the individual as determined by a network of connections, beginning with one’s biological parentage. The “Oedipus myth” for Lévi-Strauss is really not “about” Oedipus per se, but rather about the conflict felt by a society (ancient Greece in this case) that simultaneously over-valued “blood connections” (especially in the form of inheritance-based aristocracy) AND the idea of the human individual as a unique and quasi-divine individual “sprung from the soil.”

These two contradictory ideas about the nature of the human individual dramatically confront one another in all the variants of the Oedipus story, as well as other Greek tales and tragedies(Antigone for instance). But I would argue that the underlying myth driving the Oedipus tale extends into other stories far removed in time and place from ancient Greece, and which have little to do (at least literally) with killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother.

Take for example that most quintessential of modern American novels, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: what is Jay Gatsby (aka James Gatz) if not another test case of the “autochthonous” man, trying to live as if he is “self-made” rather than the child of the humble parents he has rejected and denied? Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway (also the novel’s narrator) seems to invoke this conflict explicitly when he states that Gatsby “ sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that” (Chapter 6).

My point here is not to plead for the universality of the Oedipus myth in particular. I’m more interested in the explanatory power of Lévi-Strauss’s idea of a “myth” as a pattern or structure of relations that can be realized in multiple ways rather than as a specific story populated by specific characters. A “myth” in other words is a basic framework for trying to work out in story a tension or contradiction that lies at the heart of a culture’s values or beliefs. 

I think one should add that this tension or contradiction can never be worked out finally or absolutely; that’s why we keep creating new stories about it, trying–unsuccessfully–to resolve the contradiction, to make it go away. The point of the myth, in all its variations, is not to solve the problem that the myth presents but to make us aware of it as a problem; as Lévi-Strauss puts it, the “repetition” of the myth in different forms “has as its function to make the structure of the myth apparent” (443).

As the example of The Great Gatsby suggests, some of the contradictions that marked ancient Greek culture (and which gave rise to the Oedipus myth) were not limited to that place and time. Before closing up this discussion, though, I’d like to consider a myth structure that seems to me distinctly American–that is, the Western in all its variations.

As we all know, the narrative that lays out this myth is simultaneously a story of brutal conquest and destruction (in the form of displacing or eliminating the indigenous peoples of the continent) AND a of national self-creation. Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, it is a story of barbarism AND a story of civilization, of creating a secure national space within which the “civilized” virtues of commerce, culture, and (most importantly) family could flourish.

The “myth” of the American West, especially to the extent that it represents the story of who “we” are as a nation and where “we” came from, must somehow account for both of these contradictory aspects of the United States’ national origin myth. This is why so many Westerns attempt to reconcile the demands of being a “good man” with the readiness to commit proficient, even savage, acts of violence. How can we tell a story that reconciles the image of the loving father and husband with that of the gunfighter or the ruthless Indian killer?

Of course we can’t–not in any way that would credibly put these contradictions to rest for once and for all. But we have to keep trying, because we can’t help wanting somehow to make these contradictions resolve, and to make the plot of history turn out right. One could study the Westerns of John Ford, particularly some of his later films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as variations on this same American mythological problem–how to understand an American psyche that is equally defined by the figures of the killer and the tender, loving man of civilization, often with both embodied in the same character.

But, as with the Oedipus story, the American myth of the West as I’ve characterized it here is endlessly fruitful. One could easily fit more recent, non-”Western” genres into this myth–films like Taken or A History of Violence, in which the loving father or parent figure is called upon to employ violent skills he used in a life previous to or apart from his family.

In fact, Lévi-Strauss makes the point that “origin myths” are essentially timeless with respect to the culture that produces them; the problems encapsulated in these myths are implicitly presumed to set the terms for whatever comes after them, almost as if they represent the formation of our cultural DNA: “On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages–anyway, long ago. But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future” (430).

So the Oedipus story and the myth of the American West continue to spin out new variations. The fact that they do so suggests the power of their underlying patterns–and, according to Lévi-Strauss, the unlikelihood of our ever resolving, for once and for all, the contradiction that the myth expresses. But Lévi-Strauss’s analysis also suggests a fruitful way for us to look at narrative “texts” of any kind, print, film, or otherwise. This is because from his standpoint such texts have interest for us NOT just because of their particulars (character, plot, setting, style, etc.) but because in some way they engage us at the level of myth–which is to say, at the level of a structural tension that we may feel or recognize almost intuitively, without being able right away to name what it is.

This way of thinking about a particular text is both analytical (what is the underlying structure of tensions or contradictions in this text?) and comparative (what other texts can I think of that seem to have a similar set of tensions or contradictions?). But it is also a way of taking all narrative texts seriously, showing how even the most seemingly ephemeral storytelling genres in our experience can reveal to us the tangled DNA of our culture and our own psyches. It can also help us give shape and meaning to our own stories, as we recognize the commonalities of our concerns with others both within and beyond our own time and place.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribners, 1925.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Journal of American Folklore 68 (October-December 1955), 428-444.

Emily Dickinson’s Brain Surgery; OR, Why I Decided to Start This Blog

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” If you’ve found your way to this blog, I am guessing that you have had the reading experience that she describes–if not with a poem, maybe with a short story, novel, or some other text that combusted words, images, and feelings in a way that blew the roof off your mind and opened up a sky of possibilities.

I’ve spent a lot of my life as a teacher, reader, and writer trying to bring others to that kind of mind-blowing experience. And I’ve struggled to understand and explain (to myself as much as to anyone else) what that experience is, how it happens, and why I believe it’s valuable, even essential.

If you’re reading this, you are probably already familiar with some of what I’m talking about. But you may have found discussions on this topic to be either too mystical or too technical for your satisfaction. In these blog posts I’ll be trying find a more engaging middle ground–not avoiding the ideas and vocabulary of “literary theory” by any means, but rather trying to explain those concepts and terms through my own lived experiences and observations as a reader, student, and teacher of literature.

Regardless of the particular topic or occasion of a given post, I hope you will find some useful and interesting insight on that “take-the-top-of-your-head-off” phenomenon that Dickinson described. Poems (and literary works in general) are worth talking about not just because they represent a special way of using language and looking at the world, but also because that specialness is more deeply entwined with and closer to our day-to-day lives than we sometimes might suspect.