Ignoring everything about ethnology I took the challenge to get a first taste of it by reading the classic book where Claude Lévi-Strauss analyzes myths from South-American Indians and looks for common structures among them, using the structuralist methods.
And the least I can say is that I got what I deserved since entirely dedicated to exposing as rigorously as possible his reasoning, the author adopted a writing style that made me think about the mathematician that didn't have yet a proper formalism to represent their proposals and demonstration and had to use pages of pure rhetoric.
A hard read indeed... and all that to discover that the title is a fraud (more on this below) !
To be fair, Claude Lévi-Strauss actually didn't have any formalism to rely on when he wrote the book and it is clear that he also intends to define one. He indeed punctuated each step of his reasoning with diagrams and seemingly mathematical formulas.Unfortunately the consistence and purpose of most of those diagrams eluded me and I couldn't find in them the virtue of their mathematical counter parts which is to be prone to combinations in such a ways that one can build new reasoning and ultimately new truth by proper chaining of these formulas.
Despite these obstacles, the courageous reader will be able to follow the author through the jungle of myths he explores and will get the satisfaction to taste some bits and pieces of original and rare cultures, most of which are now extinct (at least from the little I know of the fate of South-American tribes from which these myths came).
Another reward will be discovered early in the second half of the book, when the author, who started the journey with a myth on the origin of fire, analyzes a myth on the origin of water that seems to have absolutely nothing in common with the first one, and eventually demonstrates that they are equivalent.
At that precise moment, it appeared to me that the repetitive and systematic representation of the myths exposed in the first part of the book, was actually a kind of calisthenics to prepare the reader's mind for this demonstration and not so much a collection of "logical" building blocks to build further reasoning. From this point of view these exercises were all but vain indeed !
Later on, the observations and reasoning seem to reach for more generalization: while it was initially a matter of relating neighboring myths coming from neighboring tribes, the author now tries to link seemingly disconnected myths and cultures not without cautiously exploring the link between myths and the constellation's paths through the sky.
Being a complete ignorant in ethnology, from these book I'll still keep with me the following ideas:
- myths can be analyzed by defining categories (top/bottom, raw/cooked) and essential elements (water, earth, fire)
- relations between these categories may be meaningful (disruption and mediation)
- the concept of transformations that may link one myth to another
- the body, code and message of a myth are 3 dimensions along which the transformations can be decomposed
A last point that is still somewhat puzzling me is the equivalence demonstrated by the author between poison, diseases (I'm ok until there), colors in the rainbow and chromatic music. This surprised me a little at first and even if retrospectively it seems to be mostly coherent.
However this link between mythical concepts and music, along with the fact that the book's structure, explicitly described in its "opening", is a constant reference to musical pieces suggests that, maybe, Lévi-Strauss wanted to connect mythical thoughts with synesthesia, the birth of the former being supported by the neurological mechanics of the later (( a quick google search later showed up more clues that he had actually this kind of ideas in mind and expressed them in other work )).
I guess I'll just have to dive again one day in his work to get a confirmation and maybe some explanation on this...