Myth Defined and Undefined

Marc Lombardo

Part I: Myth Defined and Undefined

…mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolutions (Lévi-Strauss 1972: 224).

These words of Claude Lévi-Strauss suggest that if we are to study mythical thought in a manner consistent with its own processes, we must first find it an opposition. But we certainly cannot go seeking an opposition to something that's nature is unclear to us as it is difficult to know what something is not when you do not know precisely what it is. So, what is a myth? This is a question with very many answers, very few of which seem satisfactory. Take the Oxford English Dictionary definition for example:

A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena (OED 1971: 1889).

The editors could be admired for an unabashed certainty (as opposed to an accuracy) in definition if they had omitted the definition's only sign of caution-"usually." Noticing that "a purely fictitious narrative" is placed before rather than after "usually" tells us that it is the crux of the definition, to which a) "involving supernatural persons, actions, or events" and b) "embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena" are to be "usually" supplementally added. Given that all three of the definition's parts are of an additive rather than preclusive nature, the analysis acquired in examining the summation of any two of the parts should also apply when all three are taken together. As a matter of fact, doesn't this process of adding the information gained from comparing the items as pairs mirror the processes of the reader when he or she weighs and integrates a sememe into a schematic base with the aid of comparative isotopies as suggested by Greimas (1983: 18-29)? The only complicative feature here is the "usually" operator. However, all that is indicated by "usually" is that the relationships have to be understood within the rubric of dominance. We can get a better idea of this if we lay out the pairs:

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A four-part homology from the adjectives of the first concept would look like this:

fictitious (always) : supernatural (usually) :: fact (always) : natural (usually)

"Always" and "usually" are not negated in the second half of the homology because rather than being the content that is compared, they are operators which specify the comparisons made. Therefore, the adjectival homologues for all three concepts are:

But why focus exclusively on the adjectives? For one thing, they make for clearer antonyms. However, this fact in itself only calls into question the usefulness of adjectival homologies for such purposes rather than supporting that project. It does, that is, unless you consider the notion that antonyms (and therefore adjectives) play a crucial role in the construction of semantic hierarchies. According to the generative grammarians Katz and Fodor:

The meaning of both lexical items and larger constituents are regarded as concepts, analyzable into simpler atomic concepts which are represented by SEMANTIC MARKERS and DISTINGUISHERS. Semantic markers and distinguishers thus constitute the vocabulary out of which all readings are composed. A distinguisher in the reading for a lexical item was said to be 'intended to reflect what is idiosyncratic about the meaning of that item.'… The semantic markers in the reading for a lexical item are 'intended to reflect whatever systematic relations hold between that item and the rest of the vocabulary of the language.'(Katz and Fodor cited in Fodor 1977: 64).

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We can infer then that semantic markers — being presenters of "systematic relations" rather than direct referents — contribute to meaning by signaling what the defined lexical item is not and thus isolating it from many of the possible word-concepts. Once this isolation has taken place, only then is it possible to "distinguish" the word; to clarify its ambiguity. The point being that adjectives (or at least adjective-based antonyms) are necessary for that first denotative relationship to take place. And likewise, the connotative relationship relies on the previous denotative one.

Let us now return our scope away from these grander matters and focus on an analysis of Myth's Concept 1. This is the simplest, most consistent of the three concepts. There is only one adjective per part (Crux: fictitious, Supplement A: supernatural), and what's more they agree. Because of the consistency of adjectives, when reading "A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events," the reader is presented with a clear idea that needs little semantic processing in order to achieve competency. A simplified summary of the concept could read: A fake story about fake things. This is clearly much easier to grasp than either "a real story about fake things" or "a fake story about real things." However, a general clarity and an ease of comprehension form only one dimension in a definition's usefulness, and a far less important one than correctness. If the definition consisted exclusively of Concept 1 it would be a considerably less ambiguous one, but in this case, ambiguity would be the only thing saving it from a life of simple inaccuracy.

When examining Myth's Concept 2, let us recall that according to the Crux, a myth is not only fictitious, but "purely" so-certainly a statement one would assume would be made of something demonstrably untrue (in describing the word "fictitious" the OED lists such words as "counterfeit," "imitation," and "sham" [1971: 991]).1 But, with the addition of Supplement B we notice a curious dihescion in meaning. A myth, if we are to take the OED at its word, is something which is apparently completely spurious and that simultaneously "usually" manages to embody "some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena. [Author's emphasis, ed.]" A survey of the dictionary's listing of "popular" reveals that such an idea would be one "affecting, concerning, or open to all or any of the people" (1971: 2241). Apparently, we are to infer then that what makes a myth is that which is untrue and yet still manages to be believed by almost all; almost for if an untruth was indeed believed by all, naturally, there would be no enlightened editors of dictionaries or other such parties to demonstrate its falsity.

In addition to exactness and ease of comprehension, I think most of us would agree on generalization-in this context to be taken as the ability of a definition to be applicable to as many uses of a word as possible-as being another primary determinant of a definition's worth.2 Of course, just as we outlined earlier, words are defined as much by what they do not mean as by what they do, so if a word's definition was too generalized it would be of considerably less value than if it was too specific. Concept 2, while not sharing Concept 1's simplicity of adjectival agreement, is decidedly more general. The idea of "a fake story about real things," while it is more obfuscatory in nature, seems to be able to apply to more things than "a fake story about fake things." Indeed, it could certainly be asked what are the supposedly false ("supernatural") things in question? Or even, how can such fake things exist?

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This last point can be made evident if we briefly consider the relationship between the definition's two supplements that forms Concept 3. Taken in tandem "involving supernatural persons, actions, or events" and "embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena" present a seeming dichotomy of the natural. In A, the reader is instructed to look for that which is not of the physical world (i.e. not real, fake). In B, it is an idea of the physical world as popularly understood that is proposed as a reference. The fact that the two supplements are positioned as being complimentary to the definition's whole presents the reader with the need to understand the relationship as one other than a dichotomy. The "popular" conception of the Natural (as it is here connoted with the "supernatural") then, cannot be thought of as the de facto natural.3

An a posteriori analysis makes two things evident as to the allegiances of the editors: first, that they insist upon the existence of a documentable physical ("natural") world as one being separate from the processes of the observer and; second, that they represent that of an educated class which has no shame in exhibiting a distrust of the opinions, constructions of meaning, and beliefs of, what we will call for shorthand, the "popular." And so the editors can not be accused of representing skepticism per se for, evidently they do feel that there is an objective world with which to engage. However, it seems they feel themselves to be this objective world's sole heirs.

An attack of this sort is easy enough to carry out; especially upon such a literary strawman as that of a dictionary's editors. In considering the editors' alternatives however, one wonders just what definition could have been arrived at had a reflection of a more verum factum understanding been sought. Suppose the editors had accepted that "any observer is bound to create something of what he observes," (Hawkes 1977: 17) and consequently "when man perceives the world, he perceives without knowing it the superimposed shape of his own mind, and entities can only be meaningful (or 'true') in so far as they find a place within that shape" (1977: 13). Given the appropriation and application of such a conception, if one starts with the Crux of "a purely fictitious narrative," it is hard to see how it is possible to simultaneously ascribe something to the effect of Supplement B ("embodying popular ideas of natural or historical phenomena"). If a myth is to be an idea that can be believed by "all or any of the people," and we accept that which is believed as that which is true, there is no room for the negation of this truth by the physical world.

In seeking a more metaphoric understanding of myth, not centering around the idea of it being "a purely fictitious narrative," we can go at least as far back as Vico. As a matter of fact, Vico felt that "the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables [emphasis mine, M.L.]" (Vico 1968: 51) and that, myths can be seen as "civil histories of the first peoples who were everywhere naturally poets" (1968: 352). Mythology then, according to Vico, should be understood as a process of hermeneutics. As for that matter, should knowledge itself: "if we consider the matter well, poetic truth is metaphysical truth, and physical truth which is not in conformity with it should be considered false" (1968: 205).

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Since we have recognized it as a deficiency of the OED's definition to have not integrated similar verum factum conceptions, surely it would be inconsistent at best not to incorporate something to that effect in our critique; at least to the extent of acknowledging that the idea of myth as something spurious, fictitious and untrue has its grain of truth in the fact that it is an idea commonly held. The fact that the word is defined in such a way in what is considered to be the dictionary of record goes a long way towards insuring this. Now we see the true significance of the OED's definition: that it comes from the OED. Terence Hawkes' summary of the project of Barthes' Mythologies seems rather fitting: Barthes strives to unmask the fact that "despite the overt stance of the media, that no such codes exist, that they innocently present the real world as it acutally is," there exists a "contrary aim: the generation, confirmation and reinforcement of a particular view of the world in which bourgeois values emerge, as usual, as inevitable and 'right' at all levels"(1977, 110). And thus, allow me to complete this jouissance of semantic indulgence by saying what we have in the OED's definition of "myth" could itself be considered a myth. Not in the sense of "myth" as potent fiction, but rather, as myth being that which acts-as a structuring agent, an organizational metaphor, a "poetic truth." It is a definition that helps, in no small way, to define the dictionary itself.

Part II: Form, Metaphor, and Structure

Of the definition's two supplements, I think it not unreasonable to conclude that B can be said to play a much more important role. For, is not what a story "embodies" considerably more integral to a summation such as that of a definition than the "persons, actions, or events" that it "involves"? That a "myth" may or may not involve "supernatural persons, actions, or events" seems of little importance as it relates to formative characteristics. And, what we are concerned with here is form. So, if we are to narrow the traditional understanding of myth down to its most elided oversimplification, it would be a "false truth". And if we add to this result of analytical reasoning the subsequent process of dialectical reasoning we find that the corresponding inverse of our Democritic elision, a "false truth," would be that of a "true falsity." Now, is there a de facto difference between a false truth and a true falsity? In this context, when we predicate the first veracity measure on the physically true and the second on what is believed, then yes. A simple graphical representation of the concept might look like this:

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As should be readily seen, this illustration has more value as a rhetorical argument than as any sort of rigorous model. This is partially due to the elision (and therefore lack of precision) of definition that it owes its existence to and also to the binary nature of one of its axes. For, something can no doubt be believed in a matter of degrees, but the very (arguably erroneous) concept of physically verifiable truth is one that is only satisfied with a yes or a no. This being said, it is not evident to me that in any significant way this limits the inferences we can draw from such a schematic. In a very literal sense we are building false dichotomies. Let us explore these.

As the reader has no doubt noticed, the quadrant catercorner to, and thus the opposition of, the quadrant of "Mythical" has thus far gone unnamed. Any word attached to this category would seem to have the same (though inverted) problematic ontology that I earlier ascribed to the OED's "myth" (and which is likewise subsequently present here in the category of "Mythical"), and thus as one would expect, it's difficult to arrive at even an approximation of a single-word definition. Given this dilemma of semantic ontology for "Mythical" and its negation, is it not plausible that when the word "myth" is used (as it often is) in this oversimplified context of seemingly questionable ontological purpose, that the meaning of the word, its descriptive purpose, is largely to signify such an ontological problematic? Indeed, this seems quite possible. Barthes seems to suggest just such a sense of interpreting the word's "traditional sense" in his preface to Mythologies:4

I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there. Right from the start, the notion of myth seemed to me to explain these examples of the falsely obvious. At that time, I still used the word 'myth' in its traditional sense. (Barthes 1972: 11)

And thus, we turn our schematic which faced ontological problems into a problematic with which we can investigate concepts facing questions of ontology. Such a concept comes to mind:

…a woman cannot "be"; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being… In "woman" I see something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies. (Kristeva 1980: 137).

As one might expect, "a variety of women from various cultural positions have refused to recognize themselves as 'women'… with the result that these women fall outside the category and are left to conclude that… they are not women as they have previously assumed" (Butler 1990: 325). As Derrida puts it, "The question of the woman suspends the decidable opposition of true and nontrue and inaugurates the regime of quotation marks which is to be enforced for every concept belonging to the system of philosophical decidability" (Derrida 1979: 107). By suspends, Derrida does not necessarily mean revokes, but rather that which holds, fastens, prevents from movement. Inserting the ontologically problematic, quotation-marked "Woman" into the categories of our earlier graph allows us to dwell in this suspension.

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For names/elucidations of the corresponding quadrants we could certainly do far worse than the categories of "Woman" Judith Butler has succintly layed out: "far from being subjects, women are, variously, the Other, a mysterious and unknowable lack, a sign of the forbidden and irrecoverable maternal body, or some unsavory mixture of the above" (1990: 326).

The extent to which various theories of "Woman" theorize her (it) as being an entity of truth or untruth, and known or unknown is the extent that this theorized entity fits into our schematic. This presents a substantial amount of material available to us as these are the questions which, almost above all else, theorists have been compelled to address about women.

The Maternal Body - "Woman" as physically true but believed as false

Neitzche tends to theorize "Woman" as a dangerous, secreting truth which disgusts when revealed. "The magic and the most powerful effect of women," he writes, "is, in philosophical language, action at a distance, actio in distans; but this requires first of all and above all-distance" (Neitzche 1974: 124). And when one gets too close (to truth, woman) "we no longer believe that truth remains truth when the veils are withdrawn; we have lived too much to believe this. Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, or to be present at everything, or to understand and 'know' everything" (1974: 38). Doanne provides an analysis of this passage that proves quite lucid: "By securing truth's position as a question of decency vs. indecency as it concerns the clothed or unclothed state of the body, Nietzsche aligns it more surely with the figure of the woman-a woman who refuses to or cannot or ought not be known" (Doanne 1991: 56).

An Unknowable Lack - "Woman" as physically false and believed as false

This category derives from, and arguably receives its most pronounced theoretical treatment in, the Freudian concept of penis envy. In "Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes," Freud describes that as a girl sees a penis for the first time, she "makes her judgement and her decision in a flash. She has seen it and knows that she is without it and wants to have it" (Freud 1963: 187-8). This is elaborated on quite a bit in a lesser-known essay of his called "The Question of Lay Analysis":

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Stress falls entirely on the male organ, all the child's interest is directed towards the question of whether it is present or not. We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a 'dark continent' for psychology. But we have learnt that girls feel deeply their lack of a sexual organ that is equal in value to the male one; they regard themselves on that account as inferior, and this "envy for the penis" is the origin of a whole number of characteristic feminine reactions. (Freud 1953: 213).

The Other - "Woman" as phyiscally false but believed as true

When and to what extent does "Woman" become The Other? When the false idea of her body becomes that which makes her (it) foreign-to others and to the "self," if such a self is indeed possible. Montrelay provides a decidedly different take than Neitzche's, still centering around the concept of distance: "From now on, anxiety, tied to the presence of this body, can only be insistent, continuous. This body, so close, which she has to occupy, is an object in excess which must be 'lost,' that is to say, repressed, in order to be symbolized"(Montrelay 1978: 91-92). The baggage of a false body is too much. If a woman wants the ability to signify, to function as a subject, she must "lose" it, distance herself from it, create herself outside of it. To borrow Saussure's terminology, she must be arbitrary. But suppose she succeeds.

The Subject - "Woman" as physically true and believed as true

Just as Butler suggested previously, most recent theorists tend to regard the notion of the possibility of the female subject as an untenable one. To Luce Irigaray the situation is such that:

The masculine can partly look at itself, speculate about itself, represent itself and describe itself for what it is, whilst the feminine can try to speak to itself through a new language, but cannot describe itself from outside or in formal terms, except by identifying itself with the masculine, thus by losing itself. (Irigaray 1977: 65).

And so, if "Woman" seeks a false empowerment by embracing the category of "subject," all that is really accomplished is to lend credibility to a system of knowledge that condemns her. Subjectivity is illusory; a prison-house. When a woman attempts such a guise (to the extent that she is even able to do that) it is only through the imposed concept of an "I" she does not know, that no one knows. In the final analysis, language betrays:

The "I" who writes is alien to her own writing at every word because this "I" uses a language alien to her…This "I" cannot be "un écrivain." "I" is the symbol of the lived, rending experience which is m/y writing, of this cutting in two which throughout literature is the exercise of a language which does not constitute m/e as a subject. (Wittig and Zeig 1979: 5).

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That the dissolution of the subject in feminism should be seen as separate from similar postures in other fields is questionable. According to Kristeva, "there are certain 'men' who are familiar with this phenomenon; it is what some modern texts never stop signifying… I pay close attention to the particular aspect of the work of the avant-garde which dissolves identity" (1980: 138). Although is this idea really all that "avant-garde?" It was Lévi-Strauss that said (in classically sexist language, no less) "I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man"(Lévi-Strauss 1966: 247).

The Point of Origin

If "Woman" cannot escape these axisymmetrical dichotomizations (truth/untruth, known/unknown), where better to go (rhetorically and figuratively) than the point of origin? In the point of origin, "Woman" can divide these categories of self against one another. She is all of them, she is none of them. In origin, "woman averts":

There is no such thing as the essence of woman because woman averts, she is averted of herself… And the philosophical discourse, blinded, founders on these shoals and is hurled down these depthless depths to its ruin. There is no such thing as the truth of woman, but it is because of that abyssal divergence of the truth, because that untruth is 'truth.' Woman is but one name for that untruth of truth. (Derrida 1979: 51).

The point of origin then, is the starting point in the dissolution of the fallacies of metaphor and philosophical discourse. As that consummate Western philosopher Martin Heidegger outlines the situation:

The establishment of this divorce of the sensible and non-sensible, of the physical and non-physical, is a fundamental trait of what, named metaphysics, gives authoritative determination to Western thought. Once it is recognized that this distinction… is insufficient, metaphysics loses the rank of the authoritative determinant for the course of thinking.

Once, then, metaphysics is seen as restricted, the notion of metaphor as authoritative falls as well… Only within metaphysics is there the metaphorical. (Heidegger 1991: 89).

But didn't we come to this conclusion (or perhaps this beginning, origin) precisely through the utilization of several structural metaphors? In considering this, let us take note of the words of Jonathan Culler: "Unless one has postulated some transcendent 'final cause' or ultimate meaning for the work, one cannot discover its structure, for the structure is that by which the end is made present throughout the work. The analyst of structure has the task of displaying the work as a spatial configuration in which time past and time future point to one end, which is always present" (Culler 1975: 244). I suppose then that the teleology pointed to in this work is such that precisely by the use of structural metaphors we meet the dissolution of the metaphor. But this is not a negation.

To understand this better, we need to iterate exactly just what is meant by dissolution. How to explain this but through another metaphor? When one speaks of sugar dissolving in water, the sugar is not removed, rather it is incorporated to the point that it is a part of the water, to the point that there is no longer sugar or water but sugar-water. Lévi-Strauss instructs us to understand that "the verb 'dissolve' does not in any way imply (but even excludes) the destruction of the constituents of the body subjected to the action of another body. The solution of a solid into a liquid alters the disposition of its molecules. It also often provides an efficacious method of putting them by so that they can be recovered in case of need and their properties be better studied"(1966: 247). In examining the shapeless and boundless text that is the world, dissolution is a vital part of what we call science.

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References Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill & Wang 1972. 11.

Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse" Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge 1990. 325, 326.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1975. 244, 251, 264.

Doanne, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales. New York: Routledge 1991. 56.

Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1979. 51, 107.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an Impartial Person" The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud vol. 20. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth 1953. 213.

_______."Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes" Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier 1963. 187-8.

Greimas, A.J. Sémantique Structurale. Trans. Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1983. 18-29.

Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1977. 13, 17, 110.

Heidegger, Martin. Der Satz vom Grund. Trans. Reginald Lilly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1991. 89.

Irigaray, Luce. "Women?s Exlie" Ideology and Consciousness I (May 1977): 65.

Katz, Jerrold J. and Janet Dean Fodor cited in Fodor, Janet Dean. Semantics: Theories of Meaning in Generative Grammar. New York: Crowell 1977. 64.

Kristeva, Julia. "Woman Can Never Be Defined" New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Shocken Books 1980. 137-8.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966. 247.

_______. Structural Anthropology. New York: Penguin Books 1972. 224.

Montrelay, Michele. "Inquiry into Femininity" m/f I (1978): 91-92

Nietzche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage 1974. 38, 124.

Oxford English Dictionary, The Compact Edition. Oxford University Press 1971. 991, 1889, 1899, 2241.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science. Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1968. 51, 205, 352.

Wittig, Monique, and Sande Zeig. Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary. New York: Avon Books 1979. 5.

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1. Certainly calling into question the accuracy of a source by using that same source as a measure is scarcely an exemplar of methodological rigour. About all that can be determined with any degree of certainty from such a technique is a source’s apparent inconsistencies. [Return 1]

2. The need to define “generalization” in such a context can be taken as an explicit irony. [Return 2]

3. For the curious among us, listed in the OED for “natural” are four general groupings of definitions constituted by eighteen different definitions (of which five are considered obsolete) and a total of thirty-three sub-definitions added to those (eight being obsolete). The first definition is: “Of law or justice: Based upon the innate moral feeling of mankind: instinctively felt to be right and fair, though not prescribed by any enactment or formal contract.” The fifth definition seems the one most directly related to our practices here: “Having a real or physical existence, as opposed to what is spiritual, intellectual, fictitious etc” (1971: 1899). [Return 3]

4. Obviously, it goes far beyond the scope of this article to provide the reader with anything remotely resembling a corpus to prove this assertion. I will however note that, in addition to Barthes, Jonathan Culler seems to use “myth” in a similar context on a couple of occasions in Structuralist Poetics: “…the myth of the innocence of becoming: that continual change, as an end in itself, is freedom, and that it liberates one from the demands that could be made of any particular state of the system” (Culler 1975: 251). And again, “Indeed, one might suppose that structuralism would attempt, as Barthes suggests, to develop an esthetics based on the pleasure of the reader (‘the consequences would be enormous’). Whatever its other results, it would no doubt lead to the destruction of various myths of literature” (1975: 264). These examples are by no means given to suggest that Barthes and Culler are using the word inappropriately or are not aware of its other meanings (indeed, Barthes’ conclusion on the subject is “myth is language” [Barthes 1972: 11] ). Rather, it was my hope that in citing Barthes and Culler (as opposed to any other authors) their usage would shed more light on just what “myth” might mean in demotic contexts. [Return 4]


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