What conclusions does Claude Levi-Strauss reach about the story of Oedipus?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Claude Levi-Strauss was one of the founders of structuralism. Structuralists assume that the human mind works by finding binary patterns in almost everything.  He assumes that myths, such as the myth of Oedipus, reveal this tendency of humans to impose binary patterns. To explain how he wants to analyze the structure of the Oedipus myth, Levi-Strauss says the following:

The myth will be treated as an orchestra score would be if it were unwittingly considered as a unilinear series; our task is to reestablish the correct arrangement. Say, for instance, we were confronted with a sequence of the type: 1,2,4,7,8,2,3,4,6,8, 1,4,5,7,8,1,2,5,7,3,4,5,6,8 . . . , the assignment being to put all the l's together, all the 2's, the 3's, etc.; the result is a chart:

1 2 4 7 8 2 3 4 6 8 1 4 5 7 8 1 2 5 7 3 4 5 6 8

This chart is a superb example of the way Levi-Strauss believes that humans find patterns in reality (or impose patterns on reality). When Levi-Strauss analyzes the Oedipus myth, here are some patterns he finds:

Cadmos seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus Cadmos kills the dragon The Spartoi kill one another Labdacos (Laios' father) = lame(?) Oedipus kills his father, Laios Laios (Oedipus' father) = left-sided (?) Oedipus kills the Sphinx Oedipus = swollen-foot (?) Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition

We thus find ourselves confronted with four vertical columns, each of which includes several relations belonging to the same bundle. Were we to tell the myth, we would disregard the columns and read the rows from left to right and from top to bottom. But if we want to understand the myth, then we will have to disregard one half of the diachronic dimension (top to bottom) and read from left to right, column after column, each one being considered as a unit.

All the relations belonging to the same column exhibit one common feature which it is our task to discover. For instance, all the events grouped in the first column on the left have something to do with blood relations which are overemphasized, that is, are more intimate than they should be. Let us say, then, that the first column has as its common feature the overrating of blood relations. It is obvious that the second column expressed the same thing, but inverted: underrating of blood relations. The third column refers to monsters being slain. As to the fourth, a few words of clarification are needed. The remarkable connotation of the surnames in Oedipus' father-line has often been noticed. However, linguists usually disregard it, since to them the only way to define the meaning of a term is to investigate all the contexts in which it appears, and personal names, precisely because they are used as such, are not accompanied by any context. With the method we propose to follow the objection disappears, since the myth itself provides its own context. The significance is no longer to be sought in the eventual meaning of each name, but in the fact that all the names have a common feature: All the hypothetical meanings (which may well remain hypothetical) refer to difficulties in walking straight and standing upright.

For fuller explanation of the patterns' supposed meanings, see the links below.


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