Harrison Middleton University

Language is Myth

Language is Myth

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May 15, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Recently, I found myself struggling with the question: How might Chaucer or Dante’s works demonstrate the way that “language is myth,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss asserts in Structural Anthropology (vol 58: 475)?

First I began to examine what Lévi-Strauss means by language. He separates language into two categories: langue and parole. Langue is the system of language which includes grammar and conventions. Parole is speech at a given moment. Lévi-Strauss says that langue belongs to “reversible time” but that parole does not (475A). By this I think he means that grammar (the langue of language) is rooted in and built from past systems. Parole, on the other hand demonstrates how some terms are rooted in their time period and setting, and so the speech-acts are temporal and make sense mostly within their frame. It is important to note that both function simultaneously and invisibly. To better understand this, I think of the Miller or the Franklin from Canterbury Tales, who practice professions that have been somewhat lost in our contemporary world. The terms miller and franklin feel like a piece of the past. However, they also belong to the langue of the story, which helps to create a character or archetype that carries information about the past.

Therefore, a myth includes both types of language: some universals which function at every level, and some speech which is linked to a time and place. In fact, Lévi-Strauss says that myth actually combines these two properties into a third referent (475A). To explain this, he offers the analogy of the French Revolution which is both a part of history, but also part of France’s present. He says that “to the French politician, as well as to his followers, the French Revolution is both a sequence belonging to the past – as to the historian – and a timeless pattern which can be detected in the contemporary French social structure and which provides a clue for its interpretation” (475B). This is analogous to Chaucer’s Miller and Franklin who become meaningful elements of culture, and though they are not contemporary to our current culture, they are embedded within it.

Speaking for myself, I can see how the idea of “language as myth” functions in both Dante and Chaucer. I definitely see that the figures are meant to transcend their time periods. Though Dante writes about very specific people from his own life throughout his journey, he weaves them into the mythical fabric of his narrative. Therefore Dante’s contemporaries exist alongside popular mythologies, becoming part of a new sort of mythology. There is an overarching structure to Dante’s Divine Comedy (descent through hell, climb to heaven, etc.), but on the level of specifics, anyone can find themselves represented along this journey. In this sense, Dante participates very closely with Lévi-Strauss’s idea of myth as a language. It is both historical and ahistorical.

I see some similarities, regarding this aspect, with Chaucer’s Tales, which also engages in an oral tradition through the use of dialogue. Along the journey, each individual tells their own version of a tale, and the reader has no idea what to expect (the pilgrims are just as clueless along the trail too). Just as in myth, anything can happen. Using an archaic form to tell contemporary tales creates a unique perspective. Already, the structure gives it a sense of being both historical and ahistorical. The combination of elements gives it a sense of the third characteristic that Lévi-Strauss discusses, the metalinguistic capabilities of myth as its own separate language.

Two issues give me pause here, though. First, Lévi-Strauss mentions that whereas myth can be translated without great difficulty and the moral, agenda, or theme will still come through, he says that poetry is translated at great cost to the poem and its idea. Though these two pieces incorporate myth on some level, I do believe that an element of untranslatability exists in each. Both pieces lose something in translation, though what they lose is different.

I think that important elements have been lost in various translations of Chaucer because translators alter the way that the Tales perform langue. For example, at the end of the Franklin’s Tale, Neville Coghill offers the translation: “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” (vol 19, 448B) for the same line in Chaucer’s original which reads: “Which was the moost fire, as thynketh yow?” (everyman, 334). To me, these are completely different questions. The tale itself includes four main characters, three men and one woman. Coghill’s translation removes the possibility of a female heroine, whereas Chaucer’s question allows for that possibility. Chaucer envisions the possibility of the female heroine, which may or may not be an ironic ending to the tale, depending on your reading. Either way, it seems clear that Coghill does not even see the possibility of a female heroine, even an ironic hero. So, Coghill’s version restricts the meaning (without the reader’s knowledge). The main point is that the translator’s lens will adjust elements of langue and parole, sometimes (probably most often) unwittingly. In other words, Chaucer’s tales may lose their ambiguity because translators see no ambiguity.

On the other hand, it seems that Dante’s Comedy can be broken down and analyzed very closely according to Lévi-Strauss’s idea of myth, regardless of translation. I say this only because Dante defined virtue by a person’s placement in either purgatory, the inferno or paradise. There are likely some cases of ambiguity, but overall, he was defining virtue. Dante’s Comedy functions on a mythic level, but it will definitely require annotations for many elements, such as specific people known to Dante and particulars of place. It will also lose a lyrical quality. (I have to note here that the translation of poetry is equally slippery in both cases, however. Much will be lost in terms of meter, rhyme, word choice, etc. I intend more to argue about the content of the stories and how that content is transmitted as time passes, rather than the individual word choice, rhyme and meter. I would definitely agree that poetic elements are lost in translation or, at the very least, rearranged, and that would significantly alter the poetic elements of both authors.)

The second reason to pause at linking both of these stories to the idea that “language is myth” is this: if Dante intends to define virtue and Chaucer intends to leave it undefined, then their participation in myth will be very different. I wonder if myth might include the idea that it contains something absolute? I am not entirely sure, but this thought gives me pause because both Chaucer and Dante include those sorts of details, but they also both avoid them.

What I do like about the Chaucer-Dante comparison is that both are tied very closely to a specific parole, or a style of language which links it to a particular age. This language can oftentimes be replaced by different styles (in translation) to varying degrees of success (whatever “success” might mean here is subject for another blog). When a translator makes a choice that alters the original language, there can be a significant change in meaning. This might happen over time, as we see with jobs like the Franklin’s and the Miller’s which have fallen out of common rhetoric. But again, the end of the Franklin’s tale comes to mind as one that changes drastically in translation. Chaucer’s characters portray good and bad elements simultaneously, which is just really hard to maintain in translation. He also includes puns constantly which are definitely lost in any translation. Any choice by the translator will simultaneously affect the dual purpose of the tale, whereas in myth, characters are often fully good or fully bad. In this way, Dante’s Comedy is more like myth, where the physical place transcends speech. Dante’s characters are defined by their deeds and their environment, whereas Chaucer’s wander both in speech and in terrain.

Obviously, this question needs more time to marinate. Feel free to share your own insights on this question of: “language is myth.”

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