Saturday, June 29, 2013

Myth & music

The languages we love.

Claude Levi Strauss wrote an exceedingly brief book, "Myth and Meaning", one chapter of which is titled "Myth and Music". He offers the hypothesis that, compared to the basic core of human spoken language, music and myth each lack an element, forming a sort of coding triangle:

"Now you can compare mythology both to music and to language, but there is this difference: in mythology there are no phonemes; the lowest elements are words. So if we take language as a paradigm, the paradigm is constituted by, first, phonemes; second, words; third, sentences. In music you have the equivalent to phonemes and the equivalent to sentences, but you don't have the equivalent to words. In myth you have an equivalent to words, an equivalent to sentences, but you have no equivalent to phonemes. So there is, in both cases, one level missing. 
If we try to understand the relationship between language, myth, and music, we can only do so by using language as the point of departure, and then it can be shown that music on the one hand and mythology on the other both stem from languages but grow apart in different directions, that music emphasizes the sound aspect already embedded in language, while mythology emphasizes the sense aspect, the meaning aspect, which is also embedded in language."

I can't say I think much of this setup, (indeed his book is but a weak rendition of Jungian concepts), but it does get one thinking about the relations between these languages. I would offer that music is absolutely primary. Its evolutionary roots are extremely deep, expressing and sharing emotions among birds and insects, not to mention all mammals.

The next level up from music is practical language, used for parenting, household organization, hunting parties, and the like. The musical aspects of our phonemes and sentences are weakened in the interests of more finely coded communication, as words take the place of purely musical expressions. Still, poetry (and various onomatopoeias) harkens back to a time when all sentences were more or less musical, more emotionally meaningful, less coded.

From there, languages develop increasing coding capacity, which can be used for many things. Here is where myths come in, as one of perhaps two thematic branches of language use. One branch is the didactic, analytic language, which eventually develops toward Witgenstein and mathematics, where, if the content is not poetic, nothing else about the language betrays any musicality whatsoever.

The language of myth goes in quite a different direction and expresses quite different things- our dreams and emotions. One telltale is that myth is happy to be embedded in a culturally integrated way with strong connections to music, image, and other arts, as a unity of performance. Myths are no more logical than our dreams are; they express an emotional and human logic that is essential to our being, nurturing a sense of self, community, history, hope, and imagination. Why do all our movies & novels have happy endings? Why are the cop show criminals always caught? These myths carry out the elementary function of keeping our spiritual sense of order and hope alive.

This is all to say that one shouldn't confuse the nature or purposes of didactic versus mythical languages. They are fundamentally different, and the weird necessity that modern religions often have of insisting that their myths cover both bases, are perfectly correct, contain all knowledge, and must never be doubted is another case of emotional language being used- some relatively ugly emotions, to be truthful.


  • Economic quote of the week:
Alas, in their self-appointed role as purchasing agents in health care, American employers have arguably become the sloppiest purchasers of health care anywhere in the world. The chaotic price system for health care is one manifestation of that sloppiness.
...
Another result has been that ... a decade of health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance has wiped out the real income gains for an average family with employment-based health insurance.

1 comment:

  1. Burk, nice. Of course, one could also argue that those who believe the didactic (aka scientific) language is the only "true" way of describing the world are just as much confused as those who think myth is both mythical and analytical. As human beings, we need both.

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