Edmund Leach

  • Myth, Religion and Society: Structuralist Essays by M. Detienne, L. Gernet, J-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, edited by R.L. Gordon
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 306 pp, £20.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 22780 1
  • The Anthropological Circle: Symbol, Function, History by Marc Augé
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 131 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 23236 8

Apart from the fact that they are products of the same international publishing enterprise, and that they are both translations from the French, there is not much that these two books have in common, so my comments will be seriatim. The earliest of the essays in the Gordon collection, which is by Gernet, who died in 1962 at the age of 80, first appeared as long ago as 1948; the remainder at various dates since 1968. Of the latter, three are by Vernant, five by Vidal-Naquet, three by Detienne. The fact that the Gernet item (‘ “Value” in Greek Myth’) bears a clear family resemblance to the rest is of special interest since it shows that the structuralism of the French classicist ‘School of Vernet’ has other roots besides Lévi-Strauss’s ‘The Structural Study of Myth’, which dates only from 1955. English versions of five of these essays have been published previously but the editor is personally responsible for what is printed here. The resulting English text, by several hands, is consistently lucid and readable. To an outsider such as myself the scholarship appears dazzling.

As R.G.A. Buxton says in his brief Introduction, there is a sharp divergence of opinion among contemporary Classical scholars as to how far, if at all, it is legitimate to modify hard empirical evidence by resort to the structuralist methodology which is here so brilliantly displayed. In Buxton’s words, the general objective of these authors is ‘to recover the way in which the Greeks’ mental universe was articulated, above all in relation to matters of religion’. They do this by fitting together into a coherent pattern bits and pieces of very different kinds of evidence drawn from very different times and places. Up to a point Classical scholars have always been doing this, but Vernant’s critics feel that he and his associates carry their pattern-making much too far. Formal orthodoxy seems to require that, where myth is concerned, the professional specialist limit his attention quite narrowly to a reconstruction of the individual stories as evidenced by the fragmented texts and archaeological bits and pieces which have survived from Antiquity. The serious scholar should recognise the limitations of such data; he should not engage in interpretation. Indeed, all attempts to fit the fragments of story together into a single coherent system which might show how myth could have been used as a justification for real-life social activities should be dismissed as frivolous guesswork.

It is especially undesirable that Classical scholars should delude themselves into thinking that they have anything to learn from the anthropologists. We have been over that ground before: no one now takes seriously the grand mythological theories of Max Müller and J. G. Frazer. The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss is of equal or even greater irrelevance for the serious scholar.

There are British Classicists who adopt a position which is not far removed from my caricature of orthodoxy, but others are at least willing to give structuralist speculations the benefit of the doubt. One of Vidal-Naquet’s essays is dedicated to Moses Finley, another to Simon Pembroke; Geoffrey Lloyd is cited in a number of places. But the dilemma is plain enough. The anthropologist’s problem is how to make plausible sense out of a vast excess of raw material. The drastic reductionism implicit in structuralist method is of value because it displays patterns in the muddling mass of available facts which can then be the subject of closer scrutiny. All sorts of apparently trivial details can thereby be seen ‘to make sense’. But no experienced anthropologist would ever expect that such procedures would allow him to fit all the data in his notebooks into a single system: there is far too much stuff. The Classicist’s problem is just the reverse. The raw data is exasperatingly incomplete and can now only be increased by the accidents of archaeological discovery. It would be wholly unreasonable to expect that structuralist methodology could reveal meaningful patterns in the total mishmash of available evidence because we know in advance that much of the key information will not be there at all.

What usually happens is that the structuralist practitioner picks up an existing pattern which has proved to be useful elsewhere (e.g. in the work of Lévi-Strauss) and then tries to fit the bits and pieces of his own jigsaw puzzle into this ready-made design. Sometimes the exercise succeeds brilliantly; at other times it seems very contrived.

For example, Lévi-Strauss’s formula, Raw: Cooked, Nature: Culture, Childhood: Maturity, Woman: Man, had an attractive catchall simplicity when it first appeared around 1964, but it is not now taken very seriously by the anthropologists, not even by Lévi-Strauss himself. But our present authors, all of whom play around with these themes, often write as if it must always be possible to fit all the data into such transformational sets of binary oppositions. They seem to disdain the more cautious position that such patterns of polarity might perhaps help us to understand the scattered fragments of evidence which we now possess.

But the successes of the method greatly outnumber the failures. Vidal-Naquet’s essays especially provide some strikingly convincing examples of the way in which the most disparate fragments of information can be seen to cohere together into a meaningful shape. Thus in the course of ‘Recipes for Greek Adolescence’ (1974) he returns to the theme of his celebrated ‘The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebeia’ (1968) in the following fashion. Archaeological reports dating from 1970 show that in the seventh century BC the inhabitants of the Greek city of Eretria on the island of Euboea disposed of their dead in a single necropolis but in a variety of different ways. On the east side we find the burials of pre-adolescent children, both boys and girls; on the west the remains of the cremation of marriagable girls and married women, on the one hand, and of youths and men able to use the lance, on the other. The sex of the cremation is distinguishable because the ashes of women are associated with jewellery and those of men with arms. Vidal-Naquet comments: ‘The mere account of the archaeological finds ... directs us to the search for a ritual of status-transition which dramatised for the Greek adolescent the transition between Nature and Culture, or, if you wish, between the Raw and the Cooked, in the most concrete sense.’ He finds just such a ritual in the Ionian festival of the Apatouria, an initiation ceremony which marked the admission of the ephebe into the phratry at the age of 16. This leads to a discussion of references to a textual distinction between the naked (i. e. lightly armed) ephebe and the fully armed adult hoplite. So we have naked: armed, adolescent: adult. After some unimpressive cross-cultural comparisons we return to Greece at a later date. For Aristotle, the ephebeia was a two-year period of military service which young men undertook immediately after admission to the deme lists. It consisted of garrison duty ‘on the frontier’ (between Nature and Culture, between Savagery and Civilisation, between Childhood and Maturity); it entailed the wearing of a black tunic uniform (chlamys). In the earlier essay about ‘The Black Hunter’ it has been shown that the chlamys was a marker of the ephebe at the rite de marge phase of his initiation into the phratry at the time of the Apatouria. So Aristotle’s fourth-century account of a seemingly wholly secular form of military service is taken back by all kinds of twists and turns to the distinction between the wild-natural state of children and the tamed-cultural state of adults exhibited by the seventh-century Eretrian necropolis.

I am fascinated by the ingenuity of it all, the immense range of scholarship that is displayed, and the plausibility of the final outcome. But it is for a Classicist rather than an anthropologist to say how far such exercises (and there are many more than twelve of them in this book) provide us with understanding that we did not have before. As I see it, the most general point is this. Earlier generations of scholars tended to assume that there must be an historical basis for even the most implausible mythological stories. There really was a Trojan War even if it didn’t quite happen like that, there was some real natural catastrophe which provided the original source of the legend of Atlantis, and so on: such sources of myth and legend were happenings in the past. The structuralists turn these assumptions back to front. Myth comes out of the past and can be seen to have some relationship with the residues which archaeologists now discover. But the myth which is available to us in Classical literature belongs to the present in which it was used. The point about Detienne’s essay ‘The Myth of “Honeyed Orpheus” ’, concerning the story of Aristaeus, Orpheus and Euridice, which comes from the fourth book of Virgil’s Georgics, is that it obliquely refers to the factual history of Virgil’s own day. That, too, is the point about Vidal-Naquet’s essay ‘Athens and Atlantis: Structure and Meaning of a Platonic Myth’. When the structural patterns have been sorted out, Atlantis turns out to be in the here and now of Plato’s own Athens.

Vernant and his colleagues have taken over from the anthropologists the thesis that the diachrony of remembered history only has significance in so far as it is incorporated into the synchrony of social life as it is now lived. But it is also implicit in such work that it would be just as well if the anthropologists paid closer attention to the fact that real life is not lived out within the context of a single set of synchronous events, however neatly they may appear to fit together into a single functioning whole.

And that perhaps is the main point in Marc Augé’s slim volume of critical essays. He perceives the various schools of anthropology, both past and present, as identified with three primary axes which boil down to ‘structuralism’, ‘functionalism’ and Marxism. In their own terms, these intellectual divisions seem irreconcilable. Augé believes that a bridge may be established by looking more closely at the relationship between history as it is lived and the rigidities of these academic ideologies.

Augé is a professional social anthropologist who has held a senior post at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for a number of years. He has had extensive fieldwork experience in West Africa but there is no reference to that here. His book is essentially a reasoned defence of what in the eyes of most of his Anglo-Saxon colleagues is the quite excessive preoccupation of French anthropologists with philosophical issues and the validation of ideological positions. As Augé himself puts it, ‘I would maintain that French anthropology, in spite of or because of its sometimes excessive taste for theoretical debate (which makes it both receptive to philosophical discussion and vulnerable to intellectual fashion), is at present assembling the basic elements for a novel reflection on the necessary conditions for, and meaning of, a synthetic science, both anthropological and historical, of men in society. I would argue that this debate, conducted in terms of structuralism and Marxism, is far more advanced than in countries with an Anglo-Saxon anthropological tradition.’

Whether debates of this nature are ‘advanced’ or ‘retarded’ is of course all a matter of opinion. There are British anthropologists who have an envious respect for the kind of French intellectual debate to which Augé refers. There are others like myself who consider that it has no features whatsoever which merit imitation. Hence I cannot with honesty recommend non-anthropologists to read this book with any idea of discovering what are the problems which interest anthropologists in general. But for the professional it has an interest of a different kind. It shows how a prominent French anthropologist who is neither a purist structuralist nor in any way a hard-line Marxist thinks about the general field of social and cultural anthropology and the work of his French academic colleagues.

From my personal (and of course prejudiced) point of view, it all seems very archaic. From the inside, various French positions are distinguished, and if you are on the inside I suppose that this is interesting, but, as can be seen from my quotation, French anthropology as a whole is characterised as contrasted with ‘an Anglo-Saxon anthropological tradition’. Here I am completely at a loss: first, because I do not myself recognise that any such unified ‘tradition’ exists or has ever existed, and secondly, because, insofar as Augé refers to specific works by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ authors, they are so entirely atypical of contemporary ‘debate’ – for instance, myself writing in 1959 or Victor Turner in 1966.

In recent years, French anthropologists and British anthropologists have been meeting face to face far more frequently than in the past, and in such direct contacts one often has the impression that some kind of dialogue has been established between the two sides. But for those of us who are always hoping that such inter-cultural academic understanding may develop further (and they certainly include Marc Augé himself) this book is not encouraging. It is not just that Francophone and Anglophone anthropologists habitually talk past one another even when they are saying the same thing: it is also that what Augé refers to as the ‘murderous tone’ of (French) ‘anthropological polemics’ seems to inhibit French academics from talking to one another. The very anthropologically-orientated contributors to the Gordon volume have all been associated with the Ecole des Hautes Etudes for many years – not as members of the same ‘school’, but still a part of Parisian academia: and none of them receives a mention in Augé’s pages. I readily admit that it is almost equally difficult for Classicists and anthropologists to interact with one another even in the highly favourable environment of the University of Cambridge. This is not a successful exercise in academic bridge-building but its objectives deserve respect.