Mythologies. I’m trying.

Really, I am.

It started off with such magic. The wonderful world of wrestling as Aristotelian tragedy! Performance as catharsis! Relief from our own pain in a chaotic world that provides no clear reason for suffering–relief brought by the portrayal of simple stories of pain, caused by simple reasons (i.e., evildoers), and the subsequent execution of simple justice. Wrestling is life writ small and dumbed down until everything that confuses us is brought within our grasp. Everything makes sense.

But I jump ahead.  Let me tell you about a man who was killed by a laundry truck.

Roland Barthes drank whatever was in the water in France in the mid-to-late-20th-century.  French philosophers and theorists in this time period were mental gymnasts. They could think backwards and upside down while patting their head and rubbing their stomachs. All the major thinkers behind structuralism, post-structuralism, rhizomatic thinking–these, to me, are philosophical giants because they see the world in through lenses I would have never found by myself. I think Barthes especially is an amazing thinker. Some of his predecessors along the line of structuralist thinking were psychologists and linguists, and they were awesome. But Barthes is the literary guy, so I’ve always been partial to him. Barthes began as a structuralist thinker, believing that there were signs (signifiers) pointing toward universal concepts (signified). He moved toward post-structuralism later in life, tearing down the idea of universal absolutes instead of building them up. To this later version of him, for instance, a book’s content is not determined by the author at all. The reader is free to create what they like of the book instead of struggling to understand the single meaning the author intended to convey.

Oh, and then Barthes gets hit by a laundry truck and dies. For a life filled with such glorious thoughts, it’s a pretty inglorious end.

Oversimplified, Mythologies is a series of essays that aim to draw symbolic meaning from things in Barthes’ contemporary culture. Structuralism is a little more complicated than I just made it sound, but that definition will probably suffice for our purposes. For instance, in “The World of Wrestling,” wrestling becomes a drama that helps people feel that there is clarity in the world. They can cheer for the justice they can’t see clearly and simply played out in their own lives.

There’s also one on toys in which Barthes poses a rather luddite-smelling argument–that toys today just aren’t the same as they used to be. I’m not inclined to take most hell-in-a-handbasket speeches seriously, but the digging Barthes does is admirable.  He talks about how plastic, a chemical substance, replaced wood as the compositional material of toys, and he describes how the sort of toys made in his present were prefabricated and don’t encourage invention or construction the way they used to. Like I said, a familiar argument in general: “Man, they sure don’t make ’em like they used to. Kids today are going to grow up all scrambled.” But it’s an interesting argument in specifics–that the actual materials of toys act as signifiers. It’s fascinating to watch someone take Saussure’s ideas that words are signposts for concepts and then make the argument that actual things in this world–like plastic toys–also act as signposts.

So far, so good. Barthes has a lot of brilliant things to say.

But then,  there’s the section called “It’s Cute When Women Try, But They Better Not Forget Their True Calling as Human Incubators for My Genetic Material.” Oh, I’m sorry, I think it’s actually called “Novels and Children.” I’m going to just assume my objections to this section are obvious.

Since reading that chapter, I just haven’t been able to pick Mythologies back up. I got past “Novels and Children” and I only have a few chapters left, but it is just so, so hard for me to not feel sour on the book now. I pick it up and feel disgusted. I’m sure I’ll get over it, because don’t misunderstand–there’s a ton of value here.  A chapter out of a bygone era shows betrays what are now pretty unsavory convictions. You see it all the time. I’ll finish it one day. Probably even soon.  But meanwhile, I’m going to go read The Handmaid’s Tale (with great purpose) instead.

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2 responses to “Mythologies. I’m trying.

  1. Another enjoyable review, Amanda, and I think you knew I was going to comment again.

    I know what you mean about wanting to throw it across the room. Once you reach the point of “this author is an obnoxious misogynist”, I guess it’s hard to continue to enjoy the book. For some reason, I am reminded of how much less I enjoyed Velikovsky after I had read some of Sagan’s rebuttals of his wild theories, although the parallel is hardly a fair one.

    You have done as I asked – provided a lovely and thought-provoking review of Mythologies – and I do hope that you will rebound from the angst that reading this has caused you. However, I am not motivated to go out and buy myself a copy.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Yeah–if Barthes is to be remembered for anything, it should be his piece on the death of the author. I think this book marked an important moment that changed modern theory, but…well, just as one doesn’t have to read the entire Bible to appreciate its significance in the world, so, I’d argue, one doesn’t have to actually sit down and read Mythologies. I think the ideas in there are important, but understanding ideas is what the internet is for. How lovely to live in a time when we can cheat by just doing a good amount of research on the facts of the time and seeing what others say!

      I certainly wouldn’t say this about all works. Some need to be experienced. I don’t think this one does.

      I’ve never heard of Velikovsky! Off to the internet to cheat-understand (cheaterstand!) your comment!

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