In The Linking Myth I stated that I thought that the Jungian approach to understanding the myths in all the stories humans tell proved superior to any linguistic analysis.
Or, to put things in a more familiar Marvel-speak:
“AHRH! Jung crush puny Ferdinand de Saussure!”
For certain writers in ancient Greece, the word “myth” meant essentially the same as “story.” Obviously this isn’t a viable definition today: in general society “myth” usually connotes either something demonstrably false or something that is “truer” than commonplace fact. Nevertheless, even for moderns the idea of “myth” and the idea of “story” remain functionally intertwined.
So what is a “story” to modern readers? To make a comprehensive definition, one can no longer state, say, that it must have a beginning, middle and end, since avant-garde literary works go out of their way to frustrate such expectations.
In his academic book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov offered a useful definition that might take in even the most “avant” of the avant-garde. Every narrative must move from one state of affairs portrayed at the story’s beginning—which state Todorov calls an“equilibrium”– to some other equilibrium-state by the end of the narrative. This is by far the best statement Todorov makes in this particular book. Still, it could stand improvement, since Todorov does not identify the process that gets the reader from one equilibrious state to another. I’ll fill in that blank with a phrase taken from another academic, Kenneth Burke, who defines all literary endeavor in terms of “symbolic action.”
In my previous essay I mentioned that Krazy Kat was one of the first comic strips to frame something like an “artcomics” approach to storytelling, insofar as it could be judged “avant garde” for its time. However, it was, as much as Superman, a serial entertainment designed to keep readers coming back for more by repeating certain key symbolic concepts, albeit with some inventive variations. If we break down both Superman and Krazy Kat down to their best-known formulae in structural terms, we’d get something like:
A hero continually defends the weak from evil but must masquerade as a weakling, so that his potential girlfriend admires the hero but despises his alter ego.
A mouse continually clobbers a cat with thrown bricks even though this action causes a dog that loves the cat to put the mouse in jail.
Structural analysis, largely founded on the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, can take us this far, breaking down the elements of a story in a manner analogous to a linguist analyzing the constituent parts of a sentence. However, as others before me have pointed out, there are problems with this approach. For while one can easily break a sentence down into subject, predicate, prepositions et al, a literary formula can’t be atomized to the same extent. At best it can be broken down into clauses, whether dependent or independent. These days most fans refer to such clauses as “tropes,” though other terms have been proposed—“function” for Vladimir Propp, “mytheme” for Levi-Strauss, and “motif” for Carl Jung.
One can break the above formulae down a little more:
A hero continually defends the weak from evil
A mouse continually clobbers a cat
But neither of these statements conveys anything specific as to the appeal of either Superman or Krazy Kat. Without the full trope, we have no idea why readers would care whether or not a hero fights evil or a mouse clobbers a cat.
Most people know that Jung’s theory of archetypes was not designed to work out the phenomenology of literature, though Jung did make a few literary comments from time to time. I don’t vouch for every element of Jung’s system or all of his specific interpretations of assorted myth-symbols. However, the advantage of Jung over the linguistic specialists is that Jung is always concerned with the total symbolic action of a given narrative, rather than tending (like the aforementioned Levi-Strauss) to break myths down into tropes and then assign them arbitrary Cartesian qualities. Jung’s theory posits particular figures or situations that, by virtue of their long use throughout human culture, have become archetypal. However, Jung’s archetypes are always relational. The archetype of “the Wise Old Man” does not exist apart from its relation to other potential archetypes, such as the “Young Apprentice.”
So in theory it’s possible to establish a level playing field by which to judge both mainstream and avant-garde works by analyzing both in terms of their archetypal tropes, and then making a fair judgment about how well a given work communicates. At the very least this prevents “ad hoc” statements as to quality by either elitists or populists, which usually read something like this:
“Krazy Kat is better because it’s a clever analysis of human foibles”
“Superman is better because it’s made more people happy”
Such judgments are in their own way “formulae” identical in structure and substance to the tropes by which I described the two comics-works. The statements don’t lack all truthtelling value. But in terms of their use in an overall theory of literary quality, they might as well be bumps in a field.