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It was exactly this sort of contrast between elements of an individual’s biographical vocabulary and formal, organizing principles that would interest the anthropologist Clause Lévi-Strauss. Although the constituents of a biography or a myth were infinite, why should the forms they took turn out to have a limited number of structures? In his paper “The effectiveness of symbols,” published in 1949, he argued that whereas the preconscious consisted of an individual lexicon “where each of us accumulates the vocabulary of his personal history,” the unconscious “structures it according to its laws and thus transforms it into language.” The unconscious “is as alien to mental images as is the stomach to the foods which pass through it. As the organ of a specific function, the unconscious merely imposes structural laws upon inarticulate elements which originate elsewhere - impulses, emotions, representations and memories.”1

Lévi-Strauss’s article was important to Lacan in a number of ways. As well as introducing the idea of what Lévi-Strauss called an “empty unconscious,” it elaborated a subtle comparison of the work of the psychoanalyst and the shaman. The shaman appeals to myth to reintegrate what a patient may experience as arbitrary and incoherent physical pain. The appeal to the symbolic system of myth can serve to situate this in a framework of meaning, giving the patient a language in which to express his or her psychic state. But whereas the shaman’s patient receives a social myth which does not correspond to a “former personal state” (a physical disorder), the Western neurotic starts out with “an individual myth” made up of elements drawn from his or her past.

This myth would consist of elements from the patient’s personal history - their vocabulary - structured by the symbolic function of the organizing principles of the unconscious. “The form of myth.” says Lévi-Strauss, “takes precedence over the content of the narrative.”2 This would explain the fact that, following Freud, there are a limited number of complexes, although the diversity of patients’ experiences is obviously unlimited. The complex moulds the multiplicity of cases, and is equivalent to what Lévi-Strauss calls the individual myth.

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), p. 203

[2] Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, p. 204.


Leader, Darian.  "Lacan's Myths."  The Cambridge Companion to Lacan.  Ed. Rabaté, Jean-Michel.  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  37-38. 

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Training of the Self By Oneself

Works and Days






Tags: Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss

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