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William Marderness. How to Read a Myth. New York: Humanity Books, 2009 [Book review]

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posted on 22.05.2017, 04:27 by Geoff Berry
The prescriptive-sounding title of this slim volume, combined with its stated aim to provide a comprehensive theory of myth (16), provide this reviewer with a double-edged problem, because form my reading the volume is both too ambitious and too limited at once. Too ambitious, because the very idea of a generic approach to the sprawling beast that is "myth," which could offer us a single approach that would work under any circumstance, reminds us of the limits to the structuralist approach, which looks for the common factors in any given version of a myth at the (potential) cost of local nuance, individual flavour, momentary meaning or particular environmental concerns. Myth survives and proliferates because it transcends any given specificity or analysis. The search for such a "skeleton key" can thereby become a dangerous reduction in a postmodern world where the universals and essentialisms redolent of a previous era are being consistently challenged by new ways of seeing, experiencing and knowing the world. And not ambitious enough, in the sense that Marderness's actual aim does not seek to take into account a wide variety of myth theory, but limits itself to creating a rapprochement between two thinkers whose contribution to twentieth century analysis of myth is both persistently potent and troublesome. In order to account for a range of diversity in the way myth communicates, Marderness seeks common ground between Roland Barthes' semiotic analysis of mythic symbol as a series of signs and Mircea Eliade's interpretations of the religious aspect to myth, which takes into account its narrative power but lacks the critical teeth to engage with the "journalistic" mode of myth, according to which myth stands as a falsehood.


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