Ronald Beiner, Rotstein (and Freud) versus Levi-Strauss (and Weber) [2018 C4eJ 10] (Book Forum)


Ronald Beiner*

Last spring I attended a book panel on Abe’s book at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics, a panel organized by Igor Shoikhedbrod. All of the panelists duly hewed to the line that Claude Levi-Strauss was the hero of, or the model for, the book (and of course in some sense he is). But in fact the book starts with a quite amusing story where Levi-Strauss is presented as anything but the hero of the book, or the exemplar of Abe’s intellectual commitments. What Levi-Strauss is supposed to stand for is the universalism of mythic structures; and this indeed is at the heart of what Abe’s book is about. But as I say, Abe starts the book with his story of a totally accidental encounter with Levi-Strauss on the deck of a ferry going up the coast of British Columbia in August of 1974. The book relates two exchanges between the intellectual master and his would-be disciple. Here’s the first:

AR: “Do you foresee any possibility of the return of myth to the modern world similar to the primitive societies that you have studied?”

CL-S: “Not at all. Too much has changed. Myth has been destroyed by the world of modern science” (x).

They have a second encounter 20 minutes later, queuing up for coffee. Abe, unhappy with the answer that the great structuralist has given him, presses the question a second time, this time even more insistently:

AR: “Are there any conceivable circumstances that you could foresee that would bring the return of myth to modern society?”

CL-S: “Perhaps in the event that a nuclear war occurred and destroyed a quarter of the population of the globe; then we might see such a return of myth” (x).

In other words: nuke the contemporary world back to the Stone Age and mythical structures will be back in business in the restored world of tribal consciousness.

To me this story has the feel of one of those typical stories from the Hebrew Bible. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that it conveys the spirit of one of Moses’s exasperated dialogues with God. “Surely, God, you don’t mean what you’re saying! Surely there’s some kind of misunderstanding here! You can’t be serious!” What’s hilarious is the image of Abe running after Levi-Strauss a second time, to give the Master a second opportunity to give the right answer! But he doesn’t. He sticks with the same frustrating reply: the age of myth is over, it’s finished. Mythic universals have been rendered obsolete by the process of Western rationalization/disenchantment, as given its definitive formulation by Max Weber. Well, either structures of the mind are universal or they aren’t, so one can appreciate Abe’s frustration with the answers he received from a grand thinker supposedly committed to the thesis of mythic universalism. Did Abe write his book to prove to Levi-Strauss that his Weberian conviction concerning the ending of the era of myth, the emphatic non-universalism of mythic structures — that is, Levi-Strauss’s own betrayal of Levi-Straussian structuralism — is mistaken? Did he write it to vindicate Levi-Strauss against Levi-Strauss? I think he did. Levi-Strauss can betray himself, but Abe can be loyal over against this self-betrayal!

One of the things I find striking in all this is that Freud gets only a single brief mention in the book. I think that what is at issue between Abe and Levi-Strauss on the deck of that ferry can, not too extravagantly, be re-cast as a quarrel between Weber and Freud, with Levi-Strauss on the Weber side and Abe on the Freud side. This brings me back to the book panel last spring. Not surprisingly, most people there emphasized Abe’s rock-solid commitment to the discipline of political economy, which of course is correct. But in this work I think Abe is trying to plumb what political economy can’t explain: depth psychology, the mysteries of the (not fully rational) human psyche. If Freud had been on that ferry he would have said to Levi-Strauss: you’re nuts. Weber or no Weber, myth will never die. Because what fundamentally moves human beings is the id, something deeper than reason. That’s the sense in which Abe, I would say, sides with Freud against Levi-Strauss (and against Weber). Freud would say that the disenchantment thesis asserted by Weber is psychologically naïve; the id/myth will reassert itself. That’s why Freud puts so much emphasis on primeval scenes of tyranny and murderous revolt of the kind that are presented in Totem and Taboo: those universal mental (albeit unconscious) structures are emphatically still with us, and always will be! Freud would have seen (in fact did see!) the horrors of the 20th century as vindication of his far-reaching pessimism (the death instinct and so on). And the fact that Abe, in Chapter 10, felt compelled to include Hitler in his broad narrative of a universal myth of apocalyptic redemption points in the same direction. This notwithstanding Abe’s political idealism (which I share).

Which, sadly, brings us to the present. Abe clearly pondered these themes for decades. I once attended a talk of his on Luther, Hegel, and Marx – I’m not sure when but I would guess the mid-90s. It might have been reasonable back in those days to think that fascist mythology, or totalitarian mythology more generally, had suffered a final defeat at the hands of Weber-style rationalization. The world was ultimately subject to Logos, and irrational passions had wreaked their worst on the world and then been finally subdued. Well, it doesn’t quite look that way these days! Crazy ideologies are coming out of the woodwork from all directions! I don’t need to name them because they’re in all our newspapers and on our online feeds pretty much on a daily basis. I suspect that Abe would have wished that Weber and Levi-Strauss had been right and that he and Freud had turned out to be wrong. In any case, it does increase the contemporary relevance of Abe’s reflections in this book: despite our conceits about exercising conscious, rational control over our mental and social lives, we seem to be captive to something more primordial and more dangerous.

* Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto & Fellow of Royal Society of Canada