Sunday, February 2, 2014

Today in Language: Gananath Obeyesekere

Today, February 2, is the 84th birthday of the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere. He is best known for his early-1990s dispute with fellow anthropologist Marshall Sahlins over whether or not Captain Cook was actually regarded as a god by the Hawaiians. Whether he was or not totally does not interest me (except maybe at a basic level of mere curiosity). The significant point in their debate was how culture makes humans think -- "How 'Natives' Think," as in the title to Sahlins' main work on the issue, or with a basic, transcultural rationality as Obeyesekere argued.

In honor of Obeyesekere, since it is his birthday, consider this quotation regarding myths from his reply to Sahlins, The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking In The Pacific. This is a long excerpt, but repays the effort it takes to read it:
One of my basic assumptions is that mythmaking, which scholars assume to be primarily an activity of non-Western societies, is equally prolific in European thought. A myth, in the loose conventional view of the term, is most often a scared story about gods and founding ancestors or stories about ancestral heroes (legends). According to the first definition, there are not many myths in European thought. […] But I think that both notions of myth have to be stretched to understand mythmaking in Western culture. Myths in the classic sense of sacred stories may be out of fashion, but “myth models” are not. I use “myth model” in two ways: First, an important or paradigmatic myth may serve as a model for other kinds of myth construction. Second and more importantly, a “myth model” refers to an underlying set of ideas (a myth structure or cluster of mythemes) employed in a variety of narrative forms.
This latter understanding of the idea of a "myth model" as an underlying set of (presumably false if not evidently so) ideas is what even contemporary society is prone to. It fits what I have been thinking in regard to myths recently, and it also applies to the broader points that Obeyeskere and Sahlins both tried to make in their argument over the apotheosis of Captain Cook, regardless of which one of them was closer to being right.

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