Myth in the work of Jerzy Grotowski
by John Fragoulis**
Myth is the raw matter, like in all genres of narration, of cinema as well. A narrative project that is not based strongly on a mythological system is basically a being without a soul, a creation without inspiration. Consequently, it is doomed to die, or, like a French proverb says, it will last as long as the dawn lasts.
If we wish to make a structural analysis in any narrative piece of work, we will have to look for the myths, as structural elements of this construction and their inter-relations, those that characterize the narration and differentiate it; so, we will be able to classify it to one of the tree genres of narration, tragedy, comedy and drama. We must apply exactly the same procedure to this type of narration that combines motion, speech and music, using them equally to create a speech that strays from the narrow frame of the classic narrative mode and reaches the levels of performance.
So, we are obliged to apply a corresponding structural analysis in the narrative work of Jerzy Grotowki. Consequently, we will have to consider as given the following:
a. Although we have a completely different narrative structure, we cannot but discuss of a new proposed speech and not of a new language.
b. Each movement of the body and of its parts is a text itself. When we will speak of a text we will mean its semeiotic sense, i.e. like an integrated array of codes which convey an autonomous semeiologic sense.
c. There exists intertextuality among different text genres, which, like sub-totals, complete the integrated and final text which is a synthesis of them, not necessarily their resultant; these texts are i) verbal speech, ii) singing or music, iii) motion.
All this will be explained in the following text in order to result that we have a route, a journey from one mythical element to the other, from the past to the present and from there to the formation of a proposal for the future.
Finally, we will see how we arrive to another perception of the past and to a more structured assessment of the present and the future, without needing many prerequisites, special knowledge on history, politics, culture, folklore and anthropology. In other words, a person who is not canny, may very well found the same or an even better narration from an actor; that is, if he has practiced in an elementary expression exercise.
THE BODY AS A TEXT
The question whether the body is the carrier of a text or not is a problem that the theory of semeiotic has defined in such a way so as to avoid exaggerations and over simplifications. Umberto Eco discriminates signals from signs, defining that the first ones are objects of the theory of information which are not signs, likely transmission units that can be assessed quantitatively regardless of their possible meaning; this is the discretive discrimination of the signals and signs (Eco, 1988). Starting from this discrimination, he excludes from the semeiotic approach the neurophysiologic and genetic phenomenon, thus drawing the line, in order to view semeiotically a body expression, when the semeiotic phenomena emerge from something non-semeiotic, something like a ring missing from the universe of signs and from that of signals. This means that we will have to be very careful in a semeiotic view of body textuality, meaning the body expressions, in order to proceed to a further analysis of the speech or the language of the body.
Body language has its own grammar and syntax. Its analysis is also corresponding to that of the written or oral speech’s glossology. We will have to go back to the formalists and behaviorists, to find the various analyses that go deep into kinetics (kinesique), as mentioned in Kristeva. Ray Birdwhistell was the one who analyzed more profoundly this field of semeiotics. The movement’s analysis goes so deep as to reach subdivisions corresponding to the phonemes and morphemes in written and verbal speech. The reader of this text could go to the bibliography to find the analysis of the kinetic system (systeme kinesique), but what matters is that we are dealing with a firmly structured language system that solves some of the many problems of the semeiotic analysis (Kristeva, 1969). So, we are capable of analyzing any movement, originally as a text and secondly as signs or codes.
Here we will have to make a short reference to the revolutionary theory of Noam Chomsky, the theory of the transformational structures, which overset so much the theory of the behaviorists as much the theory of classic glossology (especially of Ferdinand de Saussure). The most important perhaps part of Chomsky’s theory is that it simplifies grammar and syntax, by accepting and proving that there are specific rules and structures that, with their existence between two rules, may not create a third one, but join those two rules (Chomsky, 1991). Chomsky speaks of the transformational structures and makes a detailed and full analysis of the speech. What we are looking for here, is if there exist any rules and which they are, regarding the language of motion, imitation and generally the visual or representational arts, to understand whether this theory can be applied to this field of semeiotics as well. We want to stress out that with this theory we are not vitiating many classic analyses of the formalists (e.g. Jakobson, Tontorof, etc) but are obtaining a new tool to study the body language.
So, we realize that body is the carrier of a text; we must now see what that text may be and if it is subject to the process of intertextuality; meaning, if it can be influenced by other semeiotic texts, giving the chance for a new text to be born, which will result in referring to a process within the community, i.e. having immediate social references.
SYSTEMS AND CODES
We will make a very short reference on the process of production of semeiotic systems, since we will need certain references from this theory in our further approach. We will refer again to Eco and we will discover the definition of a system, as well as the definition of the signifier code (Eco, 1988). A system is characterized by an array of signals, which sometimes have a syntactic nature from a total of meanings, which cite to a context, consequently to a semantic system, from a total of possible reactions from the destination’s part and from a rule which assimilates all the previous parts. We can name the three first parts of this system simply “codes”. We have, consequently in these codes a metonymic metaphor, when we change from a non signifier system to a signifier one.
We can give a simple definition which will be very useful in our next reference. Code is a structure, a system where every value is defined by theses and differences and which appears only when different phenomena are mutually compared, regarding the same relation system. Consequently we have an internal coherence which becomes perceptible only when the metamorphoses will be studied, from which we can discern similar attributes, in apparently different systems. We can have different grammars in different systems, but finally we have one grammar, one syntax, that of the structure we are studying.
If someone will study more the procedure of code production, he will observe that this semeiotic procedure is not very different from a mathematic procedure, the way it is applied to the theory of information. Consequently we reach the smaller structural forms, which in the theory of information are represented by numbers 1 and 0, in physics by the negative and positive charge, in chemistry by the connection of different units and the release or output of energy. All this is relevant; firstly, as far as the inspiration of the pioneers of the theory of semeiotics is concerned, in order to be able to have finally the genetic glossology (Hjelmslev, 1963), the studying of the language evolution.
In our study we will use these theories in order to clear the production of a new speech and some rare times of a new language in performance. We will have to take into consideration the different systems that will have to be assimilated, so that we will result in the function of the myth in this art field.
THE SEMEIOTIC ANALYSIS OF THE MYTH
We will begin with the platonic approach that Kristeva uses, the semeiotic land (la chora semiotique) where all the urges are originally registered and all the ideologies are produced. It is basically about space, as refered to in Timaios, i.e. in the cave where myths are born. This approach, according to Kristeva, is the most important for the analysis of speech and especially of poetic speech (Kristeva, 1974). We will base ourselves mainly on Kristeva’s approaches, in order to study the myths and see how they are produced and how they function.
In our effort to study the myth, according to the theory of semeiotics, we will have to start from the fact that we cannot but discuss of a sign, given that this sign is referred to an already existing object. In other words, myth, if we will approach it semeiotically, will have to refer to already existing concepts; according to history here we do not have the arbitrary attribute of the sign, as defined by Saussure, because this arbitrary will exist within the myth’s structure and not out of it. Consequently, myth will have to have a specific historic or social referred object/ fact.
A second approach is that the incision between the identification of an object and its “analogicalisation”, through semeiotic and conceptual procedures, produces the sense, the concept, and is defined as the positive procedure (thetique phase), which will deliver any sense, in a semeiotic and semantic level. We refer to these concepts in order to arrive to the concept of imitation, which is fundamental in performance.
According to Kristeva “imitation will be exactly the creation of an object not real but identical to the real one, since it has been signified as such (discrete, noted, non denied); but with an internal dependence from the referred object, different in the fact that the semeiotic land is not negated; nonetheless, designated from the signal, it pertains or not to the norms of grammatical expression: this is the way we approach cognitive imitation” (Kristeva, 1974). This way Kristeva sets the crucial matter of the relation of imitation to the imitated object, and, finally to the production of concept with the creation of a new object. Here we will observe that we have the creation of a new code that either belongs to the same sign function* or to a new one. In the first case we have, at the same time, the procedure of production of poetic speech. Using this approach as an occasion, we will reach symbolism, in order to end in fetishism. We will go back to Kristeva again in order to see that positive procedure allows the arrangement of the symbolic through a vertical system (signifier, signified, referred) and through a logical and semantic arrangement. At this point all the semeiotic procedures will “work” (phallic, mirror situation) to arrive to the breaking of the signified practice
* “function” here is used in its mathematic context
and basically to the creation of a new world. The symbolic is produced; the fission of the urges takes place at the level of the common signifier, of the “natural” language which “grafts” the social unity. In other words, the symbolic does not create an ideal world, but a proposal for a new social structure.
The most important of all is that the new code enters an already existing sign function* in order to change it and, through it, to propose a new ideology, finally a new way of life, as we will see below. The symbol, as we mentioned before, in order to be considered a micro-structure of semeiotics, will have to refer to a specific object, a historic event, tradition, oral or written, folk songs. This way we can see the source of this semeiotic procedure, the myth. In very plain words we see that the structures of the myth can become symbols. These can become symbols, codes, enter a sign function* and, together with other codes, to form a new text. In exactly this phase we have an attack to a pre-existing code, its modification, large or small, so the beginning of a procedure that will create the poetic speech, finally a revolutionary procedure, because this modification will lead to a new ideology and, consequently, to the proposal of a new life mode, i.e. a new social process.
When completely different languages come in contact and we have the creation of a new code, totally different from the one before, with regards to its grammar and syntax, then we have the production of a new language. For example, if we will use a biology term as a symbol, which has no connection whatsoever to the semeiotic structures of the art on which we are working, then we have a new grammar and a new syntax, s a new language. Then, this productive procedure leads us to the creation of a new poetic language.
All of this is very useful for the analysis of the speech and the language and, finally the raise of a play (/show /performance) to theory. This way we can analyze the myths semeiotically and find in them historic events, social references, and primeval narrations, sometimes unknown even to the historians. It is important when this semeiotic analysis reaches the same result with the structural analysis that myth analysts, like Prop, attempt to make. Then we have the confirmation of the semeiotic analysis that we have made and we can apply it to other references as well. It is equally important when some people, who do not have the knowledge to make a similar semeiotic analysis, reach to similar results; then, we have another personal process, which is, we could say the metonymy of
performance. We will get to this later. A very good analysis of the ancient myth and a view of the primeval society organizing in ancient Greece, is attempted by Giannis Gerasis in his book; this was done on the occasion of the film “Process”, of his brother, Dimos Theos, and the discussions that this film caused in intellectual circles at the time (Gerasis, 1979). In this film we can find an application of the theoretic approaches we mentioned before and of those that follow.
We will refer to an example of this analysis. In a commercial spot we see a young student who sees a car passing outside the school, in all its grandeur. The teacher asks the students, one by one, what they would like to be when they grow up. We see the young protagonist being devoted to the sight of the car he loves and, when his turn comes, he answers that he would like to drive this car when he grows up. We observe that the specific car, the specific brand, has become a symbol. In order for the viewer to establish that we will speak about this car, we see it twice, in slow shots, so that with the repeat of its sight, from symbol it becomes s sign and finally a code in the sign function that we could define in a narrative way as follows: “What would I like to do in order to be considered successful when I grow up?”. The student’s answer is an answer to that question and an indirect answer to the question: “Does this car brand befit a successful and socially ascended man?” The indirect positive answer symbolizes once more the object and makes it a symbol of success, joy and happiness. Finally, having a car of this brand is a life mode that signifies a successful person. With a similar, more complex or more simple way, many things become symbols in the now “united” performance, where cinema, theatre, dance, painting, music, architecture and literature become united. Many of these symbols become fetishes in the life of man.
THE MORPHOLOGY OF THE MYTH
One of the main mythologists is Vladimir Giakovlevits Prop. He studies the morphology of the fairy tale and reaches conclusions that in his time where welcomed by anthropologists and ethnologists, but he is accused by his contemporaries for formalism, something that makes him fall into disfavor in post-revolutionary Russia. Prop studies the fairy tales by making a morphologic breakdown and afterwards a study that leads him to useful conclusions and to an apt categorization of the fairy tale. Through Prop’s analysis we can see the various micro-structures of the fairy tale in similar narrative occasions. So much in folk as much in traditional fairy tales, we see that modern, older and primeval elements coexist harmonically in fairy tales, imparting thus a new meaning. We are dealing with an interpretation of reality, a historic reference and an expectation for the future (Prop, 1991).
Later a conflict will begin between Prop and Levi-Strauss, in reference t the ethnologic and anthropologic interpretation on the fairy tale (Prop, 1991). Nonetheless, we now have a very well-structured mode of studying the fairy tale and so we have something to begin with. Insisting on Prop’s search, we will see the myths that concern the world’s creation. We see that in these myths exist the elements of reality, the religious tenets, the rituals of sorcery. A collection of such myths can give us an idea (Kanakaris, 1999), it will infirm us on the different interpretations of the myth, as well as of the common elements in all myths which, no doubt are connected to some primeval constants (like, for example that in the beginning there was chaos or that the world was created by a supreme being).
Unavoidably the myth is collided to reality and actually to the interpretation of this reality: science and myth collide, rationalism and magic are in a never-ending battle, without there ever being a winner. This happens because the scientific and rational speech gains more and more followers, sets some constants that, gradually, enter the mythological narration. But the same is true for the myth also; according to Aristotle we can interpret reality better through myth, or, at least make this interpretation more easily comprehensible and believable from the viewers (Aristotle, 1997 publication). The dipole rationalism – magic, are, as it appears, the two sides of the same coin and are trying with different ways to give answers to primeval and vital problems of man, most of which are ontological.
An effort to interpret the myths can lead us to certain findings; so, various intellects have spoken of allegoric interpretation, which contains prosperitism as well, the illness of the language, poetry, transcendental interpretation, symbolic and romantic interpretation, ritualistic and sociological interpretation, psychological interpretation, structuralism interpretation.
All these interpretations lie between the findings that there is no truth in mythology and that there is truth in mythology itself; between these two extremes there is the opinion that there is truth in mythology but not in mythology itself. (Mitta, 1997). We can reach again to Aristotle’s conclusion, as expressed above, in a different way.
Another interpretation of the myths analyzes their psychoanalytic interpretation. Intellects speak of the archetypes of the unconscious, the transfer of the myth to the psychological state of the people to whom it belongs (Campell, 1990); while others speak of the understanding of dreams, fairy tales and myths through the symbolic language of dreams (Fromm, 1975). So, we reach again to symbolism, but here enters the concept of man’s unconscious journey to the past, in his effort to provide an explanation of the present and to armour himself for the best possible planning of the future. This is an approach that we will see below.
It is easy for someone to wonder why all these theoretic approaches are useful. The fact is that we have a “performance” and we are called to appraise, judge and evaluate it. We will try to summarize all this collection of views in the evaluation of a “show”, which we will name performance because it exceeds the narrow limits of theatre. But we will first define it. In a “show” in which exist elements of theatre, literature, singing, music, cinema, elements from different arts which come in contact with folklore, history, political sciences etc; then we cannot speak of theatre, but of a show that we will name performance.
The concept of the actor basically does not exist; we have a person that performs a ritual, the performer, who practices in a completely different way from that in classic theatre. There where the theatre of the East meets the contemporary approaches of the show, there where Art does not explain a reality but it represents it, it creates it from the beginning, man is the medium and the message, we could say in a more simplified explanation.
There are two main sections in performance: the external environment and the performer. The performer moves, possibly talks. He expresses his speech in two different manners: with the movements of his body, from the simplest to the most complex and with his speech, either prose or singing. In both cases we have to deal with symbols. The viewer will have to discern these symbols and connect them to each other, so that we will create the speech himself. Sometimes speech or songs help for the speech of the motion to become more comprehendible; sometimes that isn’t needed (when certain movements are of apparent meaning). The exterior environment expresses its own speech, some of its elements will accent those of the speech; they will make the narrative parts more comprehendible. It happens though that the view and consequently the perception of the viewer will be confused by the elements of the environment and he will not be able to concentrate on the speech itself. In these cases, minimalism, i.e. the absolute absence of a scene, is necessary. The scene and the performer are one and the same thing. The body is the only carrier of the speech.
It is self-evident that the performer reaches such a state that his body is totally controlled by his brain and his brain by his body. He has become one; matter and Spirit. If we will view the man from the side of dialectics, then this state is his utter completion. We only have to see a little more analytically the context. We will focus on the work of Jerzy Grotowski, since this is the subject of our study.
MYTH IN THE WORK OF JERZY GROTOWSKI
We will see how we can particularize all this in the work of Grotowski. First of all, he himself speaks of the two different existential status of man. The first is the social status of man and the second his moral status. The first is related to society and its laws, the second with man himself. According to his first status, man must comply with the laws of society regarding morality, legitimacy etc; a breaking of these laws incurs punishment from the society. But these laws are transferred from one generation to the other and are established as laws of ethic through historical and mythological references. For example, the burial of the dead is cited so much in history as much in myth; we can read for this subject in epic references and in ancient tragedy. Consequently, it is natural for the myth to establish this viewpoint to such a degree, that it will finally become an ethical law of society and be transferred from generation to generation within the same nation and, afterwards, to different nations; i.e. to become at first law in one place (national) and then international. So, the first status of man is related to the imposing of the myth, as well as with the imposing on the myth. The second status of man, the moral status, where laws are imposed by him, has to be structured according to the influences of the first status, finally, again from the myth as well. As an example, Grotowski mentions the case of the warriors at the villages of Kau, in Sudan. During the 50’s these two statuses of the warriors were totally detached from one another, except for the period when they were in full organic consciousness, in crisis periods (firstly social and then personal), when these two statuses became one.
This indicates that these two sides of man are distinct, they identity with one another in exceptional cases, when society and the individual identify for certain reasons (e.g. moments of great national or community crisis). But in order for them to be able to identify, the signs that are recognized as links will have to exist, which are consequently common elements in both statuses. To be more exact, we will have to have elements of the same being to both statuses. Only this way can we have a connection of these two statuses. But what does that mean?
These links facilitate a journey from the present to the past, where values go through society to the individual and vice versa, in an eternal cycle that finally acquires the vertical spiral form of the DNA and penetrates time to reach the past. In this journey, the individual has to find his personal spots on the social resultants and vive versa, in order to be able to locate the “steps” of his ancestors.
Grotowski himself will refer to that: “One of the passages in the creative highway is for us to discover ourselves an ancient corporality (corporéité) with which we have been connected with a primeval and strong relation. So, we do not exist neither in the face nor in the non-face. Beginning from the details, we can discover in our self someone else – the grandfather, the mother. A picture, the memory of the wrinkles, the distant glance on the tone of the voice allows us to re-construct the corporality. Originally the corporality of a person we know and following, at an ever greater distance, the corporality of an unknown person, of the ancestor. Is it real or not? Maybe it isn’t the way it was, but the way it could be. You can go very far by going backwards, as if the memory had woken. It is the effect of the recovery of memory (réminiscence), the same as the primary ritual of the performer. Every time that I discover something, I have the sense that it is what I remember. Discoveries are behind us and we have to make a journey backwards to reach them”. (Grotowski, 1987).
We reach finally the “I – I” (Je - Je), the two sides of man which are divided and impartible, according to what we said before. This view though, leads us to the completion of man through a creative journey, through myths, old, ancient, primeval. At the end we will be able to create our own myth, the new social myth, and through the process we mentioned before for the production of ideology, the figuration of new ideological constructs, finally of a new ideology, basically the proposal of a new way of life. Through this process, the new way of life is not imposed, but experienced from society, from the social commonalty in a sense, as long as the social processes are the product of a procedure that functions democratically in the society. This way, primeval and democratic, is more easily perceptible from the non-experts, from those who do not have expertise knowledge (linguists, specialized scientists) and more easily experienced. For this reason Grotowski’s show (performance) is more related to the common people than to the expert viewers.
It is worth to cite this text of Grotowski:
“Between the inner and the outer man there is the same vast difference as between the sky and the earth.
When I was staying in the primal cause, I had no God; I was my primal cause. There, no one asked me what I wanted to do; there was no one to ask me. What I wanted, I was and what I was, I wanted; I was freed from God and from every other thing.
When I came out (escaped) all beings were talking of God. If they asked me -Brother Eckhart, when did you leave the house? - I was inside, just a minute ago. I was myself; I desired and knew myself, in order to be a man (how low I am).
For this reason I have not been born and, according to my non-born world, I could not die. What I am, according to my birth, will die and be annihilated, because this is the will of time and it will happen with time. But with my birth, all the creations were born as well. They all prove the need to develop their life, their Essence.
When I revert, this so unambiguous (act) is nobler than my exit. Inside this obvious I am above all beings; neither God, nor beings; but I am what I was, what I have to remain now and forever. When I reach there, no one asks me where I come from or where I have been. Here, I am what I was; I have not gotten larger or smaller, because I am here a fixed spot that makes everything move.” (Grotowski, 1987).
In this text, which is referred to the biblical person of Eckhart, all the theoretical approaches that we mentioned in this text are recapitulated. Moreover, the route to which we have referred, the route of the mythical element from the past to the present and vice versa, is mentioned here in a fascinating narration. In the last part of this text, we will refer to this route.
THE ROUTE OF THE MYTHICAL ELEMENT
We have already mentioned that the procedure of the route of the mythical is corresponding to the DNA. Kristeva has already referred to this view (Kristeva, 1974), where she adds the RNA. These two forms are complementary to one another and their basic function is the transmission of the information to the scion and from there to the cells and finally from man to man.
Some have named this procedure “memory of the cell”. Certain psychological experiments have proven that this theory is confirmed. We can only make a theoretical assumption here, open to dispute as in any research.
So, we will mention that a mythical element, which is part of a mythology, a symbol, through a sign function*, finally a code, is capable of transmitting certain information from the past. The semeiologic part of this code has as referred, a larger part of a mythological reference in the distant or near past. Exactly like the connections of the DNA and the RNA, in certain parts in an almost random way, following the theory of possibilities, exactly the same way we have here corresponding connections. Like in these biological processes, we have finally the reproduction of life; the same way here we have the reproduction of reality. But of which reality?
The theory of possibilities defines how these connections will be made, but permits us to chose freely the possible connections and the time, given that these facts comply with the theory on which these possibilities are based. Random does not equal to anarchic. Anarchic, when it appears, like for example in the poetic speech, basically it is not totally anarchic. It is subject to certain laws and anarchy is expressed in its effort to change certain rules. Going back again to the theory of the production of systems and signs, we will discover that a mythical element, when it becomes a code, will be connected to another code, but this connection is subject to two basic rules: The first is that in order for this connection to be made, there will have to exist the efficient and necessary conditions for these two elements to be connected, the way they are expressed by the theory of narration and by the structural analysis of the language. The second rule is that this connection cannot be necessarily the same in all people; here we speak literally of the “random”, given that it fulfills the minimum semantic conditions. It is highly possible that there are some other conditions, in the sphere of the thymic and the unconscious, in every individual person of the society, but this random selection ensures variety, like the random connections in the DNA ensure bio-variety. Consequently, we have the representation of reality, the way it is viewed by every individual, the way it should be and not the way it actually is (referring so much to Grotowski as much to Aristotle).
In this point we observe the fascination of narration, especially of the poetic one. We also observe the fascination of the myth and its very beautiful social process. A mythical element is not sure to bring about the same narrative structures in all the individuals – social groups with whom it comes in contact. On the contrary, it is sure to evoke different narrations, because man cannot be programmed as a computing system; he has his own room for arbitrariness, in order not to end up mad.
In other words, the text in a performance produces different texts in different individuals. It is quite possible that we will have the production of so many different texts, as many are the individuals – receivers of this message. It is impossible to estimate the exact structure of these texts; we can only see their main body. Exactly for this reason, performance does not refer only to the specialists; the performer – teacher does not work only with already shaped individuals, but he shapes them with a process that contains the experimental element.
All this process is experimental, consequently pioneering, as mentioned by Eleni Machaira in her approach on poetic cinema (Aggelidi et al, 2005). In this sense, the work of Almakalma, as well as of other experimental teams, refer to the social after all, while working on the show. They answer in the most catalytic way to the death of the society of show, by refusing the fragmentation of the show, but accepting its unification, its dialectical cohesion, its social processes. These days we can find more and more examples of such teams or personal efforts in all arts that comprise the unified show. Studying them may be hard, but it is worth it, because at the end it leaves our soul with the taste of the fascination that the element of “new” brings.
* “function” here is used in its mathematic context
** John Fragoulis is a cinema critic and theorist , email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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