Since Freud, psychoanalysis has recognised in mythology its own double: mythology as a discourse that gives voice, albeit encrypted, to the unconscious. In this relationship, psychoanalysis sometimes saw itself in the role of disciple, but more often and more eagerly took the role of master. This is why the original creative exchange between the two has often been reduced to more sterile, more simplistic relationships. Robert Eisner has pointed out how psychoanalysis has tended to narrow down mythical narratives to restrictive, authoritarian moulds that tend to impede, rather than to create, new meanings and possibilities. This paper sets out to demonstrate how lacanian psychoanalysis could pave the way for an alternative, more fertile approach to myth. Although Lacan, in contrast with Freud and Jung, is rarely mentioned in relation to myth, the study of mythology has played a major role in his ‘return to Freud’. It was only by drawing inspiration from the structural myth analysis of Lévi-Strauss that he conceived of the unconscious as a linguistic web, the symbolic connections of which had to be analysed and spun out rather than ‘understood’. Lacan approaches myth as he approaches the speech of the analytic patient: not as a secret to be pried open by a master, but as a network of relations, clustered around an ‘impossibility’ that asks to be explored. By engaging in the dialogue on equal terms, and by daring to acknowledge the ‘mythical’ status of psychoanalysis, Lacan breaks through the mirror between myth and psychoanalysis.
In Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), psychoanalysis is deployed as a critical method to analyze the use of signs in contemporary mass culture in France. Barthes claims that society is permeated by petty bourgeois myths representing phenomena which are basically historical as natural and universal. He wrote his famous ‘mythologies’ to criticize this misrepresentation of the world. In order to develop his mythological criticism, Barthes relies on psychoanalysis, specifically, on Freud’s theory of dreams. At first sight, the socio-critical concept of ‘myth’ in the guise of ‘dream’ appears to be used to challenge the ruling ideology by contesting its presumed rational nature. Critics like Barthes, however, are depicted by the petty bourgeois media as magicians pontificating about the world with discourses (inspired by, for example, psychoanalysis) that can hardly be understood by ordinary people. Both myth and magic appear to be discursive weapons by which both camps attack each other. Yet, after close analysis, it can be demonstrated that, for Barthes, the mythologist has to be susceptible to the magical as well, if, as a critic, he wishes to obtain a total view of reality. The problem of the mythical, however, persists as a symptom of a more profound crisis of society equally stuck to the practice of the mythologist.