Saturday, September 06, 2008

Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss

I revisited this book in 2004 after 20+ years (a boarding pass bookmark is dated June 1982). Rereading a book after a number of years, especially if it is a good one, rewards one with new insights and perspectives. At times, one is disappointed. I believe that in rereading Levi-Strauss, with his sense of sorrow and the futility of the human race, his sense of the human and environmental catastrophe we have wrought upon the earth these last several hundred years (and accelerated in the 20th century), one must see the truth in his dire perspectives.

Written in 1955, this account, primarily of Levi-Strauss's researches among Brazilian/Mato Grosso tribes in the 1930's*, contained a damning enough account of the miseries of disease, deforestation, and cultural collapse which, true to his prediction, has had a devastating effect on native Brazilians. Other meditations on the miseries of Calcutta; the wasteful cycle of land use in the Americas; the authoritarian, frozen in time deficiencies of Islam; and the transcendent truths of Buddhism tie into the author's narrative.

Finally, this memoir is an excellent exposition of the mental makeup and the cultural rootlessness which characterize the anthropologist. The last few pages, which I have revisited many times over the years, are a beautiful, lyrical (in a book characterized by its lyricism) exposition of man's beginnings and his ultimate significance in the universe. An anthropological classic. 3/04

*Levi-Strauss was the editor of the Tropical Forest volume of the Handbook of South American Indians.