Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss

Way back in 1979, entering my freshman year as an Anthropology undergrad at the University of Texas, I picked up a copy of Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. This was the initial volume of a four volume work on structures of human thought. I took it back to the dorm, cracked it open...and was immediately mystified.

Levi-Strauss on myth was completely alien to the facile narrative-based comparative mythologies of Joseph "Masks of God" Campbell and Mircea Eliade. It took a perusal of The Savage Mind and two volumes of material on Structural Anthropology to start to get a handle on him. It didn't help that my first class on Levi-Straussian thought was taught by a disciple of his, Ira Buchler. Buchler came into class on the first day, stood thoughtfully for a few minutes, and then, in a barely audible monotone, started to relate a story of a turtle his daughter had found in the middle of the road. This led into a monologue so opaque that it wasn't until two classes later that one brave soul stood up and, speaking for the rest of us, made it known to Buchler that we had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Fortunately, things got better after that.

Over time, I drifted away from Levi-Strauss, and I understand that his theories have not aged particularly well, at least in American academia, where structuralism seems to have joined the field of sociobiology on the intellectual dustheap. But maybe this is a harsh, ill-informed, judgement on my part.

Still, once one gets into his mindset, he is a fascinating and intricate author and thinker. Despite the difficulties of his works, I can state unequivocably that his memoir of fieldwork*, Tristes Tropiques, is one of the classics of 20th century writing, no matter how you slice it. I still get goose bumps reading the final elegaic pages:

Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; many may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists - Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations! - in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

*Levi-Strauss, back in the 1930's, contributed to the "Tropical Forest Tribes" volume of the excellent Handbook of South American Indians, by far the most expensive book I had hitherto bought when I special-ordered it in the early 80's.

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