Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss
When Claude Lévi-Strauss died a little over a year ago at age 100, he left behind a curious and contested legacy. For the French, he was the intellectual equivalent of royalty. In 2008, editions of his works were published in the gilt-lettered Pléiade collection, an act of canonization rare for a living French author; in his last appearances on television, he was less a commentator than an object of veneration; shortly before the end, President Nicolas Sarkozy paid him court to wish him happy birthday. "All French anthropologists are the children of Lévi-Strauss," proclaimed Le Monde in its obituary—which was an understatement, as there is scarcely a field in the humanities and social sciences Lévi-Strauss left unaltered. His ideas about myth dramatically collapsed the distinction between European high culture and so-called primitive society, and weaned a generation of French thinkers off Marxist orthodoxy and Sartrean existentialism. Though he did not like to claim intellectual patrimony, the careers of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault are impossible to imagine without him.
But for readers outside France, including many Anglo-American critics, the nature of his achievement is harder to define. No one doubts Lévi-Strauss was the author of important works and the purveyor of powerful insights, but the suspicion remains that behind his fantastically rigorous analyses of Amerindian culture there operated a deeply impressionistic and idiosyncratic mind at odds with any general theory. Some accused him of reducing the meaning of human existence to an arbitrary stock of contrasting flavors: the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the rotten, the wet and the dry. Others took his structuralist program to be a scientific alibi that concealed his fundamentally artistic enterprise. This was a man, after all, who once, while in the middle of the Amazon, wrote a tragedy about Augustus, and whose magnum opus, the four-volume Mythologiques (1964–71), was composed in a series of musical movements that promised a key to all mythologies. For such critics, the very scale of Lévi-Strauss's ambition belongs to a particularly heady moment in French thought.
Patrick Wilcken's new biography, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory, is an ambitious attempt to navigate between these two extreme perspectives. An Australian historian of Brazil with a background in anthropology, Wilcken is well positioned to deliver a coolheaded account of Lévi-Strauss's life and career. He interviewed Lévi-Strauss twice for this book, and while his subject remained almost comically aloof during their sessions—"My emotional states weren't that important to me," he once remarked—Wilcken is alive enough to his dissembling ironies to read him profitably against the grain. If Lévi-Strauss was able to make scientific discoveries about aboriginal cultures, it was not despite his artistic predilections, Wilcken convincingly argues, but because of them. Countless anthropologists combed through the remains of the last aboriginal societies in the course of the twentieth century, many of them with more experience in the field than Lévi-Strauss. But they lacked his trained sensibility: the sharp eye for cultural patterns, the novelistic feel for the shape of a story, the patience for synthesizing masses of abstruse data into meaningful wholes. This is what Wilcken means when he calls him "the poet in the laboratory," even if, as Lévi-Strauss liked to joke, his lab was inconveniently located 6,000 miles outside Paris.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss was groomed to be an artiste. He grew up in a secular Jewish household on the edge of Paris's sixteenth arrondissement, surrounded by his father's exotic curios and half-finished projects. Raymond Lévi-Strauss was a portraitist with a weakness for pastels. His livelihood was endangered by the rise of photography, and when his commissions dried up in the 1920s, his son helped him use scraps around the house to make a series of haphazard, artful knickknacks to pay the bills (a homegrown example of what the anthropologist would later call "bricolage"). Despite his limited means, Raymond gave Claude a rich grounding in the arts. He schooled him in the grand masters at the Louvre, immersed him in the operas of Wagner and encouraged his sketching of set designs for the theater.
But the young Lévi-Strauss was also tempted by the world beyond his father's ken. He admired the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and André Breton and made the rounds at the studios and galleries of avant-garde painters. In an early article published in Georges Bataille's journal Documents, he made a case for Picasso as the greatest painter of the age but criticized Cubism for pretending to be a break from Impressionism when it was simply another manifestation of bourgeois art tailor-made for a band of insiders. By age 21, Lévi-Strauss was already playing the detective, deciphering the clues of culture.
Lévi-Strauss's early academic experiences were less exhilarating than his extracurricular escapades. In his memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955), he bitterly recalled the "claustrophobic, Turkish bath-like atmosphere" of the French university system and its scholastic pretensions. After choosing to study philosophy—"the result less of a genuine vocation than of a dislike for the other subjects"—he prepared for the "inhuman ordeal" of the Aggregation, the competitive examination that allows students in France to become university lecturers. "I was confident that, at ten minutes' notice, I could knock together an hour's lecture with a sound dialectical framework, on the respective superiority of buses and trams," he remembered. Wilcken's retelling of the period offers glimpses of the coming attractions of postwar French thought: we see Lévi-Strauss brush shoulders with Simone Weil, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir ("Very young, with a fresh, bright complexion, like a little peasant girl," he remembered). Like many of his generation, Lévi-Strauss was intimately involved in politics: he served as the secretary general for the Socialist student union, worked for a Socialist deputy and became president of a left-wing advocacy group dedicated to mobilizing students worldwide. But with these solid leftist credentials came remarkably conventional views. The young Lévi-Strauss emerges in Wilcken's portrait as an advocate of the sort of mild paternalistic colonialism he would later abhor, and a champion of a vague kind of gradual social change he called "Constructive Revolution." If Lévi-Strauss was a radical in anything, it was in his course of study. He eventually decided to abandon his pursuit of a doctorate in philosophy—the traditional rite of passage for France's intellectual elite—and cast about for an escape route.
The relatively uncharted waters of anthropology made it an appealing refuge for the intellectually adept but rudderless Lévi-Strauss. In later years, he made it seem like he was hard-wired for the match:
I sometimes wonder if anthropology did not attract me, without my realizing this, because of a structural affinity between the civilizations it studies and my particular way of thinking. I have no aptitude for prudently cultivating a given field and gathering in the harvest year after year: I have a neolithic kind of intelligence. Like native bush fires, it sometimes sets unexplored areas alight; it may fertilize them and snatch a few crops from them, and then it moves on, leaving scorched earth in its wake.
For Lévi-Strauss, anthropology was a vocation akin to music or mathematics: you had to discover the aptitude for it within yourself. It was perhaps an advantage that he barely had any formal training in the field. He was too young to have signed on to the first major French ethnographic expedition across North Africa, undertaken by Marcel Griaule and Michael Leiris, and he neglected to attend the seminars of Marcel Mauss, who did pioneering work on reciprocity and gift exchange, at the Collège de France. Instead, he imbibed a mixed brew of the latest field reports by American anthropologists along with the Surrealist accounts of French writers who had made contact with indigenous peoples. Inspired by the travel books of the contemporary novelist Paul Nizan and the sixteenth-century missionary-explorer Jean de Léry, Lévi-Strauss dreamed of the possibility of not only philosophizing about Rousseau's noble savage but of actually going out to find him. In 1934, when an opportunity came his way to teach at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, he jumped at the chance.
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It is astonishing how much of Lévi-Strauss's reputation still hinges on a nine-month voyage through the Mato Grosso of western Brazil that was, in many respects, a failure. The objective was to travel along an abandoned telegraph line and conduct a rigorous survey of the little-known Nambikwara tribe, but a series of setbacks meant Lévi-Strauss could spend only a few days among them. His account of his sole sustained fieldwork experience—which makes up the bulk of Tristes Tropiques—presents a challenge to any biographer who wants to cover the same territory with matching vividness. But it's in Brazil that Wilcken is at his best, providing the missing parts of Lévi-Strauss's narrative, including his on-the-spot field notes, and filling in the supporting cast barely mentioned in the book. We watch as Lévi-Strauss, low on money and bartering supplies, placates a planted spy from the Brazilian government in the convoy, and copes with broken recording equipment and unreliable mules. After his young ethnographer wife, Dina, contracts a sight-threatening eye infection, he wastes no time dispatching her back to São Paulo. For a thinker who would be an armchair anthropologist for the rest of his life—"I realized early on that I was a library man," he once told an interviewer—Lévi-Strauss displayed a remarkable toughness in the bush. Wilcken treats us to a digression on the fate of another member of the expedition, a young Columbia graduate student named Buell Quain, who would later commit suicide from the pressures likely related to fieldwork.
When Lévi-Strauss at last reached the Nambikwara after an 800-mile trek, the encounter shattered his romantic expectations. "I had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression," he wrote, and "that of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it was individual human beings." The men of the tribe greeted him laughing; the women tried to steal his soap as he washed in the river. Malnourished, and on the brink of a breakdown, he nevertheless started to gather the material he would use to shatter a generation-old consensus in anthropology. Whereas functionalist anthropologists following Bronislaw Malinowski believed the social lives of indigenous peoples were determined by basic needs like sex and hunger, Lévi-Strauss found something close to the opposite in the tribes he encountered: even in the most dire conditions, they were driven above all by an intellectual need to understand the world around them. When Amerindians chose animals for their totems, it was not because they were "good to eat," Lévi-Strauss argued, but because they were "good to think." The Nambikwara were every bit as scientifically minded as the ethnographers who studied them (their mental inventory for honey, for instance, included thirteen different varieties). The only major difference, Lévi-Strauss claimed, was the "totalitarian ambition of the savage mind," which operated on the assumption that if you couldn't explain everything, you hadn't explained anything. Lévi-Strauss witnessed this rage for order in everything from their face-painting to the layout of their camps, and most especially in their myths, which they pieced together with borrowed scraps of older ones in the same way a computer programmer might patch together code.