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Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss | The Nation

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Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Lévi-Strauss left the Nambikwara with a hoard of impressions about their culture, but he hadn't yet cracked their riddles. The major theoretical breakthrough would come from an unexpected source during his wartime exile in New York City. He spent the war years teaching at the New School, having barely scrambled out of occupied France alive. It was there that his colleague Alexandre Koyré introduced him to Roman Jakobson, a globe-trotting Russian linguist who specialized in the structural analysis of language developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. Jakobson thought he had found a dependable drinking partner in Lévi-Strauss; he was disappointed on that front—Lévi-Strauss was a teetotaling early riser—but their friendship blossomed into a rich intellectual exchange.

Claude Lévi-Strauss
The Poet in the Laboratory.
By Patrick Wilcken.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Thomas Meaney
Thomas Meaney, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, is co-editor of The Utopian.

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Lévi-Strauss learned from Jakobson how language could be broken down into simple components called phonemes. As Wilcken explains, the "r" in "rat" and the "m" in "mat" operated like control gates on a circuit board, indicating alternate meanings. It was not the phonemes themselves that held the meaning of words but the relationship among them. This shift from studying single objects—whether it be a syllable, a sentence, a family or a culture—in favor of analyzing the relations among them was the essence of structuralism. Lévi-Strauss applied its logic to the workings of myth, which he took to be
 another form of language. Mythology, in his view, is an elaborate attempt to make cognitive sense out of our chaotic impressions of the natural world. We respond to our envi
ronment by breaking it down into manageable dualisms, which makes it possible to orient our existence in the world. By "cooking" the "raw" material of nature, we translate it into culture. Lévi-Strauss came to consider indigenous myths, as a form of aesthetic creation, superior to the West's precarious investment in more dubious expressions of individual artists, since individual-centered meaning was almost guaranteed to pale in comparison to the power of a myth that had been fashioned by an entire community over time. There may have been no Tolstoy of the Nambikwara, but the culture and language they had made and shared was more fecund than War and Peace.

Jakobson's structural method became Lévi-Strauss's prize intellectual tool and brought anthropology closer to becoming a hard science. Lévi-Strauss could now process the huge amounts of data in his colleagues' field reports by plugging their findings into his elaborate charts and tables. He wrote The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) in the now-vanished North American reading room of the New York Public Library, where he shared a table with a Native American chief taking notes in a buckskin jacket and full feather headdress. The Elementary Structures remains the most forbidding of Lévi-Strauss's major works, but it revolutionized the way anthropologists understood kinship and caste systems. Instead of focusing on lineage and descent, Lévi-Strauss showed how indigenous families developed on a horizontal plane, with men exchanging their sisters and daughters in order to avoid the incest taboo, which Lévi-Strauss interpreted as humanity's most basic attempt to rein in the randomness of nature.

When he was not unraveling the mysteries of kinship systems, Lévi-Strauss led a cheerful bohemian existence in New York. He spent weekends prowling antique shops, surprised to find museum-quality Indian artifacts and pottery available for next to nothing. Anthropologists and Surrealists shared a passion for cultural fragments and provocative juxtapositions. With his friends Max Ernst and André Breton, he sought out the most enchanting pockets of the city's flourishing cultural ecosystem, stumbling on communities that preserved traditions long ago abandoned in the old country. In his mini-memoir "New York in 1941," Lévi-Strauss fondly recalled attending Chinese Operas under the first arch of the Brooklyn Bridge, conducting a mock-ethnography of Fire Island and reading out translations of President Roosevelt's speeches on Free French radio (the clarity of his diction made him a good fit for the job). He easily could have made a career for himself in his adopted homeland, but after the war he took a post at the École practique des hautes études, where he rejoined his old tribe as a more formidable member.

* * *

Back in Paris in the early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques—a memoir of his voyage to Brazil disguised as an anti-travel book—in a moment of despair, when he felt his academic career had stalled and he could risk a wider audience. From its opening line ("I hate traveling and explorers") to its disenchanted declarations ("the tropics are less exotic, than out of date"), the book dealt in the cultural pessimism that would become his trademark. While Lévi-Strauss rails against the Western myth of the self-authorizing individual, he allows his subjectivity to shimmer throughout Tristes Tropiques. The prose bears a heavy Surrealistic stamp: two mountains outside Rio de Janeiro are like "stumps sticking up here and there in a toothless mouth"; the precipices between the skyscrapers of New York are "sombre valleys, dotted with multicoloured cars looking like flowers." Lévi-Strauss shares with Proust the ability to cycle through the styles of great French writers, whether he is teasing out the colors of a sunset à la Chateaubriand or sharpening an insight to the fine point of a Pascalian pensée. Wilcken, a beautiful stylist, is well attuned to these shifts but also alert to the places where Lévi-Strauss feigns nonchalance or veers into preciousness.

The question remains: how did a relatively obscure, taciturn anthropologist, who had written an unsupervised dissertation on a recondite subject and maintained only minimal ties with the French intellectual establishment, manage, within the course of a decade, to dethrone the leading thinker of the age? Jean-Paul Sartre hardly considered Lévi-Strauss a threat. He sent the anthropologist an inscribed copy of his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) "in testimony of a faithful friendship," and cited The Elementary Structures approvingly in the course of his argument. But Lévi-Strauss was in no mood to return favors. By then installed at the prestigious Collège de France, he devoted a yearlong seminar to a detailed study of Sartre's Critique, and when his Savage Mind appeared in 1962 it ended with a twenty-page assault on the fundamental underpinnings of Sartre's thinking. "Power was passing from a chain-smoking, pill-popping haunter of Left Bank café society to a sixteenth-arrondissement aesthete," writes Wilcken. But how exactly, and under what conditions, did the exchange take place?

Sartre was an early hero of postwar French intellectuals for a reason. By articulating a philosophy based on acting responsibly in the face of history, he restored the confidence of a damaged intellectual elite and helped it prepare for its confrontation with the nation's colonial past. The impossible ambition of the Critique was to reconcile Sartre's existentialist ethics with the Marxist dictates of historical necessity. In Sartre's system, history presents us with a limited range of possibilities and we act within them, which in turn gives rise to a new set of possibilities. For Lévi-Strauss, this blend of historical determinism and personal agency was doubly problematic. First, it put the individual front and center in the historical process, whereas, as Lévi-Strauss believed he had shown, the underlying structures of society left little room for the whimsy of subjectivity. "The self is not only hateful," he wrote in Tristes Tropiques, channeling Pascal, "there is no place for it between us and nothing." Second, Sartre was still propagating the old European idea of history as a progressive narrative, whereas Lévi-Strauss held up indigenous cultures as examples of other, possibly more appealing ways of organizing human experience. The myths of tribes such as the Nambikwara and the Bororo were designed to insulate their seemingly unchanging social orders from the disruptions of history. By making history always be "for" something, and privileging the breakneck speed of Western history over the slow, recycling world of indigenous peoples, Sartre was committing "a sort of intellectual cannibalism much more revolting to the anthropologist than real cannibalism."

* * *

For French academics and intellectuals coming of age in the 1960s, it was difficult to avoid the impression that Lévi-Strauss, by painstakingly drawing lessons from indigenous peoples from across the world, was working on a much grander scale than Sartre. "Bus-stop queues, strikes, boxing matches—the examples out of which Sartre built his 'philosophical anthropology'—seemed provincial in comparison to structuralism's global reach," writes Wilcken. While Sartre concentrated on working out the problem of individual emancipation within the narrow confines of the Western philosophical tradition, Lévi-Strauss, by peeling back the divergent expressions of a common human nature all over the world, was able to reveal how much of Western culture was an unhealthy aberration. This self-critical stance in the face of other cultures became a more compelling form of anticolonialism than Sartre's calling for third world revolution from his table at the Café de Flore. Ours was the only civilization, argued Lévi-Strauss, whose attempts to release humanity from the bonds of nature led to gross delusions that have underwritten everything from the destruction of the environment to the Holocaust. To Sartre's "Hell is other people," Lévi-Strauss answered: "Hell is ourselves."

The other reason for Lévi-Strauss's unlikely triumph was that structuralism served as a convenient halfway house for disenchanted Marxists. Those who had lost faith in the iron laws of historical materialism during the war now placed their bets on structuralism as a more credible form of social criticism for resisting the advances of Anglo-American liberalism. Structuralism also exercised a hold on their minds because its core concept of social codes was a closed system invulnerable to empirical testing. Its "imperialism of significance," as René Girard has called it, could explain almost anything, and turned Lévi-Strauss's corpus into the intellectual buffet from which the next generation selected its defining ideas. For Lacan, structuralism revealed the system of symbolic forms that the mind unconsciously mapped onto reality. For Althusser, it helped explain how the capitalist mode of production drew on an intricate code of agreed-upon meanings that bore little relation to the actual reality of workers. For Foucault, who was deeply attracted to the antihumanist element in structuralism despite claiming not to be a structuralist, Lévi-Strauss showed how concepts like "madness" were arbitrary constructions whose salience depended on a complex web of shifting social values. Meanwhile, Barthes used its more formal techniques to unveil the realist conceits of the modern novel and champion the "novels-without-a-subject" of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Lévi-Strauss had little time for all this. "I don't know and I don't care," he tells Wilcken when asked about his legacy. He never read a "structuralist" novel and confessed to finding Lacan's seminars incomprehensible ("to his fervent admirers, 'understand' means something other than it does to me"). He considered Althusser politically perverse, Foucault an illuminating but dubious historian and Barthes mildly absurd. (Lévi-Strauss once performed a structuralist analysis of a Balzac story and sent it to Barthes, who responded with enthusiasm and urged Lévi-Strauss to publish it—until, Wilcken tells us, he was informed it was a joke.) It was only with May 1968 that structuralism's star began to fade, relieving Lévi-Strauss of his place at center stage. There was widespread agreement among the student protesters that his thought held no revolutionary potential—"Structures don't take to the streets," read a famous pronouncement—and they began to question whether it even impeded social progress. Some of Lévi-Strauss's more fanciful critics claimed that structuralism was the theoretical expression of the static authoritarian technocracy of de Gaulle's government. "Structuralism is the last barrier the bourgeoisie have erected against Marx," wrote a rehabilitated Sartre, momentarily back in the spotlight, where he would soon proselytize for Mao, his version of a noble savage.

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