Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss
But Lévi-Strauss's politics remain badly misunderstood. He had an intensely political project that Wilcken, stressing aesthetic concerns, fails to appreciate. While his hopes of becoming a socialist functionary may have died early, Lévi-Strauss admired the "savage mind" largely because he believed it proposed remedies for specifically Western maladies. For example, when considering cannibalism, he argues that the indigenous practice of eating part of one's parent's deceased body, so that they might continue to live symbolically in their progeny, indicates more respect for humans than the scalpel work of the dissection table. In return, Lévi-Strauss writes, Amerindians would be mystified by modern prison practices, which separate lawbreakers from society and attempt to reform them by destroying their social ties. The Plains Indians, argues Lévi-Strauss, had a more effective way of rehabilitating criminals. By temporarily ridding them of their possessions or living quarters, they put them in a tightly bound reciprocal relationship with society. The criminal would then perform a form of community service until the community had incurred a debt to him and so restored him to his place in society. Lévi-Strauss never seriously considered returning to some primitive golden age, but there is little doubt he scanned native societies for elements that could contribute to the ongoing ethnographic critique of Western culture.
For this Lévi-Strauss has continually come under attack from critics as a cultural relativist of the worst order. The charge was first leveled in the 1950s by the writer Roger Caillois, who condemned him as an inverted ethnocentrist. Lévi-Strauss, he argued, epitomized Western hypocrisy by putting primitive cultures on a pedestal, when the very existence of anthropology as a discipline was proof of Western cultural superiority. This pablum would become the familiar conservative rebuke of anthropology throughout the culture wars—right up to the present. Last year the French social critic Pascal Bruckner published a book that singled out Lévi-Strauss as one of Europe's leading "guilt-peddlers." For Bruckner, the West's self-flagellation has made it nearly impossible to criticize non-Western societies. This claim not only mischaracterizes Lévi-Strauss's position but also fails to grasp that he long ago anticipated the objection. In Tristes Tropiques he successfully answers the charge:
Other societies are perhaps no better than our own; even if we are inclined to believe they are, we have no method at our disposal for proving it. However, by getting to know them better, we are enabled to detach ourselves from our own society. Not that our own society is peculiarly or absolutely bad. But it is the only one from which we have a duty to free ourselves: we are, by definition, free in relation to the others.
As for the claim that only the West harbors interest in "the others," Lévi-Strauss pointed to, among others, the Flathead Indians of the Rocky Mountains, who were so intrigued by what they heard about white settlers that they sent a series of expeditions to make contact with the Christian missionaries at St. Louis. In the closing pages of Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss argues that not all cultures are equally humane—the Aztecs, modern Europeans and modern Muslims occupy low rungs on his ladder. In a comparison that would become notorious, he equated the intransigent utopianism of Islam with that of postrevolutionary France. "Just as Islam has kept its gaze fixed on a society which was real seven centuries ago, and for the problems of which it then invented effective solutions," he wrote, "so we [French] are incapable of thinking outside the framework of an epoch which came to an end a century and a half ago." By contrast, certain indigenous societies, he argued, have more salient lessons than others to teach when it comes to integrating mankind into a more intimate relationship with the world—and many of these are by definition societies that have safeguarded themselves from outside influences.
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Still, the fusillades Lévi-Strauss aimed at his critics didn't deter him from settling into his own brand of conservatism toward the end of his life. As Wilcken points out, Lévi-Strauss père's reverence for established forms reasserted itself with renewed force in his son, whose youthful taste for the avant-garde proved to be spent. In 1980 Lévi-Strauss voted against Marguerite Yourcenar's nomination to a seat in the Académie française because it went against "centuries of tradition." (Yourcenar was the first woman to be elected.) A backslide into traditionalism is not unusual among old men. But less expected was that Lévi-Strauss's scientific work would later be co-opted for explicitly conservative political ends: in the '80s, French deputies quoted from The Elementary Structures of Kinship in their arguments in favor of traditional marriage as the cornerstone of the Fifth Republic.
Wilcken concludes his biography on a dismissive note. "Lévi-Strauss ended up as a one-man school," he writes, "peddling a type of analysis that had become so utterly idiosyncratic that it was impossible to build on." But his frustration with Lévi-Strauss's overall project is understandable. The scientific side of Lévi-Strauss expected his work to be superseded, but in practice he stubbornly resisted updating his thinking or responding to revisions proposed by thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Clifford Geertz. In Wilcken's telling, Lévi-Strauss comes to resemble a medieval scholastic, rummaging through structures of his own imagining as he twirls three-dimensional "myth mobiles" that hang from the ceiling of his office. The best Wilcken can say, in the end, is that "in a world of ever more specialized areas of knowledge, there may never again be a body of work of such exhilarating reach and ambition."
But Lévi-Strauss's legacy is more than a monument of aging intellect for us twenty-first-century pygmies to marvel at. Lévi-Strauss is better remembered as a moraliste in the tradition stretching back to Diderot and Montaigne. The French moralistes have fulfilled a uniquely corrective function in the West: they are not the custodians of social mores but the refurbishers, eager to scrap faulty moral assumptions. When Lévi-Strauss surveyed indigenous cultures, he did so in the hope of expanding awareness of the repertory of social arrangements beyond the West's increasingly monocultural civilization. From the practices most stigmatized by racism—wedding rites, initiation ceremonies, creation myths—Lévi-Strauss extracted precepts for understanding, if not sympathizing with, the internal logic of the most foreign cultures. The sheer scientific rigor of his analyses—and the respect for his subjects it implied—was ultimately more effective in combating racial prejudices than the pronouncements of grand penseurs like Sartre.
Lévi-Strauss was more forthright than many political thinkers today in spelling out the paradox of his antidiscrimination efforts. The struggle against racism, which enjoined humanity to adopt the norms of global civilization, was also, he believed, responsible for destroying the very cultural differences antidiscrimination was meant to protect. As human societies become more aware of the importance of preserving one another's particularisms, their differences become harder to justify. "When integral communication with the other is achieved completely," wrote Lévi-Strauss in The View From Afar (1983), "it sooner or later spells doom for both his and my creativity." Lévi-Strauss never ceased to mourn the loss of original wellsprings of aesthetic and moral meaning that could be found only in societies that turned a deaf ear to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, he came to see his work and that of anthropology in general as making us more cautious and careful as we inevitably come into closer contact with them. The charms of civilization may be "due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it," but for Lévi-Strauss this does not absolve us of the duty to reform it. For this realistic sense of responsibility and unwillingness to provide false comforts in a time of totalizing prophets, he can still be read with much reward.