Web Letters | The Nation

Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss

Self vs. selflessness

Levi-Strauss wrote, "I had been looking for a society...all I could find in it were individual human beings." What Strauss found was the beginnings of civilization, sans romance. Its genesis in the tension between self-interest and the social group: between the greater physical and economic security of society or solitary independence.

Religion, with its tradition and ritual, was added for intergenerational stability to enhance the security of the culture and society.

That primal struggle between self and selflessness is the struggle between ego and security. Good culture mitigates that primitive tension through the provision and promise of physical and economic security.

Bud Ilic

Bloomington, IL

Jan 28 2011 - 4:26pm

Library Man: On Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss back in the day

Thank you very much for Thomas Meaney’s delightful review. The review’s leisurely format, and Meaney’s elegant integration of his criticisms into a well-written context, made me nostalgic.

My only quibble is that Meaney never quite gets around to giving his readers a good feel for how exciting Lévi-Strauss was to young Americans when Tristes Tropiques was first translated in 1961.

(That Lévi-Strauss was just as exciting to fusty old Frenchmen was made clear in 1964 when Sartre published Les Mots, and in it announced, “Je déteste mon enfance et tout ce qui en survit…” — an obvious homage to Lévi-Strauss, “Je hais les voyages et les explorateurs…”)

Many of us who first encountered Lévi-Strauss in the early 1960s wanted to love Europe but, frankly, after the Holocaust, we wanted to love a Europe that didn’t constantly threaten to mire us in the hopeless, tragic past.

With Tristes Tropiques, we had, at last, a bona fide French genius who’d come to play in the New World.

While the Mato Grosso may have been far from Washington Square or, for that matter, Sheepshead Bay, Tristes Tropiques made the probity and inventiveness of French intellectual life not only accessible to us but also relevant to our own experience.

And, for those of us who were Jewish, Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that our heritage—our rituals, folkways, and taboos—oughtn’t be dismissed as shamefully “pre-modern.” He de-ghettoized us; Judaism and Jewish sensibilities were of universal value, after all.

Hugo de Naranja


Jan 25 2011 - 12:08pm