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.