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Savaging the civilised

Claude Levi-Strauss,the French anthropologist who transformed Western understanding of what was once called “primitive man” and...

Written by New York Times |
November 5, 2009 3:44:50 am

Claude Levi-Strauss,the French anthropologist who transformed Western understanding of what was once called “primitive man” and who towered over the French intellectual scene in the 1960s and ’70s,has died at 100.

A powerful thinker,he became an avatar of “structuralism,” a school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to underlie all human activity,giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations. His work was a profound influence even on his critics,of which there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in France. And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic,full of daring juxtapositions,intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles little that had come before in anthropology. “People realise he is one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century,” Philippe Descola,the chairman of the anthropology department at the College de France,said last November in an interview with The New York Times on the centenary of Levi-Strauss’ birth. Levi-Strauss was so revered that at least 25 countries celebrated his 100th birthday.

A descendant of a distinguished French-Jewish artistic family,Levi-Strauss was a quintessential French intellectual,as comfortable in the public sphere as in the academy. He taught at universities in Paris,New York and Sao Paulo and also worked for the United Nations and the French government. His legacy is imposing. Mythologiques,his four-volume work about the structure of native mythology in the Americas,attempts nothing less than an interpretation of the world of culture and custom,shaped by analysis of several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. In his analysis of myth and culture,Levi-Strauss might contrast imagery of monkeys and jaguars; consider the differences in meaning of roasted and boiled food (cannibals,he suggested,tended to boil their friends and roast their enemies); and establish connections between weird mythological tales and ornate laws of marriage and kinship.

Many of his books include diagrams that look like maps of interstellar geometry,formulas that evoke mathematical techniques,and black-and-white photographs of scarified faces and exotic ritual that he made during his field work. His interpretations of North and South American myths were pivotal in changing Western thinking about so-called primitive societies. He began challenging the conventional wisdom about them shortly after beginning his anthropological research in the 1930s — an experience that became the basis of an acclaimed 1955 book,Tristes Tropiques,a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere.

The accepted view held that primitive societies were intellectually unimaginative and temperamentally irrational,basing their approaches to life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food,clothing and shelter. Levi-Strauss rescued his subjects from this limited perspective. Beginning with the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil,where he did his first and primary fieldwork,he found among them a dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand origins,a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre myths,and an implicit sense of order and design,even among tribes who practiced ruthless warfare.

Levi-Strauss’ ideas shook his field. But his critics were plentiful. They attacked him for ignoring history and geography,using myths from one place and time to help illuminate myths from another,without demonstrating any direct connection or influence. Some of Levi-Strauss’ theoretical arguments,including his explanation of cannibals and their tastes,have been challenged by empirical research. Levi-Strauss conceded that his strength was in his interpretations of what he discovered and thought that his critics did not sufficiently credit the cumulative impact of those speculations. “Why not admit it?” he once said to an interviewer,Didier Eribon,in Conversations with Levi-Strauss (1988). “I was fairly quick to discover that I was more a man for the study than for the field.”

Claude Levi-Strauss was born on November 28,1908,in Belgium to Raymond Levi-Strauss and the former Emma Levy. He grew up in France,near Versailles,where his grandfather was a rabbi and his father a portrait painter. Determined to become an anthropologist,he began making trips into the country’s interior,accompanied by his wife,Dina Dreyfus,whom he married in 1932. “I was envisaging a way of reconciling my professional education with my taste for adventure,” he said in Conversations,adding: “I felt I was reliving the adventures of the first 16th-century explorers.”

By the 1980s,structuralism as imagined by Levi-Strauss had been displaced by French thinkers who became known as poststructuralists: writers like Michel Foucault,Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They rejected the idea of timeless universals and argued that history and experience were far more important in shaping human consciousness than universal laws. “French society,and especially Parisian,is gluttonous,” Levi-Strauss responded. “Every five years or so,it needs to stuff something new in its mouth. And so five years ago it was structuralism,and now it is something else. I practically don’t dare use the word ‘structuralist’ anymore,since it has been so badly deformed. I am certainly not the father of structuralism.”

But Levi-Strauss’ version of structuralism may end up surviving post-structuralism. His monumental four-volume work,Mythologiques,may ensure his legacy,as a creator of mythologies if not their explicator. The final volume ends by suggesting that the logic of mythology is so powerful that myths almost have a life independent from the peoples who tell them. In his view,they speak through the medium of humanity and become,in turn,the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest mystery: the possibility of not being,the burden of mortality.

The New York Times

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