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A Hero of our Time

Structural Anthropology

by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Translated from the French by Claire Jacobson, by Brook Grundfest Schoepf
Basic Books, 432 pp., $10.00

The paradox is irresoluble: the less one culture communicates with another, the less likely they are to be corrupted, one by the other; but, on the other hand, the less likely it is, in such conditions, that the respective emissaries of these cultures will be able to seize the richness and significance of their diversity. The alternative is inescapable: either I am a traveller in ancient times, and faced with a prodigious spectacle which would be almost entirely unintelligible to me and might, indeed, provoke me to mockery or disgust; or I am a traveller of my own day, hastening in search of a vanished reality. In either case I am the loser…for today, as I go groaning among the shadows, I miss, inevitably, the spectacle that is now taking shape.

—from Tristes Tropiques

Claude Lévi-Strauss—the man who has created anthropology as a total occupation, involving a spiritual commitment like that of the creative artist or the adventurer or the psychoanalyst—is no man of letters. Most of his writings are scholarly, and he has always been associated with the academic world. Since 1960 he has held a very grand academic post, the newly created chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France, and heads a large and richly endowed research institute. But his academic eminence and ability to dispense patronage are scarcely adequate measures of the formidable position he occupies in French intellectual life today. In France, where there is more awareness of the adventure, the risk involved in intelligence, a man can be both a specialist and the subject of general and intelligent interest and controversy. Hardly a month passes in France without a major article in some serious literary journal, or an important public lecture, extolling or damning the ideas and influence of Lévi-Strauss. Apart from the tireless Sartre and the virtually silent Malraux, he must be the most interesting intellectual figure in France today.

So far, Lévi-Strauss is hardly known in this country. A collection of seventeen previously scattered essays on the methods and concepts of anthropology, brought out in 1958 and entitled Structural Anthropology, has just been published here. Still to appear are another collection of essays, more philosophical in character, entitled La Pensée Sauvage; a book published by UNESCO in 1952 called Race et histoire: and the brilliant works on the kinship systems of primitives. Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949); and on totemism, Le Totemism aujourd’hui (1962). Some of these writings suppose more familiarity with anthropological literature and with the concepts of linguistics, sociology, and psychology than the ordinary cultivated reader has. But it would be a great pity if Lévi-Strauss’s work, when finally translated, were to find no more than a specialist audience in this country. For Lévi-Strauss has assembled, from the vantage point of anthropology, one of the few interesting and possible intellectual positions—in the most general sense of the phrase. And one of his books is a masterpiece. I mean the incomparable Tristes Tropiques, a book which when published in France in 1955 became a best seller, but when translated into English and brought out here in 1961 was shamefully ignored.1 Tristes Tropiques is one of the great books of our century. It is rigorous, subtle, and bold in thought. It is beautifully written. And, like all great books, it bears an absolutely personal stamp; it speaks with a human voice.

Ostensibly Tristes Tropiques is the record, or memoir rather, written over fifteen years after the event, of the author’s experiences in the “field.” Anthropologists are fond of likening field research to the puberty ordeal which confers status upon members of certain primitive societies. Lévi-Strauss’s ordeal was in Brazil, before the second World War. Born in 1908 and of the intellectual generation and circle which included Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Nizan, he studied philosophy in the late Twenties, and, like them, taught for a while in a provincial lycée. Dissatisfied with philosophy he soon gave up his teaching post, returned to Paris to study law, then began the study of anthropology, and in 1935 went to Sâo Paolo, Brazil, as Professor of Anthropology. From 1935 to 1939, during the long university vacations from November to March and then for longer periods of a year or more. Lévi-Strauss lived among Indian tribes in the interior of Brazil. Tristes Tropiques offers a record of his encounters with these tribes—the nomadic, missionary - murdering Nambikwara, the Tupi-Kawahib whom no white man had ever seen before, the materially splendid Bororo, the ceremonious Caduveo who produce huge amounts of abstract painting and sculpture. But the greatness of Tristes Tropiques lies not simply in this sensitive reportage, but in the way Lévi-Strauss uses his experience—to reflect on the nature of landscape, on the meaning of physical hardship, on the city in the Old World and the New, on the idea of travel, on sunsets, on modernity, on the connection between literacy and power. The key to the book is Chapter Six, “How I Became an Anthropologist,” where Lévi-Strauss finds in the history of his own choice a case study of the unique spiritual hazards to which the anthropologist subjects himself. Tristes Tropiques is an intensely personal book. Like Montaigne’s Essays and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, it is an intellectual autobiography, an exemplary personal history in which a whole view of the human situation, an entire sensibility is elaborated.

The profoundly intelligent sympathy which informs Tristes Tropiques makes all other memoirs about life among preliterate peoples seem ill-at-ease, defensive, provincial. Yet sympathy is modulated throughout by a hard-won impassivity. In her autobiography Simone de Beauvoir recalls Lévi-Strauss as a young philosophy student-teacher expounding “in his detached voice, and with a deadpan expression…the folly of the passions.” Not for nothing is Tristes Tropiques prefaced by a motto from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. Lévi-Strauss’s aim is very much like that of Lucretius, the Graecophile Roman who urged the study of the natural sciences as a mode of ethical psychotherapy. The aim of Lucretius was not independent scientific knowledge, but the reduction of emotional anxiety. Lucretius saw man as hurled between the pleasure of sex and the pain of emotional loss, tormented by superstitions inspired by religion, haunted by the fear of bodily decay and death. He recommended scientific knowledge, which teaches intelligent detachment, equanimity, psychological gracefulness, a way of learning to let go.

Lévi-Strauss sees man with a Lucretian pessimism, and a Lucretian feeling for knowledge as both consolation and necessary disenchantment. But for him the demon is history—not the body or the appetites. The past, with its mysteriously harmonious structures, is broken and crumbling before our eyes. Hence, the tropics are tristes. There were nearly twenty thousand of the naked, indigent, nomadic, handsome Nambikwaras in 1915, when they were first visited by white missionaries; when Lévi-Strauss arrived in 1938 there were no more than two thousand of them; today they are miserable, ugly, syphilitic, and almost extinct. Hopefully, anthropology brings a reduction of historical anxiety. It is interesting that many of Lévi-Strauss’s students are reported to be former Marxists, come as it were to lay their piety at the altar of the past since it cannot be offered to the future. Anthropology is necrology. “Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.”

It is strange to think of these ex-Marxists—philosophical optimists if ever such have existed—submitting to the melancholy spectacle of the crumbling pre-historic past. They have moved not only from optimism to pessimism, but from certainty to systematic doubt. For, according to Lévi-Strauss, research in the field, “where every ethnological career begins, is the mother and nursemaid of doubt, the philosophical attitude par excellence.” In Lévi-Strauss’s program for the practicing anthropologist in Structural Anthropology, the Cartesian method of doubt is installed as a permanent agnosticism. “This ‘anthropological doubt’ consists not merely in knowing that one knows nothing but in resolutely exposing what one knows, even one’s own ignorance, to the insults and denials inflicted on one’s dearest ideas and habits by those ideas and habits which may contradict them to the highest degree.”

To be an anthropologist is thus to adopt a very ingenious stance via-à-vis one’s own doubts, one’s own intellectual uncertainties. Lévi-Strauss makes it clear that for him this is an eminently philosophical stance. At the same time, anthropology reconciles a number of divergent personal claims. It is one of the rare intellectual vocations which do not demand a sacrifice of one’s manhood. Courage, love of adventure, and physical hardiness—as well as brains—are used by it. It also offers a solution to that distressing by-product of intelligence, alienation. Anthropology conquers the estranging function of the intellect by institutionalizing it. For the anthropologist, the world is professionally divided into “home” and “out there,” the domestic and the exotic, the urban academic world and the tropics. The anthropologist is not simply a neutral observer. He is a man in control of, and even consciously exploiting, his own intellectual alienation. A technique de dépaysement, Lévi-Strauss calls his profession in Structural Anthropology. He takes for granted the philistine formulas of modern scientific “value neutrality.” What he does is to offer an exquisite, aristocratic version of this neutrality. The anthropologist in the field becomes the very model of the twentieth-century consciousness: a “critic at home” but a “conformist elsewhere.” Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that this paradoxical spiritual state makes it impossible for the anthropologist to be a citizen. The anthropologist, so far as his own country is concerned, is sterilized politically. He cannot seek power, he can only be a critical dissenting voice. Lévi-Strauss himself, although in the most generic and very French way a man of the Left (he signed the famous Manifesto of the 121 which recommended civil disobedience in France in protest against the Algerian war), is by French standards an apolitical man. Anthropology, in Lévi-Strauss’s conception, is a technique of political disengagement.

Anthropology has always struggled with an intense, fascinated repulsion towards its subject. The horror of the primitive (naively expressed by Frazer and Lévy-Bruhl) is never far from the anthropologist’s consciousness. Lévi-Strauss marks the furthest reach of the conquering of the aversion. The anthropologist in the manner of Lévi-Strauss is a new breed altogether. He is not, like recent generations of American anthropologists, simply a modest data-collecting “observer.” Nor does he have any axe—Christian, rationalist, Freudian, or otherwise—to grind. By means of experience in the field, the anthropologist undergoes a “psychological revolution”. Like Psychoanalysis, anthropology cannot be taught “purely theoretically,” Lévi-Strauss insists in several essays on the profession and teaching of his subject in Structural Anthropology. A spell in the field is the exact equivalent of the training analysis undergone by psychoanalysis. Not written tests, but the judgment of “experienced members of the profession” who have undergone the same psychological ordeal, can determine “if and when” a candidate anthropologist “has, as a result of field work, accomplished that inner revolution that will really make him into a new man.”

However, it must be emphasized that this literary-sounding conception of the anthropologist’s calling—the twice-born spiritual adventurer, pledged to a systematic déracinement—is complemented in most of Lévi-Strauss’s writings by an insistence on the most unliterary techniques of research. His important essay on myth in Structural Anthropology outlines a technique for analyzing the elements of myths so that these can be recorded on IBM cards. European contributions to what in America are called the “social sciences” are in exceedingly low repute in this country, for their insufficient empirical documentation, for their “humanist” weakness for covert culture criticism, for their refusal to embrace the techniques of quantification as an essential tool of research. Lévi-Strauss’s essays in Structural Anthropology certainly escape these strictures. Indeed, far from disdaining the American fondness for precise quantitative measurement of all traditional problems, LéviStrauss finds it not sophisticated or methodologically rigorous enough. At the expense of the French school (Durkheim, Mauss, and their followers), to whom one would expect him to be allied. Lévi-Strauss pays lavish tribute throughout the essays in Structural Anthropology to the work of American anthropologists—particularly Lowie, Boas, and Kroeber. But his real affinity is clearly to the more avant-garde methodologies of economies, neurology, linguistics, and game theory. For Lévi-Strauss, there is no doubt that anthropology must be a science, rather than a humanistic study. The question is only how. “For centuries,” he writes, “the humanities and the social sciences have resigned themselves to contemplate the world of the natural and exact sciences as a kind of paradise where they will never enter.” But recently, a doorway to paradise has been opened by the linguists, like Roman Jakobson and his school. Linguists now know how to reformulate their problems so that they can “have a machine built by an engineer and make a kind of experiment, completely similar to a natural-science experiment,” which will tell them “if the hypothesis is worthwhile or not.” Linguists—as well as economists and game theorists—have shown the anthropologist “a way to get out of the confusion resulting from too much acquaintance and familiarity with concrete data.”

Thus the man who submits himself to the exotic to confirm his own inner alienation as an urban intellectual ends by aiming to vanquish his subject by translating it into a purely formal code. The ambivalence toward the exotic, the primitive, is not overcome after all, but only given a complex restatement. The anthropologist, as a man, is engaged in saving his own soul, by a curious and ambitious act of intellectual catharsis. But he is also committed to recording and understanding his subject by a very high-powered mode of formal analysis—what Lévi-Strauss calls “structural” anthropology—which obliterates all traces of his personal experience and truly effaces the human features of his subject, a given primitive society.

In La Pensée Sauvage, Lévi-Strauss calls his thought “anecdotique et géometrique.” The essays in Structural Anthropology show mostly the geometrical side of his thought: they are applications of a rigorous formalism to traditional themes—kinship systems, totemism, puberty rites, the relation between myth and ritual, and so forth. A great cleansing operation is in process, and the broom that sweeps everything clean is the notion of “structure,” Lévi-Strauss strongly dissociates himself from what he calls the “naturalistic” trend of British anthropology, represented by such leading figures as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. According to Malinowski, empirical, observation of a single primitive society will make it possible to understand the “universal motivations” present in all societies. According to Lévi-Strauss, this is nonsense. Anthropology cannot possibly get complete knowledge of the societies it studies; it studies only the formal features which differentiate one society from another, Anthropology can neither be a descriptive nor an inductive science. It has properly no interest in the biological basis, psychological content, or social function of institutions and customs. Thus, while Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown argue, for example, that biological ties are the origin of and the model for every kinship tie, the “structuralists,” like Lévi-Strauss, following Kroeber and Lowie, emphasize the artificiality of kinship rules. They would discuss kinship in terms of notions which admit of mathematical treatment. LéviStrauss and the structuralists, in short, would view society like a chess game. Different societies assign different moves to the players; there is no one right way to play chess. Thus, the anthropologist can view a ritual or a taboo simply as a set of rules, paying little attention to “the nature of the partners (either individuals or groups) whose play is being patterned after these rules.” The analogy between anthropology and linguistics is the leading theme of the essays in Structural Anthropology. All behavior, according to Lévi-Strauss, is a language, a vocabulary and grammar of order; anthropology proves nothing about human nature except the need for order itself. There is no universal truth about the relations between, say, religion and social structure. There are only models showing the variability of one in relation to the other.

To the general reader of Structural Anthropology, perhaps the most striking example of Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical agnosticism is his view of myth. He treats myth as a purely formal mental operation, without any psychological content or any necessary connection with rite. Specific narratives are exposed as logical designs for the description and possibly the softening of the rules of the social game when they give rise to a tension or contradiction. For Lévi-Strauss, the logic of mythic thought is fully as rigorous as that of modern science. The only difference is that this logic is applied to different problems. Contrary to Mircea Eliade, his most distinguished opponent in the theory of primitive religion, Lévi-Strauss sees no difference in quality between the scientific thinking of modern “historical” societies and the mythic thinking of prehistoric communities.

The demonic character which history and the notion of historical consciousness has for Lévi-Strauss is best exposed in his brilliant and savage attack on Sartre, in the last chapter of La Pensée Sauvage. I am not convinced by Lévi-Strauss’s arguments against Sartre. But I should say that he is, since the death of Merleau-Ponty, the only interesting and challenging critic of Sartrean existentialism and phenomenology.

Not only in his ideas, but in his entire sensibility, the antithesis of Lévi-Strauss is Sartre. Sartre, with his philosophical and political dogmatisms, his inexhaustible ingenuity and clotted style, always has the manners (which are often bad manners) of the enthusiast. It is entirely apt that the writer who has aroused Sartre’s greatest enthusiasm is Jean Genet, a baroque and didactic and insolent writer whose ego effaces all objective narrative; whose characters are stages in a masturbatory revel; who is the master of games and artifices, of a rich, over-rich style stuffed with metaphors and conceits. But there is another tradition in French thought and sensibility—the cult of froideur, l’esprit géometrique. This tradition is represented, among the new novelists, by Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Butor, so different from Genet in their search for an infinite precision, their narrow dehydrated subject-matter and cool microscopic styles and, among film makers, by Alain Resnais, the director of the great Nuit et Brouillard as well as Hiroshima Mon Amour, L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, and Muriel. The formula for this tradition—in which I would locate Lévi-Strauss, as I would put Sartre with Genet—is the mixture of pathos and coldness.

Like the formalists of the “new novel” and film, Lévi-Strauss’s emphasis on “structure,” his extreme formalism and intellectual agnosticism, are the steely casing for an immense but thoroughly subdued pathos. Sometimes the result is a masterpiece like Tristes Tropiques. The very title is an understatement. The tropics are not merely sad. They are in agony. The horror of the rape, the final and irrevocable destruction of pre-literate peoples taking place throughout the world today—which is the true subject of Lévi-Strauss’s book—is told at a certain distance, the distance of a personal experience of fifteen years ago, and with a sureness of feeling and fact that allows the readers’ emotions more rather than less freedom.

But in the rest of these books, the lucid and brilliantly compassionate documentarist has been overwhelmed by the aesthete, the formalist. The whole point of the new novels and films coming out of France today is to suppress the story, in its traditional psychological or social meaning, in favor of a formal exploration of the structure of an emotion. It is exactly in this spirit that Lévi-Strauss applies the methods of “structural analysis” to traditional materials of empirical anthropology. Customs, rites, myths, and taboo are a language. As in language, where the sounds which make up words are, taken in themselves, meaningless, so the parts of a custom or a rite or a myth (according to Lévi-Strauss) are meaningless in themselves. When analyzing the Oedipus myth, he insists that the parts of the myth (the lost child, the old man at the crossroad, the marriage with the mother, the blinding, etc.) mean nothing. Only when put together in the total context do the parts have a meaning—the meaning that a logical model has. This degree of intellectual agnosticism is surely extraordinary. And one does not have to espouse a Freudian or a sociological interpretation of the elements of myth to contest it.

Any serious critique of Lévi-Strauss, however, must deal with the fact that, ultimately, his extreme formalism is a moral choice, and (more surprisingly) a vision of social perfection. Radically anti-historicist, he refuses to differentiate between “primitive” and “historical” societies. Primitives have a history; but it is unknown to us. And historical consciousness (which they do not have), he argues in the attack on Sartre, is not a privileged mode of consciousness. There are only what he revealingly calls “hot” and “cold” societies. The hot societies are the modern ones, driven by the demons of historical progress. The cold societies are the primitive ones, static, crystalline, harmonious. Utopia, for Lévi-Strauss, would be a great lowering of the historical temperature. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Lévi-Strauss outlined a post-Marxist vision of freedom in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from “the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible.” Then:

history would henceforth be quite alone, and society, placed outside and above history, would once again be able to assume that regular and quasi-crystalline structure which, the best-preserved primitive societies teach us, is not contradictory to humanity. It is in this admittedly Utopian view that social anthropology would find its highest justification, since the forms of life and thought which it studies would no longer be of mere historic and comparative interest. They would correspond to a permanent possibility of man, over which social anthropology would have a mission to stand watch, especially in man’s darkest hours.

The anthropologist is thus not only the mourner of the cold world of the primitives, but its custodian as well. Groaning among the shadows, struggling to distinguish the archaic from the pseudoarchaic, he acts out a heroic, diligent, and complex modern pessimism.

Letters

Levi-Strauss January 23, 1964

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    It is shortly to be reissued by Atheneum in paperback.

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