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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.