Mythologiques: du miel aux cendres

by Claude Lévi-Strauss
Plon (Paris), 480 pp., 42 francs

Lévi-Strauss; drawing by David Levine

The problem is, Just where do we fit in? Are we better or worse or indeed in any way different from our prehistoric ancestors or our primitive contemporaries? We are animals and, therefore, a part of Nature, but we are also self-conscious human beings who can somehow or other conceive of ourselves as outside observers, looking on. And then again the process we call “thinking” is quite clearly something that goes on inside our heads, a function of electro-chemical processes in the brain, yet it is also a response to signals which we receive from outside through our senses. How can I believe that I can think about Nature, when quite clearly thinking is a phenomenon in which I and Nature interact?

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a prolific writer, but his commentators are even more so and, as each new volume appears, the whole business becomes more and more a private dialogue for the initiated. It is esoteric stuff, and although this review is addressed to a more general reader it can scarcely avoid some touches of gobbledegook.

The Savage Mind is a translation, in plain cover, of La Pensée sauvage (1962) which started out in a baffling jacket illustrated with a picture of wild pansies—“there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” The translation is anonymous, but it is common knowledge that it has proved a publisher’s nightmare. At least three distinguished hands had their share in the final product. Professor Geertz has declared the result to be “execrable”; Dr. Rodney Needham, on the other hand, reports that “a word-by-word collation of the first chapter with the French text yields only a few inconsequential slips.” Perhaps both are right. A passage such as:

When therefore I describe savage thought as a system of concepts embedded in images, I do not come anywhere near the robinsonnades of a constitutive constituent dialectic: all constitutive reason presupposes a constituted reason [p. 264]

can hardly be said to make much sense though it is a literally exact transformation of the corresponding passage at p. 349 of the French original. Perhaps you have to be an initiate even to understand the French. All the same, I do feel that the translators have fuzzed things up quite unnecessarily in places. Take the title, for example. The obvious translation of La Pensée sauvage is “savage thought”—as in the quotation above—whereas The Savage Mind recalls Lévi-Strauss’s much used, but decidedly ambiguous, l’esprit humain, which might suggest that the book is about metaphysics, whereas, in fact, it is about logic.

THE FUNDAMENTAL THEME of this book is that we are at fault if we follow Lévy-Bruhl (and by derivation Sartre) in thinking that there is an historical contrast between the “pre-logical” mentality of Primitives and the “logical” mentality of Modern Man. Primitive people are no more mystical in their approach to reality than we are. The distinction rather is between a logic…

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