The Key to All Mythologies

Lévi-Strauss: A Biography

by Emmanuelle Loyer, translated from the French by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff
Polity, 744 pp., $45.00
Claude Lévi-Strauss in his office in Paris, 1969
Martine Frank/Magnum Photos
Claude Lévi-Strauss in his office in Paris, 1969

In 1937 Claude Lévi-Strauss, a twenty-nine-year-old aspiring anthropologist, decided that the time had come to do his fieldwork—a rite of passage for his intended profession. Bronisław Malinowski, Polish-born and British-trained, had established the model, settling by himself for several years among the Trobriand Islanders during World War I and publishing a book about them that braided together observation and theory. A decade later, Edward Evans-Pritchard spent nearly two years on his own among the Azande of the upper Nile, producing a richly observed book that profoundly influenced philosophical work on epistemology and scientific explanation. Lévi-Strauss set his sights on the Nambikwara tribes of Mato Grosso, a vast expanse of western Brazil. But he would do things differently.

He decided that a proper foray into the realm of the non-civilisé, spread over thousands of square miles, would require a research team—it included his wife, Dina, whose academic training was similar to his, and a naturalist-physician, J.A. Vellard—and plenty of heavy equipment. He assembled twenty men, fifteen mules, and some thirty oxen, along with guns and three thousand rounds of ammunition. Forget the immersions of Malinowski; this was an expedition in the style of Sir Richard Burton and John Speke, perhaps even of Fitzcarraldo.

As Emmanuelle Loyer, a professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po, notes in her long and lively biography of Lévi-Strauss, “the ‘visitors’ were often to outnumber the visited Indians.” The team, mindful of menaces, never stayed anywhere for long. In a letter to a friend in São Paulo, Lévi-Strauss reported:

I am writing to you in the midst of fifteen men, women and children who are stark naked (but that’s a shame since their bodies are not beautiful), with an extremely welcoming nature given that they are the same group (and probably the same individuals) who had slaughtered a Protestant mission in Juruena five years ago.

At one point, Vellard decided to test the curare in which the Nambikwara dipped their arrows by jabbing the stuff into a dog, and watched it die of asphyxia. Dina, in her diaries (which Loyer quotes to good effect), wrote acidly, “I am not prepared to die and I wish to return from this adventure. Otherwise, it will no longer be an adventure.”

And “adventure” does seem the mot juste. It was certainly a long way from any of the worlds Lévi-Strauss had known. He came from an Alsatian-Jewish family and grew up in a largely secular household, although he was bar mitzvahed to appease a rabbi grandfather. His father was a painter in a Beaux-Arts style that was growing steadily less fashionable; Loyer describes the family as “downwardly mobile bourgeoisie.” Lévi-Strauss earned a double degree in law and philosophy at the Sorbonne and in 1931 took the agrégation exam…

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