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 in philosophy, a necessary credential for a teaching career. Dina Dreyfus, whom he married in 1932, had also studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and was a fellow agregé.
Both ended up teaching at provincial lycées but retained a keen intellectual appetite. Lévi-Strauss’s own “intellectual mistresses,” he avowed, were Marx, Freud, and geology. Around 1933 he read Primitive Society by Robert Lowie and decided that anthropology might bring together his various interests. He devoured the ethnographic canon, including Malinowski, James Frazer, Marcel Mauss, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, and Franz Boas. Still, lacking formal training in the field, he had no obvious route out of the life of a lycée instructor. The reason Lévi-Strauss ended up in Brazil was that the only decent academic position on offer was at the newly created University of São Paulo.
His ethnographic excursions in Brazil were distinctly haphazard. He’d made an earlier visit to the Bororo, for instance, in large part because his fisherman guide wanted tobacco and knew that they grew it. As his heavily armed caravan creaked through Mato Grosso, his visits to the Indian villages were not only brief—it was ethnography as speed dating—but highly mediated. He did not speak the indigenous tongues; he wasn’t even fluent in Portuguese. The interviews typically involved a Portuguese-speaking villager whose remarks someone else would translate into French. Lévi-Strauss, however, was unabashed. He spent four days with the Mundé and came away with views about their kinship system and vocabulary. This ferocious autodidact, one senses, would slot his schemas wherever they would stick.
After six months of careering from one village to another, the adventure was over. It was not just his first serious foray into the field; it was also his last. (He was to write later, in the famous first sentence of Tristes Tropiques, his most famous book, “I hate traveling and explorers.”) As a previous biographer, Patrick Wilcken, observed in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (2010), “by the 1950s no serious anthropologist could have gotten away with such a whimsical journey.” Lévi-Strauss himself had few illusions about where his skills and interests lay: “I realized early on that I was a library man, not a fieldworker.” In the Frenchman’s own terms, one could say that Evans-Pritchard’s approach to ethnography was to Lévi-Strauss’s as the raw is to the cooked.
Returning to Paris in the spring of 1939, Lévi-Strauss installed himself at the Musée de l’Homme, preparing to exhibit some of the hundreds of objects he had collected from his South American informants. He also broke up with his wife and started (but did not finish) a novel, which involved Pacific Islanders fooled by a phonograph into thinking that their gods had returned. Working title: Tristes Tropiques.
As for the looming Nazi threat, his vaguely Marxist analysis inclined him to think it was a passing storm, a matter, as he explained to a friend, of “the jealousy felt by the German middle-classes towards the Jews who have managed to thrive during the period of inflation.” He was called up when the war broke out and after France surrendered in June 1940 found himself in Montpellier. Hoping to take up a more prestigious teaching position in Paris, he went to Vichy to get authorization to return. Later, he recalled, “The official in charge looked at me, dumbfounded: ‘With a name like yours, to Paris? You can’t be serious!’ It was only then that I began to understand.” As with his ethnographic encounters, Lévi-Strauss was inclined to favor his models, his analyses, over the messy exigencies of fact.
Finally, in 1941, he secured a visa to America—the necessary job offer had been extended by the New School for Social Research, a haven for European academic refugees—and after an arduous passage arrived in New York. At the New School he had to be styled “Claude L. Strauss,” lest students think of the jeans maker. He also found his way to French government-in-exile groups, pledging fealty to General de Gaulle. But his time in New York was far more than sanctuary, because it was here that he formed a life-altering friendship with a fellow refugee named Roman Jakobson—a Russian linguist, polymath, and bon vivant.
Jakobson was also a structuralist: he had mastered the work of a then little-known Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), extracted a handful of core ideas, and seen what could be done with them. Among these ideas was the distinction between language, conceived as an abstract system, and speech, taken as particular utterances. Another concerned the way “signs” signified. Take the phoneme, the smallest meaningful unit of linguistic sound: a phoneme was significant only in differentiating a word that had it from one that had another (say, “coat” from “goat”). A third idea was about the relations among such entities: they could be substitutes for one another. The voiced plosive “b” could replace the unvoiced plosive “p” (“bat,” “pat”), or they could be juxtaposed to each other (the way an “r” sound could turn “bat” into “brat”). Relations of substitution were dubbed “paradigmatic”; those of adjacency “syntagmatic.”
This model could be extended into other domains. Cap, bonnet, helmet, boater, trilby: their relation to one another is paradigmatic, while their relation to your head is syntagmatic. The same goes for brogue, sandals, clogs, and boots, all of which are syntagmatic with respect to your feet. Once you’ve set this up, you could relate the two classes of apparel to other binary oppositions (up and down, air and soil) and other congruences (both protect the body from the environment). There are inversions, as well, to be noted: in food preparation, hairnets and toques serve to protect the environment from the body, just as the Cagots, a despised minority once found in western France, were required to wear shoes in order to protect the soil from their feet.
Setting out to write an ambitious work of anthropological theory, Lévi-Strauss identified the “atom of kinship,” the phoneme of the family, and moved on from there, applying the techniques of structural analysis to then current anthropological fixations on kinship and gift exchange. In fact, he managed to unite the two, by positing that women were the ultimate object of exchange. Returning to France in 1947, he submitted The Elementary Structures of Kinship as his major thesis at the Sorbonne for the degree that would make him eligible for an academic position. When it was published the following year, it was an event. Drawing from thousands of ethnographic accounts, he saw relationships others had not. The real marital relationship of reciprocity wasn’t between husband and wife, he revealed, but between the groups of men who had exchanged the woman. (Men were to be seen as “the takers of wives and the givers of sisters”: debtors and creditors.) Simone de Beauvoir gave it a rhapsodic review (“it must be read”); some likened it to Das Kapital in magnitude and significance. In the church of structuralism, the catechumen had become pope.
In 1955 Lévi-Strauss published “The Structural Study of Myth,” a paper that inaugurated the major phase of his intellectual career. Here, following the Saussurean principle of identifying the smallest component of an object of study, he arrived at the “mytheme” and explored its syntagmatic and paradigmatic permutations. Eteocles kills his brother Polyneices. Oedipus kills his father, Laius. Oedipus marries Jocasta. Antigone, flouting an edict, buries her brother. Each was a mytheme. The first two could be grouped vertically under a column headed “underrating of blood relations,” the second two under the rubric “overrating of blood relations.”
A grid began to appear; many more relations and themes were diagrammed in this way, in a sequence of columns. As with the staves of an orchestral score—a metaphor of which Lévi-Strauss was fond—mythic structures were to be read both vertically and horizontally. And along another dimension, a larger theme emerged: these myths negotiated a conflict between a creed that held humanity’s origins to be autochthonous—sprung from the earth—and the knowledge that we are born from man and woman. In a blunter, later formulation, he ventured that all myth concerns the passage from nature to culture.
At the time, he was teaching in the sleepy religion department of the École pratique des hautes études; although his allies had tried to get him a chair at the august Collège de France, their efforts had been blocked. (He plausibly saw anti-Semitism as a factor.) But there was an upside: if he hadn’t written off his chances there, he later remarked, he never would have dared to publish Tristes Tropiques (1955), a sort of anti-travelogue travelogue cum memoir. Written in a confessional voice he elsewhere held back, the book became a best seller. It included reflections on his profession, a vivid account of his various travels, and lamentations about the decline of cultural diversity. “I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt,” he wrote. And yet he recognized that he was
caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less human societies were able to communicate with each other and therefore to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity.
At the same time, he could write about South Asia with Naipaulian misanthropy:
Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humours, secretions and running sores: all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organized protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper. To every individual, any street, footpath or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth. Far from repelling him, this filth acquires a kind of domestic status through having been exuded, excreted, tramped on and handled by so many men.
Islam, he said, was an ideal “barrack-room religion”; its displays of aesthetic finery were a “veneer” over “the bigotry pervading Islamic moral and religious thought.” As for Western culture, Lévi-Strauss thought it had been deformed by its medieval confrontation with Islam (“the West, by taking part in the crusades, was involved in opposing it and therefore came to resemble it”) and was threatening to impose monocultural uniformities on a world whose varieties he sought to preserve.
In the meantime, his analyses of myth continued apace. When Structural Anthropology appeared in 1958, it seemed to revolutionize the study of mythology—perhaps even of all narrative. The idea of isolating the patterns and primitive elements of myths had a long history, which is why George Eliot could have her drear pedant Edward Casaubon fecklessly laboring away at a Key to All Mythologies. Lord Raglan had published The Hero, James Frazer The Golden Bough, Robert Graves The White Goddess. But nobody had analyzed myth with such encyclopedic range and apparent rigor. What’s striking today is Lévi-Strauss’s unabashed scientism: Bulfinch’s Mythology filtered through Principia Mathematica. This and his subsequent tomes on the topic were stippled with mathematics-flavored references to transformations, vector spaces, permutations, even “Klein groups” (which bear on the rotational symmetries of rectangles). In what was either the acme or the reductio ad absurdum of his intellectual aspiration, Lévi-Strauss, proceeding with his “logico-mathematical analysis,” presented the formula to which “every myth (considered as the aggregate of all its variants) corresponds,” namely
Fx(a): Fy(b) ≃ Fx(b):Fa-1(y).
The equivalence, he said, signified that any term can be replaced by its opposite, a with a-1; and that the “function value” and the “term value” can be inverted.
What were these “function values” and “term values”? Maurice Godelier’s Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Critical Study of His Thought has much to say about this and a great deal else. Godelier, a professor of anthropology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, was, in the 1960s, an assistant of Lévi-Strauss’s who, Loyer says, “was nonetheless something of a free spirit in the Lévi-Straussian firmament,” being a Marxist as well as structuralist. Godelier’s study provides an extended gloss of each of Lévi-Strauss’s significant publications, somewhat in the manner of a highly detailed discography. He is warmly admiring but not always in agreement, defending Lévi-Strauss from the criticisms of others while pressing some of his own. And he devotes many pages (and not a little research) to the infamous “canonical formula,” acknowledging that “many anthropologists have deemed this formula incomprehensible and/or useless.” While Godelier grants that it is “opaque,” in part “because Lévi-Strauss had never specifically indicated how to use it,” he suspects that it may contribute to a synthesis of cognitive science and the social sciences.
A less charitable reading is that Lévi-Strauss—who admitted he was “hopeless” at math as a student—had succumbed to a sort of cargo-cult fetish of mathematical formalism. Perhaps he thought others would too. In Tristes Tropiques, he had written about handing out pencils and paper to a group of nonliterate Nambikwara, whereupon the chief asked for a proper writing pad and proceeded to draw wavy lines, “unintelligible scribbling” that he pretended had meaning. The chief grasped, Lévi-Strauss said, that writing was ultimately a means “of increasing the authority and prestige” of one person over another. The canonical formula, which Lévi-Strauss seemed at pains not to illuminate, would appear to be another instance of this.
An assertion of disciplinary authority and prestige may also explain the full-bore critique of Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s last rival for intellectual preeminence, that appeared in La Pensée Sauvage (1962) as the final chapter. (The book’s title involved a pun: pensée means both “thought” and “pansy,” and an image of the five-petaled flower adorned the French edition; it was eventually translated as The Savage Mind, although Lévi-Strauss’s title suggestion, Mind in the Wild, would have been better.) Sartre’s approach, he said, naively privileged history—“in Sartre’s system, history plays exactly the part of a myth”—and was deeply ethnocentric, wedded to a misguided contrast between modern and primitive modes of thought, and confined to a laughably parochial range of phenomena. Many readers found this attack on Sartre liberating: they saw structuralism overtaking existentialism and Marxism as a master discourse, chrome-clad precision surmounting Sartre’s smoggy subjectivism.
What felt like a revolution in the human sciences had swept away the opposition. Lévi-Strauss had at last been awarded that chair at the Collège de France, where he would set up a Laboratory of Social Anthropology. Prominent British anthropologists such as Edmund Leach and Rodney Needham championed his work in the English-speaking world. And he was just getting started on his own Key to All Mythologies, which took the form of a four-volume work published as Mythologiques. Edward Casaubon had his “Synoptical Tabulations.” Lévi-Strauss and his assistants sought a higher-tech approach; he dreamed of computer punch cards and created mobiles of paired Möbius strips, graphing myths in three dimensions.
In the tetralogy’s first installment, The Raw and the Cooked (1964), he explored cooking as a negotiation between nature and culture. (He had previously introduced the “gusteme,” the phoneme of food, in Structural Anthropology.) His analyses here would be the basis of an equilateral triangle, soon a staple of textbooks, in which “Raw” perched at the top vertex, “Cooked” was to its lower left, and “Rotten” to its lower right. The relations were mediated, horizontally, by “fire,” and vertically by the shift to culture from nature. Nature is to culture as raw is to cooked. Animals eat their food raw and are afraid of fire. Rotting is how nature transforms food; cooking is how culture transforms food. A critical distinction was made between roasting (done by men, and involving no receptacle, therefore more natural, but also entailing the partial destruction of the meat) and boiling (done by women, involving a receptacle, and more conserving of the meat). A second installment was titled From Honey to Ashes (1966); a great deal was spun from the notion that honey was “beyond raw”; ash (that is, tobacco smoke) was “beyond cooked.”
Lévi-Strauss had a gift for finding symmetries, homologies, and inversions wherever he looked. If “birds are metaphorical human beings and dogs metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings,” he had offered in The Savage Mind. Noticing that French farmers give their cows names referring to their coat or their temperament, as opposed to the human traits and ranks evoked in dog names, he concluded that such names “differ from the names given to dogs in that they are epithets coming from the syntagmatic chain, while the latter come from the paradigmatic series.” (A dog I know named Rusty would take issue with this.) In The Origin of Table Manners, the third installment of Mythologiques, he argued that while we wear hats and use forks to keep our heads dry and our fingers clean, in savage societies good manners serve to protect the purity of objects from the grubbiness of man.
These formulations felt like insights, but which could withstand scrutiny? For more earth-bound anthropologists—like Leach and Needham, who were students of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard—the issuances of Lévi-Strauss’s brilliant mind began to strain credulity. It seemed that the work, as Dorothea comes to see of Casaubon’s, “floated among flexible conjectures.” Lévi-Strauss’s work was variously roasted and boiled by former enthusiasts. Needham decided that Lévi-Strauss was “the greatest Surrealist of them all,” hopelessly unreliable in his ethnographic references. Lévi-Strauss on myth was like Freud on dreams, Leach wrote: “It is all so neat, it simply must be right. But then you begin to wonder.”* He had come to think that Lévi-Strauss would admit any evidence, however dodgy, so long as it fit in with his logic, and ignore or find ways to rule out any evidence that contradicted it. Others were dismayed by what they saw as his ahistoricism. “Lévi-Strauss painted a perfect picture, of everything fitting into an overarching scheme,” Alban Bensa, an ethnographer of New Caledonia, told Patrick Wilcken. “But when I started going into the field and seeing the effects of colonialism, I began to have my doubts.”
As the 1960s wore on, structuralism started to lose its luster in Paris, too. Big works of poststructuralism appeared, treating Lévi-Strauss not as an authority to be consulted but as a text to be deconstructed. Seemingly resigned to what was happening, he later offered a gastronomic metaphor: “The educated public in France,” he said, had fed on structuralism for a while, but it was “bulimic.” And then Lévi-Strauss, who retained his Gaullist loyalties, was appalled by what he viewed as the revival of Sartrean sentiments among the young. In 1967 he told a reporter, “I still have the tripe [guts] of a man of the left. But at my age I know it is tripe and not brain.”
The French economist and columnist Guy Sorman wrote that “Lévi-Strauss never hid the fact that he was a conservative (though some preferred not to know),” and “always rejoiced when conservatives won elections, whether in France or in his beloved New York.” Lévi-Strauss declined to express opposition to the Vietnam War; his view of decolonization sounded distinctly qualified. (He thought that the new states, intent on modernizing, posed a greater threat to his “uncivilized societies” than the colonial ones had.) Amid the tumult of May ’68, a student chalked on a blackboard a searing slogan of dismissal: “Structures don’t take to the streets.”
By 1980, a man whose theory of kinship revolved around the notion of “woman as gift” was seeking to block the election of Marguerite Yourcenar as the first female member of the Académie française, les immortels; Lévi-Strauss, who had been inducted just seven years earlier, told a friend direly of certain Amerindian tribes that would disappear whenever they “changed something fundamental in their organization.” This gift had to be rejected, then, as a matter of survival. Enlisted in helping set up the Musée du quai Branly, French president Jacques Chirac’s reconstitution of the Musée de l’Homme, Lévi-Strauss brushed aside those who chastised it for presenting pilfered indigenous objects out of cultural context: What about the religious art in the Louvre?
His popular celebrity moved along separate tracks. He had long been a presence on French television and radio, but by the late 1960s he had appeared on an NBC talk show, been featured in Vogue, and discussed in Playboy. When the magazine Lire conducted a poll in 1980 of who was considered the most influential contemporary thinker, Lévi-Strauss came in first.
In his later years, though, he could not be serene about the fraying of his powers. “At this great age that I never imagined reaching, and which is one of the most curious surprises of my life, I feel like a shattered hologram,” he said in 1999, a decade before his death. “There is a real me, who is but a quarter or half of a man, and a virtual me, who still keeps alive an idea of the whole.” Soon he had the distinction of being the oldest ever of les immortels. When he turned one hundred—he’d live almost another year—President Nicolas Sarkozy visited him to wish him happy birthday, celebrations were held around the world, and the grand Quai Branly amphitheater was named for him. The shattered hologram had entered history and been reassembled, his life story taking on some of the features of myth.
Loyer’s deeply researched biography, which certainly helps “keep alive an idea of the whole,” has been rendered into English perhaps too punctiliously; one rarely forgets one is reading a translation. It also steps lightly around the models and methods that so preoccupied her subject. Most anglophone readers will be well served by Wilcken’s gracefully written, intellectually assured 2010 biography. Still, Loyer’s volume is engaging and engaged—engaged, perhaps, to a fault. It sometimes has the air of a defense attorney’s brief. When Lévi-Strauss sounds ambivalent about decolonization, she rushes to say that his views are consonant with critiques ventured within postcolonial studies. When she writes of his unsuccessful effort to keep Yourcenar out of the Académie, she immediately juxtaposes it to the fact that he arranged, the following year, for a woman—his disciple Françoise Héritier—to succeed him at the Collège de France, something that Godelier, who was probably the second-best-known anthropologist in France, may have had doubts about. According to Loyer, Lévi-Strauss merely perceived that the Académie “owed its prestige and vigour to its scrupulous respect for tradition.” Besides, she says, Yourcenar was then living in Maine.
As it happens, some of Lévi-Strauss’s most vigorous detractors show us best how to treasure his legacy. Leach summarized Lévi-Strauss’s mytho-logic with the judgment: “This is poet’s country.” Yet in placing him in a camp with, say, the poet and critic William Empson, he was voicing affection as well as disaffection: a and a-1. Lévi-Strauss, however averse he was to Evans-Pritchard’s notion that anthropology was finally humanistic and interpretive, was, precisely, an inspired interpreter, a brilliant reader. And to situate his scholarship not as an exercise in scientific inquiry but as cultural work—an emanation both of its time and of a singular mind—is less relegation than elevation.
When the landmarks of science succeed in advancing their subject, they need no longer be consulted: physicists don’t study Newton; chemists don’t pore over Lavoisier. Their publications are subsumed and supplanted by later installments of scientific inquiry. By contrast, cultural objects—innervated by the literary or musical imagination—ask to be experienced as themselves and for themselves. That is why, as Hazlitt observed, “the arts are not progressive.” Every Casaubon is bound to fade into irrelevance; George Eliot abides. If some part of Lévi-Strauss’s scholarly oeuvre survives, it will be because his scientific aspirations have not.