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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les 100 ans d’humanité de Claude Lévi-Strauss

by Ixchel Delaporte

Claude Levi-Strauss’s Centennial: A Hundred Years of Humanity

The inventor of structuralism in ethnology has studied human societies and their myths with a view to bringing to light their rationalities as well as their unceasing remodelling.

Translated Tuesday 9 December 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Vincent Debaene, professor at Columbia University in New York, chief editor of the recent "Pléiade" volume of his works, explains some aspects of the famous French anthropologist’s work to celebrate his hundredth birthday.

"HUMA: You have edited and prefaced the Pléiade volume of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s works published by Gallimard last May. How did you come to meet the anthropologist and what did your collaboration consist of?

DEBAENE: It started in an ordinary way: I read his books! Tristes Tropiques was the first book I read, and the question for me then was how to integrate this book into the sum of his works. Then I met him for the first time in 2000. I contributed to les Cahiers de l’Herne and saw him again. Eventually, Gallimard approached me for the Pléiade volume. So we met far more regularly. Especially as very few authors are published in the Pléiade collection in their lifetime. He gave us (the editors’ team) free access to his archives, which is exceptional.

HUMA: Brazil was the starting point of a long anthropological progress. How did Claude Lévi-Strauss (he was only 27 at the time) pass from the status of simple visiting academic to that of ethnologist?

DEBAENE: He headed off to Brazil as a sociology lecturer – he was in fact an agrégé [1] in philosophy. That was the first mutation. He’d taken an interest in sociology and anthropology long before he set off. He was offered a post as sociology lecturer on the (illusory) understanding that he would meet Indians in the suburbs of Sao Paulo. Unlike sociology as it was practised at the time, anthropology requires fieldwork. Yet Lévi-Strauss did not go in for fieldwork. His missions were few, short and nomadic. He did not practise “participatory observation”, which was the norm for ethnographers in the field from the 1930s in England, and from the 1950s in France. Rather, he set off as an explorer, but without the “primitive” bias. He did not expect to find his own “truth”: he was simply was after data.

During the first expedition in 1935, he went to the Caduveos and Bororos. His aim was to understand the settling of America. His was an historian’s project mostly; he wanted to study the ancient ways of life. He had the notion that the Caduveos’ facial painting was the legacy of some ancient civilization. That was a rather mystical view – very much like his Jules Verne sympathies; he wanted to bring together the symmetrical patterns of the facial make-up with the archaeological fragments found in the Amazon basin so as to prove that the Indian tribes were the survivors of a lost civilization.

HUMA: What did he bring back from those expeditions?

DEBAENE: His first mission was a success. He found a Bororo tribe that lived apart from the missionaries and had kept its way of life and social organization. Once back, he was regarded as a true ethnologist. His collections were much admired. The second expedition changed his first impressions: that was when his tropics appeared “tristes” (sad) [2]. He went back to the Bolivian border, in the hope that traveling across the west of Brazil he would come upon representatives of ancient Tupi or Caribe tribes who lived on the Amerindian coast in the sixteenth century at the time of the discovery. He wanted to study their language and to show where those populations had successively lived in in the course of history.

But he actually met with wandering tribes only, which had been reduced to a rudimentary social state by persecution and the need to flee from the settlers: Nambikawaras and Tupi-Kawahibs, tiny groups of 15 or 20 people who lived in a state of complete moral and material destitution. That was when he gave up the notion of explorers roaming the earth to bring back objects for western museums. He found that simply coming into contact with others would give no access to knowledge.

HUMA: When he came back to France he was forced to flee the Nazi rule over Europe and headed for the USA where he discovered the ethnologists’ theories, and linguistics…

DEBAENE: Before he went off to Brazil, he had already read the American ethnologist Robert Lowie in 1933, and this awoke his curiosity for ethnology (Lowie had lived with the Indians of the plains for several years). But Lévi-Strauss’s familiarity with ethnology at the time was not extensive. When he was in the U.S. his grounding in ethnology became far more solid than it was in France. Since the mid-nineteenth century, ethnologists had collected vast amounts of data — for example on kinship, or on Indian myths. He then discovered structural linguistics through Jakobson. The linguistic model makes it possible to put in order the gigantic and slightly chaotic heaps of archives collected. Just think of the hundreds and hundreds of kinship systems described by dozens of ethnologists, which baffled classification. That precisely was the subject of his thesis on The Elementary Structures of Kinship [3].

HUMA: Which marked the beginning of structural anthropology…

DEBAENE: He started from a few simple ideas. Human behaviour observes rules that are not arbitrary or irrational. It is necessary to try to bring these rules to light. Structural linguistics provides the matrix of language. People speak a language and apply rules they are not aware of. In the same way, ethnology must discover the underlying rules that preside over the exchange of spouses or the composition of myths.

HUMA: And besides, Lévi-Strauss loved botanical classification and the natural sciences…

DEBAENE: He has related how, as a child, he was quite sensitive to the geological make-up in which he realized lay the origin of the landscape’s structure. Generally speaking, there runs a highly sensory component across Lévi-Strauss’s work. It is no doubt because of this sensitivity that he was more fascinated by ethnology than he was by sociology. For ethnology has its roots in specific, individual experience. This, with him, has nothing to do with any kind of fusion or communication with others but rather with a very elementary sensory experience. Just like finding the pattern in a flower’s petals or the structure of the dandelion.

HUMA: He was an ecologist before the letter then?

DEBAENE: He liked collecting and comparing species even as Rousseau liked making his herbarium. But what appears to be very modern today is his reflection on the relation between mankind and its environment. He showed that mankind is a living species connected with its environment - which western civilization destroys. This theme appeared as early as the 1950s, in Tristes tropiques (1955) and Race et histoire (1952) [4], while it had been absent from the first stage in his studies, The Structural Anthropology of Kinship.

HUMA: What brought him to write Tristes tropiques?

DEBAENE: He was going through some kind of private and professional crisis. He had not earned recognition in France. He had twice unsuccessfully applied to the Collège de France for a post. He was convinced he would not make an academic career. Hence this book. Then there was an intellectual crisis. What proved decisive was a trip he made to India in 1950. He contrasts the experience of hugely crowded india with the openness of Brazil and compares them to his exile in the US. In Tristes tropiques he brings together the flight of the concentration camp escapee and India’s bazaars. He juxtaposes the “vacant tropics” to the “overcrowded tropics”. The process of civilization is regarded as being inextricably related to space. To him, Brazil’s isolated tribes live in relative harmony with their environment, whereas India and its overcrowded streets cast a shadow on the future of mankind. He sees humanity as a factor of pollution. This aspect went relatively unnoticed at the time. Today, it is the only one that is brought to our attention.

HUMA: How is it that Lévi-Strauss seems embarrassed when he evokes the success of Tristes tropiques?

DEBAENE: The book was written in five months, twenty years after the expeditions. And paradoxically, even though his anthropological studies were so abstract, so technical, so scientific, it was his most literary writing that earned him recognition as a popular intellectual. What embarrasses him most is not so much the book as the interpretations it has inspired. In the 1960s Tristes tropiques was associated with a subversive, pro-third-world literature from which he himself was far removed. In the 1970s, it was re-fashioned for anti-scientific purposes. That was the time when anthropology was criticized as being an unfeeling, objectifying discipline, which gave little room to the human experience which some claimed even the most scientific-minded anthropologists had to subject themselves to.

HUMA: But nevertheless the book was a real shock, culturally speaking?

DEBAENE: It was. The reason for its success was first that it raised the question of the place of the West in all human cultures. It introduced a form of relativism which, though already present in Race et histoire, now touched a larger readership. The book came out in the year of the Bandung conference when the third world broke onto the international scene in the very middle of the decolonization process. The benefits of western civilization also came to be questioned. Lévi-Strauss’s “view from afar” [5] shows that western civilization must be compared with the other cultures on the globe, even those that are most despised or seem to be the most “archaic”. His thesis consists in claiming that “man has always thought well”. A sound and salutary view, this. From then on the anthropologist was a prominent intellectual figure; he was appointed at the Collège de France in 1958. With La Pensée sauvage (1962) [6] his influence became considerable.

HUMA: Later, his analysis of myths showed the persistent ambition to show similarities in men’s ways of thinking, as they are all of the same species.

DEBAENE: On 90% of the earth’s surface and during 99% of mankind’s history, man has seen his relation to the world through myths and not through science. Lévi-Strauss set out to understand the function and the nature of myth and what need it meets. This endeavour no doubt constitutes the most important aspect of his work. From 1960 onwards and for thirty years he never stopped questioning the vast corpus of Indian myths, first in the four thick volumes of Mythologiques [7], then in what he called his “small” Mythologiques: la Voie des masques (The Way of the Masks), la Potière jalouse (The Jealous Potter), Histoire de lynx. Instead of considering myths as the expression of a primitive thought that “precedes” science, he regards them as mental tools that demand thought processes that are as strict as those of modern science. Those that are called “savages” are not in the thrall of mysticism or of their affectivity; on the contrary, their narratives explore logical problems of great complexity.

The analytical method is the same as for kinship: it seems at first sight that one is facing a number of incoherent systems, but by organizing and dividing the data, the anthropologist can make out underlying, unconscious laws which can be put together so as to bring common structures to light. So Lévi-Strauss shows that myth is an intellectual matrix that makes it possible to explore logical correspondences as they appear in men’s natural environment through a series of oppositions: up v. down, sun v. moon, sea v. land and so on.

What this systematic scientific deciphering ultimately achieved is a monument of complexity and matchless ambition especially in the great Mythologiques [8], which takes us from the logic of sensations le Cru et le cuit, (The Raw and the Cooked) to the logic of relations (l’Origine des manières de table, (The Origin of Table Manners), and on to the logic of forms (Du miel aux cendres, (From Honey to Ashes). The fourth volume, l’Homme nu (The Naked Man) is no real conclusion, but rather the end of a man’s labour, for, as Claude Lévi-Strauss observes, the analysis of myths can never be brought to an end.

He never gave up the notion that despite all the evidence to the contrary, myths obey a logic and satisfy a properly intellectual aspiration. He always enjoyed showing that some of modern science’s hypotheses could already be found in Indian myths: he showed, for instance, how in Jivaro myths a more elaborate version of Freud’s Totem et tabou (Totem and Taboo) can be found as well as the mathematical model of “the Klein bottle”!

HUMA: Lévi-Strauss’s relation to music and art is very strong. Should it be kept separate from his scientific achievement?

DEBAENE: He was very suspicious of all discourses that tend to regard art and literature as sacred and to oppose them to science. That was why he disapproved of some of the uses to which Tristes tropiques were put. He was not in favour of regarding experience as sacred and setting it above science’s cold objectivity. In his view, works of art are no less the product of the human mind than are myth and science. It is wrong to praise his literary achievements and to neglect his scientific achievement. All his work consists in showing that there is no such opposition.

HUMA: Is he still as pessimistic about the state of the world?

DEBAENE: His pessimism has not abated. He thinks there are too many of us on the planet. But then, he is a hundred years old! He is at a far remove from this world; he said in one interview that he “no longer belonged to it”. One must fully realize how long he has been alive: he was fifteen when Proust died, he was sixty in 1968… He lived through world war one and world war two, he lived in exile, he lived though the period of decolonization…His thought is still relevant today, but the man himself belongs to the 20th century.

HUMA: What view do you take of this centenary?

DEBAENE: It certainly is a great event and I hope it will bring new readers to his works. But at the same time as this country commemorates the “great man”, its government shunts anthropology off into the wings. His works are put to all kinds of uses today. I disapprove of the conservative reading of his works that consists in making nothing of its scientific ambition and ignoring, or flatly denying, its radically critical dimension. Cultural relativism for instance runs very deep in his work. In Tristes tropiques he also says that the self is not only hateful but that there is no room for it “between us and nothing”. Yet ours is the civilization of ego. The anti-narcissistic component is very strong in Lévi-Strauss. I think we would do well to take a fresh interest in it…

Translator’s notes:

[1] The highest grade for grammar school teachers, also a pre-requisite at the time for an academic career.

[2] Tristes tropiques (1955, title unchanged, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, 1973) - also translated as A World on the Wane.

[3] ed. *Rodney Needham, trans. J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, 1969) Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949).

[4] (1952) UNESCO; Extract from "Race and History" - in English; see also The Race Question, UNESCO, 1950).

[5] cf Le Regard éloigné (1983), The View from Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss, 1985.

[6] (1962), The Savage Mind, 1966 ; because of the deliberate pun on the Fr. “pensée”, Lévi-Strauss suggested “Pansies for Thought” as an alternative title (an echo of Ophelia…)

[7]La Voie des masques (1972, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski, 1982).
La Potière jalouse (1985, The Jealous Potter, trans. Bénédicte Chorier, 1988).
Histoire de lynx (1991).

[8] Mythologiques I-I, 1964-1971, (trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, 1969-1981).

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