November 4, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the social anthropologist, who died on October 31 aged 100, was one of the dominating postwar influences in French intellectual life and the leading exponent of Structuralism in the social sciences; his work inspired a school of academic followers in the 1960s and 1970s in disciplines ranging from music to literary criticism.

His originality was to interpret myth and custom not so much as the distinct creation of a particular culture, but as different expressions of images universally innate to homo sapiens. In elucidating these common mental structures he relied less on meticulous observation in the field than upon a series of imaginative insights which were often greeted with scepticism in the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon world.

The true meaning of myth, Lévi-Strauss held, lay below the narrative surface, and was to be detected by considering the changes apparent in different versions of the same legend. In his own metaphor, he studied the relationship between various narratives rather as a musician would seek to weave together different instrumental parts to form a symphony.

Though comprehensiveness was the very essence of Lévi-Strauss’s approach, his researches were concentrated chiefly on various tribes of Amerindians. He maintained that the structure of the human mind was more easily elicited in “cold” primitive societies, where the existing way of life was not questioned, than in the “hot” societies of the developed world, where the pursuit of progress undermined stability.

Lévi-Strauss’s principal anthropological monument is Les Mythologiques, a four-volume work which demands from the reader both penetration and faith. The first volume, Le Cru et le Cuit (1964), presents the origins of cookery as a paradigm of the transition from nature to culture that runs through a legion of myths.

The second volume, Du Miel aux Cendres (1966), considers honey and tobacco as ritual embodiments of fundamental antitheses pre-existing in the brain.

The third volume, L’Origine des manières de table (1968), and the fourth, L’Homme Nu (1971), concentrate on the North American Indians. The same myths, Lévi-Strauss insisted, manifested themselves in both North and South America, but “from one region to the other an interior transformation evolved deep within them”.

Whereas for the South American Indians the advent of civilisation is symbolised by the passage from the raw to the cooked, for the North Americans it is represented by the invention of ornmanents and clothing, and eventually by the introduction of trade.

The text of Les Mythologiques was littered, though hardly illuminated, by all manner of visual aids — diagrams, arrows, charts of the night sky, fragments of algebra, and an array of small boxes shaded with hatchings and cross-hatchings.

While Lévi-Strauss’s capacity for creating complex intellectual jigsaws was never in question, it was not always obvious what relation his hypotheses bore to reality. The English anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach drew attention to the Frenchman’s propensity for discovering exactly what he was searching for.

“Any evidence, however dubious,” Leach complained, “is acceptable so long as it fits with logically calculated expectations; but wherever the data runs counter to the theory, Lévi-Strauss will either bypass the evidence or marshal the full resources of his powerful invective to have the heresy thrown out of court.”

Lévi-Strauss himself accepted the limits of his method. “The idea behind structuralism”, he explained, “is that there are things we may not know but we can learn how they are related to each other. This has been used by science since it existed and can be extended to a few other studies — linguistics and mythology — but certainly not to everything.

“The great speculative structures are made to be broken. There is not one of them that can hope to last more than a few decades, or at most a century or two.”

The son of a painter, Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels on November 28 1908. When the First World War broke out he was sent to Paris to live with his grandfather, a rabbi, in whose household he soon lost his faith. He was educated at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris and at the Sorbonne, where he read Law and Philosophy. As a teenager he became interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism.

After completing his studies, Lévi-Strauss taught in secondary schools. Among his colleagues was Simone de Beauvoir, who remembered him warning his students “in a deadpan voice, and with a deadpan expression, against the folly of the passions”.

In 1934 Lévi-Strauss became Professor of Sociology at Sao Paulo University, which had recently been founded on a French initiative. During his four years with the faculty he travelled extensively in the interior of Brazil, visiting the communities of Caduveo and Bororo Indians.

In 1938 he resigned his Chair and embarked on a year-long expedition, funded by the French government, up the Rio Machado to the wilds of Matto Grosso, where he studied the Nambikwara and Kawahib tribes and encountered another, previously quite unknown to anthropology, whose members referred to themselves as Mundé.

The Second World War saw Lévi-Strauss as a French army officer, responsible for liaison with the British. After the fall of France he escaped to the United States, where he took up a visiting professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In this post he was greatly influenced by Roman Jakobson, who had developed a mathematical view of language which stressed not so much the meaning of individual words as the overall configuration of the grammatical relationships between them.

Back in France after the war, Lévi-Strauss published La Vie familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara (1948), and Les Structures Elémentaires de la parenté (1949). In opposition to “Functionalist” anthropologists, who argue that kinship systems are a response to differing patterns of social organisation, Lévi-Strauss contended, in the second book, that kinship systems reflected underlying principles of the human mind. A basic principle, he sought to demonstrate, was an unconscious – and therefore fundamental – aversion to incest (the incest taboo) which was interlinked with systems of exchange and gift-giving throughout the ages.

These in turn were symbolic gestures that underwrote the whole network of relationships that were the basis of human society. A work of enormous erudition if, at times, almost ludicrous complexity, it established Lévi-Strauss as one of the foremost anthropologists of his generation.

In 1950 he became director of the laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at Paris University, and in the early 1950s did field work in East Pakistan and the South Pacific. His short study, Race et Histoire, was published by Unesco in 1952.

Then, three years later, came his masterpiece, Tristes Tropiques — translated into English by John Russell as A World on the Wane (1961).

This was an intellectual autobiography concentrated on his pre-war travels in Brazil. Lévi-Strauss described how the book sprang out of depression: “So I said, 'I had enough, I shall never come to anything, so I can write very freely about whatever passes through my head.’ I wrote without scientific scruples, without worrying whether the result was scientifically sound. The result was a sort of wild fantasy.”

In the book, Lévi-Strauss formulated his distinction between “Nature” and “Culture” based on language and man’s unique ability to see an object not merely as itself, but also as a symbol. It was in this ability to symbolise, a characteristic shared by all humans, no matter how primitive, that he sought the unconscious similarities of the human mind.

These “universal attributes” were the inspiration for Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual quest. But in detecting them, he was also accused of reductionism. Even his severest critics would not deny his importance, however, his immense influence beyond his chosen field, or the sense of intellectual excitement he was able to generate. This lay in his highly original interpretation of data, in the poetic scope of his associations and in his methodology, which was always capable of shedding new light on established facts even if his conclusions were sometimes subject to doubt.

By the time that Tristes Tropiques was published the tribes about which he wrote had largely succumbed to famine and disease, a fate which the author seemed to regard as a foreshadowing of that in store for Western culture.

“I knew that, slowly and steadily, humanity was breeding such situations as a sick body breeds pus,” he wrote. “It was as if our race was no longer able to cope with its own numbers... War and defeat had accelerated a universal process, and facilitated the establishment of an infection that would never again disappear from the face of the world.”

In 1958 Lévi-Strauss issued a collection of his essays under the title Anthropologie Structurale (1958, English translation 1964). Two years later he took over the Chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France; his inaugural lecture was published in Britain as The Scope of Anthropology (1967).

La Pensée Sauvage — the English translation of which, The Savage Mind, appeared in 1966 — was one of his most important books. It presented the complex totemism prevailing among Australian aborigines as the expression of the world view that orders and explains their everyday lives.

Lévi-Strauss’s later works included Anthropologie Structurale Deux (1967), La Voie des Masques (1975, English translation 1983), Le Regard Eloigné (1983), Paroles Données (1984), La Potière Jalouse (1985) and Histoire de Lynx (1991).

The sage’s views were never predictable. Asked to deliver the 1971 Unesco lecture on the causes of racism, he took the opportunity, even while condemning all forms of discrimination, to attack anti-racist propaganda for undermining “ancient individualism” and for driving humanity towards the insipid goal of a world civilisation.

He was appointed a member of the Légion d’honneur in 1964 and elected to the Academie Française in 1973, taking Henri de Montherland’s chair. In 1978 President Giscard d’Estaing solicited Lévi-Strauss’s aid to ensure that France remained “a lighthouse for the world in the evolution of ideas and societies, as it has done throughout its history”.

Lévi-Strauss did so by continuing to give lectures, write articles and indulge his love of music. His attempt to create a scientific basis for the study of culture was recognised by the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, which awarded him its Gold Medal, the highest French scientific distinction.

Though bound to Paris, Lévi-Strauss preferred to live in Burgundy. “I like trees, I like plants, I like animals,” he explained. “But I am not very fond of humans.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss married first, in 1932, Dina Dreyfus; secondly, in 1946, Rose Marie Ullmo — they had a son; and, thirdly, in 1954, Monique Roman, with whom he had another son.

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