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Claude Levi-Strauss

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Thank you for posting, Patrick. Yes, I knew he was still around and hoped he was in good shape. An incredible life, and he left truly innovative work of lasting value. Can't ask for much more than that.

He began challenging the conventional wisdom about them shortly after beginning his anthropological research in the 1930s — an experience that became the basis of an acclaimed 1955 book, “Tristes Tropiques,” a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere. The accepted view held that primitive societies were intellectually unimaginative and temperamentally irrational, basing their approaches to life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss rescued his subjects from this limited perspective. Beginning with the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, where he did his first and primary fieldwork, he found among them a dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand origins, a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre myths, and an implicit sense of order and design, even among tribes who practiced ruthless warfare.

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The Guardian has a good overview of Levi-Strauss' life by Maurice Bloch, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics:

The individual subject, the self-obsessed innovator or artist so dear to much western philosophy, had, no place for Lévi-Strauss, and indeed repelled him. He saw the glorification of individual creativity as an illusion. As he wrote in Tristes Tropiques: "the I is hateful". This perspective is particularly evident in his study of Amerindian art. This art did not involve the great individualistic self-displays of western art that he abhorred. The Amerindian artist, by contrast, tried to reproduce what others had done and, if he was innovating, he was unaware of the fact. Throughout Lévi-Strauss's work there is a clear aesthetic preference for a creativity that is distributed throughout a population and that does not wear its emotions on its sleeve.

... The philosophical implications of this position not only implicitly underlay so much of his thought, but were made quite explicit in the polemic against Sartre's glorification of individual choice, which forms the final part of Lévi-Strauss's most adventurous book, The Savage Mind (1962)

... Given his personality and, indeed, his theories, the extraordinary lionisation he received on the occasion of his 100th birthday seems ironic. It was as if the French establishment and the French state had decided that he was suddenly a major diplomatic asset ... We do not know what he thought of all this, since by then he felt too ill to respond, but his often-expressed preference for the anonymous creator, which seems to accord so well with his personality, does not square with all this fuss. He hated public occasions and was a very private person. He loved to be out of step with the received "correct" view of the moment. He was uncomfortable with disciples and fled from adulation.

• Claude Lévi-Strauss, anthropologist, born 28 November 1908; died 30 October 2009

Guardian obituary

And from Tristes Tropiques:

Written on board ship

No two phenomena could be more different from each other than night and morning. Daybreak is a prelude, the close of day an overture which occurs at the end instead of the beginning, as in old operas ... Sunset is quite a different matter; it is a complete performances with a beginning, middle and and end. And the spectacle offers a sort of small-scale image of the battles, triumphs and defeats which have succeeded each other during twelve hours in tangible form; but also at slower speed. Dawn is only the beginning of the day; twilight is a repetition of it ...

A sunset elevates and combines in mysterious patterns the accidents of wind, cold, heat or rain in which their mysterious physical beings have been buffeted. The operations of consciousness can also be read in these fluffy constellations ...

When the sky begins to brighten with the glow of sunset (just as in certain theaters, the beginning of the performances is indicated, not by the triple knocking customary in France, but by sudden switching on of the footlights), the peasant pauses as he walks along the country path, the fisherman lets his boat float idly and the savage blinks as he sits over his now paler fire.

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I will have to go back and re-read some - but my impression of Levi-Strauss is that above all, he treated so-called Primitive Societies as having the same weight and intellectual mass as so-called mature civilizations for purposes of comparison, as not in fact belonging to a kind of patronized sub-group designated as primitive in comparison to us, the colonial superiors who belonged to another class of society. Not sure if this is implicit or explicit in his work: but in addition to the poetry and intellectual insights as to structure and institutions and whatall -- what a contribution to the field. The basic viewpoint that the so-called West, and China, and India represent mature civilizations only to be compared with each other: while tribal societies form another class entirely: that the former are the subject for history and sociology while the latter is the subject of anthropology -- is indefensible. But still alas common if not dominant in the structure of academic and popular discourse.

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Thank you for commenting, Michael.

The Times

Lévi-Strauss set out to show that non-literate peoples had their own “science of the concrete”, a holistic way of thinking about the world in terms of objects and their “secondary”, sensuous qualities which was not necessarily less coherent than our modern scientific approach. The idea of a similar coherence underpinned Lévi-Strauss’s magnum opus, the four-volume Mythologiques series, published between 1964 and 1971. Not unlike a latter-day Frazer revisiting the Golden Bough, he started out with the myths of the Bororo in central Brazil, gradually gaining in complexity and working northwards towards Oregon and British Columbia, and from there back to Brazil. He proceded by a kind of “semantic contagion”, demonstrating how one myth implied and related to another through a series of parallels and contrasts. In all, Mythologiques contains analyses of 813 myths and more than 1,000 variants over some 2,000 pages. Full of remarkable insights and mind-stretching intellectual gymnastics, the series represents a 20-year period in which, as Lévi-Strauss later said, “I would get up at dawn, drunk with myths — truly I lived in another world.”
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