A new biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss chronicles the life a pioneering and controversial thinker – whose theories were informed by both social and intellectual isolation.
Skidding on polished glass
When the revolutionary Parisian anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died in 2009, a few weeks short of his 101st birthday, French president Nicolas Sarkozy mourned the loss of a "tireless humanist" - a respectful-sounding designation that, unfortunately, clashes with the lifelong project of one of the twentieth century's intellectual giants. But Sarkozy's gaffe was an instructive mistake. That the cosmopolitan president couldn't correctly identify Lévi-Strauss's anti-humanist approach only underscores the unorthodox nature of the pioneer's work, a bold mixture of anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and various other disciplines. It also inadvertently emphasises the transformative challenge of the thinker's appeal: indeed, Lévi-Strauss pitched his "structuralism" against a western intellectual paradigm in which blindly referring to any given philosopher as a "humanist" seems like a safe proposition.
Lévi-Strauss devoted decades of research and analysis to human beings and their interactions, but Sarkozy notwithstanding, there's no mistaking him for a humanist. In his expansive worldview, which encompassed the myths of so-called primitive societies as well as the scholarship of continental philosophy, there was no such thing as progress. In books like Tristes Tropiques and Le Pensée Sauvage, he developed the idea that myths were deeply rooted patterns that formed the building blocks of culture - and that they were impervious to history and individual will. People, for Lévi-Strauss, were merely conduits for ideas, stick figures enacting the deep laws of culture. He preferred abstract thought to subjective experience; he studied the mind, not what the existentialists -who dominated mid-century French thought - called the "individual."
However unfriendly to philosophical pieties, Claude Lévi-Strauss was once the world's most famous academic, even landing his face on the cover of Time magazine. His peers respected him, too: in a 1981 French magazine poll of 600 intellectuals, Lévi-Strauss was named the most influential contemporary writer. Nevertheless, Patrick Wilcken's new Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory is the first English-language biography of the man. Wilcken, a Brazil expert and former anthropology student, sets himself the challenge of synthesising the abstruse output of a prolific and often mystifying thinker. At the same time he irons out many of the linguistic nuances and cognitive ellipses that have made Lévi-Strauss's work - itself a kind of poetics - so difficult to translate. Even if his excellent book were limited to summarising the thinker's theoretical texts, saving non-academics from the time-consuming and often unprofitable chore of actually reading Lévi-Strauss, Wilcken would have done a major service. But he does more. The result is a a lucid but ambitious history of a life that encapsulated the entire 20th century, uniting mathematics and scientific rigour with the humanities in a way that seems impossible in today's increasingly balkanised academy. The book reads at times like a lively conceptual travelogue, by no means chiefly intended for students of critical theory.
Like Lévi-Strauss, who fashioned an entire academic discipline from three-weeks of fieldwork among the Bororo tribe of Western Brazil, Wilcken was forced to develop his biography from the limited raw material of two sit-down interviews with his subject. The book is an intellectual biography, not that it could have been anything else: Lévi-Strauss mostly refused to discuss his personal life and declined to speculate on the legacy of his theories. The man's resistance to a more straightforward biography has a kind of philosophical resonance. Lévi-Strauss would not have seen the point of studying one man in isolation.
In 1935, sealed inside the cloistered French university system while teaching in the lycée to make ends meet, the newly married young Jewish academic (who remained strangely impervious to the threat of Hitler's rise) was selected, along with a few compatriots, for a job as a sociology lecturer at the newly established University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. The leisurely lifestyle gave him ample space for reflection and time for long journeys into a Brazilian wilderness still untouched by colonisation. With his first wife, Dina, and the aid of his "three mistresses" - geology, Marx, and Freud -he began conducting a kind of improvised ethnographic fieldwork among a few small groups of indigenous peoples, paying less attention to exotic cultural objects than to ritual, myth, and arrangement of social hierarchy. For example, the way that the Bororo tribe arranged its huts seemed to reflect, with geometric precision, various caste divisions based on marriage. The elaborate village structure communicated meaning without the use of a single written word, signalling to the ethnographer that the culture itself could be studied like a text. After collecting the raw experience that would fuel his mind for the next few decades, Lévi-Strauss left, and never returned to the field again. As Wilcken notes, "by the 1950s no serious anthropologist could have gotten away with such a whimsical journey, dotted with brief periods of contact with a series of indigenous groups."
Wilcken correctly labels Lévi-Strauss's approach "meta-ethnography," less dependent on his own limited fieldwork than on comparisons between large collections of data on indigenous peoples from across the world. The primary source reports were, for Lévi-Strauss, mere surface phenomena that allowed his mind to outline the deep laws of human cultural exchange. Initially, the anthropologist was unsure how to classify his findings from the Amazon, and didn't discover structuralism in its inchoate form until he took a short hike while serving as a liaison officer for the incoming British Expeditionary Forces at the beginning of the Second World War. Wilcken describes the scene:
Gazing at a bunch of dandelions, he fell into intense intellectual contemplation. He examined the gray halo of a seed head with its hundreds of thousands of filaments sculpted into a perfect sphere. How was it that this plant, along with all others, had come to such a regularised, geometric conclusion? "It was there than I found the organising principle of my thought," he later remembered. The dandelion was the result of the play of its own structural properties, calibrated into a unique and instantly recognisable form. Subtle variations, changes at a deep genetic level, could give rise to other forms, the different species that multiplied through nature.
Lévi-Strauss's rigour was imaginative, not scientific. The dandelions led him to consider that culture might share the same structural properties as the plant. Exiled in New York as the war expanded, Lévi-Strauss came into contact with the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, and developed his structural linguistics into a unified field theory of culture. Lévi-Strauss's structuralism adapted Jakobson's idea that language was composed of a system of interrelated elements, and found that binary systems (hot/cold; raw/cooked; open/closed) underwrite even the most dissimilar of myths. Meaning could only be generated by contrasting elements. "Promising science," Wilcken writes, "Lévi-Strauss delivered a kind of Zen anthropology- the mind, myth, the universe were in structural communion, each overlapping, interpenetrating, each reflecting the other. There was no final solution, bar a sense of oneness, a demonstration of ultimate interconnectivity, a nirvana of thought and nature."
In its attempts to "freeze" history, structuralism as practised by Lévi-Strauss was an essentially conservative enterprise, befitting the postwar stasis of de Gaulle's France and the nation's minimised influence on world affairs. Responding to Lévi-Strauss's attacks on existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre - whom Wilcken's book playfully depicts as Lévi-Strauss's structural binary - referred to structuralism as "the last barrier that the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx." Indeed, the removal of human choice from an all-encompassing theory of social arrangement leaves little room for political manoeuvring. Lévi-Strauss, who retreated to the laboratory for most of his career, would hardly disagree. Despite his youthful commitment to Marxism, he would eventually describe political thinking as "an essentially emotional attitude" that had nothing to do with his intellectual work. The revolutionary activities of May 1968 were, for Lévi-Strauss, "repugnant." He even refused to align his obvious interest in underrepresented cultures (and his belief that "primitive" peoples shared the intellectual curiosities of their western counterparts) with a commitment to multiculturalism; in an address to a 1971 Unesco conference on combating racism, he argued, per Wilcken, "that a degree of cultural superiority, even antipathy, between groups was necessary to maintain a distance that would preserve customs and ideas otherwise degraded through contact." Ever courting controversy, he had no problem dismissing Islam as somehow inferior. In 1979, he voted against admitting women to the Academie Francaise. When appearing in televised interviews, Lévi-Strauss displayed a gift for translating difficult concepts into simple terms, but for his academic colleagues he became an intellectual and political curmudgeon.
That Lévi-Strauss is no longer a household name, his structuralism having been supplanted by various "post's" and "-isms", is due at least in part to a worldview that, for his biographer, "implied depth, but…often felt more like a skidding along polished glass." Just as crucially, the reclusive Lévi-Strauss refused almost all intellectual communication, despite the fact that he built his own theories on the back of discoveries by others. Those who were influenced by Lévi-Strauss were usually left in the cold. He considered Jacques Lacan a friend, but Lévi-Strauss would claim not to understand the psychoanalyst's theories. When the literary theorist Roland Barthes asked him to write a preface to his epochal S/Z, Lévi-Strauss replied with a mocking parody of structuralist analysis. In short, he wanted no peers. As a result, "essentially Lévi-Strauss ended up as a one-man school, peddling a type of analysis that had become so utterly idiosyncratic that it was impossible to build on." Though he remained sceptical about the worth of an individual, Lévi-Strauss served as the only safeguard of his own system. Perhaps by necessity, he outlived all his critics.
Akiva Gottlieb is a contributor to The Nation and the Los Angeles Times.