Claude Lévi-Strauss, just celebrating his centenary.
This blog has been amiss in not wishing a happy birthday to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was born on November 28, 1908. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House when Lévi-Strauss entered this world and he’s lived to see Obama elected.
Writing in the Hudson Review in 1979, Guy Davenport paid high tribute to Lévi-Strauss. Davenport’s words are worth recalling:
Lévi-Strauss comes from two immediate disciplines, the French sociologists Émile Durkheim and his nephew Marcel Mauss, and the British school of anthropology, Tylor, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Needham. He is quick to mention his deep debt to American ethnographers and folklorists. He seems to have learned from everybody. His mind is too original to be the exponent of a master or a school. His Marx, Rousseau, and Freud are not anybody else’s. He claims to have a Neolithic mind: one that makes a foray, brings down its game, and forgets. His autobiography, Tristes tropiques (only last year translated into English in its full text), is a classic in modern French literature because of its presentation of anthropology as an intellectual and personal quest.
He is, to my knowledge, the best and most diligent interpreter of our time. I would like to think that he will be ranked higher than Freud as a reader of riddles and a rediscoverer of the primacy of human behavior. In our knowledge of the world. To his distress (or amusement) his discipline has flowed beyond its anthropological and linguistic contours into literary criticism (“another Parisian fad,” he remarks) and other endeavors. Structuralism has become a rage; structuralist books are kept locked behind glass in bookstores around the Sorbonne, and French theses know no limits to structuralist subjects; there is a study of the structure of Freud’s punctuation.
Certainly the mode of analysis Lévi-Strauss gives us a model is a bound to enrich both anthropology and other subjects in a vigorous and wonderful way. It is a discipline which he invented, using ideas from Jakobson, and Saussure, Rousseau and Frazer; a study of the forces flowing through him would sound like the intellectual history of Europe. And yet he resists being the front of a movement (what movement would it be?), as he has no ideology to promote, no body of knowledge that anyone except anthropologists can master, no theory about humanity to be thinned into a facile vulgarity. He is, I think, more like Montaigne , in that his writing is the essence of restless, intelligent, endless inquiry. He is deliciously French (like Simenon, he is a transplanted Belgian) in his abrupt put downs, his fidgety rages (read him on India and his British disciples), and his passion for the exotic.
He is not an easy writer, The Elementary Structures of Kinship is one of the most difficult books ever. The Savage Mind is, in its charming way, almost as difficult. The four volumes of the Mythologies, require dedication and stamina to read all 2,500 pages. Yet he has never written an uninteresting sentence. He exemplifies a remark he makes in this book, that in the study of man, there is nothing that we dare consider trivial or incidental.
Davenport’s full essay can be found in his book Every Force Evolves a Form (1987).