Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory 
by Patrick Wilcken.
Bloomsbury, 375 pp., £30, November 2011, 978 0 7475 8362 2
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Austere, prickly, solitary, Claude Lévi-Strauss is the least fashionable, and most influential, of the postwar French theorists. Lévi-Straussians are a nearly extinct tribe in Anglo-American universities, far outnumbered by Foucauldians, Derrideans and Deleuzians. But, in a paradox he might have enjoyed, his imprint has been deeper. Like the Amerindian myths he anatomised in obsessive detail in the four-volume Mythologiques, his ideas have seeped into our thinking. From the significance of the incest taboo, to the reasons we roast or boil our food, to the distinctions we draw between nature and culture, the way we think about behaviour and the mind has been indelibly shaped by the writings that bear his signature.

I say ‘bear his signature’ because Lévi-Strauss saw himself as a spiritual medium more than an author. ‘I don’t have the feeling that I write my books,’ he said. ‘I have the feeling that my books get written through me … I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity.’ In Tristes Tropiques, his memoir of his fieldwork among the Indians of Brazil, he called the self ‘hateful’. Everything he wrote aimed to puncture the notions of will and agency that cluster around the human subject. The critique of the subject was central to structuralism, the school of thought he helped to found. He existed, he wrote in the memoir’s closing paragraphs, not as an individual, but as ‘the stake … in the struggle between another society, made up of several thousand nerve cells lodged in the anthill of my skull, and my body, which serves as its robot’. His work, he said, was just as mortal as he was: it would be ‘childish’ to think he could escape the ‘common fate’.

His style of structural anthropology long ago fell out of favour among ethnographers; its mathematical diagrams of cultural rules now look like relics of some mid-20th-century technocratic fantasy. Yet Lévi-Strauss, who died two years ago at the age of 100, is in no danger of being forgotten. He is as much an icon as the brand of jeans with which he was often confused when he was teaching in New York in the 1940s. (At the suggestion of his employers he eventually adopted the ‘mutilated’ name Claude L. Strauss.) But Patrick Wilcken has set himself an unenviable task, because Lévi-Strauss was the embodiment of pudeur, an exaggerated, almost prudish sense of discretion. He was good at keeping secrets, and at dodging interviewers’ questions. (The interview, he said, was a ‘detestable genre’.) Wilcken, who met him in 2005, found his glacial reserve impossible to crack and detected ‘a kind of emptiness, an isolation’: ‘In the end, the mask had barely moved.’ To his credit, he doesn’t try to remove the mask, or to compete with Tristes Tropiques. Instead, he has written an absorbing, scrupulous account of Lévi-Strauss’s career, recapturing both the grandeur and the idiosyncrasy of his intellectual project.

It was the mind, and what he considered to be its formal patterns – particularly as revealed in art and storytelling – that fascinated Lévi-Strauss. Reading this biography one sometimes wonders whether he might in the future be thought of as a theorist of cognition and aesthetics who only happened, because of disciplinary prejudice, to take tribal cultures as his material. Like Freud, he believed that the deeper truths of culture are hidden from consciousness, lodged in a subterranean stratum of the brain the interpreter can never fully excavate. He came to believe that anthropologists would have to team up with neuroscientists to explain the mysterious patterns of behaviour: a view, Wilcken suggests, that ‘presaged the cognitive revolution in the social sciences’.

More comfortable in the library than in the field, he was indifferent to what he called the ‘vast empirical stew’ of life in tribal societies. The truth is he saw little of it: he conducted only about eight months of fieldwork in Brazil, spent no more than a couple of weeks at a time with any of the tribes he encountered, and didn’t go back there until 1985, when he accompanied Mitterrand on an official visit. Edmund Leach spoke for many Anglo-American anthropologists when he complained in 1970 that Lévi-Strauss’s analyses were ‘very far removed from the dirt and squalor that are the field anthropologist’s normal stamping ground’.

But Lévi-Strauss believed he could see better from a distance. It was in Paris – at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, the research institute he established in 1960, or in his sumptuous flat in the 16th arrondissement – that he did his real work, slipping into an imaginary world, reading the works of other ethnographers, conducting a kind of séance with his collection of tribal art. As aides à penser, he would listen to the Ring Cycle or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which he believed borrowed unconsciously from the structures of ancient myth. His aim was to discern the unconscious logic of the mind: what he called, in its raw, ‘unspoiled’ state, ‘la pensée sauvage’. Lévi-Strauss, Susan Sontag claimed in 1963, had ‘invented the profession of the anthropologist as a total occupation’. Whether it was anthropology at all is debatable; that it was a remarkable effort to ask the Big Questions is not. Leach grudgingly conceded that Lévi-Strauss shared ‘with Freud a most remarkable capacity for leading us all unaware into the innermost recesses of our secret emotions’, even if that made him a ‘poet in the laboratory’ rather than a social scientist.

Anthropology, Lévi-Strauss wrote, ‘does not abandon the hope of one day awakening among the natural sciences, at the hour of the Last Judgment’. But Wilcken suggests he might have preferred to wake up a novelist or, better yet, a composer. Like his teacher Marcel Mauss, he was the product of a uniquely French ‘amalgam of arts and ideas’. His work owed much of its aura to its juxtaposition of the aesthetic and scientific, the rational and the mystical. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as seductive had it not been for his style, which bridged what he considered the great divide in Western consciousness between the ‘intelligible’ and the ‘sensible’ – what can be apprehended by the senses. The little time that he spent in the field yielded some memorable passages, not just on customs and ritual, but on landscape, food and smell, which he described with extraordinary vividness and sensuality, as in his account of eating grubs from rotten tree trunks: ‘From the body spurted a whitish, fatty substance, which I managed to taste after some hesitation; it had the consistency and delicacy of butter, and the flavour of coconut milk.’

Whether or not Lévi-Strauss was an ‘artist manqué’, as Wilcken sees him, the aesthetic impulse ran deep. He was born into a family of artists. His great-grandfather was a violinist who performed for Napoléon III; his father, Raymond, a portrait painter. Lévi-Strauss père barely made ends meet, but he saved up to take his only child to see the Ring Cycle and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Claude drew, painted, took photographs, even wrote a trio for two violins and piano.

His maternal grandfather had been the rabbi of Versailles, but Judaism, he said, was ‘no more than a memory’ at home. Still, as a Jew born in 1908, he felt the impact of the Dreyfus Affair. In a series of interviews conducted with Didier Eribon in the late 1980s and collected in De près et de loin, he spoke of being bullied at school, and of his embattled sense of difference as a member of a national community that didn’t fully accept him. It’s tempting to imagine that this alienation was what led him to the Mato Grosso, and inspired his radical defence of the equality of cultures in Race and History, his 1952 paper commissioned by Unesco. Yet he was also a fierce advocate of assimilation in France, and instinctively hostile to cultural métissage. By the mid-1950s, hardly a decade after being chased out of Vichy France, he warned that his country was becoming ‘Muslim’ in its rigidity and bookishness: ‘I cannot easily forgive Islam,’ he wrote, ‘for showing me our own image, and for forcing me to realise to what extent France is beginning to resemble a Muslim country.’

He studied law and philosophy, then took the agrégation at the same time as Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. But he went through university ‘like a zombie’, he said, too engrossed by his extracurricular activities as a socialist militant. That passion seems to have vanished quite suddenly, but he continued to regard Marx as one of his ‘three mistresses’, along with Freud and geology. In the late 1920s, he switched to anthropology, mostly as a ‘way of escape’ from the ‘Turkish bath atmosphere of philosophical reflection’, but also, he suggested, ‘because of a structural affinity between the civilisations it studies and my particular way of thinking’. His first chance to study those civilisations came in 1934, when his adviser, Célestin Bouglé, arranged for him to take up a chair in sociology at the University of São Paulo. Bouglé promised him he’d find Indians wandering around the suburbs, but that turned out not to be true. The Brazilian ambassador in Paris, himself of Indian ancestry, told him that Brazil’s Indians had all been exterminated. That, too, turned out to be untrue. His four years in Brazil were hard. He clashed with his employers at the university, and held on to his job thanks only to the intervention of his colleague Fernand Braudel. His recent marriage, to Dina, an ethnologist, was in trouble. The couple’s friend Mário de Andrade, a poet and musician, ‘had a soft spot’ for Dina, and it seems to have been reciprocated. The Lévi-Strausses divorced soon after they returned to France in 1939, but not before their famous, and nearly disastrous, expedition to Brazil’s northwestern interior.

The team Lévi-Strauss assembled was large: ‘more like a travelling country fair than a scientific expedition’. The authorities, nervous that they might become targets – a number of telegraph workers and missionaries had been killed by Indians – assigned them a minder, a young anthropologist called Luiz de Castro Faria. Lévi-Strauss, Castro Faria recalled, was a ‘silent, introspective’ man who barely spoke: ‘For a Brazilian it was a very unusual experience.’ According to the anthropologist Alfred Métraux, who met Lévi-Strauss in São Paulo, ‘he looked like a Jew who had stepped out of an Egyptian painting: the same nose and a beard trimmed à la Sémite. I found him cold, stilted, in the French academic style … Lévi-Strauss hated Brazil.’

This ‘supporting cast’ would all but disappear from Tristes Tropiques. There Lévi-Strauss casts himself as a Rousseau-like solitary walker among the natives, a melancholy traveller at the edge of civilisation. Wilcken’s account of the expedition is like an ethnographic version of Fitzcarraldo, as Lévi-Strauss succumbs to depression and scribbles away at a play, a companion piece to Corneille’s Cinna about a ‘drifter who is beginning to doubt the validity of his adventures’, while Dina is forced to return to São Paulo, eyes dripping with pus from an infection spread by the lambe-olho fly. The Nambikwara did not speak Portuguese, and he found their language ‘impossible to understand’. When another group of Indians began to leave their village, Lévi-Strauss, gifts in hand, begged them to stay put so that he would have a more ‘authentic’ ethnographic experience. ‘He wasn’t cut out for the job,’ Castro Faria said years later in an interview with Libération, describing the expedition as ‘the price Lévi-Strauss paid to be recognised as a real anthropologist … He was truly “a philosopher among the Indians”.’

Lévi-Strauss had no trouble admitting that he was ‘a library man, not a fieldworker’; and he didn’t make any secret of his difficulties in Tristes Tropiques. (‘I hate travelling and explorers’ is its famous opening line.) But the memoir concealed the thinness of his research by its magisterial composure, and the authority, precision and visual intensity of his prose. His field notes, according to Wilcken, were ‘uneven’ and ‘haphazard’, a scattered collection of jottings, scraps and ‘doodles, childlike drawings of jaguars, armadillos, birds and fish’, leaving the ‘impression of an artist trawling for ideas, rather than an academic at work’. Yet Tristes Tropiques produced that ‘effect of the real’ which Roland Barthes saw as central to the power of the realist novel. The artist manqué had no lack of imagination.

Before it became a memoir, Tristes Tropiques was the title of a ‘vaguely Conradian’ novel that Lévi-Strauss began writing when he returned to Paris in 1939, and abandoned after 50 pages. By then he had gone back to teaching at a lycée, but in October 1940, he was forced out of his job under the first Jewish statute, and stripped of his citizenship; he would have ended up underground, or in a camp, had it not been for an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. In March 1941, he boarded the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle along with 350 other ‘undesirables’, among them Victor Serge, who described the ship as ‘a kind of floating concentration camp’. Lévi-Strauss found the ascetic Serge unapproachable, but while docked in Casablanca he struck up a lasting friendship with André Breton, with whom, Wilcken writes, he shared ‘a modernist infatuation with the primitive and the subconscious’.

Getting into the US wasn’t easy. Lévi-Strauss was travelling with a trunk full of field notes and documents, and his papers weren’t in order. But once he arrived in New York, in May 1941, he was enraptured by the city’s ‘horizontal and vertical disorder’, describing its fabric as ‘riddled with holes’: ‘All you had to do was pick one and slip through it if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass.’ He befriended the anthropologist Franz Boas (who would die in his arms at a lunch held in his honour in 1942) and in his spare time joined Breton and Max Ernst on expeditions to the antique shops on Third Avenue, where cheap tribal artefacts were easy to come by. He learned another valuable lesson from these shops, with their displays of ‘previously scorned items’: ‘The idea of beauty can take curious shapes.’

He drew a similar lesson from the striking Sxwaixwe masks of the Salish tribes, with their protruding eyes and gaping mouths, at the American Museum of Natural History. ‘This unceasing renewal,’ he noted in his journal,

this inventive assuredness … this scorn for the beaten track, bring about ever new improvisations … to get any idea of them, our times had to await the exceptional destiny of a Picasso. With this difference, however: that the daring feats of a single man … were already known and practised by a whole indigenous culture for 150 years or even longer.

These words were reprinted in one of his last books, The Way of the Masks, in which he described the ‘carnal bond’ he felt with the art of the northwest American coast. The idea of a beauty that transgressed traditional aesthetics was commonplace among his artist friends in New York, like Yves Tanguy, and Wilcken chides him for minimising his debt to Surrealism. But what he was proposing to do was different from the Surrealist project: not to elevate this ‘savage modernism’ in order to shock the Western spectator, but to understand it on its own terms, decipher its clandestine codes and laws, and carve a space inside Western reason for the thinking of its supposedly primitive Other.

For Lévi-Strauss’s purposes, the Surrealists were less help than another friend he made in New York, the exiled Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. Listening to Jakobson lecture was like reading ‘a detective story’. Jakobson introduced him to Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics of 1916, and to the idea that language was composed, acoustically, of phonemes or units of sound. These, Saussure argued, had no meaning in themselves, but acquired meaning by virtue of their difference from other phonemes. If this was structuralism, Lévi-Strauss realised, then he’d been ‘a structuralist without knowing it’. Jakobson’s ideas about language seemed to apply to the subject of his thesis: the rules governing marriage and exchange among the Nambikwara. Kinship, after all, was also a ‘relational system’, structured by oppositions between men and women, endogamy and exogamy, nature and culture. Those unconscious rules, like the rules of language, were observed ‘with almost mathematical efficiency’. This unexpected application of structural linguistics to anthropology enabled him to circumvent the problem of meaning and to analyse instead a formal network of relationships. It was in New York, not the Brazilian cerrado, that structural anthropology was born.

After the war Lévi-Strauss was in no hurry to go back to France. He’d seen how rough life there was: his parents, who had hidden in the Drôme during the war, were penniless, and his Paris studio had been ransacked. He wasn’t convinced by France’s makeover as a nation of Resistance heroes. France had lost, he told an OSS agent, and ‘the sooner people realised this the better for all concerned’. His advice was not to waste time with trials: ‘Better to kill 50,000 collaborators immediately.’ He remained in New York as France’s cultural attaché for a few years: he hosted lunches, introduced Camus and other writers to Chinatown and jazz clubs, and married a second time (they separated a year later). But he spent most of his time writing The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Published to great acclaim in 1949, a year after his return to France, it was a work of prodigious scope, though little of it was based on observations in the field.

At the heart of his analysis lay the incest taboo, a law that fascinated him because of its apparent universality. Lévi-Strauss’s precursors had either grounded it in biology – as a protection against inbreeding – or claimed that the familiarity of close relatives tended to make them less appealing as sexual partners, an argument that showed little appreciation of Freud’s work. Lévi-Strauss viewed the taboo as the law that ensures the passage from nature to culture and from endogamy to exogamy. By dividing women into sets of prohibited and possible spouses, and by forcing men to marry women from other families, the taboo enabled communication between groups and facilitated social reproduction. His analysis was influenced by Marcel Mauss’s study of matrimonial exchange in The Gift, which explored the ‘triple obligation’ of giving, receiving and returning. Mauss had hoped to discover the meaning behind such relations of reciprocity, but Lévi-Strauss was interested purely in the symbolic rules that governed the exchange of women.

There followed a series of intellectual landmarks, including Race and History (1952), Tristes Tropiques (1955), Structural Anthropology (1958) and La Pensée sauvage (1962). Plagued by anxiety that he’d never find an academic position worthy of his talents, he had given up hope of ever being appointed at the Collège de France. His Jewish name was against him, and his first two nominations were struck down. But in 1959 the Collège finally accepted him.

The two books that made him famous outside anthropology departments were Tristes Tropiques and La Pensée sauvage. They spoke to a national sense of decline in France, and in much of the West, at the time of decolonisation. In Race and History he laid waste to the West’s myth of progress, arguing that its narrative of evolution from primitive to civilised society was simply a form of ‘ethnocentrism’. By the time he published Tristes Tropiques, the French had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu, and the Algerian struggle for independence had begun. It tapped into a widespread feeling of cultural pessimism.

Lévi-Strauss was far from being a champion of liberation movements. He would later describe the postcolonial states, with their dreary mimicry of Western technology, as more of a threat to tribal peoples than the colonial powers had been. Fanon’s vision of a ‘new man’ rising from the ashes of colonialism would have struck him as a fantasy. Yet there was a touching humbleness in his self-portrait as a homesick Western explorer, roaming among people with whom he could scarcely communicate, trying to ‘remain indifferent to … pretty girls sprawling stark naked in the sand laughing mockingly as they wriggled at my feet’, and to maintain his equilibrium in South Asian cities. In the image of Nambikwara couples embracing, he found ‘the most truthful and moving expression of human love’. Prostrating himself before an altar in an Indian village on the Burmese border, he wondered ‘what else … have I learned from the masters who taught me, the philosophers I have read … apart from a few scraps of wisdom which, when laid end to end, coincide with the meditation of the Sage at the foot of the tree?’ Dismayed though he was at the thought of a future of crowds and pollution, he saw no point in fighting back: ‘The world began without man and will end without him.’

La Pensée sauvage advanced a more radical critique of Western thought. It was a mistake, he argued, to think there was a difference in the ways primitive and civilised peoples reasoned: ‘The savage mind is logical in the same sense and the same fashion as ours.’ To imagine that it is driven merely by the struggle for subsistence (as in the functionalism of Malinowski) or governed by irrational or mystical feelings (as in Lévy-Bruhl) is merely a reflection of Western ethnocentrism. Primitive groups are just as ‘disinterested’ as we are, and no less intellectual in their efforts to understand their surroundings. They are ‘bricoleurs’, analysing natural data on the basis of their sensory properties, which they organise and classify with considerable sophistication, following what he called a ‘logic of the concrete’. Our method is to break up surface realities in search of the abstract truths underneath: a gain at the level of the intelligible, but a loss at the level of the sensible. The logic of the concrete is ‘all surface and no depth’, and falsely imagines it can achieve total power over the environment, but it is also ‘beautifully balanced and rigorously logical’ in its own fashion. Unfortunately, he wrote, most Western thinkers continued to posit an absolute distinction between primitive and civilised modes of thought – not least Sartre, whose Critique of Dialectical Reason he demolished in ‘History and Dialectic’, the book’s last chapter.

In his preface Lévi-Strauss described ‘History and Dialectic’ as ‘a homage of admiration and respect’, but he never much liked Sartre, whom he considered a cad for his treatment of Beauvoir. He disdained existentialism (‘shopgirl metaphysics’, he called it in Tristes Tropiques), and viewed Sartre’s habit of speaking out on issues on which he had no expertise as ill-suited to a world of increasing complexity. ‘Sartre’s view of the world and man,’ he wrote, ‘has the narrowness which has been traditionally credited to closed societies.’ His insistence on a ‘distinction between the primitive and the civilised’ reminded Lévi-Strauss of ‘the way it would have been formulated by a Melanesian savage’. But he reserved his sharpest criticisms for Sartre’s Hegelian vision of history, which he described as a fairy tale about human agency, ‘the last refuge of a transcendental humanism’. The goal of human science, he argued, ‘is not to constitute, but to dissolve man’. Sartre, exposed as a man of the 19th century, never replied. The existentialist era had ended; the structuralist era had begun.

But Lévi-Strauss had no desire to lead the revolution he’d launched. He took no pride in his followers and claimed to be mystified, if not annoyed, by them. ‘This alleged structuralism is only an alibi offered for mediocrity,’ he said. ‘The best way to explain the current infatuation with structuralism is that French intellectuals and the cultured French public need new toys every ten or 15 years.’ When Jacques Lacan drew on his ideas to argue that the unconscious was ‘structured like a language’, he recoiled. Lacan had been a friend – he had introduced Lévi-Strauss to his third wife, Monique, his partner for the rest of his life – but he claimed not to understand Lacan’s use of structuralism, and the friendship withered.

Lévi-Strauss was no more welcoming of fellow-travellers outside academia. He admitted there were superficial resemblances between structuralism and new developments in the arts, but he mounted a scathing critique of serial composition and abstract painting in the ‘Overture’ to The Raw and the Cooked. Luciano Berio’s setting of texts from that book in Sinfonia, he said, left him ‘perplexed’. Artistic innovation was the ‘sign of a state of crisis’. Visual art that abandoned the attempt to reproduce nature inevitably became merely decorative, while atonal music divorced itself from the mythical structures that stir emotion. After Wagner and Stravinsky, he argued, Western music had plunged into an abyss of intellectual hermeticism.

The same charge would be made against Lévi-Strauss’s own next project, the Mythologiques tetralogy published between 1964 and 1971, and against the shorter studies that followed, the so-called ‘petits mythologiques’. He was beginning to give the impression of an artist exploring his obsessions without caring whether anyone else shared them. Mythologiques attempted an anatomy of mythological thought, based on what he called ‘mythemes’, the contrasting elements out of which myths were built. He culled these from thousands of Amerindian myths and reassembled them, regardless of origin; he had a hunch that they were all part of a single overarching myth, and compared this somewhat fanciful method to the paintings and collages of his friend Max Ernst. The Raw and the Cooked, he announced, was ‘itself a kind of myth’:

It is in the last resort immaterial whether in this book the thought processes of the South American Indians take shape through the medium of my thought, or whether mine takes place through the medium of theirs. What matters is that the human mind, regardless of the identity of those who happen to be giving it expression, should display an increasingly intelligible structure.

Wilcken argues that the appeal of myth for Lévi-Strauss was that it represented ‘the mind in the act of spontaneous creation, unfettered by reality … In a certain sense myth was the mind.’ Myth was, that is, the mind’s way of achieving an imaginary, provisional resolution of intractable contradictions – of reaching an accommodation with an unacceptable reality.

With their emphasis on the longue durée of human culture, on invariant patterns, and on the tragic nature of existence (Lévi-Strauss’s contradictions are, pointedly, never resolved outside myth), these books soon fell out of step with the intellectual mood in France. What Wilcken calls the ‘spell of structuralist meditation’ was shattered by the événements of May 1968. Student radicals turned for wisdom to Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord and Sartre, and anti-structuralist graffiti appeared on the walls of the Sorbonne. Disgusted by the protests, Lévi-Strauss withdrew from the Collège until they were over. ‘I walked inside the occupied Sorbonne,’ he said, ‘with an ethnographic gaze.’ But there was little sign of his characteristic detachment in his analysis of the revolt, and he displayed no interest in the way relations formed among the young tribes making the revolution. The barricades, he complained, were built out of wood, an act of violence against trees. Always drawn to nature, he had become an environmentalist, of an anti-humanist sort: ‘The right of the environment, which everyone talks about, is the right of the environment in regard to man, and not the right of man in regard to the environment.’

Wilcken emphasises the political shock of 1968, but the challenges to Lévi-Strauss’s project were also theoretical. In Of Grammatology, Derrida did to Lévi-Strauss what Lévi-Strauss had done to Sartre in La Pensée sauvage. Like Lévi-Strauss, Derrida began with an obligatory homage, before proceeding to expose him as a naive Rousseauian – and, indeed, as an inverted ethnocentrist – in a ruthlessly close reading of a single chapter of Tristes Tropiques. Lévi-Strauss had described handing out sheets of paper and pencils to the Nambikwara, and concluded that writing was less a tool for ‘acquiring knowledge, or remembering or understanding’, than for ‘increasing the authority and prestige’ of some people over others: a means of imposing class division, exploitation and slavery. Derrida read Lévi-Strauss’s chapter as a fable, in which the Western anthropologist spoils the innocence of a pre-literate people and writing is portrayed as a fall from the paradise of speech and orality, where the Nambikwara live in a state of ‘original and natural goodness’. In Derrida’s mocking description, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, with its noble savages and its ‘logocentric’ praise of the spoken word over writing, looked like a secular theology.

The poststructuralist demolition crew had arrived, and it aimed to take the house down from the inside. Inverting Lévi-Strauss’s favoured terms, Derrida and his allies celebrated diachrony over synchrony, events over structure, the exception over the rule, the periphery over the centre, the variable over the invariant. But the master appeared not to notice that his house was crumbling. Instead, Lévi-Strauss ‘retreated into his own world of myths, masks and indigenous art’. His work grew more intricate, more obsessional in its search for the mythical patterns created by the mind. While working on the tetralogy, he woke at five each morning, entering into ‘communion with the indigenous groups he was working on’. As he put it, ‘I try to be the place through which the myths pass.’ Mystical talk like this left him vulnerable to criticism, particularly from Anglo-American anthropologists such as Rodney Needham, who described his work as a ‘surrealist enterprise … liberated from confinements of exactitude, logic and scholarly responsibility’. When ethnographers pointed out exceptions to the incest taboo, the pillar of his analysis of the nature-culture opposition, he simply brushed them off, insisting all the more stubbornly on this sacred principle. The way actual communities functioned was of far less interest to him than the way the mind converted the materials of nature into culture, whether in the form of logical oppositions, mythic stories or, increasingly, art. He wrote with feverish passion about music, particularly the operas of Wagner, the ‘undeniable originator of the structural analysis of myth’. Music, like myth, was a ‘machine for the suppression of time’, the bearer of an almost occult power.

He travelled a little, mainly to Japan, a country he loved. He made one trip to Israel but felt estranged: he ‘didn’t have the feeling of family’. (Though he loathed Islam, he felt obliged, as a defender of indigenous peoples, to side with Palestine’s Arabs, as he explained to Raymond Aron in a letter written after the 1967 war.) The Mythologiques ranged across North and South America, in an avowedly quixotic effort to grasp the whole of Amerindian myth, but he hardly left his laboratory except for a brief trip to British Columbia. The world was a place he preferred to avoid; it was becoming too large. The ‘hugeness of the human mass within which we live’, he said, had made ‘humanity unmanageable’. The beauty of indigenous civilisations like the Nambikwara, he believed, was that they lived face to face, in a setting of utter transparency. As he wrote in Tristes Tropiques, ‘I cherish the reflection … of an era when the human species was in proportion to the world it occupied.’

Everywhere he looked he saw disproportion and decline. His rare comments on contemporary politics and society were a sour cocktail of Malthusianism and anti-modernism. Addressing a Unesco conference against racism in 1971, he argued that racial groups were equal but ought to remain separate. Anyone expecting a critique of racism instead heard a critique of racial mixing in the name of cultural preservation. In a world engulfed by excessive communication, a certain amount of racial hostility, even superiority, was an understandable form of self-defence. Racism was awful, but even worse was an anti-racism that might lead humanity ‘towards a global civilisation – a civilisation that is the destroyer of those old particularisms, which had the honour of creating the aesthetic and spiritual values that make life worthwhile’. Mutual tolerance, he said, depended on relative equality and sufficient physical distance between racial groups, scarce in a crowded, multicultural world. Lévi-Strauss seemed to relish the offence he’d caused: ‘This text caused a scandal and that was its goal.’ Members of the Unesco staff, he said, ‘were dismayed that I had challenged a catechism that was for them all the more an article of faith because their acceptance of it … had allowed them to move from modest jobs in developing countries to sanctified positions as executives at international institutions’.

By the end of the 1960s, Lévi-Strauss had become a Gaullist, a defender of order and tradition. Change unnerved him, whether it was the nomination of the first woman to the Académie française (Marguerite Yourcenar), or the emergence of more radical forms of anthropology that examined the discipline’s complicity with empire, or questioned the anthropologist’s authority. Faced with a future he found unappetising, he turned further inward. Wilcken says he was startled by Lévi-Strauss’s ‘acid, but ironic nihilism’ in conversation, but what seems to have upset him more was his lack of curiosity. When Wilcken asked him about the future of indigenous people in Brazil, he replied: ‘At my age, you don’t think about the future.’ Wilcken struggles to remain detached, but it’s clear that he is disappointed by Lévi-Strauss: disappointed that he disavowed his links with surrealism and modernism; disappointed that he disappeared into his laboratory; disappointed that he ‘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’; disappointed that he ‘appeared sublimely unconcerned’ about his legacy.

But Lévi-Strauss’s repudiation of intellectual companionship, his rarified hermeticism, his cranky prejudices, even his apparent indifference as to whether or not his work survived, may have been ploys, conscious or not, to keep people away. He scorned the Western concept of the self, but he was deeply attached to the idea of solitude. At a conference in 1974 on the cognitive sciences attended by Piaget, Gregory Bateson, Jacques Monod and others, Chomsky asked Lévi-Strauss about a class he had taught with Jakobson, but got nowhere. Lévi-Strauss barely opened his mouth. He passed the time drawing ‘cats and other real and fantastical animals’. Doodling, which allowed him to retreat into a private realm of the imagination, had been one of the sources of the artistic form of anthropology he had created after his journey to the Mato Grosso. His warnings about the death of civilisation and the inexorable coarsening of society were also a retreat. Like the myths, they provided a temporary resolution to an intractable dilemma: his role as a public figure, and his distaste for it. He guarded his solitude until the end of his life and took considerable pains to prevent the kind of spectacular funeral procession that Sartre had. Before his death was announced to the press, he had already been buried near his country château in Lignerolles, at a small funeral attended only by his wife, close family and friends, and the town’s mayor. The casket, at his request, was lowered in total silence.

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