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Claude Levi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology Paperback – January 31, 2012
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“[A]n illuminating study. … The book offers clear, analytical descriptions of the basic tenets for which Lévi-Strauss is known… This book, with an admiring but not slavish appreciation of its subject, thoughtfully analyzes the controversy that surrounded structuralism even during its glory days…. this book appreciates and communicates the grandeur of its subject’s accomplishments.” — Janet Maslin, THE NEW YORK TIMES
“This book is both a gratifyingly clear summary of a difficult body of work and a eulogy for a time ‘when the stream of consciousness of one mind could leave a deep cultural imprint.’” — THE NEW YORKER
“Patrick Wilcken’s well-written biography, the first full-length treatment of Lévi-Strauss’s life in English, provides an accessible and interesting overview of his career, personal life, intellectual development, contributions, and impact on thinking inside and outside of anthropology. Wilcken offers a clear explication and measured assessments of Lévi-Strauss’s works as well as setting them within the broader context of 20th-century French and European thought. … Wilcken is also a gifted storyteller and thoughtful analyst.” — SCIENCE Magazine
“Brilliantly assesses the great, original, creative ideas and their origins in the context of Lévi-Strauss’s life.” — THE TIMES (UK) Biographies of the Year
“‘[Wilcken] lays out the life with clarity, efficiency, readability and occasionally dissent … A superbly thrilling life.” — THE GUARDIAN
About the Author
Patrick Wilcken is the author of Empire Adrift: The Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1821. He studied anthropology at Goldsmiths College, London University, and now works as a campaigner on the Brazil desk at Amnesty International. He lives in London.
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Mr. Wilcken is an expert on Brazil, so that he casts new light on Lévi-Strauss's formative field work in that country in the late 1930s. Using other sources from the period, the author is able to offer a more complex--and if truth be told--less radiant account than the one the French scholar offered in his famous Tristes Tropiques (still probably the first book of his that one should read).
Happily Wilcken deals with both the life and the works, showing how Claude Lévi-Strauss gradually found his way. As a New Yorker I found his account of his subject's years in Gotham City to be quite convincing. As a result of his residence in Brazil and the US, Lévi-Strauss was anything but a typical Parisian intellectual, a breed still by and large reluctant to cope with the reduced standing of France in the world.
Wilcken falls just a little short in two areas, but these are conundrums that have stumped everyone else. First, why did structuralism, a method that had seemed so alluring in the 1960s, fade so quickly? While he was uneasy with the label, Claude Lévi-Strauss continued to practice the approach until his death. But most others abandoned structuralism as too static and rigid--and perhaps inoculated from the necessary solvents of disconfirmation. The events of May 1968 probably had something to do with the matter. More specific to Lévi-Strauss is the overreliance on the model of linguistics (due to the tutelage of Roman Jakobson) and, in his later years, music.
The other lion in the path, so to speak, is the French savant's magnum opus, the 4-volume Mythologiques. This is nothing less than attempt to offer an integral account of the mythic worlds of the indigenous New World. Lévi-Strauss begins in South America and moves gradually northwards to end, pretty much, in the our Pacific Northwest. In the endeavor he deploys an impressive range of sources--most of them stemming from the library as he never returned to field work after the 1930s. He doesn't explain how so many isolated groups would achieve the massive dialogue his work presupposed. Perhaps the answer lies in a region that Lévi-Strauss neglects: Eastern Siberia from which, most scholars hold, the Amerindians came.
In short, Claude Lévi-Strauss is not the perfect master. But who is? His effulgent intelligence and willingness to tackle just about any problem remain massively inspiring.
He returned to France in early 1939, and was posted on the Maginot line near the Luxemburg border when the war broke out. When the Germans invaded, his corps retreated into what was the become Vichy France. He found a position to teach philosophy at the university of Montpellier, but was soon dismissed because he was Jewish. He then received an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. With great difficulty he managed to get all the necessary papers, and in May 1941 arrived in New York. He had always been interested in modern art, and was soon part of the circle of French emigre surrealist artists - André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, Max Ernst - and he met the leading American anthropologists who were at that time all much better known than he was. He "hoovered up" a vast knowledge of ETHNOGRAPHY (the study of the culture of SINGLE ethnic groups) by reading in the New York Public Library. But his most fruitful encounter was with Roman Jakobson, who introduced him to structuralist linguistics, that is to say the study of the structures that underlie all languages.
This was a notion that Lévy-Strauss would now begin to apply to ETHNOLOGY (the comparison between the cultures of DIFFERENT ethnic groups) and which underlay his first major book, Les Structures Élémentaires, published in 1949 to great acclaim (curiously by the then influential French existentialists, whose philosophy he would attack in 1962 for being, among other things, vague and solipsistic) when he was back in France after the war. This, among other theories, purported to lay bare patterns (with a strong emphasis on opposites, sometimes forced) underlying all conceptions of kinship and of the rules governing the exchange of gifts, patterns which were expressed as an infinite number of mathematical variations on a common theme. Some of the variations found among, for example, the aborigines showed remarkable sophistication, and, combined with the idea that all cultures have the same underlying structure, led him to dismiss the distinction made by other anthropologists between "primitive" and "advanced" societies. The book, though like all of his writings sprinkled with passages of poetic metaphor, was immensely abstract and theoretical, far removed from any empirical realities; but it took till the mid-1960s before the mismatch between theory and reality was beginning to be effectively laid bare. Structuralist theory is indeed exceedingly arid, and it is surprising to me that there was such a fashion for it for so long, in France especially. Wilcken's descriptions of it are not at all helpful for those who are not already initiates, and his vocabulary takes a lot of knowledge for granted. (Just one example: I had to look up the difference between ethnography and ethnology.)
Next he saw structural similarities between psychoanalysis and shamanism, and between the basic myths found all over the world. (Wilcken mentions Lévi-Strauss' interest in Freud, but not whether he was affected by Jungian ideas on myth.) Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst with a structuralist approach, became a close friend.
The cold rationalism of Les Structures Élémentaires is offset by the romantic elements in his famous next book, Tristes Tropiques (1955), a rambling memoir in which, among other things, he deplores the way so-called civilized world has lost its links with the sensual, intellectual and cultural elements of a life closer to nature, the way in which it is in fact destroying these aspects in areas where they still exist - and for which even the intrusion of the anthropologist has to accept some blame.
Two later books of 1962, initially concerned with the meaning of totems, again demonstrated the extremely sophisticated classifications of which the Pensée Sauvage was capable. And finally he did the same for mythologies, mainly in four related tomes, 2000 pages altogether,(1964 to 1971). I find Wilcken's exposition of these books completely incomprehensible - though no more incomprehensible than the idiosyncratic and free-wheeling work he discusses. His description of the physical way Lévi-Strauss prepared his material - cards on three-dimensional web of mobiles hung from the ceiling - made me think of some medieval necromancer's den. Yet he was honoured as one of the greatest French intellectuals and was elected to be one of the immortels of the Académie Française in 1974. Apparently he managed to simplify his ideas on television programmes - it is a pity that Wilcken has not managed to do the same. But he is excellent on describing Lévi-Strauss' evolving and complex personality.