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[xmca] R.I.P. Claude Lévi-Strauss
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November 4, 2009
Claude Lévi-Strauss Dies at 100
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/edward_rothstein/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist who transformed Western
understanding of what was once called “primitive man” and who towered over
the French intellectual scene in the 1960s and ’70s, has died at 100.
His son Laurent said Mr. Lévi-Strauss died of cardiac arrest Friday at his
home in Paris. His death was announced Tuesday, the same day he was buried
in the village of Lignerolles, in the Côte-d’Or region southeast of Paris,
where he had a country home.
“He had expressed the wish to have a discreet and sober funeral, with his
family, in his country house,” his son said. “He was attached to this place;
he liked to take walks in the forest, and the cemetery where he is now
buried is just on the edge of this forest.”
A powerful thinker, Mr. Lévi-Strauss was an avatar of “structuralism,” a
school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to underlie
all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and
creations. His work was a profound influence even on his critics, of whom
there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in
And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring
juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles
little that had come before in anthropology.
“People realize he is one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th
century,” Philippe Descola, the chairman of the anthropology department at
the Collège de France, said last November in an interview with The New York
Times <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/books/29levi.html?_r=1> on the
centenary of Mr. Levi-Strauss’s birth. Mr. Lévi-Strauss was so revered that
at least 25 countries celebrated his 100th birthday.
A descendant of a distinguished French-Jewish artistic family, Mr.
Lévi-Strauss was a quintessential French intellectual, as comfortable in the
public sphere as in the academy. He taught at universities in Paris, New
York and São Paulo and also worked for the United
the French government.
His legacy is imposing. “Mythologiques,” his four-volume work about the
structure of native mythology in the Americas, attempts nothing less than an
interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by analysis of
several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. The volumes —
“The Raw and the Cooked,” “From Honey to Ashes,” “The Origin of Table
Manners” and “The Naked Man,” published from 1964 to 1971 — challenge the
reader with their complex interweaving of theme and detail.
In his analysis of myth and culture, Mr. Lévi-Strauss might contrast imagery
of monkeys and jaguars; consider the differences in meaning of roasted and
boiled food (cannibals, he suggested, tended to boil their friends and roast
their enemies); and establish connections between weird mythological tales
and ornate laws of marriage and kinship.
Many of his books include diagrams that look like maps of interstellar
geometry, formulas that evoke mathematical techniques, and black-and-white
photographs of scarified faces and exotic ritual that he made during his
His interpretations of North and South American myths were pivotal in
changing Western thinking about so-called primitive societies. 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
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
His work elevated the status of “the savage mind, ” a phrase that became the
English title of one of his most forceful surveys, “La Pensée Sauvage”
“The thirst for objective knowledge,” he wrote, “is one of the most
neglected aspects of the thought of people we call ‘primitive.’ ”
The world of primitive tribes was fast disappearing, he wrote. From 1900 to
1950, more than 90 tribes and 15 languages had disappeared in Brazil alone.
This was another of his recurring themes. He worried about the growth of a
“mass civilization,” of a modern “monoculture.” He sometimes expressed
exasperated self-disgust with the West and its “own filth, thrown in the
face of mankind.”
In this seeming elevation of the savage mind and denigration of Western
modernity, he was writing within the tradition of French Romanticism,
inspired by the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Mr.
Lévi-Strauss revered. It was a view that helped build Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s
public reputation in the era of countercultural romanticism in the 1960s and
But such simplified romanticism was also a distortion of his ideas. For Mr.
Lévi-Strauss, the savage was not intrinsically noble or in any way “closer
to nature.” Mr. Lévi-Strauss was withering, for example, when describing the
Caduveo, whom he portrayed as a tribe so in rebellion against nature — and
thus doomed — that it even shunned procreation, choosing to “reproduce” by
abducting children from enemy tribes.
His descriptions of American Indian tribes bear little relation to the
sentimental and pastoral clichés that have become commonplace. Mr.
Lévi-Strauss also made sharp distinctions between the primitive and the
modern, focusing on the development of writing and historical awareness. It
was an awareness of history, in his view, that allowed the development of
science and the evolution and expansion of the West. But he worried about
the fate of the West. It was, he wrote in The New York Review of Books,
“allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage.”
With the fading of myth’s power in the modern West, he also suggested that
music had taken on myth’s function. Music, he argued, had the ability to
suggest, with primal narrative power, the conflicting forces and ideas that
lie at the foundation of society.
But Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s problems
derive from society’s distortions of nature. In Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s view,
there is no alternative to such distortions. Each society must shape itself
out of nature’s raw material, he believed, with law and reason as the
This application of reason, he argued, created universals that could be
found across all cultures and times. He became known as a structuralist
because of his conviction that a structural unity underlies all of
humanity’s mythmaking, and he showed how those universal motifs played out
in societies, even in the ways a village was laid out.
For Mr. Lévi-Strauss, for example, every culture’s mythology was built
around oppositions: hot and cold, raw and cooked, animal and human. And it
is through these opposing “binary” concepts, he said, that humanity makes
sense of the world.
This was quite different from what most anthropologists had been concerned
with. Anthropology had traditionally sought to disclose differences among
cultures rather than discovering universals. It had been preoccupied not
with abstract ideas but with the particularities of rituals and customs,
collecting and cataloguing them.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s “structural” approach, seeking universals about the human
mind, cut against that notion of anthropology. He did not try to determine
the various purposes served by a society’s practices and rituals. He was
never interested in the kind of fieldwork that anthropologists of a later
generation, like Clifford Geertz, took on, closely observing and analyzing a
society as if from the inside. (He began “Tristes Tropiques” with the
statement “I hate traveling and explorers.”)
To his mind, as he wrote in “The Raw and the Cooked,” translated from “Le
Cru et le Cuit” (1964), he had taken “ethnographic research in the direction
of psychology, logic, and philosophy.”
In radio talks for the Canadian Broadcasting
1977 (published as “Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture”), Mr.
Lévi-Strauss demonstrated how a structural examination of myth might
proceed. He cited a report that in 17th-century Peru, when the weather
became exceedingly cold, a priest would summon all those who had been born
feet first, or who had a harelip, or who were twins. They were accused of
being responsible for the weather and were ordered to repent, to correct the
aberrations. But why these groups? Why harelips and twins?
Mr. Lévi-Strauss cited a series of North American myths that associate twins
with opposing natural forces: threat and promise, danger and expectation.
One myth, for example, includes a magical hare, a rabbit, whose nose is
split in a fight, resulting, literally, in a harelip, suggesting an
incipient twinness. With his injunctions, the Peruvian priest seemed aware
of associations between cosmic disorder and the latent powers of twins.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas shook his field. But his critics were plentiful.
They attacked him for ignoring history and geography, using myths from one
place and time to help illuminate myths from another, without demonstrating
any direct connection or influence.
In an influential critical survey of his work in 1970, the Cambridge
Edmund Leach wrote of Mr. Lévi-Strauss: “Even now, despite his immense
prestige, the critics among his professional colleagues greatly outnumber
Mr. Leach himself doubted whether Mr. Lévi-Strauss, during his fieldwork in
Brazil, could have conversed with “any of his native informants in their
native language” or stayed long enough to confirm his first impressions.
Some of Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical arguments, including his explanation
of cannibals and their tastes, have been challenged by empirical research.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss conceded that his strength was in his interpretations of
what he discovered and thought that his critics did not sufficiently credit
the cumulative impact of those speculations. “Why not admit it?” he once
said to an interviewer, Didier Eribon, in “Conversations with Lévi-Strauss”
(1988). “I was fairly quick to discover that I was more a man for the study
than for the field.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss was born on Nov. 28, 1908, in Belgium to Raymond
Lévi-Strauss and the former Emma Levy. He grew up in France, near
Versailles, where his grandfather was a rabbi and his father a portrait
painter. His great-grandfather Isaac Strauss was a Strasbourg violinist
mentioned by Berlioz in his memoirs. As a child, he loved to collect
disparate objects and juxtapose them. “I had a passion for exotic curios,”
he says in “Conversations.” “My small savings all went to the secondhand
shops.” A large collection of Jewish antiquities from his family’s
collection, he said, was displayed in the Musée de Cluny; others were looted
after France fell to the Nazis in 1940.
>From 1927 to 1932, Claude obtained degrees in law and philosophy at the
University of Paris, then taught in a local high school, the Lycée Janson de
Sailly, where his fellow teachers included Jean-Paul
Simone de Beauvoir. He later became a professor of sociology at the
French-influenced University of São Paulo in Brazil.
Determined to become an anthropologist, he began making trips into the
country’s interior, accompanied by his wife, Dina Dreyfus, whom he married
in 1932. “I was envisaging a way of reconciling my professional education
with my taste for adventure,” he said in “Conversations,” adding: “I felt I
was reliving the adventures of the first 16th-century explorers.”
His marriage to Ms. Dreyfus ended in divorce, as did a subsequent marriage,
in 1946, to Rose-Marie Ullmo, with whom he had a son, Laurent. In 1954 he
married Monique Roman, and they, too, had a son, Matthieu. Besides Laurent,
Mr. Lévi-Strauss is survived by his wife and Matthieu as well as Matthieu’s
Mr. Lévi-Strauss left teaching in 1937 and devoted himself to fieldwork,
returning to France in 1939 for further study. But on the eve of war, he was
drafted into the French Army to serve as a liaison with British troops. In
“Tristes Tropiques,” he writes of his “disorderly retreat” from the Maginot
Line after Hitler<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/h/adolf_hitler/index.html?inline=nyt-per>’s
invasion of France, fleeing in cattle trucks, sleeping in “sheep folds.”
In 1941, Mr. Lévi-Strauss was invited to become a visiting professor at the
New School for Social Research in New York, with help from the Rockefeller
Foundation. He called it “the most fruitful period of my life,” spending
time in the reading room of the New York Public
befriending the distinguished American anthropologist Franz Boas.
He also became part of a circle of artists and Surrealists, including Max
Ernst, André Breton and Sartre’s future mistress, Dolorès Vanetti. Ms.
Vanetti, who shared his “passion for objects,” Mr. Lévi-Strauss said in
“Conversations,” regularly visited an antique shop on Third Avenue in
Manhattan that sold artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, leaving Mr.
Lévi-Strauss with the “impression that all the essentials of humanity’s
artistic treasures could be found in New York."
After the war, Mr. Lévi-Strauss was so intent on pursuing his studies in New
York that he was given the position of cultural attaché by the French
government until 1947. On his return to France, he earned a doctorate in
letters from the University of Paris in 1948 and was associate curator at
the Musée de l’Homme in Paris in 1948 and 1949. His first major book, “The
Elementary Structures of Kinship,” was published in 1949. (Several years
later, the jury of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most famous literary award,
said that it would have given the prize to “Tristes Tropiques,” his hybrid
of memoir and anthropological travelogue, had it been fiction.)
After the Rockefeller Foundation gave the École Pratique des Hautes Études
in Paris a grant to create a department of social and economic sciences, Mr.
Lévi-Strauss became the director of studies at the school, remaining in the
post from 1950 to 1974.
Other positions followed. From 1953 to 1960, he served as secretary general
of the International Social Science Council at
In 1959, he was appointed professor at the Collège de France. He was elected
to the French Academy in 1973. By 1960, Mr. Lévi-Strauss had founded
L’Homme, a journal modeled on The American Anthropologist.
By the 1980s, structuralism as imagined by Mr. Lévi-Strauss had been
displaced by French thinkers who became known as poststructuralists: writers
like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They rejected the
idea of timeless universals and argued that history and experience were far
more important in shaping human consciousness than universal laws.
“French society, and especially Parisian, is gluttonous,” Mr. Lévi-Strauss
responded. “Every five years or so, it needs to stuff something new in its
mouth. And so five years ago it was structuralism, and now it is something
else. I practically don’t dare use the word ‘structuralist’ anymore, since
it has been so badly deformed. I am certainly not the father of
But Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s version of structuralism may end up surviving
post-structuralism, just as he survived most of its avatars. His monumental
four-volume work, “Mythologiques,” may ensure his legacy, as a creator of
mythologies if not their explicator.
The final volume ends by suggesting that the logic of mythology is so
powerful that myths almost have a life independent from the peoples who tell
them. In his view, they speak through the medium of humanity and become, in
turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest
mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Paris.
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