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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
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
home in Paris. His death was announced Tuesday, the same day he was
in the village of Lignerolles, in the Côte-d’Or region southeast of
where he had a country home.
“He had expressed the wish to have a discreet and sober funeral,
family, in his country house,” his son said. “He was attached to
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
school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to
all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and
creations. His work was a profound influence even on his critics, of
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
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
the Collège de France, said last November in an interview with The
Times <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/books/29levi.html?_r=1> on
centenary of Mr. Levi-Strauss’s birth. Mr. Lévi-Strauss was so
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,
York and São Paulo and also worked for the United
the French government.
His legacy is imposing. “Mythologiques,” his four-volume work about
structure of native mythology in the Americas, attempts nothing less
interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by
several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. The
“The Raw and the Cooked,” “From Honey to Ashes,” “The Origin of Table
Manners” and “The Naked Man,” published from 1964 to 1971 —
reader with their complex interweaving of theme and detail.
In his analysis of myth and culture, Mr. Lévi-Strauss might contrast
of monkeys and jaguars; consider the differences in meaning of
boiled food (cannibals, he suggested, tended to boil their friends
their enemies); and establish connections between weird mythological
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-
photographs of scarified faces and exotic ritual that he made during
His interpretations of North and South American myths were pivotal in
changing Western thinking about so-called primitive societies. He
challenging the conventional wisdom about them shortly after
anthropological research in the 1930s — an experience that became
of an acclaimed 1955 book, “Tristes Tropiques,” a sort of
meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere.
The accepted view held that primitive societies were intellectually
unimaginative and temperamentally irrational, basing their
life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food,
Mr. Lévi-Strauss rescued his subjects from this limited perspective.
Beginning with the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in the Mato Grosso
Brazil, where he did his first and primary fieldwork, he found among
dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand
origins, a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre
and an implicit sense of order and design, even among tribes who
His work elevated the status of “the savage mind, ” a phrase that
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
1950, more than 90 tribes and 15 languages had disappeared in Brazil
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
face of mankind.”
In this seeming elevation of the savage mind and denigration of
modernity, he was writing within the tradition of French Romanticism,
inspired by the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom
Lévi-Strauss revered. It was a view that helped build Mr. Lévi-
public reputation in the era of countercultural romanticism in the
But such simplified romanticism was also a distortion of his ideas.
Lévi-Strauss, the savage was not intrinsically noble or in any way
to nature.” Mr. Lévi-Strauss was withering, for example, when
Caduveo, whom he portrayed as a tribe so in rebellion against nature
thus doomed — that it even shunned procreation, choosing to
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
modern, focusing on the development of writing and historical
was an awareness of history, in his view, that allowed the
science and the evolution and expansion of the West. But he worried
the fate of the West. It was, he wrote in The New York Review of
“allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage.”
With the fading of myth’s power in the modern West, he also
music had taken on myth’s function. Music, he argued, had the
suggest, with primal narrative power, the conflicting forces and
lie at the foundation of society.
But Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s
derive from society’s distortions of nature. In Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s
there is no alternative to such distortions. Each society must shape
out of nature’s raw material, he believed, with law and reason as the
This application of reason, he argued, created universals that could
found across all cultures and times. He became known as a
because of his conviction that a structural unity underlies all of
humanity’s mythmaking, and he showed how those universal motifs
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.
is through these opposing “binary” concepts, he said, that humanity
sense of the world.
This was quite different from what most anthropologists had been
with. Anthropology had traditionally sought to disclose differences
cultures rather than discovering universals. It had been preoccupied
with abstract ideas but with the particularities of rituals and
collecting and cataloguing them.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s “structural” approach, seeking universals about
mind, cut against that notion of anthropology. He did not try to
the various purposes served by a society’s practices and rituals. He
never interested in the kind of fieldwork that anthropologists of a
generation, like Clifford Geertz, took on, closely observing and
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
Cru et le Cuit” (1964), he had taken “ethnographic research in the
of psychology, logic, and philosophy.”
In radio talks for the Canadian Broadcasting
1977 (published as “Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of
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
feet first, or who had a harelip, or who were twins. They were
being responsible for the weather and were ordered to repent, to
aberrations. But why these groups? Why harelips and twins?
Mr. Lévi-Strauss cited a series of North American myths that
with opposing natural forces: threat and promise, danger and
One myth, for example, includes a magical hare, a rabbit, whose nose
split in a fight, resulting, literally, in a harelip, suggesting an
incipient twinness. With his injunctions, the Peruvian priest seemed
of associations between cosmic disorder and the latent powers of
Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas shook his field. But his critics were
They attacked him for ignoring history and geography, using myths
place and time to help illuminate myths from another, without
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
Mr. Leach himself doubted whether Mr. Lévi-Strauss, during his
Brazil, could have conversed with “any of his native informants in
native language” or stayed long enough to confirm his first
Some of Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical arguments, including his
of cannibals and their tastes, have been challenged by empirical
Mr. Lévi-Strauss conceded that his strength was in his
what he discovered and thought that his critics did not sufficiently
the cumulative impact of those speculations. “Why not admit it?” he
said to an interviewer, Didier Eribon, in “Conversations with Lévi-
(1988). “I was fairly quick to discover that I was more a man for
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
painter. His great-grandfather Isaac Strauss was a Strasbourg
mentioned by Berlioz in his memoirs. As a child, he loved to collect
disparate objects and juxtapose them. “I had a passion for exotic
he says in “Conversations.” “My small savings all went to the
shops.” A large collection of Jewish antiquities from his family’s
collection, he said, was displayed in the Musée de Cluny; others
after France fell to the Nazis in 1940.
From 1927 to 1932, Claude obtained degrees in law and philosophy at
University of Paris, then taught in a local high school, the Lycée
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
in 1932. “I was envisaging a way of reconciling my professional
with my taste for adventure,” he said in “Conversations,” adding: “I
was reliving the adventures of the first 16th-century explorers.”
His marriage to Ms. Dreyfus ended in divorce, as did a subsequent
in 1946, to Rose-Marie Ullmo, with whom he had a son, Laurent. In
married Monique Roman, and they, too, had a son, Matthieu. Besides
Mr. Lévi-Strauss is survived by his wife and Matthieu as well as
Mr. Lévi-Strauss left teaching in 1937 and devoted himself to
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
“Tristes Tropiques,” he writes of his “disorderly retreat” from the
Line after Hitler<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/h/adolf_hitler/index.html?inline=nyt-per
invasion of France, fleeing in cattle trucks, sleeping in “sheep
In 1941, Mr. Lévi-Strauss was invited to become a visiting professor
New School for Social Research in New York, with help from the
Foundation. He called it “the most fruitful period of my life,”
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,
Ernst, André Breton and Sartre’s future mistress, Dolorès Vanetti. Ms.
Vanetti, who shared his “passion for objects,” Mr. Lévi-Strauss said
“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
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
letters from the University of Paris in 1948 and was associate
the Musée de l’Homme in Paris in 1948 and 1949. His first major
Elementary Structures of Kinship,” was published in 1949. (Several
later, the jury of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most famous literary
said that it would have given the prize to “Tristes Tropiques,” his
of memoir and anthropological travelogue, had it been fiction.)
After the Rockefeller Foundation gave the École Pratique des Hautes
in Paris a grant to create a department of social and economic
Lévi-Strauss became the director of studies at the school, remaining
post from 1950 to 1974.
Other positions followed. From 1953 to 1960, he served as secretary
of the International Social Science Council at
In 1959, he was appointed professor at the Collège de France. He was
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:
like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They
idea of timeless universals and argued that history and experience
more important in shaping human consciousness than universal laws.
“French society, and especially Parisian, is gluttonous,” Mr. Lévi-
responded. “Every five years or so, it needs to stuff something new
mouth. And so five years ago it was structuralism, and now it is
else. I practically don’t dare use the word ‘structuralist’ anymore,
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
four-volume work, “Mythologiques,” may ensure his legacy, as a
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
them. In his view, they speak through the medium of humanity and
turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s
mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Paris.
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