Patrick Wilken’s Biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss

I just finished a very enjoyable read—Patrick Wilcken’s biography Claude Levi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology. I picked it up used at a local Minneapolis Bookseller, Magers and Quinn late last week. Billed as “the first biography in English” of its subject, it was not something I could turn down.

For years I have enjoyed teaching Tristes Tropiques in my Anthropology of Travel class—Pilgrims, Travelers and Tourists and I read some of his work in graduate school—but never really had an impression of Levi-Strauss as a person.

As it turns out Wilken had a hard time piecing together a portrait of Lévi-Strauss the man, and couldn’t add very much. Levi-Strauss is described as surprisingly reclusive and tight-lipped about details of his personal life and motivations—even in his final years.

In place of a more personal biography, one that might be filled with reminisces and recollections offering Lévi-Strauss a chance to renarrate his life towards its end, Wilken’s book is a mix of basic personal history, careful sleuthing among Lévi-Strauss’ published works for clues, snippets from public interviews, and some interesting observations and thoughtful commentary on the intellectual-historical context in which Lévi-Strauss lived his life.

To a certain extent the thin personal history of Lévi-Strauss was disappointing, and the bulk of the summary of the famous Mato Grosso expedition is probably better experienced through reading Lévi-Strauss himself in Tristes Tropiques. This said, the intellectual history Wilken offers is clear, concise and accessible. He recounts the life of Lévi-Strauss in a way that connects him to Durkheim, Freud, Mauss, and early 20th century thinkers, and then carries us all the way through Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan. (I was surprised that LS actually refused to be Barthes Ph.D. advisor!)

In the absence of a strong narrative voice from his subject—something that would provide more of a sense of motivations and thoughts—Wilken’s Lévi-Strauss comes across a bit shallow and, in fact, he seems an unlikely candidate for the fame that he enjoyed. Lévi-Strauss comes across as someone with dreams of anthropological fieldwork who actually spent very little time in the field, instead relying on others for data he could examine—in some cases flawed and incomplete.

Reading Wilken’s description of Lévi-Strauss pouring over thousands upon thousands of myths impressed me by its solitary, idiosyncratic and quixotic intensity. Curiously, I was struck by the similarity between Lévi-Strauss’ data-driven idealism and our own current enthusiasm with “big data.” I imagine Lévi-Strauss would have loved a big data-myth computer with which to crunch his myths. Something like the Google Ngram viewer for mythemes. (Update: A college directed me to this recent interesting post “Structuralism: Thinking with Computers.”)

“When I was six years old, my father gave me a beautiful Japanese print. It was, you might say, my first exotic experience with another culture. I still have that print. It is very old and in poor condition now—like me. All my life I hav been seeking to understand the meaning in that print. Sometimes I think I have it.” —Claude Lévi-Strauss (1978) in Wilken (2010:341)

By the end of the book, however, an interesting image of Lévi-Strauss emerges as he ages. Or, is it as the world changes around him? The details of much of his life’s work on myth fades into the background and what remains is only fascination with the fundamental questions of difference, the attraction to the questions of human mind and sense of the world. There is only Lévi-Strauss’ energy, patience and discipline—trying to understand the foundational workings of human creativity that the richness of myth exhibits.

Myths are very beautiful objects and one never tires of contemplating, manipulating them or of trying to understand why one finds them so beautiful. And if I spend a long time in the study of myths, it’s with the hope, upon dismantling these aesthetically admirable objects, that one could contribute in a way to understanding what the feeling of beauty is, and why we have the impression that a painting or a poem or a landscape is beautiful.” —Claude Lévi-Strauss (2008) in Wilken (2010:335)

There is also an unavoidable sense of pathos, not only because as the book gets closer to its end its subject grows older and we sense his approaching death—85, 95, 100 years old—but because it becomes clear that Lévi-Strauss’ worst criticisms and fears expressed in writings like Tristes Tropiques are coming true. The filth and destruction Lévi-Strauss described seeing in the Mato Grosso in its early stages in the 1930’s, has fully taken over seventy years later. Pollution, environmental destruction, and the loss of indigenous life ways. Its all happened as he foresaw so long ago. We have arrived. It is us.

Lévi-Strauss in his final years becomes a witness to history—a one-hundred year-old link between the world in which we now live and a much earlier period when things were much different. Reading the final pages of Wilcken’s book I thought about young Levi-Strauss in Brazil, a middle-aged Lévi-Strauss writing Tristes Tropiques, and the centenarian who died five years ago who saw that earlier time—a time when there might have been other possible futures than the one we currently have.

 

One afternoon in the summer of 2012, while we were in Paris and had already spent far too many hours in museums—my wife and I made a last minute dash to the Musée du quay Branly. The museum left me quite cold and disappointed in its design and curatorial style. While drifting around its aestheticised displays of “indigenous art,” however, I came across two ornaments that Lévi-Strauss had collected while in the Mato Grosso. Interestingly, I didn’t think of them as objects made by the Bororo, but as object-bridges that pointed to that time they were collected. I shot two photos of them before we left the museum.

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