He died last week, a few days shy of his 101st birthday. He was lauded by statesmen and academics across the world. What made Claude Levi-Strauss one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century?
Writing for the New York Review of Books in 1963, Susan Sontag – who was no intellectual slouch herself – placed Claude Levi-Strauss in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Malraux when declaring him one of the most interesting intellectual figures in France. It was a comparison Sontag had been obliged to make, because while Sartre and Malraux were by then giant names in transatlantic highbrow society, Levi-Strauss remained all but unknown outside his homeland. His masterpiece, Tristes Tropiques, had become an instant bestseller on publication in France in 1955; the book’s translation into English and its subsequent release in the United States made hardly a dent in the market.
Still, the US – and the rest of the world – eventually caught on. After Levi-Strauss’s death at the age of 100 last week, American newspapers were unanimous in their estimation of his influence. “[No] matter what one thinks of Mr. Levi-Strauss and his theories,” the New York Times observed, “it is hard today to undertake the serious study of anthropology, ethnology, sociology, philosophy or linguistics without at least acknowledging him or trying to debunk him.”
Levi-Strauss, who studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris, will probably be remembered best for how he altered Western views of the “primitive”. Much of his work was dedicated to the premise that there is little difference between the thought processes of a so-called “savage” in the Amazon rainforest and, say, a stockbroker on Wall Street. These ideas were developed after Levi-Strauss had left philosophy and law for the full-time study of anthropology, when he was on an extended field trip amongst the indigenous tribes of Brazil. It was also in Brazil that the seeds for his theory of structuralism – the search for common cognitive patterns in all forms of human activity – were sown.
Tristes Tropiques, the book that made Levi-Strauss famous in France, was followed by La Pensee Sauvage (1962) and the four-volume Mythologiques (1971), both of which served to cement his international reputation. But it’s ironically the earlier work that appears to have become synonymous with his legacy. Completed fifteen years after he left Brazil, Triste Tropiques is set against the backdrop of Levi-Strauss’s encounters with four Amazonian tribes – one of which, the Tupi-Kawahib, had never seen a white man before – and is a poetic meditation on everything from spirituality to art and the nature of the modern city. It is a marriage of serious academic inquiry and sensitive literary memoir, an interlacing of the all-encompassing public with the intensely self-reflective private.
In 1963, Susan Sontag was saying something new when she wrote: “Tristes Tropiques is one of the great books of our century. It is rigorous, subtle, and bold in thought. It is beautifully written. And, like all great books, it bears an absolutely personal stamp; it speaks with a human voice.”
Today, less than a week after Levi-Strauss’s death, those sentiments are common knowledge.
By Kevin Bloom