Last week I went to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 90th birthday party at the Collège de France. It seemed an unremarkable occasion at first. Though the courtyard of the Collège de France is fittingly grand for the republic’s premiere scholarly institution, the rooms inside are meanly proportioned and shabby. The three dozen or so academics in attendance looked dreary and moth-eaten the way academics do. There was a sprinkling of journalists, but no cameras or microphones. Fortified by a couple of glasses of indifferent burgundy, I obtained an introduction to Lévi-Strauss, who rose with difficulty from his chair and shook my hand tremulously. The conversation went poorly, owing both to my shaky French and to my lack of conviction that the nonagenarian I was talking to could actually be Claude Lévi-Strauss.
A few minutes later, he was asked to give a little speech. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, in a slow, stately voice.
‘Montaigne,’ he began, ‘said that aging diminishes us each day in a way that, when death finally arrives, it takes away only a quarter or half the man. But Montaigne only lived to be 59, so he could have no idea of the extreme old age I find myself in today’ – which, he added, was one of the ‘most curious surprises of my existence’. He said he felt like a ‘shattered hologram’ that had lost its unity but still retained an image of the whole self.
This was not the speech we were expecting. It was intimate, it was about death.
Lévi-Strauss went on to talk about the ‘dialogue’ between the eroded self he had become – le moi réel – and the ideal self that coexisted with it: le moi métonymique. The latter, planning ambitious new intellectual projects, says to the former: ‘You must continue.’ But the former replies: ‘That’s your business – only you can see things whole.’ He then thanked those assembled for helping him silence this weird dialogue and allowing his two selves to ‘coincide’ again for a moment. ‘Although,’ he added, ‘I am well aware that le moi réel will continue to sink toward its ultimate dissolution.’
It was pretty affecting stuff, and I must admit that I had to avert my eyes and do a little manly fist-clenching and shoulder-squaring before I was ready to go out into the drizzly Parisian night for a nice comforting plate of choucroute.