- Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years by Christopher Johnson
Cambridge, 208 pp, £40.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 521 01667 3
The tout Paris of mid-20th-century intellectuals seems to have been a small world, small enough to pack into a few cafés, its members visiting each other in their cottages in the country or coming together at weekends in the houses of wealthy patrons. Artists, writers, philosophers and scientists shared a world. Claude Lévi-Strauss was the son of an artist, and two of his uncles were painters who had their moments of fame. Trained as a philosopher, he made it his ambition to turn anthropology into a natural science, but all his life he was immersed in the arts. ‘We used to go with the Merleau-Pontys for lunch at Guitrancourt, where Lacan had a country house,’ Lévi-Strauss has recalled. ‘We hardly ever talked about psychoanalysis or philosophy; instead, it was usually art and literature.’ (Fortunately, perhaps, since neither Lévi-Strauss nor Merleau-Ponty understood Lacan’s theories, or so they told each other – ‘We concluded that we didn’t have the time.’) Even during his wartime exile, when he was teaching at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes de New York along with the philosophers Alexandre Koyré and Jacques Maritain, Lévi-Strauss regularly went foraging for African and Native American art in the city’s antique shops with Breton, Max Ernst and Duchamp.
After the war, the local variants of phenomenology and Marxism became international cults. Structuralism, which understood culture according to a linguistic model, as a system of differences and oppositions (black/white, left/right, raw/cooked, whatever) to which individuals are subject, briefly represented a fashionable alternative in the 1960s, despite the anguished warning of one Communist intellectual that the theory would cause despair among the Renault workers at Billancourt (for Lévi-Strauss, the theory entailed that there be no such thing as progress). St-Germain-des-Prés was agog when Lévi-Strauss had a bust-up with his friend Sartre, although the arguments were abstruse, perhaps gratifyingly so. For Sartre there were two kinds of reasoning, one traditional, the other dialectical and scientific, while Lévi-Strauss insisted that these represent two stages of a universal way of thinking. Lévi-Strauss also rejected Sartre’s belief that ‘there is one human history, with one truth and one intelligibility.’ He charged Sartre with excluding the wisdom of other traditions, arguably that the idea of progress is an ethnocentric illusion, which French intellectuals took for granted only because they had bought into the myth of the French Revolution as a boon for all humanity. He reminded Sartre that the individualism and materialism of modern Western societies were abhorred in many parts of the world: traditional societies, he wrote, often systematically resist history, manipulating very different myths to obscure change, and even to hold change at bay.
Barthes, Foucault and Lacan associated themselves with structuralism for a time, rather to the embarrassment of Lévi-Strauss himself, who has said he was relieved when the fashion came to an abrupt end in May 1968. (A student slogan of the day proclaimed: ‘Structuralism does not go out into the streets.’) Yet with the gradual translation of his work into English, Lévi-Strauss’s reputation continued to grow in France and abroad, and as late as 1981, when the journal Lire asked six hundred French intellectuals to name the most influential contemporary writer, he easily topped the poll.
Lévi-Strauss insists that he is far from being a standard issue modern French intellectual. Not only is his preferred subject the art and mythology of Native Americans; he is also contemptuous of the solipsism of fashionable philosophy, which he sees as the product of Western individualism. He claims that he has a Neolithic take on the world, valuing collective, impersonal, unconscious creativity. ‘Today I sometimes wonder if anthropology did not attract me without my realising this, because of a structural affinity between the civilisations it studies and my particular way of thinking.’ He wrote, notoriously, that Amerindian myths think themselves through the people who tell them. While remarking that this had not gone down well with his English-speaking colleagues, he adds that he has the sense that his books and articles are written through him in the same way. ‘I forget what I have written practically as soon as it is finished. There is probably going to be some trouble about that.’