The View from Afar 
by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss.
Blackwell, 311 pp., £19.50, June 1985, 0 631 13966 4
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In their French editions the titles and covers of Lévi-Strauss’s books are often designed to tease as well as to inform. They deserve attention. Tristes Tropiques is about tropes as well as tropics; Mythologiques is about odd kinds of logic as well as mythology; La Pensée Sauvage carried on its cover a picture of a wild pansy which should have warned the English publisher that The Savage Mind was hardly an adequate translation even if the author chose the latter title himself.

The View from Afar translates Le Regard Eloigné. Is that adequate? I suspect not. The French version carried on front and back two pictures by the 43-year-old German artist Anita Albus about whom Lévi-Strauss writes enthusiastically in Chapter 20. The text refers directly to both pictures. The present English edition has a cover picture by Max Ernst, who is the subject of similar laudatory comment in Chapter 19. But this particular picture is not discussed and it seems to lack nearly all the qualities for which Lévi-Strauss expresses admiration. If Lévi-Strauss himself chose the picture, it is a tease.

The picture on the front of the French edition is a realist representation of animals and birds arranged as if they were decorations of a Medieval manuscript. It is evidently intended to remind the reader of the bestiary in The Raw and the Cooked, and thus serves as an echo of the whole four volumes of Mythologiques. The regard éloigné is, in part, a retrospect of Lévi-Strauss’s own career. The picture on the back is a Surrealist composition which Lévi-Strauss describes thus: ‘As in the dens of old collectors the shelves of a cabinet reveal many curiosities and conceal others which are probably even rarer and surprising behind a curtain whose folds betray the hand that has only just drawn it.’ The text then continues: ‘Furthermore every painting hides in its own way one or more enigmas sometimes posed by the subject itself, sometimes by Albus’s penchant for pictorial quotations. She uses them intentionally but never reveals her sources – doubtless a desire not so much to play a trick on the viewer as to avoid divulging her encounters with works which have intimately touched her.’

Applied to the imagery of words, this is Lévi-Strauss’s own method. When it comes off, it is not only great fun but also deeply revealing of the metonymic/metaphoric associations to which he has devoted so much attention. But often it does not come off. The analytical procedure then becomes as mechanical and uninteresting as solving a jigsaw puzzle.

The essays in this book contain some startling examples of just how artificial and contrived the structuralist method can become. Thus the essay on Max Ernst contains an analysis of that artist’s celebrated Surrealist construction of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table. I know that I am not the only reader to find the analysis bogus from start to finish. But it is immediately followed by a passage which claims the support of both Ernst and Merleau-Ponty for Lévi-Strauss’s view that ‘painting is successful when it crosses the boundary between the outer and the inner worlds providing access to the intermediary zone ... where ... the artist evolves freely boldly and completely spontaneously.’ Here as elsewhere Lévi-Strauss seems to maintain that the content of the human mind is a universal archetype to which mythographers and artists gain access in some sort of shamanistic trance. Myths and works of art are expressions of this human universal which is to be found at all times and in all places. The argument in Chapter 14 (which is about the symbolic significance of beans) is pieced together with bits and pieces of low-grade ethnography culled from various parts of the ancient world, North American Indians, European folklore, India, Japan, Mexico and New Guinea.

The devotees of Sir James Frazer swallowed this sort of thing without qualm but most latterday anthropologists (including Lévi-Strauss himself in his more modest days) have regarded such illustrations of a preconceived dogma as entirely worthless. And so they should. Indeed, because of the structuralist trick by which every symbolic element can be deemed to stand for its binary opposite, Lévi-Strauss’s use of the comparative method is far more objectionable than Frazer’s. His assertions become completely irrefutable. Like Frazer, Lévi-Strauss only cites bits and pieces of evidence which seem to support his propositions, but, under pressure, he can make almost any kind of evidence serve this purpose. Chapter 18 provides a superb example.

Lévi-Strauss will hardly ever admit that he could make a mistake, but here he tells us that in an English-language radio talk for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1978, when discussing Wagner’s Ring, ‘I made a slip of the tongue (substituting Hagen for Gunther) which destroyed my whole line of reasoning.’ Worse still, he failed to notice what he had done and allowed his spoken text to be printed in the pages of Myth and Meaning. Whereupon an attentive reader drew the author’s attention to his error. Clearly it was no ‘slip of the tongue’: although he is an expert Wagnerian, Lévi-Strauss, while preparing his text for broadcasting, had managed to get confused over the details of the story. But Lévi-Strauss was quite unabashed. It takes him only five pages to show that the original ‘line of reasoning’ (which seemed quite easy to follow) was sound even though the Wagnerian evidence now had to be turned inside out and made incomprehensible in order to make the point! This doctrine of Papal infallibility recurs throughout these essays. It is an old story.

Between 1945 and 1964 Lévi-Strauss offered to the world of academic anthropology a string of brilliant ideas all closely linked with the phonological theories of Roman Jakobson, to whose memory the present volume is dedicated. Sometimes the ideas fitted with the empirical evidence, but as often as not they did not. This has subsequently led to a hopeless divergence of view between those of us (mostly Anglophone anthropologists) who use structuralist theory on a purely experimental basis – if it provides insights into the empirical evidence well and good, if it doesn’t discard it – and Lévi-Strauss and his immediate disciples, who seem to regard structuralist theory as a sort of revealed truth which must be true regardless of the empirical evidence.

So we come back to the title. It is not just that the primitive peoples whose mythology and customs Lévi-Strauss writes about are culturally remote from the peoples of contemporary Euro-America (a remoteness which Lévi-Strauss constantly exaggerates): the point is rather that it is only when we look at these materials ‘from afar’, neglecting the finer empirical details, that the patterns required by structuralist theory appear to be present.

The book has no central theme. Like the volumes entitled Structural Anthropology (1963) and Structural Anthropology: Volume II (1976) it is a miscellany, ‘a gathering of scattered hard-to-find writings’. The author himself makes the astonishing claim that the book ‘has the pace of a short treatise on anthropology or an introduction to this discipline, whose main aspects are largely represented’. I doubt if this makes any sense even in Paris: as far as the world of Anglophone anthropology is concerned, it is quite absurd.

The two earlier volumes are both of value because each contains several of the early classics of Lévi-Strauss’s type of structuralist analysis. There are no such landmark essays in the present collection. Some of them, as I have already indicated, are so contrived as to become caricatures. Several others are bad-tempered reactions to criticism. Since the arguments of the critics are only present as shadows, the reader who now encounters, for the first time, only one side of the debate is bound to wonder what all the fuss was about. For example, Chapter Eight is a translation of an article which appeared in French in L’Homme in 1976. It was there a reply to an article by Marvin Harris (also in French) which appeared in the same issue which attacked an argument (presented in English) by Lévi-Strauss to a Barnard College audience in 1972. The latter lecture appears in the present book as Chapter Seven. Marvin Harris was so pleased with his demolition of Lévi-Strauss that he reprinted an English version in Cultural Materialism (1979). As far as I can see, both parties were being equally silly, but in any case I find it astonishing that Lévi-Strauss should consider that his own contributions to this unseemly affair now deserve special preservation in isolation from Harris’s piece.

There are several other essays in the same style. Thus Chapter Four, ‘An Australian “Atom of Kinship” ’, which starts off with a vicious denunciation of unnamed ‘English-language colleagues’ (the context shows quite clearly that the intended target is myself) is mostly directed against the work of Dr David McKnight, who has repeatedly demonstrated that Lévi-Strauss’s generalisations about an Australian aboriginal group known as the Wik-mungkan simply do not fit the evidence. It is impossible to judge the utility or disutility of Lévi-Strauss’s argument on the basis of the snippets of information about McKnight’s data that are provided in Lévi-Strauss’s text.

Another example is more curious. La Pensée Sauvage was published in 1962. In several different parts of the book Lévi-Strauss uses the system by which pet dogs are given names by their human owners to exemplify points he is making about the use of metonymy and metaphor to establish social classifications. The argument is complex, but a key point is that the names given to dogs, though vaguely like ordinary human names, in fact differ from the names that might be given to human beings. Although the names which are cited as examples (‘Azor’, ‘Medor’, ‘Sultan’, ‘Fido’) were obviously intended to be recognised by his French readers, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the general principle was supposed to be a peculiarity of French culture – quite the contrary. I discussed the issues involved at some length in my book about Lévi-Strauss which was first published in 1970 in the Fontana Modern Masters series. I there pointed out that the English do very frequently give ordinary human names to their pet dogs.

Chapter Ten of the present book, which dates from 1973, returns to the theme but ignores my comment. Instead we are told of ‘an amusing criticism’ in which

several years ago an unknown British reader sent me a letter disputing the validity of my interpretation of the names given to human beings, dogs, cattle and racehorses ... My critic does not realise that, in our disciplines, facts can never be viewed in isolation but must be seen in relation to other facts of the same category. I had not claimed to establish a universal typology on the basis of the French examples I was citing ... Far from invalidating my thesis, the fact that the British use different types of names lends further support to my argument. In naming their dogs in a different way from the French, the English betray certain psychological attitudes towards their pets which do not coincide with our own attitudes.

After all, the English are hardly human anyway: you can’t win!

There are 23 essays altogether. The most interesting are those in the last section, which includes the chapters about Ernst and Albus, a personal reminiscence about New York in 1941, a discussion of the education of gifted children, and reflections on the theme of human rights and personal freedom. Here Lévi-Strauss seems to be writing as he really feels, rather than in order to defend a beleaguered and indefensible position.

Lévi-Strauss is one of the four most innovative European anthropologists of this century, the other three being Mauss, Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard. His position in the history of the discipline is already assured. But fifty years from now anthropology students (if there are any) will read The Savage Mind and ‘The Story of Asdiwal’ and the ‘Overture’ to The Raw and the Cooked. I predict that without exception the essays in The View from Afar will very quickly return to the obscurity which is certainly their proper place.

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