Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years 
by Christopher Johnson.
Cambridge, 208 pp., £40, February 2003, 0 521 01667 3
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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.’

The experience of ethnographic fieldwork fed his estrangement from his Parisian contemporaries. Not that Lévi-Strauss went native. Fieldwork was a doubly alienating experience, distancing him from Paris without bringing him close to the people he was studying. ‘I realised early on that I was a library man, not a fieldworker,’ he confessed to an interviewer. ‘I don’t mean this disparagingly, quite the contrary, but fieldwork is a kind of women’s work (which is probably why women are so successful at it). For myself, I had neither the interest nor the patience for it.’ In his haunting, impersonal memoir, Tristes Tropiques, he sums up the ethnographer’s trade in the bleakest terms, darker even than the occasional outbursts of disgust and despair that Malinowski confided to the private journal he kept in the South Seas.

The investigator eats his heart out in the exercise of his profession: he has abandoned, after all, his environment, his friends and his habits, spent a considerable amount of money and time, and compromised his health. And the only apparent result is that his presence is forgiven by a handful of wretched people who will soon, in any case, be extinct; whose main occupations are sleeping and picking their lice; and whose whim can decide the success or the failure of his whole enterprise.

Stuck once in a depressing small town in the western Mato Grosso, in the interior of Brazil, cut off from his sick companions, unpopular with the local native bands, who were squaring up to fight each other, Lévi-Strauss was dreadfully bored. He found himself obsessed by a ‘hackneyed tune’, the third of Chopin’s Etudes, which kept running through his head and seemed to sum up everything he had abandoned. ‘Was it this that travel meant? An exploration of the deserts of memory, rather than of those around me?’ His reaction was to write a play, The Apotheosis of Augustus, a version of Corneille’s Cinna, scribbling for six days on the back of his field notes – ‘sheets covered with lists of words, and sketches and genealogies’. Luiz de Castro Faria, a Brazilian ethnographer who accompanied him on this expedition – he was to be written out of Tristes Tropiques – concluded that Lévi-Strauss was more a French philosopher than a true fieldworker.

He wasn’t wrong. Lévi-Strauss endured the boredom and discomfort of fieldwork because he hoped to discover through it a new philosophical vantage point. As a disillusioned young philosophy teacher, he had gone out to Brazil in 1935 intending to put philosophy to an empirical test. Two issues engaged him in particular. The first concerned the intuition of Rousseau, his favourite philosopher, that the principles of social justice go back to the origins of society. The interior of Brazil would be a good place to check this out. (‘Thus in the beginning,’ Locke had written, ‘all the world was America.’) Among the Nambikwara Indians of the Mato Grosso, Lévi-Strauss identified the basic political conditions idealised by Rousseau: leadership by assent and equality. All relationships were rooted in reciprocity, and the people imagined themselves to be in a similarly egalitarian and reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

A generation earlier, Marcel Mauss had identified exchange as the basic mechanism of the social life of ‘archaic societies’. Lévi-Strauss argued that this was not true just of ‘archaic societies’ (a category he rejected): reciprocity was the natural basis of any human society. It could be seen spontaneously at work even in Paris, or at least in the South of France, where people would exchange identical glasses of wine with strangers who wandered into their café. In 1949, he published a long and formidably technical book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, in which he argued that kinship systems had evolved as a mechanism for the exchange of women in marriage. The incest taboo, the first rule of any human group, obliged people to enter into this most fundamental of exchanges, and so to establish societies.

The second philosophical issue that brought Lévi-Strauss into anthropology had been raised by Kant. If people have an intuitive knowledge of categories of time and space, as Kant believed, then these must be universal. But are our categories shared by the Nambikwara? Are they even rational beings? This was not apparent on the surface. Brazilian Indians believed that shamans could transform themselves into jaguars, and speak to animals. Yet beneath the irrational surface a sort of reason might be discerned. In Lévi-Strauss’s early essays, the rationality of the Nambikwara was demonstrated in a way that had become conventional in anthropology. He reported that his informants were sceptical, sensible and down-to-earth, accepting magical ideas only when there seemed to be evidence for them or if no obvious alternative explanation was available. It was later, during his wartime exile, that he discovered a deeper source of human reason.

In New York, Koyré introduced Lévi-Strauss to Roman Jakobson. Lévi-Strauss remarked approvingly that Jakobson was ‘interested in everything – painting, avant-garde poetry, anthropology, computers, biology.’ (The first number of the journal Lévi-Strauss founded, L’Homme, would carry a structuralist analysis of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Les Chats’, which he wrote with Jakobson.) Jakobson was also a leading figure in theoretical linguistics – his special subject was phonology, at the time its most technical and sophisticated branch – and he claimed to have split the atom of linguistics, the phoneme. This had been seen as the smallest significant component of spoken language, but according to Jakobson it consisted of a bundle of features made up of pairs of contrasting elements (voiced v. voiceless consonants, for example). These binary oppositions were universally available, although in any given language only some were put to use.

Lévi-Strauss concluded that linguistics had achieved the stature of a true science, universal and objective, penetrating beneath the surface of appearances to the basic mechanics of nature. Anthropology should follow its lead. The sorts of thing that anthropologists studied – ideas about the world, systems of classification, myths, kinship systems and rules of marriage – were collective, symbolic productions very much like languages. His ambition was to show that they are governed by a deep structure of contrasting features, although this structure remained unconscious, like the phonological rules that govern our spoken communications.

Back in Paris after the Liberation, Lévi-Strauss was appointed to Mauss’s chair in comparative religion at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and he began to write about questions of thought and belief. In 1962, he summed up his thinking in La Pensée sauvage. The title was provocatively ambiguous. Did it mean primitive thought or natural thought? The cover was decorated with a painting of wild pansies, a nice visual pun, and in the body of the text Lévi-Strauss juxtaposed pictures of Amerindian masks and pots with illustrations of La Fontaine’s fables, in which animals have human characters, or with Le Brun’s sketches of ‘natural men’, with the faces of owls or foxes.

His answer to the Kantian question was by no means straightforward. The ethnographic record proved that categories of thought are culturally variable, indeed wonderfully diverse. The peoples described in the classic ethnographies come up with extraordinary propositions: the belief of the Nuer of the southern Sudan, for example, that twins are birds. Some philosophers had concluded that these peoples lacked a command of logic. Their magical beliefs raised questions even about their grasp of cause and effect. Lévi-Strauss countered that, underlying the most exotic beliefs there was a common, rule-governed, human way of developing ideas. The universal mechanism of binary oppositions, rooted in the human brain, generates categories of thought. This was a leap of faith, but Jakobson had discovered binary oppositions within the phoneme, the atom of language, and Lévi-Strauss had turned them up in the atom of kinship – two men, and a woman who is the wife of the first and the sister of the second – and in all sorts of classificatory systems. And just as Kant rooted mental universals in the mind, it was evident to a 20th-century scientist that if they existed then they must be carved into the brain itself.

His erratic English disciple, Edmund Leach, came up with a vivid if unreliable example of what Lévi-Strauss variously termed socio-logic – the science of the concrete – or totemism. Like many peoples, the English tend to classify animals first and foremost according to whether or not they are edible. Working with this binary opposition, they distinguish pets, farmyard animals and wild animals. Pets are taboo; they cannot be eaten. We normally eat the flesh of farmyard animals. Wild animals are killed and eaten under special, ritualised conditions, and their meat is associated with outcast rural poachers or with aristocratic hunts and feasts.

Also following a common pattern, the English classify nature and society in parallel systems, which provide metaphorical commentaries on one another. The fundamental classification of people is as marriageable or unmarriageable. In England, this yields three rough categories: family members, friends and outsiders. Sexual relations within the family are taboo (just as pets may not be eaten). Children of friends are the conventional source of partners for our children. Sex and marriage with outsiders is a dangerous, exciting business, not for everyone.

There is clearly a sort of logic at work here, although it is remote from the logic of the schools. Anomalies are not treated as conceptual weaknesses, needing to be sorted out. Rather, they help us to think about ambiguous or anomalous relationships. Rabbits don’t fit very well into the English system of totemism. Is the rabbit a pet, a farmyard animal or a wild animal? Many English people are queasy about eating rabbit, and slang words for rabbit (cunny, bunny etc) are used in the context of ludicrous or dangerous sexual relationships. (Hugh Hefner’s invention of the Playboy Club bunny girls was a masterstroke of totemic intelligence. Were they available or were they not?)

Christopher Johnson is a knowledgable and helpful guide to the development of Lévi-Strauss’s thought up to the publication of La Pensée sauvage in 1962. The full scope of Lévi-Strauss’s project was to unfold in Mythologiques, his monumental series of books on Amerindian mythology, published between 1964 and 1971. Although further important books were to follow, Johnson provides a close reading of the famous structural analysis of the Oedipus myth, published in 1955, showing that Lévi-Strauss had already set out his method.

In the four volumes of the Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss treated the native mythologies of the Americas as a single body of tradition, identifying recurrent symbolic oppositions over this vast area. Some are universal, such as nature v. culture; others very general in many parts of the world, such as the opposition between the raw (food in its natural state) and the cooked (food culturally transformed). Others again are more localised; the Amazonian opposition between honey and ashes contrasts natural products with culturally processed goods such as tobacco, which is transformed into ash on being smoked. And he showed that myths could be the medium of a natural philosophy, manipulating simple, concrete oppositions to address the eternal, cosmological questions of life and death, the foundation of the social order, the relationship between society and nature.

Johnson ends with a meditation on Lévi-Strauss’s own moral and political thinking. While insisting on the universal springs of human thought, Lévi-Strauss was a cultural relativist. In 1952 he wrote an eloquent critique of racism for Unesco, but when he revised it twenty years later he outraged the Unesco apparatchiks by insisting that cultural traditions are necessarily opposed to one another, although they can develop only by borrowing from each other. Now, however, the variety of ways of life in the world is being destroyed by modernity: the long historical interchange between cultural traditions is coming to an end.

Respect for local traditions has increasingly inclined Lévi-Strauss to adopt conservative attitudes closer to home. ‘At Oxford and Cambridge, and in England generally, I admire a society that still knows how to leave a place for ritual. In France the Académie Française is one of the last holdouts. I believed it my duty as a citizen and an anthropologist to help keep it alive.’ His chair at the Collège de France passed to a favourite student, Françoise Héritier, but in 1980 he voted against the election of Marguerite Yourcenar as the first woman member of the Académie on the grounds that an institution which had excluded women for three centuries should not precipitately alter its ways.

A young anthropologist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure recently told me that Lévi-Strauss belongs to the history of anthropology. Certainly there are few structuralists pur sang left, even in Paris. The structural analysis of myth remains a powerfully seductive methodology, and in the lively community of Brazilian anthropology Lévi-Strauss is revered as an interpreter of traditional ways of thought. Yet it now appears that he made too much of the uniqueness of remote tropical societies, and misrepresented them as cultural dodos which could survive only so long as they were able to shelter from history. He has no time for the hybrid forms of modernity that are a central topic of contemporary anthropology. It is perhaps rough justice, but today Lévi-Strauss is more likely to be read as a philosophical traveller than as a scientist.

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