Wild Thought: A New Translation of ‘La Pensée sauvage’ 
by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt.
Chicago, 357 pp., £16, January 2021, 978 0 226 41308 2
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‘Ihave a neolithic kind of intelligence,’ Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked in Tristes Tropiques (1955), his luminous reminiscence of anthropological fieldwork in Brazil. He didn’t mean he was a caveman. His own gloss was that his intellectual affinities were closer to the people anthropologists usually studied than to the people doing the studying. But there’s an inescapable implication that he was a thinker on a revolutionary, civilisation-shaping level, up there with the prehistoric discoverers of agriculture, metallurgy and animal husbandry. No surprise, then, that La Pensée sauvage (1962), his kaleidoscopic survey of indigenous philosophies and practices in search of undomesticated thinking, sometimes resembles an account of what one imagines are its author’s own mental processes. As he hunted in the thickets of exotic custom for the spoor of wild thoughts, weren’t his own neolithic ideas just as sauvage as any he encountered?

That word sauvage has been the cause of a lot of trouble when it comes to translating Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological masterwork. The first English translators went for ‘savage’, giving the book a real facepalm of a title: The Savage Mind. The original French has the primary sense of wild or untamed thought, but it also plays on the name of the flower – la pensée, pansy – whose image appeared on the cover. The connection was also made through the epigraph from Hamlet that Lévi-Strauss placed in a later edition: Ophelia’s ‘and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’ Both pun and quotation were gentle invocations of the book’s main theme: for Lévi-Strauss, human thought in all its complexity is as natural a thing as a wild flower, and La Pensée sauvage tried to show how its garden grows.

The play on words doesn’t carry into English (this new translation has a bouquet of pansies on the cover in lieu), but calling it The Savage Mind butchered the primary sense too, suggesting the brutal and witless natives of the colonial imagination – a reversal of the book’s intention. Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt generously suggest that the choice of ‘savage’ might have been an ironic reference to the anthropological vocabulary of an earlier generation, whose theories Lévi-Strauss had set himself to overturn. Maybe, but if so it didn’t come off, and in any case it was only the most obvious symptom of a deeper malaise. ‘“Wild thought” and not “the thought of wild men”,’ Lévi-Strauss explained, to no avail. The new title is much better.

Lévi-Strauss’s complex prose style combined with the breadth of his references make things difficult for any translator, and the first time around, in the 1960s, no fewer than three people were involved: the anthropologist Rodney Needham, the Oxford philosopher Sybil Wolfram (whom Needham seemingly asked to help because he felt unsure handling the philosophical content), and the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, who was brought in to look over the text when Wolfram and Lévi-Strauss couldn’t agree. (The title was among the sticking points: ‘Mind in the Wild’, ‘Untamed Thinking’ and ‘Natural Ideas’ were all considered and rejected.) When The Savage Mind was published in 1966, Lévi-Strauss said he didn’t recognise his own book. Needham countered that if it was filled with obscurities that’s because it had been translated directly from Lévi-Strauss’s French. ‘Not only did “too many cooks spoil the broth,”’ Wolfram later said, ‘but they were able to transform the cooked to the raw.’ None of the translators would put their name to it, and it was left unattributed, a notorious disaster. Clifford Geertz declared it ‘execrable’.

The arrival of Mehlman and Leavitt’s new translation is, then, an event. Finally, there is a fresh, agile English rendering of one of the 20th century’s greatest, strangest and most challenging works. Working from the Pléiade edition of 2008, the translators have also incorporated some significant alterations that Lévi-Strauss made in his final versions of the text. Still, the passage of time evidently hadn’t made the task any easier: La Pensée sauvage was, Mehlman and Leavitt write, ‘a nightmare to translate’.

And neither a new translation nor the passage of time have changed the book itself. Whatever the title, it remains a forbidding work. Outside anthropological circles, it is best known for elevating the figure of the ‘bricoleur’, a kind of odd-job man who solves technical problems by using whatever accumulated odds and ends are to hand (‘bricolage’ – now, thanks to Lévi-Strauss, a byword for idiosyncratic resourcefulness and creative improvisation). Yet the bricoleur makes only a brief appearance in Wild Thought, and after the first chapter he is displaced to make way for the combination of recondite anthropological data and labyrinthine analysis that makes up the rest.

Wild Thought opens with a demonstration of the intellectually meticulous attitude that indigenous societies take towards the natural world. Drawing on ethnographic evidence gathered in places as widely dispersed as Zambia, California, the Philippines and Siberia, Lévi-Strauss shows that the extensive, careful scientific classification of natural phenomena – sometimes with binomial and trinomial vocabulary, comparable to the Linnaean model – is the norm among peoples historically dismissed by Europeans as ‘primitive’. In the Philippines, for instance, the Subanun have a botanical lexicon of more than a thousand terms; the Pinatubo recognise more than six hundred plants and have more than a hundred terms for different parts of plants; and the Hanunóo have a complex classificatory system with thousands of names to identify birds, snakes, crustaceans, spiders, insects, molluscs and so on. Having listed many similar examples, Lévi-Strauss ends his initial disquisition with an alarming list of don’t-try-this-at-home Siberian cures:

swallowing spiders and white worms (Itelman and Yakut, for sterility); the fat of the black beetle (Ossetians, for rabies); crushed cockroach, hen’s gall (Russians of Surgut, for abscesses and hernias); macerated red worms (Yakut, for rheumatism); pike’s gall (Buryat, for eye ailments) … stroking with a woodpecker’s beak or blood, nasal inhalation of mummified woodpecker, ingested egg of the kuksha bird (Yakut, against toothache, scrofula, horse diseases, and tuberculosis, respectively); partridge blood, horse sweat (Oirot, for hernias and warts) …

For Lévi-Strauss, evidence of this sort gives the lie to the old canard that ‘primitive’ people were interested in knowing about things only if they were useful. In fact, he says, the opposite is true: things ‘are found to be useful or interesting because, first of all, they are known’. The classification of beings that have no medicinal or comestible use indicates the existence of a shared scientific bent among indigenous people, as well as widespread, well-developed cultures of close observation and systematic investigation. This knowledge is ‘not practical in nature’, but intellectual. ‘The real question,’ for Lévi-Strauss, ‘is not knowing whether contact with a woodpecker’s beak cures toothache, but whether it is possible … to make the woodpecker’s beak and the human tooth “go together”.’ Such punctilious classification of natural beings and objects brings the various observable elements of the world into meaningful relation with one another, organising the raw material for what Lévi-Strauss called a ‘science of the concrete’ – a mode of understanding that works through the logical combination and recombination of the myriad natural units that can be perceived in the world.

Like the bricoleur, concrete science operates through the manipulation of existing knowledge, shuffling and redeploying the elements to hand in order to solve whatever problems it encounters. This elder scientific approach – Lévi-Strauss also calls it ‘first science’ – interweaves magic and myth with extensive research and experimentation. It isn’t a ‘timorous or stammering form of science’ but ‘fully formed and coherent … a well-articulated system’, as conceptually rigorous in its own way as modern science. ‘Instead … of opposing magic and science, we would do better to view them as parallel, as two modes of knowledge.’ They may not be equals in respect of the results they yield, but they are linked by ‘the kind of mental operations on which the two draw’. That said, the practical results of first science are not to be sniffed at. The ‘great arts of civilisation’ mastered in the Neolithic, Lévi-Strauss argues, presuppose ‘centuries of active and methodical observation, bold and controlled hypotheses rejected or confirmed by means of tirelessly repeated experiments’.

This concrete science, or ‘mythic thought’, ancient or contemporary, epitomises the kind of wild thinking Lévi-Strauss was looking for. Precise and minutely calibrated, it both describes the world and accounts for its structure, but rather than putting knowledge in service of a relentless progress, it is dedicated to the accommodation of change and the maintenance of conceptual balance. It deals with the possibilities of the actual, not the pursuit of the possible. It is concerned with aesthetics, and takes full account of both primary and secondary qualities: where modern science neglects the former in favour of the latter, concrete science might conclude that, for instance, ‘a seed in the shape of a tooth protects against snakebite’ or that ‘a yellow juice is a remedy for bilious disorders’, proceeding ‘as though an equivalence satisfying one’s aesthetic feeling also [corresponds] to an objective reality’. It refuses the onward march of history, preferring states of social and environmental equilibrium. Concrete science is ‘not the thought of savages or of a primitive or archaic humanity, but thought in the wild state’ – the natural functioning of the mind, when it hasn’t been trammelled by the methodologies of modern science, the rigid timelines of academic history or the barren orthodoxies of philosophy. And in Lévi-Strauss’s view, this kind of undomesticated thought isn’t just valuable in its own right: it is able to transcend and resolve some of the difficulties that continue to dog the European intellectual tradition.

At this point, we’re still only halfway through the first chapter, yet it’s here that Lévi-Strauss suddenly strikes out into deeper waters, and it quickly becomes hard to see the bottom. His discussion of the bricoleur is followed by several pages of dense analysis of one small detail in a 16th-century painting by François Clouet (in the course of which he also has cause to mention that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a ‘reduced-scale model’ of ‘the end of time’). This culminates in thoughts about the nature of academic painting and art as such, punctuated with asides on the various functions of Socialist Realism, Cubism and Impressionism. (Earlier in the same chapter, Lévi-Strauss notes that his idea of mythic thought happens to be very similar to the idea of ‘objective chance’ in Surrealist theory. He had got to know André Breton when they were both in New York during the Second World War, and developed close friendships with Max Ernst, André Masson and others in Surrealist circles.) The chapter ends with a long account of formal game-playing in various indigenous American societies.

There are many such complex detours in Wild Thought, and they do connect, in more or less convoluted ways, to the preceding discussion of concrete science. But the sudden, disorientating acceleration and the apparently uncontrolled threading together of disparate fields and facts are hallmarks of the book as a whole. It isn’t at all the methodologically sober scientific analysis that Lévi-Strauss would have us believe, but reads more like the rapid unspooling of a supremely confident mind, prodigiously erudite, adept at making poetic connections between meticulously categorised phenomena, and capable of absorbing and neutralising any challenge or apparent contradiction. A mind that takes items which might appear far from the point – Georges Méliès’s set designs, fragments of Dickens, the ‘Palais Idéal’ of the Facteur Cheval – and rapidly turns them to account. A mind that works, indeed, rather like the one he is trying to describe: the ‘neolithic’ intelligence of Tristes Tropiques, busily transcribing its own operations and seeing in them the universal structures of human thought. No wonder Clifford Geertz described some of the sections – in particular a truly obscure rumination on the names given to horses, cattle, dogs and cats – as ‘triumphs of self-parody … far-fetched enough to make a psychoanalyst blush’.

With​ the main theme announced, the book sets out to demonstrate the way concrete science operates in practice. Lévi-Strauss is interested in the logic of classification: where the Linnaean system orders only the taxonomic relationships between different living beings, he finds that indigenous taxonomies are typically inflected by ritual, practical or social concerns as well. This includes the ways in which indigenous societies organise themselves into subgroups related to natural beings (e.g. a division into wolf, bear and turtle clans – what anthropologists used to call ‘totemism’), or the ways that species or objects correspond with other phenomena (e.g. an association between woodpeckers and ‘tempests and storms’). Such systems are often incredibly complex, and may seamlessly link minutely detailed natural taxonomies or morphologies (an analysis of the body parts of a turtle, say) with social, cosmic and sacred orders (in this case, drawn from the Osage, features of the turtle’s body are woven into accounts of the structure of the Milky Way and the numerological order of clan divisions, all of which helps determine the way the turtle is invoked in ritual).

Lévi-Strauss’s purpose is to show that the logic of such systems is usually highly coherent and complete, though as with a language this logic can’t be worked out a priori from the elements at hand, which are in a sense as arbitrary as signs. Only a detailed ethnography can provide an understanding of why, for instance, the Osage classify eagles in the ‘earth’ category of beings and not the ‘sky’ category (it’s because eagles are associated with lightning, lightning with fire, fire with charcoal, and charcoal with earth: eagles are one of ‘the masters of charcoal’).

Similarly subtle and flexible logics are not in fact foreign to the European intellectual tradition. As Lévi-Strauss notes, the examples he presents demonstrate ‘a way of thinking at ease with all the exercises of speculation, close to that of the naturalists and hermeticists of antiquity and the Middle Ages: Galen, Pliny, Hermes Trismegistus, Albertus Magnus’. Lévi-Strauss isn’t trying to identify the peculiarities of something exotic, but the typical features of something universal, something which happens to have fallen out of favour in European thought. With each succeeding chapter, he examines a different modality or application of mythic thought, moving from considerations of clan groups and their natural science, through food prohibitions, problems of the particular and the universal, the value of number, the notion of caste and much more besides, finally arriving at the rules organising the most reduced, essential class, that of specific individuals and proper names.

So much of Lévi-Strauss’s argument is couched in the terms of anthropological arcana that for long stretches even the main theme becomes hard to discern, and by the end of the book one could be forgiven for asking what he thinks he has proved. The answer comes in the final chapter, ‘History and Dialectic’, in which he forsakes analysis of ethnographic evidence to mount a stinging attack on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). Sartre is accused of embarrassingly faulty reasoning, myopic ethnocentrism and implicitly racist ‘intellectual cannibalism’ (‘much more revolting than the other kind’). The essence of the argument is that thinkers from societies modern Europeans still considered ‘primitive’ long ago found ways around some of the philosophical problems that Sartre – like most other thinkers in the European tradition, and like anthropology itself – was still struggling to define. In Lévi-Strauss’s view, the Critique elevates ‘dialectical reason’ to the status of a master key for understanding all thought. That won’t wash with Lévi-Strauss, who has just spent three hundred pages detailing ways of thinking that have no problem accommodating novel events and solving knotty problems without any recourse at all to dialectical methods.

Lévi-Strauss sees Sartre’s solipsism as more than merely ethnocentric, however. It is, for him, a symptom of a deeper problem with the European humanities, which have privileged such constructions as ‘history’ and ‘dialectical reason’ in the description and explanation of human events. Not only has anthropology shown that there are other ways of looking at the world which function just as well (and maybe better), but Sartre’s presentation of dialectical reason as the measure of all thought raises a fundamental question: on what basis is dialectical thinking possible at all? It can’t generate itself, and neither can historical thinking. Beneath the products of the mind there must lie a mental architecture which can’t be explained by ‘history’, ‘dialectics’ or any other such local intellectual product (and beneath this, somehow integrated with it, there is the biological architecture of the brain). Naturally such pre-conscious substrates aren’t directly accessible to reflection. But just as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was conceived by Duchamp as the three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional reality, in Wild Thought Lévi-Strauss is searching for those forms of thought whose flexibility, suppleness and totality may help us discern the otherwise inaccessible mental armature that lies beneath them. (Surrealism is pertinent here too. Breton’s remark ‘L’oeil existe à l’état sauvage,’ in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, indicates that the eye is mere flesh; the data it supplies is given meaning by the traditions of the mind to which it is attached. Substitute ‘La pensée’ for ‘L’oeil’ and you can see what Lévi-Strauss is getting at.)

It is an absurdly grandiose project, and there are plenty of skilful elisions. In particular Lévi-Strauss is very slippery on the question of whether the forms of thought he discusses are actually ‘wild’, or merely give us access to the anterior ‘wildness’ present in all thought. His methods, too, were regarded as deeply idiosyncratic, not to say suspect. An early sticking point among more orthodox anthropologists was his insistence on adducing as evidence not only carefully gathered material from the ethnographic record, but any scrap of information ever gathered about human social life. With barely a hint of a critical attitude, he drew freely from antiquity, Jesuit records, travellers’ tales, early colonial accounts, paintings, music and novels. (‘His scholarship was unreliable,’ Rodney Needham drily noted.) Some of his practices were borderline esoteric: his manner of myth analysis was to break stories down into discrete elements, give each element its own index card, then arrange the cards into a huge grid, continually shuffling them in order to discern previously hidden relationships. Such methods couldn’t be replicated with any precision by other researchers and could not, therefore, be considered scientific, even in the limited sense demanded of the social sciences. Yet Lévi-Strauss conceived this Surrealist scrying as part of a true anthropological science that would contribute to an almost cosmic intellectual task: ‘reintegrating culture into nature, and finally life into the set of its physico-chemical conditions’.

Lévi-Strauss wasn’t aiming merely to dismantle the follies of anthropology – that was nothing but a minor skirmish, really – but to overcome the chauvinism and domesticity of all post-Enlightenment European thought, which, like an industrial farm in a once pristine landscape, threatened the older, wilder forms of thought with extinction. In his attempt to shatter Western solipsism, he set out to prove that the intellectual culture of so-called savages had the potential to take European thinking by the hand, like an older sibling, and help it past the stumbling blocks it had set for itself. He would do nothing less than restore the untamed thought of the universal human mind to its proper place, ‘legitimating the principles of wild thought and re-establishing its rights’. The whole project is excessive, hubristic and brilliant. It is the flawed keystone of a revolutionary anthropology that could never really be built, a firework of renegade Surrealism that imagined itself as a new science. Wild thought, indeed.

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