When French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss passed away October 30, a few weeks shy of his 101st birthday, he left behind a towering body of work that dramatically impacted his field and influenced the wave of French thought that hit American universities in the 1970s, from Michel Foucault to Jacques Lacan. Lévi-Strauss, though, originally studied philosophy, and it wasn't until traveling and living in Brazil in the late 1930s that he began to focus on ethnographic and ethnological research.
Lévi-Strauss loved music, recognizing it as a human language capable of crossing cultural lines more easily and readily than actual spoken tongues, and this 1955 book is one of his most accessible and symphonic. An ostensible travelogue about his work in Brazil, Tristes Tropiques is a fugue of ideas, freely moving from memoir to intellectual reflection, from lyric observation of nature and indigenous populations to tangential consideration of religions, including Islam.
Lévi-Strauss spent a good part of World War II in New York, where he met a few of the founders of American anthropology, such as Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber, and attended lectures by linguist Roman Jakobson. He also had access to the New York Public Library's vast ethnographic holdings, which gave him insight into a wide-ranging array of literature on indigenous peoples and their belief systems. In a radical reexamination of how people organize their societal lives, Lévi-Strauss began applying Saussurean linguistics to cultural phenomena. This 1958 book laid out the foundation of his structuralism, a way of looking across cultures to understand their fundamental qualities—in short, an effort to explore the grammar of human life and consciousness.
Although The Savage Mind, the companion study to Totemism (both originally published in French in 1962), is better-known, Lévi-Strauss does his most impressive intellectual kung-fu in this book-length essay. At the time, anthropology tended to consider indigenous totems—a people's symbolic interpretation of their world—as constructs of primitive modes of thought, both prelogical and prerational. Totemism argues that such primitive ideas are actually rooted in a rigorous logical system, a way of interpreting the observable world that is neither better nor worse than the systems developed by modern rationalism.
Lévi-Strauss's humanism manifests most clearly in the four-volume Mythologiques project, a comparative examination of the myths of North and South American cultures. Lévi-Strauss, though, is less interested in the stories than in their social functions. The Raw and the Cooked, the first and best-known work in the Mythologiques, begins with a Bororo myth and ends with a universal insight into cultural relations.
Bret McCabe is arts editor of the Baltimore City Paper.