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Reading Claude Levi-Strauss

Tristes Tropiques is one of the pillars of 20th century thought.

These days, I seem to have reached a stage in life where it’s important for me to re-read some of the first books I read, back in high school. Thus, over the past two years, I have re-read many of the novels that during adolescence formed my gateway into serious literature: Tolstoy’s Anna Karinina, War and Peace, Dostoyevsky’s major works, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. I am curious if the current version of me can see what I found interesting or worthwhile or important in these same books at age 17 or so. Like memories, books provide a kind of continuity in one’s life. Re-reading a book is a way of repeating an experience, like visiting a particular place after years of absence, or encountering a former friend with whom you’ve lost touch.

For example, re-reading Madame Bovary a few months ago, I found Flaubert’s masterpiece to be more interesting now than I did when I first read it in high school. On the other hand, for whatever reason, Sentimental Education strikes me as boring and tedious today, as I recall my excitement on first encountering Flaubert’s account of the 1848 revolution in Paris. Of course, to some extent, Frederic Moreau is supposed to appear boring and tedious, just as Emma Bovary is supposed to appear vain and frivolous; Flaubert is one of the most cynical writers in Western literature.

The first serious non-fiction I read in high school was written by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. I read several of his books, but I did not get around to reading his most famous work, Tristes Tropiques – until now.

Tristes Tropiques, first published in 1955, is one of the best books I’ve ever read, a towering achievement by a brilliant thinker and superb writer. He begins the book by disparaging travel books – and then proceeds to write a book about this travels, specifically, Levi-Strauss’ voyages to and within Brazil beginning on a slow boat from France in 1934 to teach sociology at the newly founded University of Sao Paulo, and then his expeditions via mule, train and canoe in Brazil’s wild interior to meet and study various remote native Indian tribes. These experiences led the author to his invention of structuralism, which (for a brief while) became the dominant French intellectual trend following Existentialism.

It would be wrong, however to say that Tristes Tropiques in a travel book, although it’s about traveling. Similarly, it would be wrong to characterize it as a memoir, a work of philosophy, of cultural history of the New World , a book on geography, a study of colonialism and its effects, or a anthropological study of primitive societies – because it is all of these things, and a kind of prose poem at the same time. The author shifts from one genre to another seamlessly, almost without the reader noticing, and every page bristles with originality and intellectual power.

Among the many memorable highlights: reflections on the differences between poverty in the Americas versus in the Orient (India and Pakistan); humorous descriptions of the author’s long, boring days on a slow boat across the Atlantic Ocean, escaping from barbarism in the Old World and seeking for refuge among New World barbarians; contemplation of the lasting and irreversible effects of colonialism on native peoples, and the impossibility of encountering primitive societies untainted by contact with white Europeans; detailed descriptions of the structure of Bororo villages and mythology and its significance; a four page prose poem, written on a boat off the coast of Brazil, describing a sunset in extraordinary detail.

Late in the book, trekking through the Amazon rainforest to visit a Tupi-Kawahib village, Levi-Strauss remarks that while in this youth he was excited by mountains (the clear silhouette of mountain peaks provided a metaphor for an ambitious youth’s visionary plans and projects), now it is the more peaceful and welcoming form of the dense forest that inspires him, forcing his attention to focus on his immediate surroundings. The transition between landscape metaphors involves a sacrifice of futurity to presentness, an acceptance of maturity.

Tristes Tropiques is really about loss. Only recently had the world’s most advanced civilization spawned in its very heart the Nazi Holocaust, and the first loss is of the arrogant self-confidence of European culture. This in itself provides a motive for searching out primitive societies. However, none of the primitive societies Levi-Strauss visits has not been ravaged by direct or indirect encounter with European colonialism. What he finds on the plains of Mato Grosso State and in the Amazon forest are tiny remnants of Indian societies, decimated by disease, displacement and exploitation, struggling for survival. Loss of one expression of culture – by, for instance, the adoption of Western style walled-in homes introduced by Jesuit missionaries – implies the devaluation or degradation of all cultural expressions, eventually, the dissolution of an entire society. The author’s yearning to find a pure, unspoiled exemplar of humanity must go unsatisfied; in the mid-twentieth century, the Garden of Eden has been irreversibly despoiled, and no corner of the planet is untouched by overpopulation, human avarice and cruelty. The history of civilization recapitulated in the author’s lament for his own lost youth.


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