Lévi-Strauss: He Changed How We See Culture, but Ignored His Own


By Melvin Konner

Published November 04, 2009, issue of November 13, 2009.
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The death of Claude Lévi-Strauss October 30 in Paris at age 100 closed an epoch in anthropology. His name was synonymous with structuralism, the dominant theory of culture in the late 20th century, and his mind and work were emblematic of French intellectual life at its most grand. Like Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist whose mantle he picked up and wore very comfortably, Lévi-Strauss was a Jew. But in neither case, nor in those of many other Jewish social thinkers, is it easy to find explicit Jewish references in their lives or work.

Structuralist: Claude Lévi- Strauss redefined views of primitive society.
Getty Images
Structuralist: Claude Lévi- Strauss redefined views of primitive society.

From his youth, Lévi-Strauss identified first and foremost — perhaps solely — as a Frenchman. But the Nazis and their French minions had other ideas. Serving in the army on the “impregnable” Maginot Line, Lévi-Strauss, like his comrades, fled the blitzkrieg, a stray cog in a broken army in disarray.

Somehow he evaded the nets cast by both the Germans and their collaborators among his countrymen, and in 1941 took up an academic life in New York. Quite properly, he recognized New York as a great cultural center, collecting not just intellectual light but the creativity of all the world’s traditions. He did well there, befriended by (among others) the father of American anthropology, Columbia’s Franz Boas — another, much more senior, Jewish immigrant.

In the early 1950s, Lévi-Strauss returned to France, where, in spite of everything, he felt he truly belonged. He had done superb fieldwork in Brazil along the way, and among many scholarly works published the semi-popular “Tristes Tropiques” — a pun that can mean “tropical encounters” and also “sad tropics.” It began, “Travelers and travelogues are two things I hate,” but its masterful prose was an unprecedented blend of ethnography and travelogue, intellectual challenge and tropical adventure.

Yet after this inspired account of a jungle trek, where the human landscape mattered more than the flora and fauna, he turned decisively to theory. He once frankly told an interviewer that he felt more comfortable in the study than in the field. In any case, what he did in his study, in the confines of his mind, changed the way we think about human behavior.

In works like “Totemism,” “The Savage Mind” and the magisterial, multi-volume “Mythologiques,” he explored the universals of human thought that he believed must underlie social structure and myth. Social rules, myths and rituals are as they are because, as Lévi-Strauss put it, they are “good to think” — social expressions of the way the mind is set up.

Above all, perhaps, he respected what he called the savage mind, and the adaptive knowledge even the most “primitive” people had about the world around them, notably botanical and zoological expertise. He also identified with those minds, using the term bricolage — the French handyman’s ability to make use of any materials available to build, repair and create — to describe their thought processes as well as his own.

In what way if any were these thoughts Jewish? As Durkheim, who began life as David Emile, was the son of a rabbi before being the father of sociology, so Lévi-Strauss was a Versailles rabbi’s grandson before fathering structuralism. Marx, long before them, had been descended from long lines of rabbis on both sides of his family, and Freud, also descended from rabbis, had been taken hand in hand to the synagogue by his father.

All these social thinkers lived and wrote as if their Jewishness was something to ignore, evade or criticize. None seems to have considered himself and his work a manifestation of centuries-old patterns of Jewish argument refracted through the prism of modernity. Einstein (a hard scientist who did acknowledge the value of the Jewish tradition) used to say half-seriously that he was reading the mind of God; Lévi-Strauss and his fellow social thinkers were reading the mind of man. For millennia their ancestors, including rabbis, had tried to do both, but none of them really acknowledged his debt to that tradition.

Lévi-Strauss, like Durkheim, wanted to be thoroughly French. As Durkheim saw the Dreyfus Affair as an aberration, so Lévi-Strauss saw the Vichy years as something that had little to do with his homeland. Later, inseparable from the French intellectual scene, he was elected to the Académie Française, and was very active in that centuries-old coterie of immortals. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code had emancipated the Jews of France, and temporary setbacks did not make them anything but French.

Yet behind him, too, were the immortals of Jewish thought — the rigorous Talmudic sages, the philosophical Maimonides, the imaginative minds of Kabbalah and all their countless students and admirers. With two-tenths of a percent of the world’s people, Jews have won well over 20% of the Nobel Prizes, a hundred-fold excess, and that doesn’t count the human scientists mentioned here. Jewish thinkers turned their lenses on the modernity that had freed them; thinking outside the box of the dominant religion, they shaped 20th-century thought.

For Lévi-Strauss, as for Boas and other Jewish anthropologists, there was another dimension to being a cultural outsider: It drew them to a sympathetic view of simpler cultures, which most of their contemporaries viewed with disdain. The young intellectual who probably didn’t feel quite French — whose people were driven into hiding and murdered because of their odd and separate customs — became the fieldworker who penetrated the Amazon forest and recorded the odd customs of even more separate people, respecting and preserving them for posterity.

And, ironically, in the end it brought him back into the pantheon of the great minds of France; thus the country he loved so well acknowledged a debt to a man whose grandfather had led a congregation of French Jews in prayer and hovered over sacred books, trying with all his heart to read the minds of God and men, in words set down and debated far from Paris, at a time when no one in France could read. Modernity makes strange bedfellows, and even stranger disciples.

Melvin Konner is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University. He is the author of “Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews” (Viking, 2003) and, most recently, “The Jewish Body” (Nextbook/Schocken). He blogs at jewsandothers.com.

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