Misreading Claude Lévi-Strauss the Man
After the well-deserved hosannas of praise for the centenary , and subsequent dignified mourning for the demise, of the great French Jewish anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, a backlash seemed inevitable. On October 7, “Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory,” by Patrick Wilcken, presented as the “definitive account of the life, work, and legacy,” was published by The Penguin Press .
Wilcken trained as an anthropologist in the UK, and currently works defending indigenous populations in Brazil for Amnesty International, although he has also published on Israeli politics . Despite this wide range of authorial interests, “Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory,” is gallingly clueless about Lévi-Strauss the man.
Wilcken complains of “vividness without depth” in Lévi-Strauss, whose “anonymous Semitic features (he came from a Jewish family, originally from the Alsace) have been endlessly photographed in the same noncommittal pose.” The peculiar phrase “anonymous Semitic features” — imagine any anthropologist referring to “anonymous Asian features” — seem to imply that Wilcken thinks all Jews look alike. Examining photos of Lévi-Strauss, Wilcken compares them unfavorably to a portrait of Picasso by Irving Penn, wherein the painter gives his trademark bug-eyed stare, and faults Lévi-Strauss for not likewise giving a “glimpse of his inner being” in photos. Yet surely being a writer and intellectual is not the same as being a hammy photographer’s model.
Wilcken also inaptly describes some Lévi-Strauss TV and radio appearances as “avuncular,” which would be appropriate if all our uncles were as dazzlingly intelligent as Lévi-Strauss. First and foremost, Lévi-Strauss was a great prose writer — not a poet as the new book’s subtitle claims. Reading Lévi-Strauss is like reading Chateaubriand, a 19th century author who is merely a name to most anthropologists. Lévi-Strauss could be disarmingly witty, such as when he rejected theatre-going as “witnessing a domestic squabble which does not concern me.”
Yet he was never, as Wilcken peculiarly claims after watching a [1959 TV interview], a “businesslike operator” with a “hint of arrogance.” Could it be that Lévi-Strauss’s dapper three-piece suit worn for the broadcast irked his biographer?
Wilcken further misreads Lévi-Strauss’s attitude towards the Brazilians whom he photographed with tender affection and sensuality in the 1930s, calling Lévi-Strauss “hostile… awkward… embarrassed…detached.” “Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory,” despite useful potted descriptions of the master’s books, has no idea about him as a person. After having met 97-year-old Lévi-Strauss twice in 2005, Wilcken accuses him of expressing “acid, but ironic, nihilism.” Perhaps the venerable thinker just did not like the company.
Watch Lévi-Strauss, with characteristic scintillating intelligence and charm, describe his time in Brazil as the “loveliest years of his life”: