Claude Lévi-Strauss passed away…

JPEG Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the last giants of 20th century French thinking, passed away few days before his 101st birthday. The founder of structural anthropology, the “astronomer of the human constellations”, and the universal scope of whose work radically changed Western thinking celebrated his hundredth birthday on 28 November - and the Académie Française its first centenarian, as he is the first of its “Immortals” since its foundation in 1634 to have ever reached that age.

I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions. But how long it has taken me to make up my mind to do so!”: these were the opening words of the book published in 1955 which brought him immediate fame, Tristes Tropiques, his “intellectual autobiography”. A book so magnificently well written that the jury of the Prix Goncourt that year published a communiqué expressing its regret at not being able to award it the prize because it was an essay and not a novel.

More than a prize, it is a very literary honour that marked the centenary year of “the greatest anthropologist in the world”: his entry into the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade with seven books chosen by him and accompanied by many previously unpublished notes. The philosopher Catherine Clément, who was his pupil and who devoted a volume of the collection Que sais-je ? [What do I know?] to him, defined him on that occasion as “the greatest living intellectual” who “cut the ties between ethnology and colonialism”.

Among the avalanche of tributes had provoked by this birthday - including one from the President of the Republic who visited him at home “to pay him a warm tribute and express the gratitude of the entire Nation” - the most moving was the one made by the Musée des Arts Premiers (Quai Branly) devoted to the Arts and Civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas and which sees itself as a bridge between cultures. Claude Lévi-Strauss was an early supporter of this museum project promoted by President Jacques Chirac, and he visited it at the age of 97 on the eve of its opening on 21 June 2006. Its theatre is named after him and he was its honorary curator. A “special day” was devoted to him on his hundredth birthday, marked by the reading of some of his greatest texts by around a hundred celebrities from the world of arts, science and literature, before a crowd of enthusiastic visitors, on the stage of the collections amid objects which he himself had collected and which today form part of the museum’s collections. Original editions of his books, photos taken by him as well as documentaries on his travels were also presented, and a plaque in his honour was officially unveiled at the entrance to “his” theatre. On the plaque, engraved in marble, is this quote from the anthropologist: “The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfilment is to be alone”.

Claude Lévi-Strauss had agreed to put his name to a national prize worth 100,000 euros, to be awarded each year to “the best researcher in the human and social sciences working in France”.

Born in Brussels in 1908 to Alsatian Jewish parents, Claude Lévi-Strauss passed the agrégation in philosophy in 1931. Half a century later, he was still wondering “ how he passed it”. “It’s a mystery!” he said. Then in the famous pages of Tristes Tropiques he told how, when he began to become interested in ethnology, he received “one Sunday in the autumn of 1934 at nine in the morning” a telephone call from the director of the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure offering him a post to teach sociology at the University of São Paulo. And so began what he had called “the most important experience of his life”: the discovery of Brazil, a country in which he is adulated and towards which he has said he feels “profoundly indebted”. A country in which he lived from 1935 to 1939, organising and running several ethnographic missions in the Mato Grosso and in Amazonia, meeting Indian tribes of Amazonia from within these so-called “primitive” societies whose lives, customs and beliefs he has described so tellingly. He also brought back from his Brazilian travels part of the collections exhibited in the Paris museum today: often modest objects from daily life but also magnificent masks and mythical objects bought later in the United States, the north-west coast of North America being another “magical place” for the discovery of these “arts premiers” or “early arts”. The anthropologist has shared his large collection between Brazil and France.

Back in France at the beginning of 1939 and mobilised, he was dismissed from teaching after the 1940 armistice as a result of the first anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy government. Having become “potential fodder for the concentration camp”, he was lucky enough to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s programme for saving European scholars threatened by the Nazis, and invited to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. A boat still had to be found to get him there and this was a voyage in rather trying conditions that he recounts in Tristes Tropiques. He embarked in 1941 with 218 other refugees including the Pope of Surrealism, André Breton.

A supporter of Free France from 1942 onwards, appointed to the French scientific mission in the United States, he lived in New York, where he taught ethnology, “a period of intense intellectual excitement” in contact notably with the great names in American anthropology. It is there too that he came across linguistics “thanks to Roman Jakobson”. “I was doing structuralism without realising it. Jakobson revealed to me the existence of a body of doctrine that had already been formed”. In New York too, he found material to nurture another aspect of his personality, evoked at great length in the book Regarder, écouter, lire [Look, Listen, Read] (1993): his love of art and music. The son of a painter and great grandson of the composer Isaac Strauss (same name but unrelated to the very famous Johann and Richard Strauss), he adored Wagner (whose Ring Cycle he studied in detail), he “idolised” Stravinsky, and he later revealed that he had always dreamed of being a conductor – “if not a composer”!

Among the artists in exile, he became friends with Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and other Surrealists. From 1945 to the end of 1947, he was cultural attaché to the French Embassy in New York.

Back in France in 1948, senior researcher at the CNRS, associate director of the Musée de l’Homme, he defended his thesis in 1949 on Les structures élémentaires de la parenté [The Elementary Structures of Kinship] (one of his major works, as La pensée sauvage [The Savage Mind] would be in 1962). In 1958 the first volume of L’anthropologie structurale [Structural Anthropology] appeared in Éditions Plon, after having first been rejected by Gallimard on the grounds that the author’s thinking was “not yet mature enough”! The second volume appeared in 1973. “The nature of truth is already indicated by the care it takes to remain elusive”; it was on the basis of this axiom that Claude Levi-Strauss, true founder of structural thought in the field of anthropology, developed a method of analysis, aimed at analyzing the relatives relationships and myths among primitive society which takes inspiration from linguistics methods.

In 1959, Claude Lévi-Strauss was appointed to the chair of social anthropology at the Collège de France (a post he had been refused twice before), where he remained until his retirement in 1982 after founding in 1960 the Laboratory of Social Anthropology and in 1961 the French scientific review of anthropology L’Homme. The Collège de France considers that “no anthropologist has exerted (until his teaching) so great an intellectual influence touching every discipline that relates to man and his works”. In 1973 he was the first ethnologist elected to the Académie Française, to the chair of the writer Henry de Montherlant. The Académie paid tribute to him on the eve of his birthday which, according to its permanent secretary Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, was for it “a huge event and perhaps above all a family celebration”.

Reluctant to express himself in the media, Claude Lévi-Strauss has been careful not to make any comment on his reaching the age of one hundred. But in one of his very rare interviews, with Le Monde on the occasion of the Year of Brazil in France in 2005, he said “We are in a world to which already I no longer belong. The world I knew, the world I loved, had 1.5 billion inhabitants. The world today has six billion humans. It is no longer mine”.

Claudine Canetti - Actualité en France - Special issue - November 2009

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