Anthropology as Atonement

Why Claude Lévi-Strauss celebrated every culture but his own
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) was the foremost anthropologist of the twentieth century, and one of its most renowned intellectuals of any persuasion. Common readers, if they know him at all, tend to do so only by Tristes Tropiques (French for “Sad Tropics”), his 1955 memoir of his fieldwork among Brazilian tribes and his travels as an academic junketeer in other alien enclaves. That book is salted with animadversions on the spread of the “monoculture” of the West doing its worst to refashion the world in its unhandsome image.

When he retails for a popular audience his experiences among the Caduveo, Bororo, and Nambikwara Indians, his observations are exceedingly sharp, shrewd, and empathetic. Yet although Tropiques recounts at length his own travels and explorations, its famous first sentence, “I hate travelling and explorers,” is not a lie or even a gross exaggeration. He was happiest in the seclusion of his study, and the works that made his formidable reputation among social scientists were books conceived of other books. When he writes for this scholarly audience, laying out his trademark “structuralist” interpretation of primitive kinship relations and myths, his findings show little real life behind them. The work that made him academically famous, and that he spent most of his career writing, shows no true connection with the peoples whose ways of life he is purportedly discussing.

Yet the warm humanity and the mandarin abstraction are opposite faces of the same lifelong purpose: to demonstrate the equality of primitive societies with high civilization, using the most rarefied products of the latter. Lévi-Strauss was a cultural relativist through and through, and the structural anthropology that was his invention proposed that human minds display the same basic structure everywhere, and that a Bororo myth about the origin of water represents a feat of mind no less worthy of respect and awe than Newton’s Principia. His compassion not only for the primitive but for all living things strangely induced intellectual austerity of the most exacting order. He needed to prove somehow that all human beings are ultimately the same, and abstruse theorizing would tolerate a greater load of such unlikelihood than common sense does.

‘The Most Important Experience of My Life’

Lévi-Strauss entered into his chosen profession pretty much by happenstance, and as a welcome relief from the endless boredom on the horizon in his youth. His boyhood suggested that he was cut out for an artistic vocation, as Patrick Wilcken details in his 2010 biography, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology. Claude’s beloved father was a portrait painter whose taste ran to the eighteenth century rococo — not exactly a recipe for critical acclaim with the modernist factions in the ascendant, but nevertheless the economic basis of a modest, happy, and aesthetically vital bourgeois family life. Under warm paternal tutelage, Claude frequented the Louvre, attended weekly classical music concerts, became a habitué of the nose-bleed seats at the Opéra, learned to play the violin, and inhaled the learned counsel of the literati and artists among his father’s friends who visited regularly and took a shine to the eager and precocious boy.

Quite contrary to his father’s taste, he goggled in wonderment at Picasso’s still-lifes of the 1920s, and later called them “the equivalent of metaphysical revelations.” Avant-garde music imparted a similar thrill: Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande caused the most pleasurable psychic disturbance. And Claude read the best novelists in a fever of excitement: Balzac (over and over), Dostoevsky, Zola, and Conrad, whom he would extol as “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century,” the master of the porous borderland between civilization and savagery, and of the savagery within civilization itself. Lévi-Strauss would emulate Conrad’s mordant irony in his own writings about savages in the wild and in some of the most refined precincts of Europe. And he would never forget his musical and artistic interests, upon which he unleashed his anthropological techniques — finding in Wagner’s Parsifal “probably the most profound definition that anyone has ever offered for myth,” and in his eighties writing a book that applied his hallmark structural interpretations to the paintings of Poussin, the music of Rameau, and the art criticism of Diderot.

Leftist politics inevitably allured Lévi-Strauss. A friend urged him to read Das Kapital, and though he would later say that he didn’t really understand it at the time, the hook bit deep. He became a wheel in student socialist activist circles; as he completed his studies at the Sorbonne in law and philosophy, a career as a radical politician seemed a live possibility. All this while, he remained ignorant of the field that the French called ethnologie. It came to his attention only after he had passed the agrégation, which qualified him to teach in a lycée or secondary school — not the sort of lifelong prospect with much appeal.

He learned about anthropology from his relative, the brilliant young intellectual Paul Nizan. It offered the chance to explore little-known parts of the world and to encounter the strangest representatives of the human race, while perhaps allowing him to preserve his connection to art and philosophy. Eventually, his undergraduate dissertation adviser offered him a position teaching sociology at the new University of São Paulo.

After he had endured a couple years working as a provincial schoolmaster, the offer was one he could not refuse. “Brazil was the most important experience of my life,” Lévi-Strauss would declare at the age of ninety-six, “not only because of the remoteness, the contrast, but also because it determined my career.” That he knew so little about the country only enhanced its appeal. Exotic adventure was in the offing. Before departure, a characteristically hectic bout of reading prepared him for the journey: a mixture of sober standard works by North American anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Robert Lowie and intoxicating early explorers’ tales of captivity at the hands of wild Indians. He was ready. In 1935 he and his wife, Dina, also a philosophy graduate, shipped out for the New World.

Disenchanting Wildness

São Paulo had just passed the million mark in population, an industrial boomtown (with skyscrapers!) emerging from the faded colonial gentility of coffee plantations that had been worked by slaves. Lévi-Strauss marveled at the patchwork effects of commercial civilization evolving on the spot: “You crossed over within a few feet of each other from the Iberian world of the eighteenth century to the Chicago of the 1880s.” He assigned his students projects on the local culture, sending them into the archival depths, and essays on a particular city street or neighborhood, sending them into the strangeness of their own home territory.

Compelled to teach the works of Émile Durkheim — the acknowledged master whom he found uncongenially conservative — the somewhat unwilling young professor nevertheless found his footing in subjects that would be essential to his life’s work, including kinship, totemism, and cross-cultural studies. He also helped conduct a conference on the significance of myth for indigenous peoples — the subject in which he would become the reigning if disputed world authority decades later.

As he ventured outside the city, the prospect of bigger and bigger excitements drew him irresistibly, from the suburbs to the pioneer country to the wilderness. The wilder it got, the better he liked it — or thought he did at first. He was primed for primeval transports, like those enjoyed by earlier scientific travelers of genius in South America such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. “I was discovering the New World for myself. Everything seemed mythical: the scenery, the plants, the animals.”

A Bororo man in ceremonial dress whom Claude Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques, called his “best informant”
Claude Lévi-Strauss via The Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology /

But his initial encounter with the indigenous Brazilians themselves, in the forest of the western state of Paraná in 1935, was entirely disenchanting. The Tibagy Indians were simply not wild enough to possess the cachet of “savagery.” Their encampment was littered with the detritus of civilization at its least comely: cheap plates and cutlery, the useless remains of a sewing machine. The whole show was appallingly low-rent in a not unfamiliar way, like a hobo jungle. Humboldt’s and Darwin’s amazement at their first sightings of the brave new world’s aboriginal human beings had curdled into dismay and disgust on Lévi-Strauss’s part.

The leaching of modernity’s sludge into the once-pristine cultures of primitive peoples — no longer sufficiently primitive for Lévi-Strauss’s liking — would become the master theme of the embittered Tristes Tropiques, which treats the fieldwork he carried out intermittently in Brazil through 1939. During this period, he found tribes more pleasingly primitive for the moment, yet already under assault from the moral and physical infections spread by the civilized. In the Nambikwara, wildest of them all, he discerned the wretchedness of people who materially had nothing and slept naked on the ground but found in each other tender consolation for their destitution:

The couples embrace as if seeking to recapture a lost unity, and their caresses continue uninterrupted as [the anthropologist] goes by. He can sense in all of them an immense kindness, a profoundly carefree attitude, a naive and charming animal satisfaction and — binding these various feelings together — something which might be called the most truthful and moving expression of human love.

 The four years of fieldwork in Brazil was the first he ever did — and would also be the last. His actual experience of native ways, he would later admit, had been hurried and superficial — his detractors would call it downright inadequate. However, it was more than enough to serve Lévi-Strauss’s scholarly purposes, which happened to be immensely ambitious. His further adventures among the primitives would be exclusively and indefatigably bookish. The library carrel suited his temperament better than the rain forest or barren savannah.

During the worst time of his last expedition, when everyone but he was plagued by a gonorrheal eye infection spread by flies, he pined for the conventional academic life back home, and even regretted the political career that had never left the ground. Enviable old friends were rising in the world: “And here was I, trekking across desert wastes in pursuit of a few pathetic human remnants.” A colleague on this excursion later said that for Lévi-Strauss the fieldwork was a necessary evil at best, the appointed term of penitential distress he had to endure in order to call himself a legitimate anthropologist. Susan Sontag, in her 1963 essay “The Anthropologist as Hero,” a piece of hagiography for a man who shared her florid loathing for modern commercial civilization, declared that anthropology was the only intellectual discipline that tested one’s manliness. “Courage, love of adventure, and physical hardiness — as well as brains — are called upon.”

But in fact Lévi-Strauss loved adventure only as he anticipated it from a comfortable distance. He proved his courage by making it through the vocational initiation that was for him a grueling ordeal; but his was a contemplative nature that found its true fulfillment in the calm privacy of his study. In preparing his breakthrough tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), which also served as his doctoral dissertation, he claimed to have consulted some 7,000 books and articles, and if he was stretching the point it was probably not by much. Whatever hardier and more adventurous colleagues may have thought of his fieldwork, his erudition was beyond reproach. He certainly had the brains, and he was a prodigy of Sitzfleisch.

The Dandelion Epiphany

He returned to France in March 1939 with a collection of many hundred Nambikwara objects, from which he would select a number to be exhibited at the Musée de l’Homme. There was supposed to be a second exhibition as well, but the Wehrmacht made other plans for Parisian culture. Lévi-Strauss was drafted, and during the months while the French waited to be conquered, he had time to hike the fields behind the Maginot Line and to enjoy the beauty of nature. One day he paused to consider intently the form of a dandelion seed head, and was bemused by its geometric perfection. “It was there that I found the organizing principle of my thought,” he told an interviewer forty-five years later.

The genetically transmitted structural plan that determined the shape of the seed head, he surmised, might have its anthropological analogue in the underlying principles that were transmitted down the generations of humankind and shaped the products of culture, such as kinship relations and myths. Here were the (perhaps mythic) beginnings of structural anthropology. It was to become the fountainhead of an intellectual movement — though perhaps vogue is the more appropriate word — that would dominate the 1960s and 1970s, especially in France but also in the United States, and elevate to ludicrous prominence such figures as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the semiotician and literary critic Roland Barthes, and the tendentious cultural historian Michel Foucault.

As a Jew, Lévi-Strauss stood a good chance of extinction if he were to remain in occupied France, and he managed after some difficulty to gain a berth on a ship carrying refugees from Marseilles to New York. The American cosmopolis provided the exile just what he needed to proceed in his work. He found intellectually gratifying employment lecturing at the New School for Social Research, at the École libre des hautes études de New York (a Free French cultural institution), and at Barnard College. He prowled the museums, especially the American Museum of Natural History, where the collection of Pacific Northwest Indian artifacts curated by Franz Boas, founding father of American anthropology, fascinated him. Boas responded generously to the unproven young scholar’s request to meet and talk; a few years later Lévi-Strauss would be sitting beside the aged mentor when Boas keeled over and died, in a quasi-mythic tableau of the passing of authority from genius to genius.

Lévi-Strauss spent every morning in the New York Public Library, filling himself to bursting on the available superabundance of ethnographic literature. “What I know of anthropology I learnt in those years,” he later averred. In the library he also discovered D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form (1917), an unusual and revelatory study of mathematical principles embodied in the works of nature and culture alike. As Patrick Wilcken writes, “Thompson compared the shape of a falling drop of water to a jellyfish, plant fiber to wire, the metacarpal bone of a vulture’s wing to a certain type of truss.” This expert engineering in the marvels of Creation and the efforts of man fortified Lévi-Strauss’s confidence that he was on to something of the greatest significance with his dandelion insight.

Bororo archery in the village of Kejara
Claude Lévi-Strauss via The Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology /
Deep Mathematical Structures

What clinched Lévi-Strauss’s certainty in his new direction was the stirring intellectual friendship with the Russian poet and linguist Roman Jakobson, another exile, who had pretty well traversed the whole of central and northern Europe in search of refuge before finding his way to New York. Jakobson was the leading proponent of structural linguistics, the field initiated by the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure in the early twentieth century.

The Russian polymath arrived heroically, right on time like the cavalry, to save Lévi-Strauss when he was struggling with his classification of kinship relations, unable to organize the relevant terms in tribal languages he was barely acquainted with, and simply overwhelmed by the whole spectacular mess. Jakobson directed him not only toward a streamlined method but, more important, to a novel understanding. Structural linguistics, he explained, had cleared up the empiricist confusion of an earlier generation, which had identified the numerous phonetic possibilities of various languages according to sound and physical articulation but then hadn’t known what to do with the information. The structuralist innovation focused on the “quanta of language”: the smallest possible units that pointed toward meaning. Sounds that distinguished one meaning from another were called phonemes; they are meaningless when considered without context, but their significance becomes apparent in their relation to one another, like the “b” in bat beside the “v” in vat.

“For Lévi-Strauss,” Wilcken writes, “the idea that thousands of languages were rooted in an essence — small sets of opposed phonemes — was seductively reductionist.” His craving for high-end abstraction was piqued, and he proceeded to apply structural principles to the study of kinship. Interesting binary oppositions abounded in kinship relations, such as male and female, endogamous and exogamous marriage, and the division of the larger society into moieties or clans. The theorist’s yen for basic explanation by nicely geometric diagram was aroused and satisfied. The ostensibly primitive but profoundly complex kinship systems, Wilcken declares, functioned according to “unspoken rules, unconsciously observed, which allowed groups of people to communicate with almost mathematical efficiency down the generations.” The Elementary Structures of Kinship, completed upon Lévi-Strauss’s return to France after the war, established him as the impressive new man with the alluring new theory to reckon with.

Thus the groundwork was laid for Lévi-Strauss’s grand project to redefine human nature. Anthropology by its very name assumes pre-eminence among the social sciences, and Lévi-Strauss aspired to enthrone it as the queen of the sciences all told, outranking even biology, chemistry, and physics. He undertook to transform the human sciences, which had traditionally suffered from a lack of methodological rigor, and to render them as hard-edged as the natural sciences. Blaise Pascal’s famous distinction between esprit de finesse and esprit de géométrie separated, on the one hand, literary and speculative intellectuals, including theologians and most philosophers, and, on the other hand, the mathematically inclined intellectuals. (Pascal himself overflowed his own categories.)

By Lévi-Strauss’s day, reducing the welter of human surface phenomena to bedrock mathematical formulae demonstrated the unimpeachable seriousness of one’s intellectual enterprise. Just as the physicist Richard Feynman would devise a system of diagrams, some monstrously complicated, to chart the interactions of subatomic particles, so Lévi-Strauss would decipher primitive peoples’ kinship relations and mythic transformations, many preposterously abstruse, which his dauntingly elaborate diagrams mapped more succinctly than words could. He even went so far as to posit, or to conjure, what he called “the canonical formula,” which professed to explicate every mythic structure by a standard algebraic equation — though he did so with the caveat that this formula was “not intended to prove anything,” but only to suggest a pattern vaguely discernible in “complex groups of relations and transformations, the detailed description of which may have sorely tried the reader’s patience.”

But, as we will see, Lévi-Strauss’s diagrams and formulas really do the reader no great kindness. The reader’s patience is tried despite the author’s best efforts. Clarity is not his forte; indeed he often seems defiantly obscure, in the manner of the worst academic writing, for only the most worthy to understand. The impulse to mathematize stems from his natural turn of mind toward the most rarefied abstraction. The structural anthropology that bears his bold signature breaks myths into small thematic fragments that he calls mythemes (after the structural linguists’ phonemes, morphemes, and sememes), and the ultimate meaning he derives from their reconstruction often bears scant resemblance to the evident meaning of the original narrative. Like his intellectual hero Freud, he purports to see through the manifest content in order to get to the latent truth, and like Freud he exhibits a sometimes astonishing exegetical virtuosity in doing so. But the skill of the performance cannot overcome the dubious result of the whole analysis, including the political moralizing that is its upshot.

With audacious confidence, Lévi-Strauss purports to prove that the minds of the primitive are no less capable or subtle than those of the most civilized — indeed, that the primitive demonstrate, in their ordering of kinship relations and especially in their myth-making, powers of logic comparable to those of mathematicians and philosophers. There exists in his telling a universal structure of the human mind that is the most certain proof of universal equality. This structure is not to be confused with the Jungian collective unconscious. Jung believed, wrongly in Lévi-Strauss’s assessment, that all humanity shares a common store of unconscious archetypes. Jung’s mistake was to think the archetypes are identical in content and thus possess the same meaning. Structural anthropology, by contrast, recognizes the universal forms of the unconscious mind; there is no such thing as universal content.

The master anthropologist exposes the forms with consummate cunning in his analysis of myth. That the myth-makers do not understand their myths the way Lévi-Strauss does is beside the point. As he explains, or avers, he is out to show “not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.” He safeguards the soundness of his mode of operating, which he expects to be accused of “overinterpretation and oversimplification,” by asserting that

it is in the last resort immaterial whether in this book the thought processes of the South American Indians take shape through the medium of my thought, or whether mine take place through the medium of theirs. What matters is that the human mind, regardless of the identity of those who happen to be giving it expression, should display an increasingly intelligible structure as a result of the doubly reflexive forward movement of two thought processes acting one upon the other, either of which can in turn provide the spark or tinder whose conjunction will shed light on both.

The primitive myth-maker will never understand the civilized exegete, and the exegete is indifferent to the meaning the myth may have for its maker, but their reciprocity demonstrates the genius of both. The anthropologist is as indispensable to the native as the native is to the anthropologist — according to the anthropologist, at any rate.

How to ‘Understand’ a Myth

Across the four volumes of his Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss offers an exposition of the logic of over eight hundred myths, mostly from South America, with some North American examples as well. These myths and their analyses are too long and unwieldy to rehearse any one of them here. A more approachable example of the structuralist method is found in the treatment of the familiar Oedipus myth in his 1955 article “The Structural Study of Myth” — or less unapproachable; the reader must be patient.

Lévi-Strauss compares the analysis to reading an orchestral score: on one axis, we read it from left to right, beginning to end; on another axis, we read it vertically, with the harmonies lined up, “one bundle of relations.” He disperses the elements of the myth — highlights of the plot, with a thematic arrangement — into four columns (with numbers added here that trace the plot chronologically):

1. Cadmos seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus   
  2. Cadmos kills the dragon  
 3. The Spartoi kill one another   
   4. Labdacos (Laios’ father), whose name means “lame” (maybe?)
 5. Oedipus kills his father, Laios 6. Laios (Oedipus’ father), meaning “left-sided” (?)
  7. Oedipus kills the Sphinx 
   8. Oedipus, meaning “swollen-foot” (?)
9. Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta   
 10. Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices  
11. Antigone buries her brother Polynices, despite prohibition   

“Were we to tell the myth,” Lévi-Strauss explains, “we would disregard the columns and read the rows from left to right and from top to bottom” — that is, here in numerical order. “But if we want to understand the myth,” we have to look at each column as a separate unit.

Now the interpreter’s deftness and ingenuity come into play.

Let us say, then, that the first column has as its common feature the overrating of blood relations. It is obvious that the second column expresses the same thing, but inverted: underrating of blood relations. The third column refers to monsters being slain. As to the fourth,…. the significance is … in the fact that all the names have a common feature: All the hypothetical meanings (which may well remain hypothetical) refer to difficulties in walking straight and standing upright.

Here Lévi-Strauss surpasses himself in craftiness if not in cogency as he investigates the relationship between the third and fourth columns. Consider first the monsters in column three:

The dragon is a chthonian [underworld] being which has to be killed in order that mankind be born from the Earth; the Sphinx is a monster unwilling to permit men to live. The last unit reproduces the first one, which has to do with the autochthonous [from the Earth] origin of mankind. Since the monsters are overcome by men, we may thus say that the common feature of the third column is denial of the autochthonous origin of man.

To divine the meaning of the fourth column, Lévi-Strauss adduces Pueblo and Kwakiutl authority as evidence of a worldwide belief: “In mythology it is a universal characteristic of men born from the Earth that at the moment they emerge from the depth they either cannot walk or they walk clumsily.” Thus the fourth column demonstrates “the persistence of the autochthonous origin of man.” The relationship between columns three and four is congruent with the relationship between columns one and two. “The inability to connect two kinds of relationships is overcome (or rather replaced) by the assertion that contradictory relationships are identical inasmuch as they are both self-contradictory in a similar way.”

If the reader is not baffled and bruised yet, he will be before it’s done. Lévi-Strauss claims the myth expresses an insoluble difficulty for the classical Greek culture that believed that humanity had sprung from the Earth but that knew from experience this belief had its shortcomings.

Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem — born from one or born from two? — to the derivative problem: born from different or born from same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. Although experience contradicts theory, social life validates cosmology by its similarity of structure. Hence cosmology is true.

Admirers call such analysis dazzling and revelatory, or at the very least heroically inventive. Detractors find it all dazzling too, but in the worst way, as well as factitious and too clever by half.

‘The Other Is an I’

Over the course of his career, Lévi-Strauss came to conceive and evaluate his thought in relation to that of Montaigne, Rousseau, and Sartre — the most renowned French thinkers of the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries, respectively. Montaigne and Rousseau he revered for what, by the standards of their day, constituted tender-hearted acceptance of indigenous peoples as members in full of the human family. Universal compassion was their hallmark. Where many Europeans felt only contempt and the desire to dominate and enslave, Lévi-Strauss’s moral heroes had the capacity to find their way into the skin of alien peoples, to suffer instinctively with them.

Lévi-Strauss followed Rousseau in asserting that suffering is what all created beings have in common, the beasts along with the philosophers; thus the thinker who professes to understand man must recognize the inviolability not only of all human life but that of every living being on the planet. As he writes in La Pensée sauvage (1962), originally translated as The Savage Mind and more recently as Wild Thought, Sartre on the other hand is a moral failure because he grants the denizens of civilization a privileged status among earthly inhabitants. Benighted savages fall outside the purview of “history,” as Sartre inherited that idea from Marx, and therefore their lives are of no consequence to the philosopher; the dialectic of class struggle toward eventual social equality and justice is reserved for more advanced creatures. Sartre aggravated his failure by combining Marxism with existentialism, making the satisfaction of the sovereign self the ultimate end of his philosophy.

Anthropology operates according to a different set of imperatives. In “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Founder of the Sciences of Man,” originally a speech given in Geneva in 1962 on the two-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of Rousseau’s birth, Lévi-Strauss adduces the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality as the seminal anthropological text. He draws upon it to describe the anthropologist’s special relation to his subject. Rousseau’s evident and notorious self-absorption — he strips himself bare and exposes himself to public view in his autobiography, The Confessions — is of a piece with the rarest ability to penetrate the being of the strangest other. Here is “a double paradox: that Rousseau could have, simultaneously, advocated the study of the most remote men, while mostly given himself to the study of that particular man who seems the closest — himself; and secondly that, throughout his work, the systematic will to identify with the other goes hand in hand with an obstinate refusal to identify with the self.” As Rousseau considers the lives of the most remote people, he is not merely a disinterested intelligence but the agent of an extraordinary spiritual transformation, which occurs when his sovereign identity dissolves in the presence of a being as real to him as he is to himself. “In Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the whole of mankind learns to feel this transformation.”

These paradoxes are endemic among anthropologists, each of whom must find a way of resolving them for himself. Not only must he know himself, he must know how to leave his self behind as he attempts an intimate approach to, and true understanding of, the people he is studying. “To attain acceptance of oneself in others (the goal assigned to human knowledge by the ethnologist), one must first deny the self in oneself. To Rousseau we owe the discovery of this principle, the only one on which to base the sciences of man.” Rousseau can be said to anticipate Arthur Rimbaud’s famous declaration of the genuine poet’s creative dissociation of personality, “I is another,” which Lévi-Strauss says is the necessary preliminary to the perception “that the other is an I.”

A Bororo funeral ceremony of the Ewaguddu clan, with dancers in leaf costume
Claude Lévi-Strauss via The Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology /

The anthropologist accustoms himself to feeling as much at home in alien territory as he does in his native country. In his demanding scientific undertaking he represents not only himself but also his society. The anthropologist is society’s “emissary.” Through him, society “chooses for itself other societies, other civilizations, precisely among those which appear to it the weakest and the most humble. Society does this in order to verify how ‘inacceptable’ it is itself.” The anthropologist and his audience learn that Western civilization is no better, and probably worse, than the societies students flock to. When the anthropologist views himself and the primitive alien with perfect clarity, he cannot but recognize the truth of universal equality. The violation of that truth is “the only crime which man cannot expiate.” It is the crime of man’s “belief in his lasting or temporary superiority and his treating other men like objects, be it in the name of race, of culture, of conquest, of mission, or simply of expediency.”

From Equality to Self-Loathing

The beginnings of anthropology in Rousseau’s essay on inequality coincide with the emergence of modern democratic egalitarianism. Anthropology is the most democratic of the sciences in its inmost desire to take in as much of suffering life as one can bear. Anthropology in the field recapitulates the original moral lucidity with which the earliest humans discerned their true relation, not only to other humans but to all living creatures. “Thus man begins by experiencing himself as identical to all his fellows,” wrote Lévi-Strauss. The principal virtue of anthropology, which Rousseau understood to be the pre-eminent democratic virtue, is “compassion, deriving from the identification with another who is not only a parent, a relative, a compatriot, but any man whatsoever, seeing that he is a man, and much more: any living being, seeing that it is living.”

What all creatures have in common is that they suffer, and human beings are uniquely positioned to feel the pain with which all Creation groans. It is not superior human intelligence that makes us so sensitive to the universal agony, but rather our excruciating raw nerves. “The only hope, for each of us not to be treated as an animal by his fellow men is that all his fellow men (and himself first) feel themselves immediately as suffering beings. Thus they cultivate inwardly this aptitude for pity which, in nature, takes the place of ‘laws, customs, and virtue,’ and without whose exercise we realize that there can be neither laws, customs, nor virtues.”

To place humans on a privileged height, superior to non-human nature and its overflowing abundance of life, as though we were plainly and simply the self-invented creatures of our own culture, has been the flaw that runs through the worst of modern history. The modern scientific project, the Cartesian folly conceived in the name of compassion, has actually meant compassion’s slow death. The “masters and possessors of nature,” whose boundlessly happy future Descartes exulted in, have proved monsters, and anthropology is the only science that can save science from itself.

In this world, more cruel to man than it perhaps ever was, all the means of extermination, massacre, and torture are raging. We never disavowed these atrocities, it is true, but we liked to think that they did not matter just because we reserved them for distant populations which underwent them (we maintained) for our benefit and, in any case, in our name.

Now that nominally civilized people have routinely turned savage toward one another, the anthropologist who dedicates his life to knowing the aboriginal savages, in the weakest and most humble of societies, embodies both the self-abnegation and the empathy that are the only hope of salvation for the human race. Recognizing the savagery of the civilization he hails from, suffering with those he sees suffer, he humbles himself and elevates the primitive other to equality with, or even superiority to, modern men such as he.

Montaigne ranked high alongside Rousseau in Lévi-Strauss’s vanguard of minds that were decent and wise enough to acknowledge and to respect the unimpeachable humanity of indigenous peoples. In a 1937 speech to socialist and pacifist trade union members, Lévi-Strauss invoked the master essayist as the distinguished ancestor of the politically engaged anthropologist who connects “ethnographic knowledge and revolutionary critique”:

You know that the savages found in America hold a great place in Montaigne’s thought. He refers to them frequently to illustrate the fact that notions of good and evil are relative, that social institutions can be viable even when they assume forms that are extremely different from those we are familiar with, that peoples who do not have the same religion or the same political status as us can live in a way that is fully harmonious and happy.

Implicit in the anthropologist’s regard for the primitive society is a revulsion from the civilized one that happens to be his own. And so while he finds himself a revolutionary at home, when he is among the primitives he proves a conservative in his defense of their traditions:

The ethnographer is, indeed, a unique individual when on the left (and he is almost always on the left, as you will see): he is a man who attempts to critique the society in which he lives, to change it, to destroy its organization in order to replace it with something else; and, on the other hand, as soon as he is no longer in his own society but among savages, he becomes the worst conservative, the worst reactionary, attempting to protect those small tribes from the encroachment of civilization.

This double game is evidence not of his divided nature but rather of his integrity. The anthropologist is a devoted man of the left and the sworn enemy of the decadent capitalist society that produced him; the wildest wilderness and its primordial inhabitants are his refuge from the life he scorns, and he is instinctively protective of the primitive societies whom he wishes to spare the depredations of modernity. He does not want them or their descendants to become the least bit like him. His loathing for Western civilization is patent — even though it is the civilization that begot the science of anthropology and taught its practitioners to value the integrity of the societies they study as they value their own. Only Lévi-Strauss’s empathy for the poor natives saves him from the worst furies of self-loathing.

But for the other members of his own society he has little pity. The wicked merchants and financiers, the murderous politicians and soldiers who take their orders from the big money men, the uncomprehending boorish petit bourgeoisie, the swinish intellectuals of the right: these are the true “other.” He does not count himself among these irredeemable villains who make up “snivelization,” to borrow a term from another fellow-traveler with primitive comrades, Herman Melville. They do not deserve the grace that the anthropologist’s morally penetrating insight bestows upon the primitive, and that grants the illiterate natives equality with the Parisian literati. He may vent his disgust upon such reprobates without qualm. They rate no compassion. They are the unforgivable savages. They are the reason why he cannot stand staying at home.

Anthropology as Atonement

In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss expands upon this overview of his strange discipline. For an anthropologist to gain true understanding, he must be “capable of giving himself wholeheartedly” to every society. But once he does, “his objectivity is vitiated by the fact that, intentionally or not, he has had to withhold himself from at least one society” — his own — “in order to devote himself to all.” But in allowing there to be a human society from whom he holds back, he violates the sacred mission of anthropology. “He therefore commits the very sin that he lays at the door of those who contest the exceptional significance of his vocation.” This is the déformation professionelle of the anthropologist. And Lévi-Strauss goes on to observe that he himself has felt this doubt about the intellectual and moral coherence of his life’s work.

Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Painstakingly and subtly, he comes to his own defense, and contends that the dilemma is not irresolvable or inescapable. At the end of some tortuous glissades of serious thinking, the anthropologist achieves clarity, as his experience of various corners of the vast world reinforces his common sense. “No society is perfect. It is in the nature of all societies to include a degree of impurity incompatible with the norms they proclaim and which finds concrete expression in a certain dosage of injustice, insensitiveness, and cruelty.” One learns the cardinal lesson “that no society is fundamentally good, but that none is absolutely bad.”

At this point the subject of cannibalism quite naturally comes to mind: it might seem to epitomize the absolutely bad. But Montaigne’s 1580 essay “Of Cannibals” asserts that unspeakable savagery is a culturally conditioned notion: “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished manners in all things.” The pure-hearted essayist concedes “the barbarous horror” of cannibalism, but notes that cannibals do not have an exclusive claim on enormity. Civilized nations rack and mutilate and burn the living; roasting and eating others after they are dead may seem the more humane course.

Lévi-Strauss follows Montaigne’s lead religiously in his assertions of moral equivalence. First he excuses eating human flesh in the absence of other suitable meat, as certain Polynesians are supposedly compelled to do. He goes so far as to claim that “famine can force men to eat anything, as is proved by the recent example of the extermination camps.” Next he turns to the eating of a parent’s or an enemy’s body parts as a religious practice, to assume the dead person’s virtues or negate the person’s malevolence. The civilized find this objectionable because they believe in the resurrection of the body or in the conjunction of body and soul — “in either case, convictions similar in nature to those underlying the practice of ritual consumption and which we have no reason to prefer to them.” Moreover, the indignities of autopsy or using a cadaver for anatomy class offend the sacred memory at least as much as making a meal of the remains. Finally, cannibalism and incarceration of criminals serve similar social purposes, as ways of “neutralizing” dangerous forces. “Most of the societies which we call primitive would regard this custom [of confinement and isolation in prison] with profound horror; it would make us, in their eyes, guilty of that same barbarity of which we are inclined to accuse them because of their symmetrically opposite behavior.”

This exercise in comparing barbarities encourages “an element of moderation and honesty” in one’s judgment of alien ways and one’s attachment to the mores of one’s own society. Lévi-Strauss particularly wants the anthropologist to cultivate a knowing reserve toward the blandishments of civilization. One ought not to consider the fact that Europe created anthropology to be evidence of its excellence.

Actually, one could claim exactly the opposite: Western Europe may have produced anthropologists precisely because it was a prey to strong feelings of remorse, which forced it to compare its image with those of different societies in the hope that they would show the same defects or would help to explain how its own defects had developed within it.

The anthropologist must be sensitive to every defect in his own culture — must feel them as open wounds, and display them like stigmata. “The anthropologist is the less able to ignore his own civilization and to dissociate himself from its faults in that his very existence is incomprehensible except as an attempt at redemption: he is the symbol of atonement.”

This is the self-conception of a man unhinged by the hatred of the culture that made him what he is. That hatred is so potent that only the most spectacular self-sacrifice can reduce its pain to a tolerable level. One does not know whether to pity Lévi-Strauss or to be embarrassed at his flamboyant self-mortification and self-aggrandizement. One sees here what the moderation and honesty of his radical cultural relativism amounts to: an assault on common sense rather than its vaunted triumph.

Rethinking Relativism

In “The Work of the Bureau of American Ethnology and Its Lessons,” a 1965 speech at the Smithsonian Institution, Lévi-Strauss went as far as he ever would toward admitting the inadequacy, not to say dishonesty, of cultural relativism. Formerly primitive peoples now being absorbed by the spread of Western civilization don’t care for the anthropologist’s glorification of the customs they are leaving behind.

It was out of a deep feeling of respect toward cultures other than our own that the doctrine of cultural relativism evolved. It now appears that this doctrine is deemed unacceptable by the very people on whose behalf it was upheld, while those ethnologists who favor unilinear evolutionism find unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialization; peoples who prefer to look at themselves as temporarily backward rather than permanently different.

It is not so much respect for the primitive “other” as it is loathing for one’s own oppressive, grasping modernity that lies behind the doctrine of cultural relativism. The peoples just beginning to emerge into the light of the modern world know, as anthropologists do not, that cultural relativism is a lie. They know that the new life they are rushing to embrace has greater riches to offer than the old ways they are eager to see the last of. It takes an intellectual ideologue to be so self-absorbed as not to understand that.

Lévi-Strauss was lionized by the culture he despised, and was not hesitant about accepting the distinctions due him. His very long life was defined by unrelenting hard work and the many honors he received for his accomplishment. In 1959 he assumed the first chair in anthropology at the prestigious Collège de France, where he founded his own research center. UNESCO appointed him Secretary General of the International Social Science Council. He steadily built what Patrick Wilcken calls his own “institutional empire.” The Legion of Honour, and installation among les immortelles in the French Academy — the hardest of all clubs to crack — naturally enough came his way. His voice was heard well beyond the academic cloisters. He would appear on an NBC talk show and be discussed in the pages of Playboy. In 1980, the readership of the French cultural magazine Lire voted him the world’s foremost living intellectual.

His was a master idea — the universal equality of minds and cultures — whose time had come. Although its structuralist undergirding has fallen out of favor, that idea is now more firmly established than ever before in the public consciousness. Lévi-Strauss was a man of uncommon learning and refinement, who upheld the integrity of indigenous cultures but deplored the “intellectual swindle” that Western pop culture was perpetrating over high culture. He would be both honored and appalled by what has become of his life’s work.

Algis Valiunas, “Anthropology as Atonement,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, pp. 52–72.
Header image: Claude Lévi-Strauss in Brazil ca. 1936 (Apic/Getty Images)

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