Friday, November 12, 2010

A great French savant

Review of Patrick Wilcken, Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).

Clearly, even seductively written, this important book will answer the questions you have been dying to pose about the enigmatic French savant but were afraid to ask. That is, almost all the questions. Some passages are paraphrased from the autobiographical writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, but the material is deftly chosen. Wilcken was able to interview his subject just a few years before he died at the age of 100.

Patrick Wilcken is an expert on Brazil, so that he casts new light on Lévi-Strauss's formative field work in that country in the late 1930s. Using other sources from the period, the author is able to offer a more complex--and if truth be told--less radiant account than the one the French scholar offered in his famous Tristes Tropiques (still probably the first book of his that one should read).

Happily Wilcken deals with both the life and the works, showing how Claude Lévi-Strauss gradually found his way. As a New Yorker I found his account of his subject's years in Gotham City to be quite convincing. As a result of his residence in Brazil and the US, Lévi-Strauss was anything but a typical Parisian intellectual, a breed still by and large reluctant to cope with the reduced standing of France in the world.

Wilcken falls just a little short in two areas, but these are conundrums that have stumped everyone else. First, why did structuralism, a method that had seemed so alluring in the 1960s, fade so quickly? While he was uneasy with the label, Claude Lévi-Strauss continued to practice the approach until his death. But most others abandoned structuralism as too static and rigid--and perhaps inoculated from the necessary solvents of disconfirmation. The events of May 1968 probably had something to do with the matter. More specific to Lévi-Strauss is the over-reliance on the model of linguistics (due to the tutelage of Roman Jakobson) and, in his later years, music, especially that of Richard Wagner.

In keeping with its (Saussurean) linguistic heritage, the structuralism of Claude L-S made much use of binary contrasts or dichotomies: so that the meaning of A resides, very largely in its opposition to B. Yet in the wake of Jacques Derrida, who launched his attack on structuralism as early as 1966, "binaries" are the great bugaboo of postmodernism. Reliance on such contrasts leads, inexorably we are told, to such horrors as racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Surely, I would reply, we can retain this great aid to logical thinking--which goes back to Aristotle's principle of noncontradiction--without sinking into those gross prejudices.

The other lion in the path, so to speak, is the French savant's own magnum opus, the 4-volume Mythologiques. This is nothing less than attempt to offer an integral account of the mythic worlds of the indigenous New World. Lévi-Strauss begins in South America and moves gradually northwards to end, pretty much, in the our Pacific Northwest. In the endeavor he deploys an impressive range of sources--most of them stemming from the library as he never returned to field work after the 1930s. He doesn't explain how so many isolated groups would achieve the massive dialogue his work presupposed. Perhaps the answer lies in a region that Lévi-Strauss neglects: Eastern Siberia from which, most scholars hold, the Amerindians came.

In short, Claude Lévi-Strauss is not the perfect master. But who is? His effulgent intelligence and willingness to tackle just about any problem remain massively inspiring.

PS. Dedicated to cultural comparison as he was, Claude L-S. made some prescient comments about Islam, which he thought inferior to Buddhism. First, he opined that the Algerian problem might be solved by integrating its Muslim population as full citizens of the French state. Tentative moves to this direction in the 'sixties proved unworkable.

Secondly, and quite pertinent to today, he identified the pseudo-universalism of Islam. Muslims claim to be tolerant, egalitarian, and so forth--but only towards other Muslims (and not even always there, as seen in the Sunni-Shi'a conflict). Hence their faith simply amounts to tribalism on a vast scale.



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