Claude Levi-Strauss sometimes expressed disgust with the West and what he called its ‘own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.’
Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology and one of France’s most revered and influential intellectuals died in Paris a few weeks short of his 101st birthday.
Mr. Levi-Strauss’ field work and writings transformed the way the western world looked at so called “primitive” societies and was to have an enduring influence on related sciences like sociology, psychology, ethnology, ethnography, philosophy, archaeology and social anthropology.
During his long life Mr. Levi-Strauss taught at various universities across the globe and held the coveted Chair in Social Anthropology at the College de France. He was covered with honours that included doctorates from Harvard, Yale and Oxford Universities and in 1973 was elected to France’s prestigious Academie Francaise, the circle of writers and intellectuals known as the “immortals,” created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu.
The fact that Mr. Levi-Strauss’ death has received massive media coverage and that ordinary persons have flooded the blogosphere and radio waves with anecdotes, tributes and remembrances is an apt comment on France’s everlasting love for affairs of the mind, despite the advent of President Sarkozy and his acolytes who have displayed a real preference for the material over the intellectual.
Mr. Levi-Strauss was the author of such well known classics as Tristes Tropiques (1955), The Savage Mind (1963) and The Raw and the Cooked (1964). In fact when Tristes Tropiques was published, members of the jury of the Goncourt Prize, France’s pre-eminent award for fiction announced they regretted not being able to honour the writer because the book was not a novel. Essentially a memoir detailing his time as a French expatriate throughout the 1930s, the book combined dazzling prose with audacious philosophical meditation and ethnographic analysis of the Amazonian peoples. The essence of Claude Levi-Strauss’ work pertained to theories about commonalities between tribal and industrial societies.
A towering intellectual who was astonishingly erudite, Mr. Levi-Strauss reshaped the field of anthropology, introducing structuralism — concepts about common patterns of behaviour and thought, especially myths, in a wide range of human societies. Defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity, structuralism compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.
Mr. Levi Strauss died on Saturday but his death was announced in Paris by his publishing house Plon on Tuesday. His son Laurent, a soft-spoken international civil servant said his father had died of “cardiac arrest” and that he had been buried in a small, intimate ceremony in the village of Lignerolles south east of Paris where he had a country house on the edge of a forest. “He had expressed the wish to have a discreet and sober funeral, with his family, in his country house. He was attached to this place; he liked to take walks in the forest, and the cemetery where he is now buried is just on the edge of this forest,” The New York Times quoted Laurent Levi-Strauss as saying.
Mr. Levi Strauss’ tetralogy, collectively entitled Mythologiques relates to the structure of mythologies and “is a seminal work on how to interpret customs and cultures in order to draw universal parallels,” said Catherine Clement, a former student and life-long collaborator. Ms Clement was posted in India as head of the French Cultural Centre at the same time as her husband, André Lewin who was France’s Ambassador to India.
Ms Clement who counts a biography of Mahatma Gandhi among her many books on India said in an interview: “Unlike other philosophers and political thinkers of his time, Claude Levi-Strauss placed a distance between himself and active politics, except in his early years when he was a militant socialist. He was not like Sartre, Camus or Bourdieu who felt they had to plunge into the hurly burly of political engagement. In 1968 during the student uprising when I told him of my political commitment, he said: ‘You and your friends would do better to go away somewhere, a monastery perhaps, where it is calm, and spend the next two years thinking.’”
Mr. Levi-Strauss came from a distinguished Jewish family where the atmosphere was bookish, intellectual and musical. One of his uncles was a minor but respected composer and Mr. Levi-Strauss said often he would have preferred to be an orchestra conductor or a composer rather than a writer. A book that had a profound influence on him was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. “I was fascinated by the giants hidden by the windmills. It made me realise that one had to get behind appearances to discover reality and that is what I have tried to do all my life.”
When Mr. Levi-Strauss turned 100 on November 28 last year, the Quai Branly Museum, devoted to native cultures and societies, organised a series of events, exhibitions and seminars. “I was astonished by the clarity and agility of his mind, his simplicity, humility and childlike curiosity,” said sociologist Annie Lavergne who attended the seminars.
“He felt he was out of touch with this century. He did not like what he saw — globalisation, the destruction of cultures and tribes and he was convinced that small, well-preserved tribal societies were bound to vanish one day soon, to be swallowed up by what he called the ‘mass civilization,’ of a modern ‘monoculture.’ He sometimes expressed disgust with the West and what he called its ‘own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.’ I think he felt he was living in a world where he no longer belonged. Not so long ago, he said to me: ‘I am not of this world.’ In his mind he had already moved on,” says Catherine Clement.