Lévi-Strauss: A Biography
Emmanuelle Loyer, translated by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff
Polity, $45 (cloth)

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss opened his account of his travels to the New World with a now famous confession: “I hate travelers and explorers.” On the tails of his favorite sixteenth-century voyagers, Lévi-Strauss hoped to find, among the natives outside São Paulo, man in a state of nature. His taste for irony was matched only by the tragic sense that he had arrived too late. Published in 1955 as Tristes Tropiques, the account was a bestseller in France. Hailed by Susan Sontag as “one of the great books of our century,” it was left out of consideration for the Prix Goncourt only because, to the dismay of the jury, it was not a work of fiction.

Humbled by history, structuralists took aim at the supreme arrogance that had taught them to think of man as master.

In Emmanuelle Loyer’s new biography of Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques is the pivotal text, representing a turning point not only in the life of the man, but in the history of his century. Thanks in part to the recent opening of Lévi-Strauss’s personal archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Loyer offers a vivid portrait of the anthropologist and his time. But she also invites us to imagine how Lévi-Strauss might endure as a thinker for our century, as much for his own.

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The first half of the twentieth century was an awkward time for travel writing: colonial realities had caught up with the genre. Travel narratives long fed a European public hungry for tales of the strange and unfamiliar beyond their shores. By the late nineteenth century few places remained wholly strange. Industrial ambitions had transformed coastline and jungle into the “workshops in which the destiny of the modern world was forged,” Lévi-Strauss wrote. What became of the “exotic” once the appetite for gold then sugar, cotton then coffee had irrevocably altered the landscape? “What else,” Lévi-Strauss wondered, “can the so-called escapism of travelling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history?”

In Lévi-Strauss’s telling, the exile’s journey became a dark mirror of the voyage of exploration.

Tristes Tropiques joined a chorus of more sober reflections on the complicities of travel in an age of conquest, and the limitations of a discipline, anthropology, that promised to deliver the truth about non-Western cultures. Among them was Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa (an English translation was published in 2017). A diary of Leiris’s time as archivist on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, a state-sponsored anthropological expedition carried out from 1931 to 1933, Phantom Africa recounted in scandalous detail the methods by which the mission came to acquire the artifacts that, to this day, are held at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. (Talk of repatriating the objects began last year.) A more revealing comparison, however, is to be found in Aimé Césaire’s 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Evoking the colonial shantytowns of his native Martinique, Césaire paid homage not to the travelers of old, but to his own ancestors: “those who explored neither seas nor sky / but knew in its most minute corners the land of suffering / those who have known voyages only as uprootings.”

The cover of the first edition of Tristes Tropiques (1955) / wikimedia

Lévi-Strauss crossed the Atlantic several times in his life: first, in the 1930s, as an explorer and then, in 1941, as a Jewish refugee. In his telling, the exile’s journey became a dark mirror of the voyage of exploration. And the 1941 crossing would come to symbolize a new reality: the havoc wrought elsewhere had now come home.

Born in 1908, Lévi-Strauss grew up in Paris, “in a relationship of intimacy with painting and music,” he wrote. He was raised in an assimilated Jewish household attuned to the secular faith of the Third Republic. While generations of his family benefited from the social mobility afforded to Jews in France since their citizenship was granted in 1791, Lévi-Strauss was, according to Loyer, the child of a “downwardly mobile bourgeoise.” Isaac Strauss, Claude’s great-grandfather, was a successful composer and conductor, who hosted Napoleon III at the Strauss family villa in Vichy. Raymond Lévi-Strauss, Claude’s father, painted portraits and had participated in the Paris salons. But his training proved ill-suited to the growing demand for abstraction. Claude’s parents continued to live off of Isaac’s royalties, while his father struggled to find work. His family enjoyed many of the trappings of a bourgeois life alongside mounting financial difficulties.

Youthful involvement in socialist politics turned Lévi-Strauss on to Marx and, then, to philosophy. By the time he completed his studies, he had wearied of the staid constraints of the discipline: “I was confident that, with ten minutes’ notice, I could knock together an hour’s lecture with a sound dialectical framework, on the respective superiority of buses or trams.” He taught for a few years at a provincial lycée, but when the opportunity arose to join the faculty of sociology at the new University of São Paolo, he leapt. He did not particularly care for sociology but was sold on a promise: “the suburbs are full of Indians, whom you can study at the weekends.”

For Lévi-Strauss the attraction of the newer social sciences was both pragmatic and existential. Anthropology offered not so much a break with philosophy as the means to revitalize it.

Anthropology at that time was still a relative newcomer in the academy, uncertain in its methods and still establishing its legitimacy. Named chairs and lecture courses were set up in the 1930s, thanks in part to increased government funding to promote more “scientific” colonial policy. For Lévi-Strauss the attraction of the newer social sciences was both pragmatic and existential. In France he was expected to spend at least another decade teaching secondary education in the provinces before he could apply for university positions in Paris. Besides the promise of adventure, the post in Brazil fast-tracked him to university teaching. But anthropology also held a further appeal: it offered not so much a break with philosophy as the means to revitalize it. It had, for too long, been possible to make claims about the human condition on the basis of a very limited set of data: one’s own thoughts. Insights gained through introspection were proof enough of their universal validity. Lévi-Strauss was not convinced. To take full measure of the human experience, he insisted, one needed to know how life was lived in places that were not the industrialized West. With the yearning of a romantic, Lévi-Strauss set off to study societies that had not been corrupted by so-called civilization.

As it turned out, the suburbs of São Paolo were then mostly home to Italian and Syrian immigrants. A few months into his stay, however, he and his wife Dina traveled to the interior and lived among the Caduveo, Bororo, and Nambikwara. They chased the frontier westward in search of an indigenous people isolated enough that they did not yet bear the imprint of their colonizers (the myth of a “pure” or “vanished” culture animated the discipline for much of its history). Together they studied patterns. Decorative motifs used in body painting and on pottery held clues to the peoples’ ancient history.

He returned in 1939, with his artifacts and his monkey Lucinda, to a Paris on the brink of war. It was not until 1940 that the dangers of remaining in France became apparent to him. That summer he traveled to Vichy to obtain authorization to teach in Paris, by then occupied by the Germans. “The official in charge looked at me dumbfounded,” he wrote. ‘With a name like yours, you want to go to Paris? You’re not serious, are you?’” Early in 1941 he received an invitation to teach at the New School for Social Research and, with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation program that rescued Jewish scholars, he obtained a visa and headed for the docks of Marseille where he caught the first steamship bound for Martinique, and onward, via Puerto Rico to New York. It was a route haunted by history; it easily called to mind the slave trade and the conquistador’s trail. Now it served as the passage of exiles, “fodder for the concentration camps,” Lévi-Strauss wrote. But the voyage to New York marked a turning point not only in his biography. It was also in New York that the force of circumstance redirected the course of modern French philosophy.

With the yearning of a romantic, Lévi-Strauss set off to study societies that had not been corrupted by so-called civilization.

The young anthropologist plunged himself with enthusiasm into the culture of the city. He became a regular at local Chinese restaurants. He paid frequent visits to the Museum of Natural History, a “magic place,” he wrote, “where all the dreams of childhood hold a rendezvous.” For three years he traveled daily from his apartment in the Village to the New York Public Library. There he discovered the vast extent of material on Native American culture produced in North America. At Columbia he rubbed elbows with the discipline’s pioneers: Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Franz Boas. But if his encounter with American anthropology introduced him to a wealth of content, a chance meeting provided the groundbreaking theoretical insight that gave that content new meaning. At the short-lived École libre des hautes études, founded in 1942 by the French government in exile as an avenue of intellectual resistance, Lévi-Strauss met the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. It was Jakobson who introduced him to a new doctrine then circulating within linguist circles: structural linguistics.

Developed by the nineteenth-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, structural linguistics approached language as a system. The basic unit was what Saussure called the sign. A sign is made up of a pair: it combined a “signifier” and a “signified.” The signified is the concept, while the signifier is the way we express that concept. If the word “cat” is the signifier, the concept of a cat is the corresponding signified. Saussure argued that the relation between signifier and signified is arbitrary. There is nothing inherent in the concept of cat that determines that we should call it “cat.” And yet the concept cat has no meaning apart from our use of the word “cat.” How, then, does the concept come to be meaningful? The meaning, Saussure said, comes from the sign’s place in the system of signs, from how it differs from other signs. The concept of cat becomes meaningful because we understand it in relation to things that it is not: dog, rat, mouse, potato, and so on. Language is nothing more than a system of signs in which every sign stands in a relation of opposition or distinction from other signs. Together those relations give meaning to the words we use.

This understanding of language was significant for at least two reasons. First, it meant that language depends on a complicated set of rules, even if we need not be conscious of them in order to communicate. And second, it suggested that language could be analyzed as a formal system, or structure. The content became irrelevant. These rules applied in theory to any language and were at play no matter the subject under discussion. For Lévi-Strauss this was a revelation. He could take Saussure’s ideas about language and apply them to the study of non-linguistic phenomena, to the study of culture. Thus what became known as “structuralism” was born.

Lévi-Strauss would write that his formative intellectual influences were, in order: geology, Freud, Marxism. What they share is a sense of a hidden order of reality.

Neither the idea that you could understand the phenomena of culture as a kind of language, nor the thought that the rules of language or culture operate at the level of the unconscious, were new. Lévi-Strauss would later write that his formative intellectual influences were, in order: geology, Freud, Marxism. What these different domains shared was an awareness that below the surface there exists a hidden order of reality—a bedrock, an id, a base—that can explain what goes on above. What Saussure contributed to this picture was a concrete method for analyzing the subterranean rules of social reality.

Lévi-Strauss tested these ideas in his first major work The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, anthropologists had obsessively catalogued kinship systems observed all over the world, revealing the enormous variety of terms used to name relatives, rules governing marriage, and laws establishing descent. With the help of structural analysis Lévi-Strauss could start to make sense of this mass of data. Just as linguistic signs stood in relations of opposition and distinction to each other, the rules of the kinship system determine the relations that adhere between individuals. The most fundamental (and apparently universal) rule, Lévi-Strauss discovered, was the incest taboo. It classified the world into two groups: possible spouses and prohibited spouses. The effect of this rule, he argued, was to force men to bring wives into the family and swap sisters out. This elaborate exchange of women was the motive force of all social life, the reason men left home at all. And all of us, men and women, whether we knew it or not, had the programs of our lives scripted to the rhythms of this logic. Simone de Beauvoir wrote a favorable review of the work, which she said revealed how thoroughly the objectification of women was embedded in our thought and culture.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1947, he discovered that those who had stuck out the war in Paris had become vocal partisans of a new intellectual fashion: existentialism. Its reigning chief Jean-Paul Sartre shared in Lévi-Strauss’s frustration with the solipsism of a previous generation of philosophers, who had said that what it was to be human was, first and foremost, to recognize oneself as a conscious, thinking being. In response, Sartre challenged the notion that the capacity for thinking could be understood in such abstract terms. After all, one never just thinks. One always thinks about something. And what one ought to think about, Sartre said, was how our existence opened up the possibility and the freedom to act, to make history. Against Sartre, Lévi-Strauss insisted that thinking of ourselves as historical agents was itself historical. It reflected not a universal mode of engagement with the world—there were, indeed, many cultures that did not subscribe to this view—but was instead just one of the many myths about human action that Left Bank intellectuals had inherited from the heady days of the Revolution. Delivering a final blow, Levi-Strauss allowed that Sartre’s philosophy was good for something: it was a “first-class ethnographic document,” which one could consult for insight into the ideas that animated those living in Sartre’s place and time but not, crucially, for what it could tell us about human thought in general. For that, we had to study structure.

Against Sartre, Lévi-Strauss insisted that thinking of ourselves as historical agents was itself historical—a myth that Left Bank intellectuals had inherited from the heady days of the Revolution.

Lévi-Strauss’s critique of existentialism, published in 1962, effectively ushered in the structuralist heyday. In the works that followed he extended his approach to voluminous studies of myths and totems. Together they challenged the arrogance of a discipline that had long interpreted the material as reflecting so-called “primitive” modes of thought. On one view, for example, totemic practices reflected the ignorance of “primitive” man who worshipped a salmon totem because he thought himself a descendant of the salmon. On a functionalist view, by contrast, the clan worshipped the totem because salmon was an important commodity, and the survival of the clan required that the salmon be accorded sacred status. Against both of these views, Lévi-Strauss argued that the rituals and beliefs surrounding the totem were the means by which individuals expressed fundamental ideas about their relations to each other and the environment. The stories and practices involving the totem were the concrete embodiment of abstract thought. Totems were not “good for eating,” as the functionalists held, but “good for thinking.” Lévi-Strauss was not just making the case that anthropologists reexamine long-held interpretations. He was also making a philosophical argument: this concrete way of thinking was the universal mode of thought. And it suggested that the world around us is vested with a power to shape our sense of self, rather than the other way around.

Lévi-Strauss was joined in this period by a few notable co-conspirators: Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, among others. The subjects they took up varied, as did their degree of confidence that the point of the work was to uncover the influence of strict universal laws (as Lévi-Strauss argued), rather than more pliable forces (as critics of Lévi-Strauss and so-called “poststructuralists” would insist). But what they shared was the premise that no amount of conviction in my freedom can unburden me of the structures that impose their contours on daily existence. And that studying the way those structures operate—in our schools, through our prison system, in what we see when we turn on the television—constituted the first step in combatting the awesome reaches of their power. Though the structuralist heyday is long past and the dust on the academic quarrels it inspired long settled, this insight is in many ways still with us.

Studying the way structures operate—in schools, in prisons, in what we see on TV—constitutes the first step in combatting the awesome reaches of their power.

In his later years, Lévi-Strauss gained the kind of celebrity enjoyed by only a handful of academics then or now. In French Elle his face appeared with the fawning caption, “The most brilliant man in France.” The coach of the French soccer team announced that he was reorganizing the team according to “structuralist principles.” In 1969 Playboy featured a review of his book The Raw and the Cooked, tucked between ads for a “His ’n hers tape recorder” and a custom-made suit (“We think it’s time you got exactly what you want”). So peeved was Lévi-Strauss by the review that he took the time to write a tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor to clarify some misunderstandings:

Far from underestimating the ‘relationships man develops with his environment and with others’, I argue that the only way to fully understand them is to understand the frameworks in which man operates–languages, kinship systems, myths and rituals. . . . In other words, we cannot study the behavior of human beings, whoever they may be, prior to knowing about their anatomy. But that anatomy should be a prerequisite will come as no surprise to the Playboy reader.

Apart from fame, Lévi-Strauss’s later life featured all the hallmarks of a successful academic career. He became a faculty member at the Collège de France, his books were translated into half a dozen languages, and in 1973 he was elected to the Académie française. He passed away in 2009, a few weeks shy of his 101st birthday.

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The idea of making the founder of structuralism the subject of a massive biography may make a few readers blush. Where structuralism downplays individual autonomy, biography tells the story of a life as a chronological narrative punctuated by moments of individual initiative. To put it simply, we are seeing the author at work on the very texts that would announce the “death of the author” (as Barthes would later write). Loyer acknowledges this irony, and her response is to insist that Lévi-Strauss’s life and thought bore heavily the imprint of circumstantial forces. Structuralism, she argues, was not only, as is often narrated, the product of Lévi-Strauss’s clever idea to apply linguistic approaches to the study of culture. It was also the work of a man in exile, and the product of a world in crisis. It was, as Foucault wrote, “the awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought,” that, not coincidentally, emerged as France was divesting itself of its colonies. Humbled by history, structuralists took aim at the supreme arrogance that had taught them to think of man as master. These lessons followed from what Lévi-Strauss learned in his travels: that an empire that had spent several centuries colonizing land and extracting its resources was due for a reckoning.

Structuralism was not just an academic idea about the formal study of language and culture. It was also the work of a man in exile, and the product of a world in crisis.

The environmental costs of this history were already clear enough in the 1970s, when Lévi-Strauss advocated for a “rights of the living” to take the place of the “rights of man.” He drew out the contrast between a “Christian thought” that saw man as distinct from the natural world and the words of a Dakota Sioux leader who explained that man and nature were animated by the same force; both were therefore held in reverence.

Those that joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at their protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 were once again learning from Dakota thought. The protest’s rallying cry, Mni Wiconi (“water is life”), advanced a fundamental kinship between human and nonhuman life and, ultimately, between climate activism and colonial resistance. That cry now echoes in the halls of Congress: Resolutions drafted in the wake of Standing Rock take aim at the scale of an empire’s crimes. They are premised not only on the urgency of combating future harm, but on the call to redress past injustice. They demand, as Lévi-Strauss did, a political vantage measured to the sweep of history.