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Ad Memoriam. Claude Levi-Strauss

November 4, 2009

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Claude Levi-Strauss

I was 18 when I read Tristes Tropiques. I read it in one day and one night. I could not put it down, as used to happen in those days when I felt irresistibly that the book I was holding in my hands would provide me with the answers to the questions I was so anxiously asking myself. At dawn I told my friend I would be forever grateful to her for giving that book to me. She was patient enough to wait for me to read it while observing for hours my changing moods and my concentrated eyes (she mostly napped though if I remember correctly, waking up every now and then to smile and nod approvingly before drifting again towards Morfeus’s dreamlike embrace). She was already studying anthropology, I started the following year. I started with The Savage Mind.

It was taught to me alongside The Primitive Mentality by Lucien Levi-Bruhl and The Gift by Marcell Mauss. That was just the beginning; that was nineteen years ago. I graduated five years after but I went on debating Levi-Strauss for years until I thought that I  had ‘moved on’ (that itself is a long story, but maybe some other time). In the days of my undergraduate studies in Rome, Levi-Strass vs. Clifford Geertz was the daily match played by the most committed (or pedantic?) students of the degree in Anthropology: structuralists vs. post-moderns. I was in the shrinking field that appreciated Claude Levi-Strauss’ vision and at times frustrated in the Campo dei Fiori square or in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood after all the bars had shut for the night I would ask, frustrated, how anyone could miss the almost poetic beauty of his great masterpieces. I was clearly missing the point:  in talking about the literary prowess of Levi-Strauss’ work was as if to concede that his arguments were flawed, and that the literary turn taken by his adversary was indeed the way to go. It was not the only time that I was made to notice that I would advocate Levi-Strauss’ case with the least levi-straussian of arguments.

With patience, friends and mentors pointed at visions of history obliterated by his structural analysis and towards the arrogant and intransigent determinism that would posit the existence of symbolic structures so universally holding that, if and when features of them could be not observed in the world they could nonetheless be imagined, as if being necessary to his constructs they were also, then, inevitable. Necessary and inevitable were precisely the words most scholars reacted against in those days (and rightly so!).

Finally there was ‘Works and Lives’ and the French mandarin was eventually definitively exposed. The conversations with my colleagues moved to new subjects (Bourdieu, Wittgenstein, Edelman). I relinquished, I ‘moved on’ convinced, but always confessing respect and awe of the conceptual cathedral that the exquisite architect had erected in the name of humankind’s most ambitious aspiration: knowledge.

I went back last night to Tristes Tropiques and flicked through its pages, my eyes returning eventually to its incipit “[t]ravel and travellers are two things I loathe and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.” It must have been that the made it sink in, once more, as it did twenty years ago. It was the engagement with the natural ambiguities of life that attracted me to Levi-Strauss’ oeuvre, from that very first sentence I ever read of his work. The idea that to each thing on earth, or in a person’s mind there must be its opposite: that was the fundamental lesson I learnt from Levi-Strass and never abandoned.

But later I changed my take on what those irreconcilable, ‘un-mediatable’ dual oppositions mean and firmly revolted against their implications. Later still I was to accuse him of the same Cartesianism that plagues most of Western knowledge and all of the academic disciplines.

If to every res extensa, a res cogitans needs to be imagined, if for every ‘natural science’ a ‘social science, what then Levi-Strauss was doing, in his analytical practice, was to separate and create incommensurables; wasn’t that a way of preconizing the clash of civilisations? Was it not the case, in his own metaphors, that cultures are like trains running on parallel tracks and was it not true that he claimed that those from different cultures were given only, fleetingly, the chance to glimpse the ‘Other’ out of the fast moving carriage windows? ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ was his archetypical duality and it was the last I rebelled against (I read, shortly after the Savage Mind, his Elementary Structures of Kinship continuously wondering how it was possible for a single mind to compose masterpieces of that kind, resigning myself to a mediocre career light years distant from the craftsmanship of the great master).

I rebelled, I said, against the impossibility of imagining a transformative process that could explain how the 1s and the 0s of his formalizations were never to be found “in the real world” in those pure forms. I rebelled because I could not understand anymore how could he miss that 1s and 0s are co-terminous in every instance of “natureANDculture”.

Now I will miss the extraordinary scholar, the committed-to-the-point-of-sacrifice intellectual, the inspiration of most of the conversations that nurtured my spirit at night delivering me safe and content to the lights of dawn during my undergraduate years at the University of Rome. I will miss that frail frame that I could never reconcile with so many atrocious urban legends that circulated, in comparison to which Geertz’s own accusations were only mild reproaches. Mostly I will miss my favourite target of criticism and therefore appreciation (and I’m sure he would have understood that the 1 of appreciation and the 0 of criticism could not but go together at least in this case).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 6:49 pm

    I would appreciate more visual materials, to make your blog more attractive, but your writing style really compensates it. But there is always place for improvement

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