Centennial Sauvage: The Survival of Tristes tropiques

The Birthday Party

In December 2008, I read an article in an American newspaper describing an event that took place the week before. November 28 had been Claude Lévi-Strauss’ one hundredth birthday. Friends and admirers staged “Claude Lévi-Strauss à 100 ans,” a day-long public performance of his work at the Musée du Quai Branly. As Lévi-Strauss declined to attend the event, the French president made a ceremonial visit to his home.

Tristes tropiques
BY Claude Lévi-Strauss
(Plon, 1955)

By the time I read the news, I had already missed the event. I was surprised to learn he was still alive. The French anthropologist had not intersected with my life in many decades. But now the train had arrived, I was standing on the platform and I already had the ticket in my pocket. I decided it was not too late to add my own thoughts to the celebration. I went to the collection of books I had brought to France from America and started to read my old copy of Tristes tropiques. This was the book, written for a popular audience in the early 1950s, that for many readers defined his place in France and in the world. I re-read it, then read the later English translation and the French original, trying to understand how it came to be, what it was made from and just who had inherited what from whom.

It is an amazing work of literature. A lot of water has gone under all the bridges that cross the Seine since it appeared in 1955. Many –isms and many schools of thought have come and gone. No one ever wrote another book like this one. Its mix of anthropology, travelogue, social criticism and autobiography fits no specific genre. The year it was published, the jury for the French Goncourt literary prize apologized for not selecting it only because it was not a work of fiction. Perhaps they missed their chance to redefine what fiction was about to become.

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a writer who views humanity in terms of universals, but Tristes tropiques is about the specifics of a life – a telling of one man’s experience. The book is filled with the tension between a world of things and actions and behaviors and the mind of a writer who thinks in terms of ideas and methods and analysis. The reader can see something that maintains a cloak of invisibility in his other works – the birth of a technique and the formation of an attitude that is part affinity, part training and part rebellion.

This was the book, written for a popular audience in the early 1950s, that for many readers defined his place in France and in the world.

He addresses his French audience directly. In his reflexive tone and surprising assertions, he affirms his reader’s intelligence. He means to surprise from the opening lines, a travel book that begins: “I hate travelling and explorers.” The autobiographical narrator secretes layers of irony that separate the author from the imperfections of the world. As he tells his life story, I get the sense that irony is natural to the way his mind works, as the imperfections of European culture threaten to intrude on the universal analytic thought process he was trained to practice. His writing consists of pivoting, shifting movements between descriptive metaphor and logical analysis. The book is divided into nine parts, but this is the lower level of its structure. Above the details, the work is the dramatic monologue of a memorist, a theatrical performance, divided into three acts.

The first act (Part One through Part Four) describes his French education and experience of traveling to and from Brazil as a teacher of anthropology. The time is the 1930s, but the narrative is cyclical, with later memories intruding on earlier ones. This first confrontation with the New World draws to a close with observations of the newly formed state of India in the 1950s. His observations of these alien cultures form a summary of the present state of humanity.

The second act (Part Five through Part Eight) is devoted to ethnography. He returns to 1935 and describes the four Brazilian Indian groups he visited and studied during his field work. The groups are presented in a series that begins with analogies to European feudal order – the Caduveo are described as the remains of a Brazilian Indian ruling class – and then moves on to the “uncivilized” Bororo, the Neolithic and nomadic Nambikwara, and the more remote bands of Tupi-Kawahib surviving in the area farthest from the Euro-Brazilian world.

The third act (Part Nine) is a coda. It is devoted to the author’s return to civilization and sense-making. In the present, he is back in India, meditating on several thousand years of human experience. He relates his experience of the beliefs, material culture, kinship systems and aesthetics of the New World to religious and social systems of the Old World.

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