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The Frenchman and his myths: a tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss

This week, France mourns the loss of one of the nation’s most influential anthropologists and thinkers. Claude Lévi-Strauss died after enduring cardiac arrest last Friday, just twenty-nine days shy of his 101st birthday. He will be remembered most as a revolutionary academic thinker, a scientist and a writer of both enormous intellect and influence. He is survived by his wife, Monique Roman, sons Laurent and Matthieu, and two grandchildren.

In the academic realm of anthropology, which demanded his implicit adherence to conformity of thought, Lévi-Strauss challenged many of his field’s previously accepted tropes. His controversial stances on the history of civilization radically changed the script for humankind’s history on Earth, one which claimed that so-called “primitive” societies were populated by uninspired tribes of humans who were collectively driven by their basic physical needs. Lévi-Strauss insisted that both reason and logic were central to the group dynamics, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious to the field researchers who had come before him.

In his work, he hoped to prove that oral and written myths, from tribes as seemingly disparate as two villages in Brazil and South France, were connected by the evidence of unified structures and patterns which govern all human activity. He argued that tribal communities were formed by their guiding laws and the community’s adherence to these laws. With the minor shift of a few details which were specific to each region, Lévi-Strauss believed the most advanced and the most remote of cultures and time periods shared universal motifs of binary opposition: hot and cold, raw and uncooked, black and white.

Lévi-Strauss’ career-making search into the history of humanity’s existence was a blend of unlikely elements. His complex writing merged literary theory with Marxist philosophy, psychoanalysis and ethnological anthropology to support what he and other Structuralist theorists of the time saw as the universe’s fundamental patterns of logic, which underlie all of our actions, thought, and behavior. But humans, as far as he saw it, were a blip in the chain of life and hardly could be considered as a final step in the universe’s evolution. Yet he frequently noted distinctive ways in which our species evolved over thousands of years from natural to cultural states of being.

His work critiqued the dynamics of social hierarchies within groups. Certain parts of his public persona resisted the lure of being at the top of institutional hierarchies: he regularly insisted, for example, that he not be called the “father” of structuralism. Yet he did not shy away entirely from the siren calls of elitist prestige. He was a professor of anthropology at universities around the world, as well as secretary general of the International Social Science Council at Unesco, and in 1973 he received the Erasmus Prize for his “notable contributions to European culture, society, and social science” and was appointed to the Académie Française, a widely regarded intellectual honor in French academia. His many honors reflect a man who was highly revered for the content of his work.

Native mythology in North and South America inspired him to write a four-volume set which examined the re-telling of a single myth across two continents. “The Raw and the Cooked” (1964), “From Honey to Ashes” (1966), “The Origin of Table Manners” (1968), and “The Naked Man” (1971) were later published as the collection “Mythologiques I-IV.” The New York Times describes “Mythologiques” as a powerful collection which “attempts nothing less than an interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by analysis of several hundred myths of little known tribes and tradition” and also notes that his analysis of myth and culture might “contrast imagery of monkeys and jaguars; consider the differences in meaning of roasted and boiled food (cannibals, he suggested, tended to boil their friends and roast their enemies); and establish connections between weird mythological tales and ornate laws of marriage and kinship.”

ClaudeLeviStraussSeveral Facebook groups have formed this week as readers and fans in France express grief for the loss of their beloved cultural icon. A wall photo of Lévi-Strauss on the profile of one of the newest groups, “Hommage à Claude Lévi-Strauss,” offers a glimpse of him in what many saw as his signature pose: a thoughtful and serious man, his wizened-looking head in one hand and his brow furrowed with intense concentration. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Lévi-Strauss in lighter moments, though his biographers claim that he was occasionally a man of leisure who enjoyed classical music and good books.

His supporters remember him as one who offered immeasurable contributions to his fields of study and as a national treasure who will be greatly missed. A description of the group’s mission characterizes Lévi-Strauss as “un géant de la pensée française reconnu dans le monde entire” (English: a giant of French thought acknowledged worldwide). On the wall of this Facebook group, member Delphine Picout shares her tribute to his legacy, writing, “Adieu à un grand Monsieur, et merci pour ton savoir, et ce cadeau que tu nous a fait” (English: Goodbye to a great Man, and thank you for your knowledge, and the gift you have given us).

In French and in English, Claude Lévi-Strauss forever changed the ways in which we understand the shaping of civilization and our unifying connections across culture and time. Future generations of students will turn to his work for the page-turning myths buried in his writing, even as the life of Lévi-Strauss provides fodder for not so much legend as admiration of his extraordinary gifts to anthropology, literature, and academic scholarship.

The author would like to thank Anna Waltman for her help in translating the two French lines in this article.

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