Claude Lévi-Strauss - Biography
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a notorious, internationally recognized French anthropologist and ethnologist who has had a decisive influence on the humanities in the second half of the twentieth century, including being one of the founding figures of structuralist thought. He was born on November 28, 1908 in Brussels (but from French parents) and died in Paris on October 31, 2009 at the age of 100.
Lévi-Strauss comes from a Jewish family of both intellectual and artistic traditions, originally from Alsace near Strasbourg, not far from Germany. He is the son of Raymond and Emma Lévi-Strauss. During his childhood, the family lived mostly in Paris. His father was a portrait painter, who would be bankrupt by the advent of photography. His maternal grandfather, with whom he lived during the WWI, was the rabbi of the Versailles synagogue near Paris. Claude Lévi-Strauss is also the great-grand son of Isaac Strauss, music conductor at the court of Duke Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III.
Lévi-Strauss would move to Paris in the 16th district in order to do his high school studies, first at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly and secondly at the Lycée Condorcet. At the end of his years of high school, he would meet a young Belgian who belonged to the socialist party, which would have an important influence on him. At that point Lévi-Strauss would decide to join the leftist party. He would soon discover the party’s literary references which were previously unknown to him, and would thus become interested in Marx. Lévi-Strauss would even become an activist in the Socialist Party, and would even be given first the responsibility for leading the “Groupe d’Études Socialistes” (Socialist Study Group), and would eventually assume the role of “Secrétaire Général des Étudiants Socialistes” (Secretary General of Socialist Students).
After high school Lévi-Strauss would continue his studies by going to Law School in Paris, where he would earn his degree before being admitted to the Sorbonne University. There he would study philosophy and get third place in 1931 for his agrégation (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies). He would finally finish his PhD in 1948 after having taught for a while and having gone to Brazil for an extended period of time. It is important to note that his activist engagement would continue the whole time during his studies and beyond and if they hadn’t stopped naturally when he departed for Brazil, it is fair to say that Claude Lévi-Strauss would have potentially made a political career.
After his agrégation he would teach high-school philosophy for two years and in two places, first at the Lycée Victor Duruy in Mont-de-Marsan in the southwest of France and second at Laon up in the northern France. After such attempts at establishing himself, he would get a decisive call from the director of the École Normale Supérieure that changed the course of his life. Indeed Célestin Bougie called him to offer him to become a member of the university mission in Brazil, as a professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo, where he would end up teaching and researching from 1935 to 1938. Luckily he was able to be there with his wife, Dina, who were to become a visiting professor of ethology at the same university. Years later Lévi-Strauss would explain in Tristes Tropiques that such phone call was responsible for deciding his vocation as an ethnographer. Indeed from 1935 to 1939 he would organize and direct several ethnographic expeditions in Mato Grosso in Brazil and in the Amazon. Denis Bertholet, swiss biographer of arguably the most comprehensive Lévi-Strauss biography to date (untranslated in English), has written: “Ethnology is on the one hand a bridge between psychoanalysis and Marxism, and Geology on the other. Lévi-Strauss has found the science in which all his early passions comes together.”
In 1938, he would cross the state of Mato Grosso on board his Ford 34, beginning from the river port of Cuiabá, also an old pioneer town of gold miners. Starting from the small town of Diamantino, however, he would follow a telegraph line that crosses the cerrado, a vegetation made up of very thick bushes, on board oxcarts. Lévi-Strauss would meet the Nambikwara people about whom he would bring back detailed reports and 200 photos. After that he would meet the indigenous Brazilian people named Aikanã as well as others in the state of Rondônia. All of these missions close to Indian peoples would allow him to gather the first materials that would form the basis of his PhD thesis “The Elementary Structures of Kinship”, which he would not defend until 1949, partly because of the war.
Back in France on the eve of WWII, he would be mobilized from 1939 to 1940 on the Maginot Line, which was a line of fortifications and defense built by France along its borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy between 1920 and 1930. However, the “Maginot Line” is most often referred to only in terms of defense against Germany. His job there would be that of a liaison. He would soon be dismissed, however, because of his Jewish heritage and the racial laws of the German occupied French government in Vichy and in 1940 he would instead be assigned to teach in a school in the south of France of city of Montpellier. Finally he would leave France in 1941 to take refuge in New York City where he would teach at the New School for Social Research. There he would meet and also take classes from Roman Jakobson, an important Russian thinker who became one of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century by laying the foundations of structural analysis of language, poetry and art. We can see how such encounter would be decisive at an intellectual level for Lévi-Strauss. For indeed structural linguistics would provide him the theoretical elements which were previously lacking to complete his work on kinship systems. In a word, structuralism as launched by Lévi-Strauss would become a widespread type of analysis based on the structural linguistic model to capture social reality as a formal set of relationships, as distinct from subject-centered or psychology-centered approaches.
While in the US he would also found with art historian Henri Focillon, philosopher Jacques Maritain, scientist Jean Perrin and others “l’École Libre des Hautes Études” (The Higher Studies Free School) in New York in February 1942, which was essentially a University in exile for French intellectuals during WWII.
Back to France again Lévi-Strauss would become an honorary Professor at the Collège de France, which is a large educational and research institution in Paris. It provides high level non-degree courses in all, science, humanities and art. Admission is free and open to all without registration, which makes it a special place in French intellectual life. Being appointed professor at the Collège de France is considered the highest distinction in French higher education. Lévi-Strauss would hold the social anthropology chair from 1959 to 1982. He would also become a member of the French Academy and be its first centennial in 2008. The French Academy is an institution whose function is to standardize and perfect the French language. It brings together leading figures from the literary fields (poets, novelists, theater people, critics) but also philosophers, historians and scientists who have shown some of what is deemed the best of the French language. Moreover, it is now traditionally also bringing high-ranking statesmen and military servicemen as well as clerics.
Tristes Tropiques was first published in French in 1955, which made him known and appreciated by a wide circle of readers. The book would indeed be praised by both the general public and the critics. It is a title which depending on the edition is either kept in French as in the 1992 edition, which would literally translate as The Sad Tropics, but which John Russell translated as A World on the Wane for the 2009 edition. There Lévi-Strauss would mix his memories of travels and philosophical meditations. It is important to note that the basics of anthropological structuralism, which he would invent, already appear in this early book, especially when the author establishes a link between the organization of a society and the spatial arrangement of a Bororo tribe village on the one hand, and the geometry of the Caduveo tribe drawings on the other. While in some ways the book could be reduced to simply being an intellectual autobiography, Lévi-Strauss manages here to situate such kind of work in a broader perspective: that of the relationship between old and new worlds, that of man's place in nature, and finally that of the meaning of civilization and progress. Translated into twenty-seven languages, this bestseller would be a landmark for generations of apprentice ethnographers. The book touched so many people from different fields that the Goncourt jury would apologize for not being able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because the book was technically not a novel. It is interesting and somewhat ironic to note, furthermore, that in a 1972 interview, he would acknowledge that the title of the book had been with him since his teenage years when he had seriously pondered about writing a novel with that title.
In 1961 together with the linguist Émile Benveniste and Pierre Gourou, he would found a magazine called “L'Homme” (The Man), which sought to gather the multiple streams of ethnology and anthropology, and would seek to promote an interdisciplinary approach.
Lévi-Strauss would publish La Pensée Sauvage (literally The Savage Thought) in 1962, which is considered by many as his most important work. The title is an untranslatable in English play on word. In English the title of the book would end up being translated as The Savage Mind. However this title fails to capture the pun in French, for in the title “La Pensée Sauvage”, the word pensée does not necessarily have anything to do with thought or mind. Indeed the word pensée also refers to the flower named “pansy”. Further, the word sauvage means both “wild” and “primitive”. Therefore the second intended meaning of the title by Lévi-Strauss is “Wild Pansies”. He would suggest that the English title be Pansies for Thought, echoing Ophelia’s speech in Hamlet. The cover of the several French editions have always had a pansy on it. The secondary meaning of the title should not be underestimated. After all, one of the important arguments Lévi-Strauss puts forward in this book is that intellectual thought is in a very real sense like a wild flower. Indeed, according to Lévi-Strauss intellectual thought has developed within certain life conditions, away from civilization. As important and still related to the parallel of a wild flower, is the point that Lévi-Strauss tried to show the importance of natural classifications for such intellectual thought. Indeed, for him botanical and zoological species constitute the logical model that in some ways nature offered “ready-made” for human intellectual thinking to utilize in order to classify the social aspects of human life in the same way.
More precisely still, using the traditional theme of ethnology Lévi-Strauss would seek to describe thought processes as a universal attribute of the human mind. For him, wild thinking is present in every human being until it has been cultivated and thus domesticated to perform in a way or another. But under Lévi-Strauss’ careful ethnographic work is yet another related point. That of his attempt to demonstrate that little distinguishes the thought of the so-called savaged to that of the civilized. Further, that it is wrong to assert that the difference between primitive thought and modern thought lies in the ability of the latter to grasp complexity.
The influence La Pensée sauvage would have on the humanities and social sciences is today widely regarded as decisive. Brazilian Professor Eduardo Viveiros de Castro believes that in forging the basic concept of wild thought, Lévi-Strauss has shown that science, philosophy, art, religion, mythology, magic etc.. actually all work on the same single axis, that of human knowledge. The book concludes with a chapter dedicated to a discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s then recent work entitled “Critique de la Raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason). In this chapter Lévi-Strauss contests the book’s approach to philosophical anthropology. Contemporary French philosopher André Comte-Sponville has said about Lévi-Strauss’ discussion of Sartre that he raised there the same terms of the conflict between Descartes and Spinoza: “Is the subject what must be our point of departure (Descartes, Sartre), or instead the illusion that we must free ourselves from (Spinoza).”
Lévi-Strauss would also devote a tetralogy between 1964 and 1971 called “Mythologiques”, which not surprisingly focused on studying myths. It would be published in English as The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1 ; From Honey to Ashes: Mythologiques, Volume 2 ; The Origin of Table Manners: Mythologiques, Volume 3 ; The Naked Man: Mythologiques, Volume 4. Additionally, Lévi-Strauss would also publish books that are outside the strict framework of academic studies, such as Tristes Tropiques, and would thus continue to move people in general.
A dedicated researcher and a prolific writer, Lévi-Strauss would continue his research on mythology: Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture (first published in French in 1978), The Jealous Potter (first published in French in 1985), and finally The Story of Lynx (first published in French in 1991) which would completes a work begun forty years earlier.
From 1994 onwards, Claude Lévi-Strauss would publish books less frequently. However he would continue to write regular book reviews for his magazine The Man. In 1998, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, the journal Critique would devote a special issue to him, and a reception would be held at the Collège de France for the occasion. There Lévi-Strauss would speak bluntly about his old age: “[There is] today for me a real me, which is not more than a quarter or a half of a man, and there is also a virtual me who still has a lively idea of the whole. The virtual me gives me a book project, begins to organize the chapters, and tells the real me: ‘It's for you to continue.’ And the real me, who can no longer do so, tells the virtual me: ‘It's your business. You're the one who sees the whole.’ My life from now on takes place in this very strange dialogue.”
In early 2005, during one of his last appearances on French television he would say, repeating in terms very close to the ones uttered in 1972 (interview with Jean Marchand Jose) and in 1984 (interview with Bernard Pivot): “What I take note of is the current devastation, it is the frightening disappearance of living species, whether plant or animal, and the fact that precisely because of its current density, the human race lives under a kind of internal poisoning scheme - if I may say - and I think of the present and of the world in which I'm just finishing my existence. This is not a world I love.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss would die on Sunday November 1st at 100 years of age.