Claude Lévi-Strauss Stays the Mighty Hand of History, at Least for a Moment

Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died in Paris in 2009, was one of the most important anthropologists of the 20th century.

Now, two beautifully-produced companion books, Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World and The Other Face of the Moon, offer us the first English translations of lectures, essays, and interviews he gave between 1979 and 2001 either in Japan or about Japan, a country for which he felt a special affinity.

As he explained in his classic work Tristes Tropiques, his interest in that country started as a young child when his father, a painter, gave him a Japanese print, “a Hiroshige plate, very worn and lacking margins, which depicted women walking under large pines at the seashore”.

In Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, the first of the two books reviewed here, Lévi-Strauss speaks for the kind of anthropology that studies mostly the “primitive” — a label, as he himself recognizes, that “many now challenge” (14). By primitive, he means small-scale societies that have no writing or mechanization and show “how human beings lived together over a historical period undoubtedly corresponding to 99 percent of the total duration of the collective life of humanity” (14). By studying such societies, he says, anthropology “founds a democratic humanism” that proclaims “that nothing human can be alien to humankind”. (36)

That’s well and good; the difficulty starts when he tells us that those same exotic (to us) societies illustrate “a general situation, a common denominator of the human condition” (14). How could this be true of the Yoruba of Nigeria, though, among whom “rich women can acquire wives, whom they impel to pair off with men”? (55) Or, does the fact that some “primitive” societies practice post-mortem insemination teach us anything about the ethics of such a practice today? Here we are faced with a reality Lévi-Strauss himself acknowledges — the irreducibility of cultural differences.

Even more problematic, for a humanist, is his conservative view that anthropologists “wish to let things be”; that they “want all individuals to submit to the internal logic of their own societies” (59) — as if the logics of many societies weren’t deeply troubled.

Indeed, Lévi-Strauss often appears to have a nostalgic or romantic attachment to “primitive” cultures, which he considers more authentic and more able to “establish a balance between humankind and the natural environment” (38). While admitting they are parochial, he nevertheless admires the fact that they “possess a sense of well-being and plenitude: each one believes it is offering its members the only life worth living”. (71)

By contrast, readers might reflect, our own society suspects and fears its own makeshift and illicit nature. Consequently, as Lévi-Strauss aptly observes, we have no enduring myths. Any attempts to craft such myths — think here of either comic-book or business-world superheroes– get easily tainted by commerce and propaganda. Still, isn’t our modern skepticism, our readiness to question and discard what no longer feels useful or credible, one of the great advances of our civilization? Alas, Lévi-Strauss is too much the relativist, and too attached to tradition, to fully embrace this point.

The Other Face of the Moon, inevitably, returns to these larger themes; but it also focuses closely on the culture of Japan — its mythology and religion, pottery, music, theater, housing, graphic arts, food, landscapes, and even, briefly, toys.

Most striking are the connections Lévi-Strauss makes between things that don’t appear, at first sight, to be connected — a characteristic of the structuralist school of thought of which he was a leading figure. For example, he writes of what he calls the “divisionist” tendency in Japanese culture, which consists in keeping elements separate from each other. Thus Japanese cuisine “leaves natural products in their pure state and, unlike Chinese and French cuisine, does not mix substances or flavors”; likewise the Yamato-e style of painting “separates line drawing and flat zones of color”; while Japanese music, unlike Western music, “does not possess a harmonic system: it declines to mix sounds”. (27).

He then makes an even bolder connection between this tendency and the philosophy of Descartes. Since Descartes exhorted us to “divide each difficulty into as many fragments as required to best resolve it”, he credits Japan “with an aesthetic Cartesianism or a Cartesianism of feelings”. (28)

As another example of intellectual daring, consider the crosscut saw. Because the Japanese artisan “pulls the tool toward himself rather than pushing it away”, and other such idiosyncrasies, Lévi-Strauss hypothesizes that Japanese selfhood is constructed “from the outside”. (38) Thus, the Japanese allegedly protect themselves “from the metaphysical renunciation of the Eastern religions, from the static sociology of Confucianism, and from the atomism to which the primacy of the self makes Western societies vulnerable”. (38-9)

Readers, of course, might be left with the impression that all this is little more than speculation; but never in any doubt about the creativity and sweep of Lévi-Strauss’s thought.

Perhaps the main criticism that may be made of this material nowadays is that the author’s fascination with the East, and especially with Japan, feels skewed and out of date. For it goes with his view that the West, by contrast with the East, is home to a misplaced belief in progress, to totalitarianism, and to science and technology grown lethal. This is not only too negative, but also unfair. Why should Westerners be the only ones with a property claim to beliefs and practices — right or wrong, wonderful or despicable — that are now present all over the world?

“Everything,” as Lévi-Strauss writes regretfully in Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, “seems to show that we are moving toward a global civilization.” (121) As we move faster and faster, the primitive fades away, East and West merge together, and hardly anyone has a moment to catch their breath. The more reason for us to thank Lévi-Strauss for dedicating his life to capturing aspects of traditional cultures, before all of them, and all of us, are hauled away by the mighty hand of history.

RATING 7 / 10