sabato 4 dicembre 2010

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
by Patrick Wilcken

David Lan welcomes a biography of the man once hailed as the world's most famous academic

It had been pouring with rain. The hard, red soil of the Zambezi valley had turned to mud. All around me people were hurrying to their fields, taking advantage of this deluge to cut trenches with their hoes to prepare for the sowing of next season's crop. And suddenly I understood everything that had been puzzling me about the origin myth of these people among whom, as a student anthropologist, I'd been doing fieldwork for the past year.

The mythological "first man" was said to have come from the south, from where that day's rain clouds were also riding. His name was Mutota, which means "the wet one". The contradiction I had to account for was this: when local people answer the question "who brings the rain?", they always say that it's under the control of the ancestral spirits of the people who lived in this territory before Mutota, their ancestor, arrived and conquered it. And yet, at the same time, it's an uncontested fact that "Mutota brings the rain".

If you're not tantalised by this paradox, Patrick Wilcken's biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss – the first in English – is probably not for you. But for me, and for thousands of students of social anthropology in the 1970s and 80s, Strauss, Lévi and Claude were the most intoxicating words in any language.

And this despite the fact that very few of us, I'd bet, actually read his books. We whizzed through introductions and maybe an early chapter or two, but his major works – the four-volume Mythologiques and The Elementary Structures of Kinship – are not for the faint-hearted.

Yet he was telling us something important: that all societies are as complex, as sophisticated, as rule-bound and as interesting as our own. The conventional comparative indicators of success were (are) wealth accumulation and levels of technology. Lévi-Strauss cracked open the seemingly secondary worlds of marriage, mythology, linguistics and social and existential identity, showing how each is an intricate system of exchange between individuals and between groups – and that the same sorts of systems operate in the Ardèche as in the Amazon.

Lévi-Strauss's credo is related by Wilcken thus: "Working their own systems, many cultures had succeeded where the west had failed. Inuits and the Bedouin had excelled at life in inhospitable climates; other cultures were thousands of years ahead of the west in terms of integrating the physical and the mental with yoga and Chinese 'breathe-techniques'. Australian Aborigines, traditionally seen as at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, had one of the most sophisticated kinship systems in existence."

The methodology Lévi-Strauss fashioned to allow him to display these hidden complexities was structuralism – for decades the most resonant word across the humanities, its imprecision a part of its power. Its premise is that nothing can be understood in itself but only in relation to other, similar things – and, further, that this relationship can only be understood in terms of the relationships these other things have with yet other, similar things.

The questions that follow are: in each case, in what does this "similarity" lie, and from what perspective do these "similarities" appear? For Lévi-Strauss, all apparent reality is a map to be deciphered, revealing the map of a reality below which in turn leads to the map of the surface below that, and so on. But at the lowest point – what? Is there a lowest point? Or does it just keep going round and round?

From his middle years, Lévi-Strauss was the most famous academic in the world. He had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. His more tactfully written books, such as The Savage Mind and, especially, his marvellously affecting Amazon memoir Tristes Tropiques, sold widely and were, I'm sure, read with pleasure, if not always from cover to cover. His only rival as a public intellectual in France was Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he fell out on the question unanswered above: what's underneath? What's the driving force? Sartre said: "History". Lévi-Strauss told the Washington Post: "The Sartre disciples said that nothing can be known without history: I had to dissent. But it is not that I don't believe in history. I just feel that there is no privilege for it."

And that did for him. As Tony Judt puts it in Postwar: "As an interpretation of human experience, any theory dependent on an arrangement of structures from which human choice has been eliminated was hobbled by its own assumptions. Intellectually subversive, structuralism was politically passive." The structuralist ship had extremely wide sails – but in the end, the wind went out of them.

The Poet in the Laboratory doesn't quite catch the fireworks that had me and my best undergraduate friend weekend after weekend tearing Andean kinship systems apart, desperate to find out exactly why the father's sister's daughter couldn't marry the mother's brother's son, or whoever. But it lays out the life with clarity, efficiency, readability and occasionally dissent – from the youth's first liaison with his three "mistresses", Freud, Marx and geology, to the hyper-distinguished old fellow tottering into the Académie Française, the first of his tribe to be let in. A superbly thrilling life it was – and one well worth reliving at second hand.

David Lan is artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre and author of Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe.

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento