Lévi-Strauss, the total anthropologist

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Christopher Shea
November 8, 2009

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CLAUDE LéVI-STRAUSS, who died on Oct. 30, age 100, was an extraordinarily influential figure in France by the early 1960s, but “hardly known in this country,” according to a young Susan Sontag. Sontag, therefore, took it upon herself to hail him in a 1963 essay, published in the New York Review of Books, that helped to broaden his reputation. It later appeared, in expanded form, as “The Anthropologist as Hero,” in her collection “Against Interpretation.”

Lévi-Strauss, Sontag wrote, was prototypically modern in that he had responded to the alienating aspects of contemporary life - its accelerating speed, its homogeneity - by immersing himself in its opposite: the exotic, the hyperlocal, the “primitive.”

Though he was a scholar and not a man of letters, she wrote, his “beautifully written” work “Tristes Tropiques” was “one of the great books of our century.”

Explaining the book’s origins, she wrote that, during long university vacations, and at one point for more than a year,

Lévi-Strauss lived among Indian tribes in the interior of Brazil. “Tristes Tropiques” offers a record of his encounters with these tribes - the nomadic, missionary-murdering Nambikwara, the Tupi-Kawahib whom no white man had ever seen before, the materially splendid Bororo, the ceremonious Caduveo who produce huge amounts of abstract painting and sculpture. But the greatness of “Tristes Tropiques” lies not simply in this sensitive reportage, but in the way Lévi-Strauss uses his experience - to reflect on the nature of landscape, on the meaning of physical hardship, on the city in the Old World and the New, on the idea of travel, on sunsets, on modernity, on the connection between literacy and power.

“Conrad in his fiction,” Sontag wrote, “and T.E. Lawrence, Saint-Exupéry, [and the French essayist and novelist Henry de] Montherlant among others in their lives as well as their writing, created the métier of the adventurer as a spiritual vocation.”

Likewise, “Claude Lévi-Strauss has invented the profession of the anthropologist as a total occupation, one involving a spiritual commitment like that of the creative artist or the adventurer or the psychoanalyst.”

The worst feature story ever
THERE WAS A fistfight recently in the offices of the Style section of the Washington Post. An older editor, Henry Allen, a literary lion/New Journalist in his day, called a piece that two younger colleagues had just turned in the second-worst piece of dreck he’d read in four decades at the newspaper. One of the recipients of this insult, a young feature writer, took umbrage and his rebuttal included a vulgarity. Allen counter-rebutted with his fists. The paper’s top editor, Marcus Brauchli, was among those who broke up the quite serious scrum.

Last week, Gene Weingarten, the Post’s humor columnist, weighed in, writing: “Hooray.” In these days of fiscal worry and editorial overcautiousness, he wrote, he’s glad that some writers and editors, at least, still have passion for their work, and high standards.

Which brings us to that question lingering in the air: what was the worst story Allen ever read? Weingarten hears it was a profile of Paul Robeson so weak it was never published. Still, emboldened by the new free-for-all atmosphere at his paper, Weingarten offers his own nominee for the worst piece ever published in Style. It appeared in 1999, and the author was Sally Quinn, wife of the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee.

It was a feature story suffused with New Age thinking, in which Quinn endorsed a supposed miracle experienced by a woman who had walked through a labyrinth designed to foster spiritual thoughts. As the woman, Marylin Arrigan, made her way through the maze, she told Quinn,

Suddenly, I was in a very bright light. I had a vision of an Indian face with long straight hair, blowing in the wind. He had uplifted arms. He kept telling me to look up. I kept looking up. I was engulfed in light. …

And there was evidence!

A volunteer, Carol Davis, took pictures with a digital camera as they were finishing up. Flipping through the images, she stopped, stunned, at a shot of the group. For there, in the center of the picture, was what looked like a brilliant shaft of multicolored light, coming from above and directed exactly at Arrigan.

(Pause as Quinn expatiates about coinciding solstices, and full moons, and historical facts about Indians that she thinks underscore the link between labyrinths and the spirit world…) Alas, experts don’t find the photograph to be evidence of much except a camera glitch:

Members of the Washington Post photo department have examined the pictures of Arrigan at the labyrinth and declared the apparent shaft of light to be nothing more than “lens flare,” an optical effect produced within the camera lens itself. Andrew Davidhazy, an expert on photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, agreed.

Does this deter Quinn? It does not.

But there are many things for which science has a ready answer but the human heart cannot so easily dismiss.… Lens flare or spiritual experience? Or both? You decide.

So what’s Quinn up to now? According to the Post’s website, she “co-moderates On Faith, a Washington Post and Newsweek blog about religion and its impact on global life.”

Celebrating opera’s grim side
ON HER NEW album, “Sacrificium,” the opera star Cecilia Bartoli sings music originally written for castrati, men who (to put the point gently) had been surgically altered as boys, so that their voices would never break. They sang in high registers associated today with women but had the powerful bodies and lung capacities of male singers, enabling distinct, and apparently sublime, artistic effects. For a century after 1680, they dominated opera throughout much of Europe, and such performers as Ferri, Farinelli, and Caffarelli became some of the first opera superstars.

In interviews and on her website, Bartoli has stressed the grim and tragic aspects of the castrato phenomenon. Some classical critics have challenged her claim that Italy alone was castrating 3,000 to 4,000 boys a year for artistic purposes during the Baroque period. But, regardless of the number, many were mutilated and only a few became elite performers. And being a castrated star was surely not a psychologically unfraught experience, either.

The photographs of Bartoli commissioned to accompany “Sacrificium” are as striking as the music on the CD. Playing with the theme of gender confusion inherent in the topic, the photographer Uli Weber placed Bartoli’s head, her face whitened with makeup, atop various marble statues of men.

Christopher Shea is a weekly columnist for Ideas. He can be reached at