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 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 writes 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 author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.