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Sontag on Claude Levi-Strauss

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 3, 2009 04:43 PM

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The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss

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."

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