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Between raw and cooked food

Intellectual Biography of Lévi-Strauss reveals a life full of dilemmas

reproduction from the book "Lévi-Strauss, antropologia e arte, minúsculo – incomensurável" [Lévi-Strauss, anthropology and art, lower case – incommensurable] Claude Lévi-Strauss on the bank of the Machado river, 1938reproduction from the book "Lévi-Strauss, antropologia e arte, minúsculo – incomensurável" [Lévi-Strauss, anthropology and art, lower case – incommensurable]

In a world in which being right about everything is the desired status, his chosen motto was that doubt is the starting point of wisdom. Perhaps this sound choice is the source of his longevity, because Claude Lévi-Strauss (we hope) is going to be 100 years old in November. “The chronology of his life reveals him as an author moving in the midst of questions, doubts, retreats, and withdrawals, in a path that goes against the linearity that the conflict of creation undergoes. This has guided him to place himself at a distance from his objects and taught him how to deal with temporality, combining that which is sensitive with that which is intelligible, so as to build complex and multifaceted knowledge,” explains anthropologist Dorothea Voegeli Passetti, author of the recently launched Lévi-Strauss, antropologia e arte: minúsculo, incomensurável [Lévi-Strauss, anthropology and art: minute, incommensurable] published by Edusp/Educ. The work is the result of her social sciences doctoral thesis, from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). Claude Lévi-Strauss was very successful at that. “Not only did he propose a new anthropology, but he also indicated a new way of being an anthropologist. He wants useful anthropology for societies, making humans more humble, removing them from the center through understanding offered by “the other”, she states.

He was always changing. He was a critical ethnographer, a former philosopher who questioned metaphysics, an anthropologist who wanted to create a new science and a former socialist activist who found himself in Buddhism. He incorporated several fields of knowledge: linguistics, mathematics, biology, psychoanalysis and philosophy. “He is a definitive thinker of our time, one of its most intolerable critics, seeking the past behind the present: he studies and advocates contemporary indigenous societies, without failing to pore over how they traditionally think and live; he admires certain modern artists, because they re-create relationships with time immemorial; he does not take refuge in the past in lieu of the present; to the contrary, he pursues the past as an instrument to move beyond time, arriving at further depths, where only life exists and objects of art are the only things able to concentrate it, thus perpetuating it,” says Dorothea. The son of an artist (hence his Belgian nationality: his father, a painter, was working in Belgium at the time), an admirer of the cubist movement and a friend of the surrealists, especially of André Breton; he made science conduct a dialogue with art, the fundamental base of his thoughts. “Because of him, science no longer opposes art, myths or philosophy. By cultivating their own métiers, these domains carry on a dialogue amongst themselves while building up knowledge by reaching deeper levels,” says the researcher.

PASCAL PAVANI/AFP Lévi-Strauss: 100 years of wisdomPASCAL PAVANI/AFP

The expert, thanks to Lévi-Strauss, can no longer afford to be a bureaucrat. “The new creator of knowledge chooses research territories whose frontiers are malleable and can be penetrated, going beyond them by means of profound and wide-ranging reflections.” To this end, three trips were fundamental to his education: the trip to Brazil (from 1935 to 1939), when he came as a member of the “French mission” to USP, conducted his ethnographic studies (permeated by doubts on the importance of art and indigenous objects) and defined his condition as that of an ethnographer, to the detriment of the philosopher. The second fundamental trip was to the United States, during the 1940’s, when, the author points out, the undecided sociology professor who wants to meet Indians is transformed into an Americanist, “wearing a diving suit and diving into Indian ethnology and linguistics.” The third trip was to India, in 1950, where he came into contact with Buddhism, which would bring him appropriately closer, Dorothea points out, to the existing structuralism. A strange attitude for someone who begins his book “Tristes Tropiques” [Sad Tropics] (1955) with the sentence: “I hate trips and explorers.” In 1935, when he first comes into contact with the Brazilian Indians, points out the researcher, he is led “by the desire to understand America, operating a kind of transversal section of Brazilian ethnography and geography.”

“From then on, he asks himself whether it is worth his while to abandon an academic career and possibly a political one, to become a bureaucrat of evasion, who spends his time applying instructions, taking down notes on the particular physical characteristics of the Indians he met.” In fact, says the author, he falls into despair when he realizes he will never be able to understand the culture of the society he was fortunate to find. “But in Brazil, Lévi-Strauss began to understand that he should view his society as if he were an actor in a work of noh [type of classic drama from Japan]. This distancing also implied that he would have to give up politics, because the function of the ethnologist is to view all societies from afar, and not get involved in historical events.” The ethnologists, according to Lévi-Strauss, must maintain their objectivity; they should avoid being judgmental, regarding their own society and that of others. The option is for moderate judgment. “This reflection, in which he seems to be burdened by the Western remorse of having destroyed peoples, results in a remoteness. He begins to view societies, including his own, through a filter.” This is when his passion for nature surfaces, and, the researcher points out, he puts himself into the position of a critic of society who looks for the savages in an attitude that escapes the exotic. “His torment revolved around the quest for a formula to return to his own society. He is not looking for the good savage; he is looking for the minimum state of society.” That which is exotic, says Dorothea, attracts Lévi-Strauss because of its untouched, virgin nature, referring to nature and because of his affinity with beginnings. The world was becoming too small for his travels. “Unlike the collecting nature of museums, the important thing was to be able to choose, pick out one object out of so many other objects, rather than to reproduce the attitude that stunned him during his ethnographic research in Brazil, during which he found himself obliged to collect all the possible objects of a culture,” he author points out.

Archaeology and Ethnology Museum at the University of São Paulo/MAE-USP / wagner souza e silva Ceremonial pendant made from the nail of an armadillo. Collected by Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss, in 1936Archaeology and Ethnology Museum at the University of São Paulo/MAE-USP / wagner souza e silva

The objects he sought to investigate and understand were not only the material ones, and the bond that joined them had to be found in another dimension. “These objects report more than the past or present materialness of cultures: they are actually ways of viewing the world, which, whether beautifying or dissimulating, incorporate into their concrete state society, nature and the supernatural. They connect and pass through cultures, expose nature as an intrinsic part of life or as a designation created to dignify cultural superiorities that are often traumatic.” The massacre of the Second World War had a strong impact on this view. “Asking oneself about societies in which there is no injustice and terror and reflecting on the natural man who allegedly represents humanity unfamiliar with the evils of civilization meant disenchanting oneself and finding sadness in the tropics, in Brazil’s Planalto Central region or in Martinique, a result of this experience. Primitive people attracted him more because he found brotherhood among them,” Dorothea points out. His stay in New York, contact with American anthropology, as well as remembrances of the works of Freud, led him to place culture in opposition to nature: “Family ties became his main topic, combining ethnology, linguistics and psychological discussion of the unconscious. The alliance, in addition to consanguinity, guarantees an artificial nature to family ties at first, which highlights the distancing of men from the universe of nature.” The structures were now the prime topic of his thoughts, which led to rational, scientific, and mathematical thought processes.

“In his opinion, it was pointless to measure bones and skulls; this attitude led him to draw away from physical anthropology. Cultures exist, they assert and maintain themselves through their differences, and the game of diversification is what makes cultural dynamics possible,” the author writes. He proposes that man be understood as integrated with nature and that anthropocentrism be forgotten. “Ethnology is not a separate science, neither is it a new one: it is the most ancient form of what we call humanism, and should encompass the totality of the World.” In the years after the publication of Tristes Tropiques, the author points out, Lévi-Strauss was accused of being an anti-humanist for reducing man to structures and for not taking into consideration history or human will. The time had come to change direction.

Archaeology and Ethnology Museum at the University of São Paulo/MAE-USP / wagner souza e silva Bororo: headdress made from macaw feathers and other materialsArchaeology and Ethnology Museum at the University of São Paulo/MAE-USP / wagner souza e silva

Lévi-Strauss, says the researcher, started to bring art and anthropology closer together. “The reason anthropology is interested in art is because art is a part of culture and, on a higher level, culture takes possession of nature, which is the prototype of the phenomena studied by ethnologists.” Nothing is simple, however, and his intellectual curiosity drove him to walk other paths. “I have a Neolithic conscience,” wrote Lévi-Strauss. He was talking simultaneously about himself and about his new interests. “Like the science of concrete, the savage’s thought is simultaneously analytical and synthetic. It has a symbolic ambition and turns to the perception and classification of the immediate and empirical universe. Unlike domesticated thought, it is not continuous, and, intending to be synchronic and diachronic, it expresses a timeless understanding of the world,” the researcher explains. This is one more bond between primitive art and mythical thought: the meaning of mythical beings in art is timeless, and a dialogue is conducted with primeval time in which synchrony and diachronics close up. “The savage way of thinking identifies itself with myths, magic and art, and can co-exist with modern scientific thought.” He achieved his goal. “The thought process of primitive societies requires new modes of research that have to investigate the forms whereby thought turns the beings and phenomena of nature into objects.”

As the author emphasizes, being an anthropologist takes on a new dimension, in which the dialogue with art does not restrict itself to a specialization. “The domain has expanded and territories interpenetrate, transforming the art anthropologist – an expert who studied primitive objects which, because they were primitive, meant they were exotic – into an obsolete figure.” It was only through research into the symbolic nature of objects that made it possible to bring together nature and culture again, without separating the cultural objects from the natural ones. “The discovery that this is an art-related procedure allows one to finally bring together the points of view and join anthropology (and hence other sciences) and art.” Art is no longer a mere illustration, but “it is possible to re-articulate these two ways of thinking when one perceives that any art is an intellectual product.” This is an alliance between that which is sensitive and that which is intelligible. “Thus, at a deeper level, forms of scientific and artistic thought can coincide.” The aesthetic feeling provided by any kind of art stems from its reflexive and intellectual load. The travels and explorations of a man who hated both had reached their peak. “From now on, there will be no more need to question the frontiers between various specialties, because the new modes of research and of the production of knowledge will have diluted the previous boundaries between science and other forms of thought,” the researcher concludes.