I confess that for some months now I have been composing obituaries of sorts, in my head, for Claude Lévi-Strauss. In fact, the last time I caught myself doing this was about ten minutes before I saw the headline announcing his death this morning. He was the Bob Hope of the intellectuals, at least in the sense that he gave everyone plenty of time to assess his 20th-century legacy before finally giving them the occasion to properly eulogize him in the 21st: the New York Times clearly had its multi-page obituary planned out ahead of time, too. It's nice, anyway, and hard not to read as an act of will, that the dean of structuralism should have waited until after the so-called post-structuralists were all dead before taking leave himself. I hope his work will enjoy a lot of critical re-examination in the coming years.
Already some months ago I decided that when Lévi-Strauss died, I would keep it simple and post, without further commentary, what are for me the two most memorable passages from his Tristes Tropiques of 1955.
Although the Nambikwara were easy-going, and unperturbed by the presence of the anthropologist with his notebook and camera, the work was complicated by linguistic difficulties. In the first place, the use of proper names is taboo; in order to identify individuals, we had to follow the custom adopted by the telegraph workers, that is, to come to an agreement with the natives about arbitrary appellations such as Portuguese names --Julio, José-Maria, Luiza, etc.-- or nicknames like Lebre (hare) or Assucar (sugar). There was one Indian who had been christened Cavignac by Rondon, or one of his companions, because he had a goatee, a very rare feature among Indians, who are usually beardless. One day, when I was playing with a group of children, a little girl who had been struck by one of her playmates took refuge by my side and, with a very mysterious air, began to whisper something in my ear. As I did not understand and was obliged to ask her to repeat it several times, her enemy realized what was going on and, obviously very angry, also came over to confide what seemed to be a solemn secret. After some hesitation and questioning, the meaning of the incident became clear. Out of revenge, the first little girl had come to tell me the name of her enemy, and the latter, on becoming aware of this, had retaliated by confiding to me the other's name. From then on, it was very easy, although rather unscrupulous, to incite the children against each other and get to know all their names. After which, having created a certain atmosphere of complicity, I had little difficulty in getting them to tell me the names of the adults. When the latter understood what our confabulations were about, the children were scolded and no more information was forthcoming.
Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists --Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!-- in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.