Tristes Tropiques Essay - Critical Essays

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Like Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss was born on the fringes of French society: Rousseau to Huguenot parents in Geneva, Switzerland, and Lévi-Strauss to Jewish parents in Brussels, Belgium. When Lévi-Strauss was still a child, his family moved to France, where his marginalized background apparently encouraged him to play the role of the outsider right up through his university studies at the Sorbonne (anti-Semitism was prevalent at the time but, significantly, is mentioned in Tristes Tropiques only in its virulent Nazi form). His role as outsider could have disposed Lévi-Strauss to take up anthropology and to move to Brazil, where, paradoxically, he was accepted as a representative of admired French culture.

Yet in the early chapters of Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss himself cites intellectual reasons for his choice of anthropology as a profession. His intellectual development involved two false starts, first in philosophy, then in law, both of which he studied at the Sorbonne and in which he passed his examinations with honors. Critics of structuralism will find his reason for rejecting philosophy ironic: He thought the study of philosophy at the time sterile because it involved “the application of an always identical method” to “every problem, whether serious or trifling.” Essentially, philosophy at the time consisted of “mental gymnastics” and “verbal artifice” with dichotomies. His reason for rejecting law seems more consistent with his role as outsider: He discovered the extroverted people going into law to be obnoxious. Thus he left the ranks of the extroverts and joined the introverts, “prematurely aged adolescents, discreet, withdrawn, usually Left-wing,” who hewed to the arts and sciences. Among the arts and sciences, the introverts found “ambiguous activities which can be classed either as a mission or a refuge,” with anthropology being “the most extreme form of the second term of the contrast.”

Lévi-Strauss, however, did not become an anthropologist simply by default; more positive reasons also motivated his choice of vocation. Anthropology was concerned with the larger patterns beneath surface details of phenomena, much like psychoanalysis, geology, and Marxism—three strong influences on the young man. Anthropology also appealed to his vast curiosity: “As a form of history, linking up at opposite ends with world history and [Lévi-Strauss’] own history,” it offered “intellectual satisfaction” and “a virtually inexhaustible supply of material.” His choice of anthropology as a vocation was clinched by his excited reading of American anthropologist Robert H. Lowie’s Primitive Society (1920). More than anything else, perhaps, it was the romantic appeal of primitive cultures that drew the young Lévi-Strauss to anthropology.

In Tristes Tropiques, the romantic appeal of primitive cultures is balanced by the equally romantic critique of modern culture, forming a dichotomy much like those Lévi-Strauss had rejected in philosophy and linking him solidly to his mentor Rousseau, who taught the superiority of primitive society over “civilized” society. Describing modern civilization as a creeping “monoculture,” Lévi-Strauss finds it typified by stultifying sameness,...

(The entire section is 1344 words.)