Claude Lévi-Strauss (lay-vee strohs) not only founded structuralism but also affected Western thought as few people have done since World War II. He is one of France’s treasured thinkers, but he is as much a figure belonging to the world as to one country. This universality is appropriate to an anthropologist, and because of the circumstances surrounding Lévi-Strauss’s youth and family, there would seem few people better suited to this occupation. Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels, Belgium, on November 28, 1908, to Raymond Lévi-Strauss and his wife, Emmy Lévy. In 1914 the family left Belgium and moved to Versailles, France, where they lived with Raymond’s father, a rabbi. The move put Claude into a doubly alien environment, French and Jewish, and he lived with this sense of otherness while he received his education. Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1927 to 1932. In 1934, following two years of teaching in a lycée, Lévi-Strauss received an appointment to the University of São Paulo, Brazil, where he taught as a professor of sociology until 1937. Following the end of his appointment, Lévi-Strauss stayed in Brazil until 1939. During this time, Lévi-Strauss decided that he wanted to be an ethnologist and was able to make two trips into the Brazilian interior to do fieldwork. As a result of his studies, Lévi-Strauss not only published his first work but also developed the sense of the binary opposition of “inside-outside” that would lead him into much of his most important work.
Lévi-Strauss was forced to flee France during the German occupation and arrived in the United States in 1941 to begin work at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The time spent in New York was crucial to Lévi-Strauss’s founding of structural anthropology, because it was there that he began to work with linguist Roman Jakobson. Jakobson introduced Lévi-Strauss to structural linguistics, in which method Lévi-Strauss recognized a system of analysis that could be applied to the study of human culture at large. Out of this realization came not only the beginnings of a structural approach to anthropology but also the genesis of the entire structuralist movement. The human mind, Lévi-Strauss theorized, worked by regarding the world in terms of binary oppositions, the most famous being the opposition between “raw” and “cooked,” but also between female/male, animal/human, nature/culture, them/us, outside/inside, and so on. Mythology, he argued, works by attempting to propose a mediation between unmediable oppositions: monstrous creatures such as centaurs or werewolves mediate between human and animal by creating a creature that is part animal, part human, or that alternates between human and animal form. Most important for mythological studies, Lévi-Strauss believed that the quest for an “original” form of a mythological narrative that was...
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