Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1344
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 Thus he left the ranks of the extroverts and joined the introverts, “prematurely aged adolescents, discreet, withdrawn, usually Left-wing,” who hewed to the arts and sciences.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, destructive exploitation of people and nature, overpopulation, and the garbage that litters the world’s beaches. The modern world is settling into a scientific and technological dark age marked by “a progressive welding together of humanity and the physical universe, whose great deterministic laws, instead of remaining remote and awe inspiring, now use thought itself as an intermediary medium and are colonizing us. . . .” Lévi-Strauss sees the future of the modern world foreshadowed in the wretched poverty of overcrowded India and the closed thought system of Islam. The ultimate result will be entropy and the end of man: “The world began without man and will end without him.”
The early chapters of Tristes Tropiques show Lévi-Strauss himself as a victim of some of the forces of entropy loose in the modern world. These forces are represented by World War II and the Nazi political regime from which he has to flee, but they are especially epitomized by the French military authorities on the Caribbean colonial island of Martinique, where Lévi-Strauss is forced to make a lengthy stopover on his way to the United States. Isolated from the French homeland and uncertain whether to side with the Free French or the Vichy government, the local military contingent has developed “a collective form of mental derangement”: Further, “Their one assignment, which was to guard the gold of the Bank of France, had degenerated into a kind of nightmare, for which the excessive drinking of punch was only partly responsible. . . .” In particular, they are paranoid about a possible takeover by the Americans, whose “warships cruised continuously outside the harbour.” Yet the Americans are hardly any less paranoid: In San Juan, Puerto Rico, another lengthy stopover on his odyssey, Lévi-Strauss is detained for investigation by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation when authorities discover his index card citing a classic anthropological work in German, Unter den Naturvolkern Zentral-Brasiliens (1894).
It is no wonder that Lévi-Strauss prefers the company of primitive Indians living in the Mato Grosso and Amazonia. While emphasizing the need for anthropological objectivity, Lévi-Strauss clearly grows attached to his subjects as people. Individual Indians are given names and personalities at the same time Lévi-Strauss studies their tribal language, customs, artifacts, and kinship patterns. Perhaps living out his childhood fantasies, Lévi-Strauss enjoys sharing the Indians’ homes, food, stories, and daily existence. There is no condescension toward them, only fascination that sometimes develops into admiration. Probably for these reasons, plus a few gifts that he brings along, Lévi-Strauss seems to have remarkable success in being accepted by the Indians (in contrast to a number of missionaries who disappear).
The details of Indian life that Lévi-Strauss records are indeed fascinating, though only a few of the more exotic or bizarre can be noted here. Among those would have to be the diet of the foraging Nambikwara during the seven-month dry season in the harsh sertao (semi-desert scrubland). A typical family repast might consist of “a few orange-coloured buriti fruits, two fat poisonous spiders, tiny lizards’ eggs, one or two lizards, a bat, small bacaiuva or uaguassu palm nuts and a handful of grasshoppers.” The Caingang, on the other hand, prize “the koro, pale-coloured grubs which . . . had the consistency and delicacy of butter, and the flavour of coconut milk,” while the Tupi-Kawahib imbibe an excellent alcoholic drink called chicha into which virgins “spit copious quantities of saliva.” For this purpose, the village Lévi-Strauss visits has to make do with three young girls; the shortage of virgins can be attributed to the sexual practices of the Tupi-Kawahib, among which are homosexuality, polygamy, and wife-sharing (including sharing with guests). The constricting penis sheaths worn by the otherwise naked men seem to do no good. In this regard, the performance of Chief Taperahi, who has four wives, is remarkable, but an even greater achievement of this truly creative person is his virtuoso solo performance (over two consecutive nights) of an eight-hour play, “The Farce of the Japim Bird.”
Chief Taperahi puts so much of himself into his performance because possibly it is the last time “The Farce of the Japim Bird” will ever be heard on Earth. After him, no one seems left who is capable of remembering and acting all the parts. His solo performance symbolizes the plight of the Brazilian Indians, whose numbers were rapidly declining (mainly from disease and assimilation) even as Lévi-Strauss studied them. In turn, the plight of the Brazilian Indians is no different from that of primitive peoples throughout the world. Like plant and animal species, whole cultures have disappeared or are disappearing before the encroachment of modern civilization. The loss to the human race is incalculable, as the rich range of possibilities narrows to the same sterile “monoculture” everywhere. Perhaps some of those disappearing cultures carry with them important secrets, such as how to live in harmony with nature, that modern civilization lacks and on which its survival depends. So far, the real tragedy belongs to the disappearing cultures, through whom Lévi-Strauss is able to record and foreshadow what it is like to say good-bye.