Though Lévi-Strauss lacks the strident tone of a Jeremiah, there is no doubt that he speaks like an Old Testament prophet in Tristes Tropiques. From his world perspective, it is not simply the tropics that are “sad.” If the human race does not change its ways, he warns, it will become a teeming world of beggars and finally end its days like the Nambikwara tribe—a few survivors wandering the sertao, eating insects and lizards, and clinging together at night in the ashes of the campfire. His warning recalls the prophetic messages of other modern geniuses, such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, to whom the world seems not to listen.
Yet Lévi-Strauss also speaks out of another, more optimistic tradition in Tristes Tropiques, a tradition that began with Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic). This tradition asks the question “What is the ideal society?” Like his mentor Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss seems to find the ideal society in simple social structures that exist in harmony with their environments and within a rich folk culture—to the tribe, the rural community, the village, the small town. His version of an ideal society resembles the simple rural village that Socrates and his friends first envision in book 2 of the Republic, or the old small towns of Europe, or Jeffersonian democracy as perhaps once embodied in Appalachian folk culture. For Lévi-Strauss, Brazil’s expiring Indian tribes retain the structures of such a society even while they present images of the end.
Within Lévi-Strauss’ own career, Tristes Tropiques is, as already indicated, a central work. Instrumental in initially drawing his wide audience, it provides an important foundation for understanding his life and thought. Although describing the beginnings of Lévi-Strauss’ career, Tristes Tropiques followed a number of his other anthropological studies and immediately preceded the vastly influential Anthropologie structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963).