Works and Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In this book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Clifford Geertz is reviewing not so much the works as the lives of four major ethnographers of a previous generation: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Bronisaw Malinowski, and Ruth Benedict. The structure of his book clearly shows Geertz’s matter-of-fact approach: introduction, main body of four chapters, each dedicated to one of his four major ethnographers, and conclusion. Even the chapter titles and subtitles look like an outline, reflecting the contents and guiding the reader to the center of the discussion.

Geertz himself is a writer of some power and style, as readers of his other works already know. Besides stretching the vocabulary of the general readers of this book with terms such as “achronic,” “Nilotes,” “Gongorism,” and “nigrescent,” Geertz knows how to inject humor in the turn of a phrase. Often he does so in order to make his criticisms more palatable by turning them into gentle teasing.

A number of examples of this wit (somewhat out of context) illustrate the point: “I make these irreverent allusions to Michel Foucault’s famous article, ’What Is an Author?’ (which in fact I agree with, save for its premises, its conclusions, and its cast of mind).” Or again, this time referring to Lévi-Strauss: “Were he any more self-conscious, he would transport to a higher plane.” Geertz is also quite clearly having fun when he remarks that Susan Sontag, “who is in charge of such matters,” has called Lévi-Strauss an intellectual hero. Finally, this bit of clever false modesty: “In our ingenuous discipline, perhaps as usual an episteme behind, it still very much matters who speaks.”

In his introduction (“Being There”), Geertz lays out his basic argument, but does so sparingly. According to Geertz, it is not the amassing of evidence, nor literary skill per se, but the ability to convey in writing that ultimate authority—at least in terms of human experience—of having “been there” that has counted for something in the history of ethnography. He goes on to say that this appeal to personal experience cuts two ways: It achieves its purpose (convincing the reader that the author indeed speaks from direct personal experience) at the risk of seeming too involved, of not being objective or at least sufficiently detached.

In “The World in a Text,” the first chapter after the introduction, Geertz deals with Lévi-Strauss in general and Tristes tropiques (1955; A World on the Wane, 1961, better known as Tristes Tropiques) in particular. He notes that structuralism as a paradigm moved anthropology in general and ethnography in particular to the center of intellectual life in the West, something Geertz regards with some amazement and considerable admiration. According to Geertz, “It was not the odd facts . . . [he presented but] the mode of discourse he invented” that has made Lévi-Strauss so important in the history of anthropology and worthy of consideration in this book. Lévi-Strauss has made it difficult to read any text as referential. The literary product itself, after Lévi-Strauss, becomes the epistemological stopping-off point, and beyond there is only darkness.

Geertz traces two traditional approaches to understanding Lévi-Strauss’ work and then rejects them in favor of a perspective of his own. The more common approach has been a temporal one, trying to trace systematically the linear progress of Lévi-Strauss’ thought. For many, however, this perspective fails precisely because Lévi-Strauss himself is so topical and thematic in his writings, with little temporal reference or sequential development. For the second school of interpretation, the answer to understanding Lévi-Strauss is organization around different subjects from a consistent structuralist point of view. Geertz rejects the first view as too dependent on the idea (he calls it the myth) of progress, and the second he finds wanting because of its static view of structuralism from its beginnings to the recent past. Geertz prefers what he calls a “centrifugal” approach to organizing Lévi-Strauss’ work, or life. In this view, Tristes Tropiques is the “cosmic egg” at the center, and the rest of Lévi-Strauss’ work radiates out from it—presaging, explaining, anticipating, unfolding the themes and ideas of this central monument to structuralist thought.

Geertz can support his ideas of this...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)