Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Remembered

Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist whose books, films, lectures and collections changed how the so-called modern world came to understand the so-called primitive world died Saturday in Paris at the age of 100.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss changed the way the self-styled modern world came to understand the so-called primitive world.

Today, we learned of his death in Paris at the age of 100.

Frank Browning has this remembrance.

FRANK BROWNING: A lot of kids growing up in the 1950s, myself included, got their ideas of the primitive tribes of New Guinea or the Amazon from the postcard-perfect photographs of the National Geographic: dark, naked people with discs in their mouths, bodies painted in bright colors, carrying spears. The subtext - too often the text - describe them as exotic, unfortunate, cannibalistic savages who had been left behind by civilization.

Then in 1966, Claude Levi-Strauss' book, "The Savage Mind," was published in English. And as Mick Taussig, an anthropologist at Columbia University puts it: The world turned upside down.

Professor MICHAEL TAUSSIG (Anthropology, Columbia University): It sent everybody running for cover and tremendous excitement and it was like - it was an intellectual earthquake.

BROWNING: Levi-Strauss produced a rigorous set of arguments that demonstrated the extraordinary sophistication of these so-called primitives. He was trained as a philosopher. He spent three years with the Bororo people in Central Brazil, learned their language, studied their rituals, their myths, their artworks, their daily practices.

Again, Mick Taussig.

Prof. TAUSSIG: He made us think in different ways instead of thinking in old-fashioned physical causation, as regard to history and to social events. He came out with his elegant and very rigorous sort of patent thinking. But he did it with such elegance and such verve, you know, that it was very, very seductive.

BROWNING: It was seductive because of Levi-Strauss' clear, compelling style as a writer. It was patent thinking in the sense that Levi-Strauss looked for and found formal relations between myth, ritual and action that he argued transcend all cultures, from New Guinea warrior communities to Parisian social salons, to Hollywood studio life.

What Levi-Strauss did, arguably more than anyone else who had gone before him, was to erase forever the notion that primitive people were simple people, lacking in intellectual skills or aesthetic richness. And that argument not only changed how we moderns look at those others, but says Mick Taussig, it rippled across the whole of contemporary intellectual life.

Prof. TAUSSIG: So he introduced a completely different way of thought, I would say, and it spread across many fields. It was by no means restricted to anthropology.

Professor NEIL CHUDGAR (Cultural and Literary theory, Macalester College): We teach Levi-Strauss because his structural anthropology makes culture thinkable, and it does that just as well now as it did half a century ago.

BROWNING: Neil Chudgar teaches cultural and literary theory at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Prof. CHUDGAR: He teaches us to believe that culture in general works very much the way language does; that all kinds of cultural forms from myths, to structures of kinship, to novels and movies work in the way that language does, by organizing individual elements and systems, so that any individual element a word or a practice or a ritual or an event derives its meaning from its relationship to all the other elements in the same system.

Levi-Strauss says that this happens unconsciously. So the work of a student of culture is to bring the unconscious structures of meaning into intelligibility, so that we can understand them.

BROWNING: Levi-Strauss always argued that understanding diverse cultures leads to a richer human society. But as he approached his final days, a dark pessimism came over him, which he expressed in one of his last interviews.

Professor CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS (Anthropologist): (Through Translator) There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it's clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world on which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like.

BROWNING: Despite his pessimism for the future, Levi-Strauss' legacy remains his optimism about what diverse cultures can learn from one another.

For NPR News, Im Frank Browning in Paris.

SIEGEL: Claude Levi-Strauss was buried today in France. He would have turned 101 at the end of this month.

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