Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Turns 100

This week in Paris, one of the last icons of 20th century French intellectual life turns 100. Claude Levi-Strauss, a painter's son, not only reshaped the nature of how anthropologists do their work: He changed the world's perception of so-called "primitive" tribes in Asia, Africa and America.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. This week in Paris, one of the last icons of 20th century French intellectual life celebrates his 100th birthday. Claude Levi-Strauss, a painter's son, not only reshaped the nature of how anthropologists do their work, he changed the world's perception of what were then known as primitive tribes in Asia, Africa, and America. Frank Browning filed this appreciation from Paris.

FRANK BROWNING: Go into a museum or a fashion house or even a lot of hip-hop concerts, and you'll see Claude Levi-Strauss lurking in the mist. Levi-Strauss, arguably more than any other writer or thinker, turned what had been regarded as quaint objects of Stone Age primitives into heritage pieces of art that are sought out by the world's finest curators. It began more or less 70 years ago when he hiked with horses into Brazil's jungle interior and got to know the Bororo people.

(Soundbite of music)

BROWNING: Levi-Strauss left his post with the French Cultural Ministry and spent three years with the Bororo learning to talk to them, photographing them, studying the intellectual intricacies of their complex cultural lives. What he wrote about that and later experiences transformed how our world came to understand the so-called savage mind, says Columbia University Anthropologist Mick Taussig.

Professor MICK TAUSSIG (Anthropology, Columbia University): Levi-Strauss was like a volcanic eruption with the translation of the savage mind. It sent everybody running for cover, and tremendous excitement, and it was an intellectual earthquake.

BROWNING: Until then, the dominant anthropological view held that these primitives were stunted at a pre-logical mental development. Levi-Strauss's work demonstrated that they live in unbelievably complex cultures, says French anthropologist Laurent Berger at Paris's Musee Branly.

Dr. LAURENT BERGER (Research Fellow, Musee du quai Branly, Paris): People were supposed to live in primitive societies because they don't know how to write, they don't know the existence of political state. So this kind of people, when they think about their own social relationships, when they try to establish taxonomies of plants, of animals, etcetera, they use a kind of reasoning which is common to ordinary American people, to ordinary French people in their everyday life. So Levi-Strauss succeeded in breaking this kind of stereotype about primitive people.

(Soundbite of tribal music)

BROWNING: Trained as a philosopher, Levi-Strauss didn't really describe. He developed a dance argument analyzing society's objects, mythologies, and rituals. All cultures, he argued, whether in New Guinea or Hollywood, generate their own mythologies to explain and justify their place and their habits. But unlike earlier thinkers, Levi-Strauss maintained that rituals don't just emerge out of a culture's mythology. Instead, he said that people create rituals to nurse themselves through the gaps, the failures, the disruptions in their society's basic myths, an argument he elaborated in a famous and somewhat complicated 1971 lecture.

(Soundbite of 1971 lecture)

Dr. CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS (Anthropologist): Ritual does not in one way bolster the process of mythical thought. It reverses it. Mythical thought goes the other way around. It cuts it up into rows of distinctive units between which it enlarges the gaps. The contrast which prevails between ritual and myth is the same as between life and thought. And ritual debases thought in order that it should meet the requirements of life.

BROWNING: Whatever holes appear in our accepted mythologies about ourselves, rituals try to mend them and help us get by, whether we are Bororo tribespeople or American couples building new kinds of families. Levi-Strauss' work was classically ethnographic. Yet anthropologist Laurent Berger says he sought out elemental structures binding all human life, particularly the effects of isolation and contact between cultures.

Dr. LAURENT BERGER: The more a society, a culture is isolated and refuse to communicate and to exchange good ideas, information, with its neighbors or with foreign peoples, the more we can be sure that this kind of society will become primitive.

BROWNING: Levi-Strauss, of course, had his detractors, especially those who argued that he ignored how social and political change or invasion shifts social structure as well as myths and rituals, charges he at times acknowledged. Yet for Columbia anthropologist Mick Taussig, he brought the world something no one else had.

Professor TAUSSIG: The daringness of his thought - he's really a ballsy guy. Levi-Strauss provided ammunition and moral vigor to withstand the destructive aspects of global society more than anybody else you can possibly name. He exposed these societies so we could see what great works of art they were.

BROWNING: As he grew older, Levi-Strauss became more and more pessimistic about the fate of the magnificent cultures he had shown the world. In one of his last interviews a few years ago, he warned about the consequences of a disappearing cultural diversity at a global level.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. LEVI-STRAUSS: (Through Translator) There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animal. 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.

(Soundbite of choral music)

BROWNING: Claude Levi-Strauss turns 100 on Friday, and celebrations of his life and work are taking place in cities around the world. For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in one of those cities, Paris.

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