April 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory’ by Patrick Wilcken

By Michelle de Kretser

In 1938 an obscure French anthropologist, sporting a topee and with a monkey clinging to his boot, led an expedition into deepest Brazil. Part scientific enterprise, part youthful lighting out for the territory, its fieldwork was patchy, impressionistic and largely outdated. But it brought Claude Lévi-Strauss into contact with indigenous people, producing a revolution that spread into every branch of the humanities.

No one has mythologised that ramshackle Brazilian jaunt more brilliantly than Lévi-Strauss himself in Tristes Tropiques (1955). In the first English-language life of this key twentieth-century thinker, Sydney-born Patrick Wilcken rightly accords equal weight to Lévi-Strauss’s North American sojourn, arguing that it was just as crucial to his intellectual development.

Lévi-Strauss spent the war in New York, one of the thousands of European academics and artists who had fled Nazism. The Surrealists grouped around André Breton encouraged his interest in indigenous artefacts and myths, which they valued over an exhausted western tradition. The decisive influence, however, was Roman Jakobson, who introduced Lévi-Strauss to structural linguistics. This emphasised the formal systems of language over the amassing of descriptive data and led, in the postwar era, to the central precept in Lévi-Strauss’s work: that a hidden, pan-human pattern structures all culture. Structuralism, as it came to be known, placed anthropology at the forefront of radical scholarship and Lévi-Strauss at the centre of French intellectual life for the next 20 years.

In an age when a university could offer a chair in the “religions of uncivilised peoples”, Lévi-Strauss insisted on the sophistication of low-tech societies. Young intellectuals, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault among them, were drawn to ideas that seemed to break with Eurocentric models. Structuralist principles, such as the organisation of thought around binary oppositions – the raw and the cooked, say – were applied to everything from psychoanalysis to the study of fashion. Humanities scholars, always a little queasy about the ‘soft’ basis of their claims to knowledge, embraced a methodology that promised objectivity and rigour – science, in a word.

Calmly even-handed, Wilcken argues that the holy grail of scientific absolutism lured Lévi-Strauss into increasingly grandiose claims. What had been audacious grew arcane. Anglo-American anthropologists seized on Lévi-Strauss’s disinclination for fieldwork to discredit his conclusions. In France, the famous events of May 1968 showed that history, downplayed by Lévi-Strauss in favour of myth, had never gone away. The rise of the post-isms isolated him still further. Well before he died in October 2009, structuralism looked like a movement of one. Lévi-Strauss was its pioneer, high priest and, finally, its sole disciple.

When asked about his personal life, Lévi-Strauss “closed the door”. Consequently, this landmark biography misses being a memorable one. It opens dramatically, its human subject centre stage and illuminated, but grows repetitive as Wilcken falls back on summaries of ideas. We are left with a ghost. In a spooky doubling, The Poet in the Laboratory repeats Lévi-Strauss’s slide from liveliness to abstraction.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory', By Patrick Wilcken, Bloomsbury, 384pp; $59.99
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