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enterprise, part youthful lighting out for the territory, its fieldwork was patchy, impressionistic and largely outdated.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
Cover: April 2011

April 2011

From the front page

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller

The prevention state: Part four

In the face of widespread criticism of strip-searches, NSW Police offers a candid defence of preventative policing: You are meant to fear us.

Image of Scott Morrison

A national disaster

On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Image of Scott Morrison

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?

Police NSW festival

The prevention state: Part three

As authorities try to prevent crimes that haven’t happened, legislation is increasingly targeting people for whom it was not intended.

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

George W Bush & John Newcombe

Who’s afraid of Marcia Langton?

'Against Remembrance' By David Rieff, Melbourne University Press, 144pp; $19.99

‘Against Remembrance’ by David Rieff

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The bird man and Mrs Gluck

A Kings Cross identity

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

Cover of Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ [detail]

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts

More in Noted

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Read on

Image of Scott Morrison

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?

Image of Scott Morrison

A national disaster

On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Image from ‘The Truth’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Truth’

The Palme D’Or winner on working with the iconic Catherine Deneuve in his first film set outside Japan

Image from ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Four seasons in 11 days: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Céline Sciamma’s impeccable study of desire and freedom is a slow burn