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Bruce P. Barten
- Published on Amazon.com
I am a neophyte interpreter of Claude Levi-Strauss. When I took Anthropology (Introduction to Primitive Cultures) at the University of Michigan for the spring half-semester in 1967, my grade was a B. The dictionary's definition of neophyte is primarily religious, dating back to the primitive church, from Greek and Late Latin terms that modified what was newly planted in Greek. People who read THE VIEW FROM AFAR ought to expect their interest in words, myth, and the aura of insanity to be increased, particularly by Part III: The Environment and Its Representation:
Chapter 7 Structuralism and Ecology
Chapter 8 Structuralism and Empiricism
Chapter 9 The Lessons of Linguistics
Chapter 10 Religion, Language, and History: Concerning an Unpublished Text by Ferdinand de Saussure
Chapter 11 From Mythical Possibility to Social Existence
Part IV Beliefs, Myths, and Rites starts with Chapter 12 Cosmopolitanism and Schizophrenia. I am not totally unfamiliar with some concepts in this book, due to the feeling that I have had for a long time that when you go someplace new, the first person that you talk to is likely to be the village idiot. Intellectuals may attempt to avoid this problem by going first to works of people who have pristine reputations, pre-Platonic philosophers or leaders in their fields. Claude Levi-Strauss might be the pre-eminent name in French anthropology, but I am surprised how many links with American natives and educated society are revealed in THE VIEW FROM AFAR. Chapter 9 is a preface for the French translation of SIX LECTURES ON SOUND AND MEANING by Roman Jakobson, who died in 1982 at the age of 86. The lectures "were the first ones that I heard him give" (p. 138). Jakobson and Levi-Strauss attended each other's courses in New York during the 1942-43 year, when Levi-Strauss was teaching at Barnard. Chapter 21, New York in 1941, also contains a description of "Between 1946 and 1947, when I was cultural adviser to the French embassy, I would be visited by intermediaries carrying attaché cases full of pre-Columbian gold jewelry." (pp. 261-262).
"I felt myself going back in time no less when I went to work every morning in the American room of the New York Public Library. There, under its neo-classical arcades and between walls paneled with old oak, I sat near an Indian in a feather headdress and a beaded buckskin jacket--who was taking notes with a Parker pen." (pp. 266-267).
THE VIEW FROM AFAR was originally published in French in 1983, and the English edition from Basic Books, Inc. in 1985. It might be considered a continuation of the volumes of STRUCTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY which appeared in France in 1958 and 1973, but Levi-Strauss would prefer that he be considered older now. "Imitating a stretto, I devoted the little time available to touching rapidly on the major themes that have been the focus of my research--kinship, social organization, mythology, ritual, art--at the slower pace than was now permissible." (p. xi). Possibly we are even slower now, trying to figure out which fugue has close overlapping voices, each beginning very shortly after the preceding one, often in the final section of the fugue.
The stretto idea of competing themes is most interesting in trying to combine the schizoid multiplicity of perspectives that this book presents. Chapter 1, Race and Culture, is a public lecture delivered in 1971 for UNESCO that is distinct from "Race and History" which Levi-Strauss wrote for UNESCO twenty years earlier. In the Preface, he admits, "But twenty years earlier, in order to serve the international institutions, which I felt I had to support more than I do today, I had somewhat overstated my point" (p. xiii) which had become such a shibboleth among workers at UNESCO in 1971, "who were dismayed that I had challenged a catechism that was for them all the more an article of faith because their acceptance of it--achieved at the price of laudable efforts that flew in the face of their local traditions and social milieus--had allowed them to move from modest jobs in developing countries to sanctified positions as executives in an international institution." (p. xiii). How bad was it?
"When I pointed out that geneticists have blown a blast of fresh air into the discussion, I was accused of putting the fox in the sheepfold." (p. xiv).
"Cultures are not unaware of one another, they even borrow from one another on occasion; but, in order not to perish, they must, in other connections, remain somewhat impermeable toward one another." (pp. xiv-xv).
"This verbal bombast ..." (p. xv).
"Fourth, since it seemed necessary, I warned that it is not enough to revel in high-flown words year after year if they wished to change humanity. Finally, I emphasized that, to avoid facing reality, the UNESCO ideology all too readily hid behind contradictory assertions." (p. xv).
The Preface also calls attention to Chapter 2 on sociobiology, "expressing my opinion of this would-be science . . . criticizing its vagueness, its reckless extrapolations, its internal contradictions." (p. xv).
However, "The fact is that there is no opposition between constraint and liberty, and that, on the contrary, they support each other" (p. xvi) except for fools whose life is "an act of faith in the omnipotence of spontaneity. This illusion, although certainly not the cause, can nevertheless be seen as a significant aspect of the crisis that afflicts Western civilization today." (p. xvi).
Among people mention in a footnote on page 178 is "Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-87), Swiss jurist and historian, known for his work on the theory of matriarchy;" only a page after "it is conceivable that the persistence of an initial pathological situation may be expressed in schizophrenia as the oscillation between two extreme feelings: . . . Thus, the schizophrenic will never achieve the normal experience of living in the world." (p. 177). A portion of British Columbia near the northeast edge of Vancouver Island is shown in a map on page 166 to locate stories about magic weapons, etc.