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This "collage" of material, as Lévi-Strauss himself called this work, consists, essentially, of three separate sections: 1.) The beginning of the work which brims with philosophical meditations on the current state of post-war Europe - The book was penned in 1950. - amidst various and sundry other subjects combined with splendid, lyrically descriptive passages. 2.) An account of his fieldwork in Brazil. 3.) A rather odd, and sometimes very "triste" indeed personal reflection upon what the point of being an anthropologist is at all. The second part, whilst it comprises the greater part of the work, is of the least intrinsic interest unique to Lévi-Strauss. One could pick up a random copy of National Geographic and read much the same sort of thing. That being so, I'll concern myself with the two sections - the first and last - which raise the book above the common lot of travelogue, social commentary and random meditation.
The first section is primarily, I should say, an elaboration of Lévi-Strauss's observation in the first pages that, "Mankind has opted for monoculture." In many ways, it reminds one of the wistful lamentations of Gregor Von Rezzori, in its subject matter as well as in its stylism. It is a curious mixture of autobiography and a richly worded indictment of Western society as a whole which has the consistency, unusual amongst French writers, of not sparing any amour-propre for France as an exception. The entire landscape comes alive as if in agonised death-throes, as in the following passage:
"Towards evening, there was a thunderstorm and the water glistened in the distance like a beast's underbelly. At the same time, the moon was hidden by ragged patches of cloud, which the wind blew into zigzags, crosses and triangles. These weird shapes were lit up as from within, and against the dark background of the sky they looked like a tropical version of the Aurora Borealis. From time to time a reddish fragment of moon could be glimpsed through these smoky apparitions, as it appeared, disappeared, and reappeared, like an anguished lantern drifting across the sky."
There are many such stunning descriptions in this first section.
The third section, for all its profound and richly historical meditations and its eccentricities, such as Lévi-Strauss's rather involved synopsis of a play he was writing, set in Ancient Rome under emperor Augustus, is essentially an attempt to deal with a personal crisis, stated clearly by our author here:
"The world began without man and will end without him. The institutions, morals and customs that I shall have spent my life noting down and trying to understand are the transient efflorescence of a creation in relation to which they have no meaning, except perhaps that of allowing mankind to play its part in creation."
What Lévi-Strauss is concluding with here - despite lengthy disquisitions upon such topics as Islam and entropy, amongst others - is nothing less than a question of what he is doing in this world - Quelle est ma raison d'être? - to which, of course, there is no satisfactory answer, though Lévi-Strauss certainly exhausts himself, and the reader, with possible avenues, centred around Buddhism for the most part.
In the end, the book is a richly imagined collage of world-searching and soul-searching, especially recommended for those studying, in one way or another, la maladie humaine.