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Tristes Tropiques Paperback – Aug 1992

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 25 reviews
56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Idea overload and totally interesting 24 May 2005
By Chris Stolz - Published on
Format: Paperback
Tristes Tropiques, surely one of the great books of the twentieth century, is Levi-Strauss at his intoxicating, idea-overloaded best and an elegy for a world that colonialism and then globalisation have doen their rational best to annihilate.

Levi-Strauss, like most thinkers who come up with new ways of describing the world-- those who Richard Rorty calls "inventors of philosophical vocabularies"-- has of course been mis-read and his ideas mis-applied, as we see with the much-hyped "creation" and then "demise" of "structural anthropology." The real pleasure of this book, which mixes fascinating accounts of Levi-Strauss' travels in Brazil in the '30s with autobiography, and adds chapters on the Maya and ancient Hindu (Indian) civilisations, is in its sheer mass of artfully arranged detail and its endless, provocative play of ideas.

Levi-Strauss stays conversational, descriptive and straightforward, avoiding academic jargon and obscure references. He assumes you know the basics about people like Freud, Marx, Darwin and the Buddha, and then shows you a trip through largely non-industrial societies which unfolds from anthropological description into deep philosophical speculation on the meaning of society and life.

In Brazil, Levi-Strauss watches an illiterate but canny chieftain use his anthropological fieldnotes to intimidate his illiterate tribesmen subordinates, and speculates on the parallel origins of writing and slavery. In Matto Grosso, he meets a butcher fascinated with elephants, since "he could not imagine so much meat in one place." On the banks of the Amazon, a non-industrial tribe is dying, hypnotically lost in the symbolic intricacies of an ancient social system that makes its citizens inbreed. In India, Levi-Strauss watches Islam and Hinduism-- the "locker room" and "mother" religions-- wage symbolic and then real war post-Independence.

The book starts as anthropology, turns into philosophy, and ultimately becomes a critique of the West, driven by "reason" and technology to shake off what Levi-Strauss calls the "thick blanket of dreams" with which non-industrial civilisation arranges the Universe into Meaning, which remains for the industrialised world the greatest and unanswered question.

But Levi-Strauss does not idealise the primitive. His point is that through the study of those and that which are different, a kind of "ideal model" of society-- one which will never exist-- can be built in the imagination, and people can evaluate their world by reference to this community of mind.

This is a remarkable book-- easy to read, engrossing, and endlessly thought-provoking.
43 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Parrot Flambee 29 Dec. 2003
By Buce - Published on
Format: Paperback
One way to gauge who's in among fashionable academics is to read the catalog for the "Writers and Readers' Documentary Comic Book" series. Sartre has an entry, and so does Derrida, and Lacan. Thirty years ago, you would have expected to find an entry in this index for Claude Levi-Strauss. No more. Translations of his principal works appear to persist in print, but the sales numbers are look low, and he seems almost to have disappeared from the trendy book reviews and such. This is perhaps a matter for at least idle curiosity: Levi-Strauss is surely no more abstruse than his magisterial contemporaries - but no less so; one is perfectly willing to be relieved the obligation of ever picking him up again.
With one exception. In style and temperament, Tristes Tropiques is so different from almost everything else Levi-Strauss wrote that it is hard to believe it is written by the same man. Oh, the primitive tribes are there, and a brief personal intellectual history, that offers a bow to Freud, and Bergeson, and Saussure. In my own copy, which I first read about 1980, I even have a pencilled notation "structuralism" - this at page 375 (Pocket Books edition, 1977). But there is almost none of the portentous vacuity that you had to cope with in the so-called "serious" works.
What you get instead is Levi Strauss the raconteur, full of travelers' tales. He dines on roasted parrot, flamed with whisky. The termites make the earth rumble. Virgins are made to spit in pots of corn, to provoke fermentation - but "as the delicious drink, at once nutritious and refreshing, was consumed that very evening, the process of fermentation was not very advanced." You almost expect the anthropophagi and the men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, that you meet in the Voyages of Sir John Mandeville, Knight.
Laced through it all, you get a kind of austere sadness which is either (a) a tragic view of life; or (b) a kind of self-indulgent posturing, depending on your temperament for skepticism. "Every effort to understand," he says, "destroys the object studied in favor of another object of a different nature." Or: "Anthropology could with advantage be changed into 'entropology', as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of [a] process of disintegration."
Well, call me anything the like, they say, as long as you call me for dinner. It might even be an elaborate con. But so, for that matter, might the stories of Herodotus were you get the same mix of the eclectic and the tolerant, the surreal and the sly. Herodotus, we may note, is one of the first great works of Western literature. Let's hope that Levi-Strauss is not one of the last.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Intellectual and stimulative! 13 Aug. 2000
By M. OKAZAKI - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book is the first of his writings and the easiest to read. As a sociologist, I estimate it as one of premier field works, while at the same time it is the intellectual and stimulative reading, which cultural relativism criticizes the Western rationalism. The story of the anthropological research begins at "The End of The Travel" and closes at "The Beginning of The New Trip." It suggests which culture seems home to him. If once you experience the field work of the different culture, this feeling will be easily sympathized. This composition implies this touch. I remember words of witches at MacBeth: "The beauty becomes the dirty, while the dirty turns out the beauty."
Not only the students of the anthropology and sociology, but also the general educated people will enjoy the thought of this book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The Anatomy of Modern Melancholy 22 Dec. 2012
By Daniel Myers - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Grounding Levi-Strauss's Structuralism 21 Jan. 2004
By grasshopper4 - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is Levi-Strauss most readable book, and it is a fantastic introduction to the "why" behind his interest in structuralism. There are hints of the various methods and approaches that he uses in later works, but this book shows why he was to develop structuralism in later works. The writing is clever and eloquent, and various conclusions he made about cultural diversity address contemporary concerns in a highly articulate and responsible manner. Read this book before delving into the other writings of one of the 20th Century's most important anthropologists.
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