Commentary Magazine


The Work of Levi-Strauss

To the Editor:

As a layman interested in anthropology, I found Frank Lipsius’s treatment of Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques [Books in Review, September 1974] very disappointing. I feel that it does little justice to the immense readability of the book, to the scope and variety of its themes, or to the great achievement of Lévi Strauss himself. . . . Of course, Lévi Strauss is not beyond criticism, and his work is the focus of current controversy among anthropologists, many of whom are highly critical. But . . his work has achieved a preeminent position commanding respect, regardless either of the empirical truth of its individual propositions or the personal attitudes of its author. In a sense, it defines the alternatives for anthropology. . .

Granted the tropics are “tristes.” That they are is due in very large measure to the malignancy of European culture and its spiritual heirs, as Lévi-Strauss repeatedly emphasizes. But are we left with nothing more than an elaborate. homiletic on the rottenness of our civilization and the goodness of savage life? . . . No. Lévi-Strauss is not about to award a “certificate of excellence” to any society; his experiences have taught him that from the point of view of justice and happiness none is perfect. But more important, assessing relative cultural virtue is not his prime concern as an anthropologist. His program is of much wider horizon, a philosophical and religious venture motivated by great moral passion. It is nothing less than a quest for the essence of the human, and an attempt on our behalf to relocate the human in the heart of nature. . . .

Of course, there can be many reservations about such a grand undertaking. Some would feel that such abstraction does not do justice to the many pressing concerns of actual human beings (disease, starvation, etc.). The objection can also be raised that an analysis of structure cannot issue in any propositions of value, or in any discursive propositions whatsoever. But our modern civilization, of all the thousands of cultures that have ever existed, is the only one that has not succeeded in mediating between nature and culture; i.e., we are destroying the earth. Lévi-Strauss’s thought . . . may be seen as an attempt to construct a mythology to affect this mediation. The fact of his oeuvre may be more significant than any of its propositions. In terms of a now-familiar formulation, it may show what cannot be said. . . .

Far from being an escapist adventure, Tristes Tropiques urgently confronts us again and again not only with the plight of native societies, but also with the reflection of our own. It is best to look.

Edmond Zeldin
Toronto, Ontario

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Frank Lipsius writes:

Despite his reverential regard for Lévi-Strauss, Edmond Zeldin—I dare say—does not differ very much from me by the time he gets down to his backhanded compliment, “The fact of [Lévi-Strauss's] oeuvre may be more significant than any of its propositions.”

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