Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reading :: Tristes Tropiques

Tristes Tropiques
By Claude Levi-Strauss

Tristes Tropiques is Claude Levi-Strauss' memoir. It's a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least because Levi-Strauss sees the humor and vanity in every human connection. At many points, the book made me laugh out loud - remarkable, since the book begins with Levi-Strauss fleeing Nazi-occupied France and attempting to make it through US bureaucracy with his ethnographic materials. From this scene, Levi-Strauss' previous journeys to South America are told in flashbacks, flashbacks that unfortunately never quite bring us back to the original scene. The book lacks closure, both in this large sense and in the smaller encounters he describes with Brazilian aristocrats, South American missionaries, various Native American tribes, and informants in India.

The encounters with the Native American tribes were the most interesting ones for me. Levi-Strauss describes himself as a once-idealistic, but eventually cynical and crafty, ethnologist who must use his wiles to extract information and avoid being exploited by his informants. At one point, he makes a gift of bolts of red flannel to a nomadic tribe; when he wakes up the next day, they are all covered from head to foot in flannel, men, women, children, even pets. By midday they tire of the flannel and leave it on the ground. This inspires a hatred of red flannel in him, and he trades away the rest of the bolts as soon as possible. At another point, the chief of another tribe admires his aluminum pot and offers to trade it for a large supply of (loosely speaking) beer. After Levi-Strauss refuses, the chief smiles and simply takes the pot. After encounters like these, Levi-Strauss begins using his own tricks: in one tribe, it is forbidden for outsiders to know members' names, but he realizes that he can get children to tell him each others' names by provoking fights between them.

More interesting to me was what Levi-Strauss did not cover. Levi-Strauss conducted many of these visits with his wife, but she rates only one mention in his book - when she had to be evacuated due to an injury. Up to this point, Levi-Strauss had described his visits with the tribes as if he were the only anthropologist on the expedition!

Levi-Strauss is a marvelous writer, but there's something a little too neat about his interpretations. For instance, he notes that the face tattoos in one tribe are similar to the arrangement of huts in another tribe, and he postulates that the tattoos are a subconscious yearning for the other tribe's arrangements. At other points, he makes similar leaps.

Toward the end of the book, rather than returning to the opening scene, Levi-Strauss compares and discusses religions. At one point, which is perhaps more shocking in 2011 than it was in 1955, Levi-Strauss claims that religions have devolved into more and more controlling forms, with their early pinnacle being Buddhism and their late nadir being Islam. The book ends with the sort of contemplation about the future of mankind that was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s.

Overall, the book was highly interesting and entertaining. It gave me new insights into Levi-Strauss, provided more context into his anthropological work, but didn't necessarily give me a lot of faith in his methods. Nevertheless, it's a terrific read. Pick it up and take a look.

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