Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tristes Tropiques

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part anthropological essay, this is Levi-Strauss's most personal book.

He mentions his debt to Rousseau, his attachment to Marxism, and his rejection of Existentialism. He devotes six pages to describing a sunset, summarizes a play he'd written based on one by Corneille, and describes his escape from France during WW2 (which played out in my mind like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The writing is often erudite and abstruse, yet enlivened by arresting phrases (the "nostalgic cannibalism of history"); arresting ideas ("the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery"); and arresting images (the moon "an anguished lantern drifting across the sky," cultivated fields like "geographical musings by Paul Kee," and "date merchants with their produce piled up in sticky mounds of pulp and stones suggesting the excreta of some dinosaur").

The bulk of the book, and the most accessible part, describes the time spent by the author among the Bororo and the Nambikwara in South America. Here are poisoned arrows and penis sheaths (foreskin required), brazil nuts big enough to kill if they struck an unlucky head, parasitic fish able to swim up a stream of urine, and an astonishing 4-hour opera performed by a man in a trance.

The book communicates the dizzying intoxication of anthropology, especially in its narcissistic examination of primitive cultures (though it made me wonder to what extent anthropologists themselves, by their prying and poking, contribute to the wreckage of such societies).

Levis-Strauss, himself brooding on the role of anthropology, points out that it is a discipline that only Western society has produced. The anthropologist "is incomprehensible except as an attempt at redemption; he is the symbol of atonement."