Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died last Friday in Paris at 100, was a seminal French public intellectual. His influence has been felt all over the world in the study of culture and anthropology. So many obituaries have been published by now that we don’t need another, but what may be worth remembering is how much Lévi-Strauss owed to New York. “When I lived in New York,” he once told me at his Paris apartment, where we often met for tea, “I discovered that the whole world could be found there.”
By that, he meant two things. First, as a passionate collector of antique and so-called primitive art, he would scout New York antique shops. It was in those shops, and not as an anthropologist working in the field, that he discovered American Indian artifacts and rituals. Later, he would write major books about the Northwestern American Indians and their totems. Second, New York was where Lévi-Strauss joined a circle of Jewish refugees, two of whom proved decisive in changing his worldview. He himself had escaped from occupied France in 1941, reaching the United States with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. He joined the staff of the New School and then became a cultural attaché for the French embassy. In 1947, he returned to Paris. But one could argue that Lévi-Strauss became the Lévi-Strauss we know while living in New York: if he hadn’t, he might have remained an ordinary anthropologist.
The first of the two intellectuals who influenced him so profoundly was Franz Boas, a German refugee expelled from his country by the so-called Aryan laws and the most influential anthropologist of his time. He gave Lévi-Strauss his notion of cultural relativism. Before Boas, most Western scholars perceived Western cultures as being at the summit of evolution and primitive cultures at the bottom, in a permanent stage of infancy. Not so, said Boas. He taught that all cultures were equally complex and mature, all different but none superior to any other. Lévi-Strauss picked up where Boas (who died in 1942) left off, demonstrating in a series of books how all supposedly primitive cultures coped with the same existential challenges that modern man did: life, death, marriage, God. Like Boas, Lévi-Strauss also showed how culture and race were two separate concepts, a distinction that led to a scientific demolition of racist prejudice.
But impartiality about cultures did not mean, he pointed out, that some were not better equipped than others to solve human problems or to confront changes. He was not naively in love with anything deemed “primitive.” He certainly did not oppose scientific progress. But he had serious concerns about modernity and feared that much could be lost through uncontrolled urbanization and demographic explosion. He could not feel at ease in the twentieth century.
Lévi-Strauss’s other decisive encounter in New York was with the linguist Roman Jakobson, an exile from Russia. Jakobson had shown that all languages shared common structures: like cultures, they differed in many respects but had to solve similar communication problems. By applying Jakobson’s concept to the social world of culture, Lévi-Strauss gave birth to structuralism: any rituals in any culture, he taught, were structurally similar. Equipped with this system, he would spend the rest of his life demonstrating the hidden structures behind apparently mysterious, cryptic, and mythological rituals and habits. He didn’t have to travel to the remote places that he found uncomfortable; he was more effective staying at home and analyzing the ethnographic discoveries brought to him by explorers and anthropologists. “They are happy to spend a year in a tropical land,” he told me, “and I am happy to stay in Paris and write in my ‘laboratory,’ listening to classical music.”
Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism has been under attack since the 1960s, mostly from a Marxist and existentialist perspective. Structuralism stands accused of being ignorant of social changes and struggles. Lévi-Strauss never hid the fact that he was a conservative (though some preferred not to know). He was not the remote scientist he appeared to be. He was strangely fond of politics and always rejoiced when conservatives won elections, whether in France or in his beloved New York.
To the end of his life, with sharp humor, he defended his New York mentors and his structuralist theory. American anthropologists, he told me, behave like novelists, not scientists: they travel to exotic spots and describe what they have seen but do not understand it. They lack scientific rigor. “Structuralism is like a magnifying glass,” he said. “Without a magnifying glass, you do not see clearly. With a magnifying glass, many things appear which you would have missed.” But, he added, “remember how imperfect your magnifying glass is!”