The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I've been waiting, in one sense, for twenty years to read Claude Levi-Strauss' TRISTES TROPIQUES, since I was one of the few people (it seemed) in my class at college not taking Anthro 100 and reading it. In actuality, I've been really wanting to read it for a few months, ever since I realized that I'm very interested (in a dilettantey way) in ethnography and anthropology and have been assigning English students ethnographies to read. When he died last month I really wanted to get to it, and finally I was able to because of a long car trip for Thanksgiving.

I don't know what I was expecting. I knew that it wasn't a traditional anthropological monograph and that it verged into autobiography and even belles lettres at times. I've also dipped into Levi-Strauss in the past--some of the structural analysis of myth stuff--and found it very tough going for an amateur. This, though, was utterly engrossing.

I'm struck most by just how clearly Levi-Strauss' book prefigures so many arguments that have come be be commonplaces in the Euro-American left but that in the 1950s, I suspect, were still obscure. A major theme in the book is humans' tendency--no matter what their culture--to use up their environment and move on, leaving physical devastation of the landscape. He describes this through his experience in Pakistan and India, which he identifies as one of the oldest civilizations on earth; through his discussion of the effect of European settlers on the Brazilian coast; and through his discussion of some of the interior Brazilian tribes with whom he lives. It's a kind of environmental awareness that could not have been widespread before the 1960s, I would imagine.

He also situates himself interestingly between Rousseau's "noble savage" argument--which he actually says has been a misunderstanding of Rousseau--and a more cold-eyed vision of what he continually calls, at least in this English translation, the "savages." His arguments of why "inequality" arises (again, here he obviously draws on Rousseau) are fascinating.


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