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The World of Levi-Strauss

The Savage Mind

by Claude Levi-Strauss

Translated by George Weidenfeld

The certainty that the boundaries of one's society define the frontiers of humanity--that all societies outside the boundary are thereby equally outside the pale of reason, mere clusters of gibbering savages--is curiously widespread. In the Western world, the certainty takes the form of a grand dichotomy, and all of mankind is split into two mutually exhaustive and contrastive camps, the primitive and the civilized. This value judgment, generally seen as objective and the immediate deliverance of experience, is the result of our facile application of the technological yardstick, used not just to measure but also to chastise simpler societies. If the members of a society are baffled by the mechanical mystery of the wheelbarrow and have no CL-70 in their toothpaste, then they are hardly civilized. Further, if they make no contribution to the problem of getting automobile clocks to work, they are lazy or sloppy thinkers; and the Western evaluator can only conclude, through gritted teeth, that they are savages who pray in a language unintelligible to God. Hence, aside from a few romanticists of "Noble Savage" persuasion, philosophers (notably Cassierer, Langer, and more recently, Sartre) have deplored the "mythopoetic thinking" of primitives which they contrast with the "logico-empirical" thinking that permits the construction, or even the use, of machines that can melt cities. These philosophers have done little more than change the spelling of the notion advanced (and later retracted) by the French anthropologist, Levi-Bruhl, the notion that primitive men think "mystically." Somehow it is fitting that a countryman of Levi-Bruhl's should, some forty years later, come to the rescue of primitive man with the book under review, The Savage Mind.

The book itself, like other works by Levi-Strauss, is such a cultivated product that reading it nearly tempts one to propose another dichotomy, with the good guys labeled something like "Thinkers of the French Intellectual Tradition," and to conclude that France is a pinpoint of light engulfed by howling barbaric blackness. In any case, it is surely true that the erudition, imagination, elegance, and wit displayed by Levi-Strauss have earned him a place as the charismatic hero of the pop culture of anthropologists. In these days, the savage needs every defender he can get. But even so, it is rather an underdog notion that primitives think badly; hence the notion deserves sympathy more than it merits attack, especially attack by such a formidable Saint George. The notion arose for a number of reasons, one of which is, as Levi-Strauss puts it, "the capacity which any foreign society presents to anyone looking at it from the outside, and which leads him to project the lacunae in his own observations on to it in the form of positive attributes." As a participant observer, the anthropologist ideally has by contrast an inside view of a foreign society, a view which often reveals the culture to be a creative statement, which, like a good theory, shows the underlying unity in what would otherwise be a chaotic mess, in the same way that the theory of synthetic evolution permits the fruitful classification of the bat with the whole, despite their overwhelming points of dissimilarity.

Another reason for the notion of primitive mentality is the foreign observer's insistence on interpreting literally what is meant symbolically. This kind of interpretation is so frequent that occasionally even the natives protest, as did an Osage informant whom Levi-Strauss quotes: "We do not believe… that our ancestors were really animals, birds, etc., as told in traditions These things are only [symbols] of something higher." It is as though an unsympathetic Martian anthropologist, recording our Santa Claus myth, smirks as he compares the report of Santa's girth with the restricted internal measurements of the chimney in the informant's house. It is perhaps difficult to avoid this sort of literal interpretation, but surely a great deal of the tourist's amusement on viewing a rain dance would be dispelled if he were to learn that the natives dance only at the very end of the dry season.

Yet another reason is, "When an exotic custom fascinates us in spite of (or on account of) its apparent singularity, it is generally because it presents us with a distorted reflection of a familiar image, which we confusedly recognize as such without yet managing to identify it." Some of the most charming and telling of Levi-5trauss' ethnographic examples are addressed to points like this one, as when he describes the Australian aborigine's preoccupation:

It is known that the churinga are stone or wooden objects, roughly oval in shape with pointed or rounded ends, often engraved with symbolic signs, sometimes just pieces of wood or unworked pebbles. Whatever its appearance, each churinga represents the physical body of definite ancestor and generation after generation, it is formally conferred on the living person believed to be this ancestor's reincarnation. The churinga are hidden in piles in natural caves, far from frequented ways. Periodically they are taken out to be inspected and handled, and on these occasions they are always polished, greased and coloured, and prayers and incantations are addressed to them. Their role and the treatment accorded to them thus have striking analogies with the documentary archives which we secrete in strongboxes or entrust to the safe-keeping of solicitors and which we inspect from time to time with the care due to sacred things, to repair them if necessary or to commit them to smarter dossiers. On these occasions we too are prone to recite great myths recalled to us by the contemplation of the torn and yellowed pages: the deeds and achievements of our ancestors, the history of our homes from the time they were built or first acquired.

Statements of this sort are seductive, of course, but as one smiles in recognition and agreement, a disquieting thought remains: Levi-Strauss is not defending savages from the accusation of primitive thought nearly as much as he is attacking certain modes of civilized thought. Consider, for example, how the reader is lured along by the following propositions to the final punch line:

Non-representational painting adopts 'styles' as 'subjects'. It claims to give a concrete representation of the formal conditions of all painting. Paradoxically the result is that nonrepresentational painting does not, as it thinks, create works which are as real as, if not more real than, the objects of the physical world, but rather realistic imitations of nonexistent models. It is a school of painting in which each artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his pictures if by chance he were to paint any.

Or again, in a long section of the book devoted to a detailed rebuttal of Sartre's conception of primitive mentality, one reads the remarkable statement:

It is precisely because all these aspects of the savage mind can be discovered in Sartre's philosophy, that the latter is in my view unqualified to pass judgment on it: he is prevented from doing so by the very fact of furnishing its equivalent. To the anthropologist, on the contrary, this philosophy (like all the others) affords a first-class ethnographic document, the study of which is essential to an understanding of the mythology of our own time.

Levi-Strauss is even harder on his colleagues in anthropology, it would seem. But then, it's hard to know, for many passages in the book are replete with paradox, with wit, and with word play (even the French title. La pensee sauvage, is a pun); and I cannot claim to have followed him in all his excursions into the nature of anthropological classification and model construction. ("The whole set," he explains of one model proposed midway through the book, "constitutes a sort of conceptual apparatus which filters unity through multiplicity, multiplicity through unity, diversity through identity, and identity through diversity. Endowed with a theoretically unlimited extension on its median level it contracts (or expands, into pure comprehension at its two extreme vertices, but in symmetrically reverse forms, and not without undergoing a sort of torsion.") Accordingly, some questions still nagged me as I closed the book, including: To what extent is Levi-Strauss serious? To what extent intelligible? It may well be that if these questions are genuine, they will be resolved only by future research. Marshall D. Sahlins of the University of Michigan has, in fact, already delightfully suggested a possible strategy for such research: "Given these conditions, and a non-Western world rapidly being populated by ex-savages, understanding Levi-Strauss could replace fieldwork as the means to an anthropological reputation."

This piece originally ran on January 7, 1967.