Ad Memoriam. Claude Levi-Strauss

I was 18 when I read Tristes Tropiques. I read it in one day and one night. I could not put it down, as it used to happen in those days when I felt irresistible the certainty that the book I was holding would have provided me with the answers I was anxiously looking for. At dawn I told my friend I would be grateful for ever for giving that book to me and be patient enough to wait for me to read it while observing for hours my cahnging moods and my concentrated eyes (she mostly napped though if I remember correctly, waking up every now and then to smile and nod approvingly before drifting again towards Morfeus’s dreamlike embrace). She was already studying anthropology, I started the following year. I started with The Savage Mind. It was taught to me alongside The Primitive Mentality by Lucien Levi-Bruhl and The Gift by Marcell Mauss in the introductory course of Cultural Anthropology. It was the beginning; that was nineteen years ago. I graduated five years after but I went on debating Levi-Strauss for years until I thought I declared that I had ‘moved on’. It’s a long story, maybe some other time. In the days of my undergraduate studies in Rome. Levi-Strass vs. Clifford Geertz was the daily match played by the most committed (or pedantic?) students of the degree in Anthropology: structuralists vs. post-moderns. I was in the shrinking field that appreciated Claude Levi-Strauss’ vision and at times frustrated in the Campo dei Fiori square on in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, after all the bars had shut for the night I would ask, frustrated, how could anyone miss the almost poetic beauty of the great masterpieces. I was clearly missing the point I was reminded as to talk about literary prowess referring to Levi-Strauss’ work would have been to simply admit that his arguments were flawed and that the literary turn taken by his adversary was indeed the way to go.

It was not the only time that I was made to notice that I would advocate Levi-Strauss’ case with the least levistraussian of arguments. With patience friends and mentors pointed at visions of history obliterated by his structural analysis and towards the arrogant and intransigent determinism that would pretend the existence of symbolic structures so perfectly holding that when features would be not observed in the world they could nonetheless be imagined, as if by being necessary to his constructs they were also, then, inevitable. Necessary and inevitable were precisely the conditions of investigation that most reacted against in those times (and rightly so!). Then there was ‘Works and Lives’ and the French mandarin was eventually definitively exposed and the conversations with my colleagues moved to new subjects (Bourdieu, Wittgenstein, Edelman).

And I relinquished. I ‘moved on’, convinced, but always confessing respect and awe of the conceptual cathedral that the exquisite architect had erected to the most ambitious aspirations of human kind, knowledge. I went back last night to Triste Tropiques and flicked through its pages. Then I went back to its incipit “Travel and travellers are two things I loathe and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.” It must have been that the made it sink in, once more. It was the engagement with the natural ambiguities of the things of life that attracted me to Levi-Strauss’ oeuvre, from the very first sentence I ever read of his work. That to each thing on earth or in a person’s mind there must be its opposite: that was the fundamental lesson I learnt from Levi-Strass and never abandoned. I changed later my take on what it is that irreconcilable, ‘un-mediatable’ dual oppositions mean and I firmly revolted with the former mentor and the implications of his formulations.

Later still I accused him of the same Cartesianism that plagues most of Western knowledge and all of the academic disciplines. If to every res extensa, a res cogitans needs to be imagined, if to every natural science a social science, what then Levi-Strauss was doing, in his analytical practice, was to separate and make incommensurables: wasn’t it that a way of preconizing the clash of civilisations. Was it not the case, in his own metaphors, that cultures are like trains running on parallel tracks and was is not true that he claimed that to the different culture’s actors was only, sometimes, given the chance to glimpse the ‘Other’ out of the fast moving carriage windows? Nature and Culture was his archetypical duality and it was the last I rebelled against (I read, shortly after the Savage Mind, his Elementary Structures of Kinship continuously wondering how it was possible for a single mind to compose masterpieces of that kind, resigning myself to a mediocre career light years distant from the sidereal craftsmanship of the great master).

I rebelled, I said, against the impossibility to imagine transformative process that could explain how the 1s and the 0s of his formalizations were never to be found “in the real world” in those pure forms. I rebelled because I could not understand anymore how could he miss that 1s and 0s are coterminous in every instance of “natureANDculture”.

Now I will miss the extraordinary scholar, the committed-to-the-point-of-sacrifice intellectual, the inspiration of most of the conversations that nurtured my spirit at night delivering me safe and content to the lights of dawn during my undergraduate years at the University of Rome. I will miss that frail frame that I could never reconcile with so many atrocious urban legends that circulated on his count in comparison to which Geertz’ accusations were only mild reproaches. Mostly I will miss my favourite target of criticism and therefore appreciation (and I’m sure he would have understood that the 1 of appreciation and the 0 of criticism could not but go together at least in this case).

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