Part 1: Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory. Patrick Wilcken

I’m reading this magic bio of Claude Levi Strauss by Patrick Wilcken. If you are into anthrozoology you must come to Claude.

He was tall and healthy. He lived to 101. Let’s vaguely amass his worldly contribution from say 1930.
As a young academic Claude swiveled on a tripod of Freud, Marx and geology, attracted by the things underneath things. He moved like a magnet on the pull of his mind.

Anthropology was an infant discipline when Claude was himself a young academic. His ideas were impressionistic like flowers on a badly printed pillowcase. Tough to master in the large, so he started with the One. He asked, what is a human being? And thus went to Brazil to track the remnant societies of hunter gatherer Indians.

A predictable peregrination for the time, with teams of cattle, mules, hired herders. He saw the human condition in the layout of the pioneer towns. He saw it in the careful balancing of flour sacks on the sides of the draught animals. Just as I saw, in the Sinai this year, the weighting of scuba tanks on camels. Claude was noticing pattern, balance and relationship.

When he reached the first forest settlement of “savages” his intellectual excitement took a knock. What “took away the poetry of my naïve vision” were flecks of the same global churn that sobers us today. Broken bits of a sewing machine, cheap shitty utensils. This surely needled his conscience for his own corrupting influence, his intellectual and material lust: in his quest for artefacts: he traded similar tat and toys for exquisite, irreplaceable craft.

His sense for connections leapt out when he met the Bororo. He noticed the precision routine of their rural hamlet, the same stamp of human organization as in the pioneer village and the load weighting on the mules. Embroidered on this template was the deft association of hut to hut, tribe to clan, man to woman.

He travelled with a guy called Vellard who clearly was a dick. A tropical medicine specialist, his academic assholery included plunging a poison-tipped arrow into the thigh of a dog. The dog became torpid and died after some minutes. Vellard also ransacked a village for artefacts, and when a small child got abandoned in the fray, wondered if he could place the boy in an adoptive home and study him.

On one expedition, the Indians and the researchers alike caught a purulent conjunctivitis. Not Claude. He had a pet capuchin monkey, Lucinda, trained to cling to his boot. At times he felt lonely, futile, trapped in his mind and the sprawl of his notebooks. At the end of the expedition he swore off fieldwork for its indiscreet intrusion.

He went back to Paris to furnish a museum. War broke out and Claude, a Jew, was confused. With the fear that makes a person arrogant, he carried on as usual for some time. Danger was creeping in and Claude was dallying in the woods. But he found something. He held up a dandelion seed head and his vision exploded.

Here was the conclusion of everything. The dandelion was the result of its own structural properties, organized into a unique geometry. He built an intellectual career out of this flyaway piece of nature.

Of course he had to get away. He got an apartment in Greenwich Village NY and began lecturing on tribal kinship. He met all sorts of others in exile. His most influential friend was Roman Jakobson.

Jakobson was a philosopher of linguistics. He blew on Claude’s dandelion and what remained was the Two.

The quanta of language was phonemes, said Jakobson, and the essence of language the relationship between phonemes. This is too intelligent for me, so let’s move on.

Claude Levi-Strauss had found a vital piece of kinship circuitry. As Wilcken puts it, he saw the mathematical efficiency that drives the drama of human relationships. He was back to the big impressionist picture. Something like marriage rules, hard to understand in isolation, made sense as part of a set of contrasting strategies. He got free of the physical and came back to where he started: the forces underneath. Two dandelion seeds broke the surface and Claude put out some very special new roots.

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