R.I.P. Claude Lévi-Strauss

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The renowned anthropologist is dead at 100: “His interpretations of North and South American myths were pivotal in changing Western thinking about so-called primitive societies. He began challenging the conventional wisdom about them shortly after beginning his anthropological research in the 1930s — an experience that became the basis of an acclaimed 1955 book, Tristes Tropiques, a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere.

The accepted view at that time held that primitive societies were intellectually unimaginative and temperamentally irrational, basing their approaches to life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss rescued his subjects from this limited perspective. Beginning with the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, where he did his first and primary fieldwork, he found among them a dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand origins, a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre myths, and an implicit sense of order and design, even among tribes that practiced ruthless warfare.

His work elevated the status of “the savage mind, ” a phrase that became the English title of one of his most forceful surveys, La Pensee Sauvage (1962).

“The thirst for objective knowledge,” he wrote, “is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call ‘primitive.’ ” (New York Times obituary)

As an anthropology student before I went into psychiatry, I was an ardent follower of Levi-Strauss and La Pensee Sauvage one of my bibles. I don’t think, however, that Levi-Strauss’ contribution was to elucidate the ‘pre-scientific’ logic of the ways tribal people make sense of the world. Our ‘scientific’ ‘objective’ worldview is just another exemplar of the ‘savage’ ordering methodology, it rather seems. For me, this was far more important than the intricacies of structural analysis of any particular myth system, and it informs my “cross-cultural” approach to my work with psychotic patients to this day, if that makes any sense.