November 4, 2009
RIP: Claude Lévi-Strauss
by Dennis Johnson
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist whose writings made him one of the most formidable intellectuals of the late twentieth century, has died at the age of 100 in Paris of a heart attack. Lévi-Strauss apparently died last Friday, but in accordance with his instructions, his family did not announce his death until they had buried him yesterday.
As a New York Times obituary by Edward Rothstein notes,
Mr. Lévi-Strauss was an avatar of “structuralism,” a school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations. His work was a profound influence even on his critics, of whom there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in France. And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles little that had come before in anthropology ….
His legacy is imposing. “Mythologiques,” his four-volume work about the structure of native mythology in the Americas, attempts nothing less than an interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by analysis of several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. The volumes — “The Raw and the Cooked,” “From Honey to Ashes,” “The Origin of Table Manners,” and “The Naked Man,” published from 1964 to 1971 — challenge the reader with their complex interweaving of theme and detail.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives