I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for the better part of the last week, dear readers. I want to give you both a sensitive and sensible post about the great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who died on October 30 at the age of 100.
I’ll start by repeating an oft-used psuedo-cliché that most everyone who has written about him in the past week has used. Levi-Strauss had a measurable impact on my desire to study and my path through anthropology. I can remember sitting in Con Hall in ANT100, a less than intimate setting shared with 1600 other students. It was an evening lecture that many snacked and gossiped through, and on rainy days the hall reeked of patchouli and dreadlocks and a bit of reefer. I was 18 and madly in love with U of T and its creeping ivy and ancient brickwork, its old books in megalithic libraries that smelled sweetly of dust and glue.
In Anthropology 100 I met the man of my dreams. I only came to know him better in my 300- and 400 level courses, but by then the adoration was so much a part of who I was that I came to think less of him as a man than as a pillar of thought. Sure, others would pick on him (Geertz and his endless prattling about participant-observation, sheesh…) but CLS just kept doing what he was doing, travelling, making astute observations about others without ever blurring the line of his belonging.
Claude Levi-Strauss stood out from the rest of his community. He thought differently, he behaved differently, he held onto social conventions differently. I saw him as my rebel in a leather jacket, callously smoking on his motorbike, a guy whose jaunty stance would tell the world, in not so many words, that he didn’t give a flying f*ck about what you think. He challenged the way the western world viewed non-western societies. Despite time, despite space, despite all the blinking, bleeping accoutrements that we hairless monkeys are so enamored with – all humans at all times and in all places possess the same essential intelligence. Additionally, despite our many diversities and disparities, virtually all societies share behaviors, thoughts and human experience.
It’s like taking the proverbial mountain-top loner who perpetually wonders if we are alone solidly by the shoulders and giving him a good shake. We. Are. Not. Alone. (Really, buddy, look around. Isn’t six billion other people enough company for you?)
It’s CLS’s idea that we share behaviors, thoughts, and experiences that has stayed with me. Tattooed onto my very brain, it’s through this filter that I understand the arts. If I understand art as one persons perception of their world or, if you really want to get into my uni career, their nonworld (how better to understand a horse than to first understand a non-horse?) then I can understand their work on a certain level. It’s a bit much to expect that you can be an art-psychic — I mean, does anyone need so literal a reading of a piece as to be inside the artists mind at the moment of conception of their creation? To paraphrase a golden nugget from The Big Chill’s Nick, “Do you have to be so critical? Just let art wash over you.”
I believe that if we can be conscious of this ‘behavior’ within ourselves, that we can watch the process of consuming art — and I mean any discipline, any medium, any sense of art that you can perceive — as it happens within. From the first moment when your senses seize upon something, to the many moments later when you feel yourself reeling with emotions and memories, to that moment later on when you silently recollect that piece and the way it made you feel. The brilliantly mystifying thing is that while we can say that we share so many things, we do not necessarily share the lexicon through which to express these thoughts and feelings. What wonderful creatures we are that we live and die, eat and sleep, create and destroy, enjoy and abhor.
To you, Claude Levi-Strauss, father of structural anthropology, humanist, rebel. Salut.