Claude Lévi-Strauss

Jim Holt

From 'Slate', 9 February 1999:

Last week I went to Claude Lévi-Strauss's 90th birthday party at the Collège de France. It seemed an unremarkable occasion at first. Though the courtyard of the Collège de France is fittingly grand for the republic's premiere scholarly institution, the rooms inside are meanly proportioned and shabby. The three dozen or so academics in attendance looked dreary and moth-eaten the way academics do. There was a sprinkling of journalists, but no cameras or microphones. Fortified by a couple of glasses of indifferent burgundy, I obtained an introduction to Lévi-Strauss, who rose with difficulty from his chair and shook my hand tremulously. The conversation went poorly, owing both to my shaky French and to my lack of conviction that the nonagenarian I was talking to could actually be Claude Lévi-Strauss.

A few minutes later, he was asked to give a little speech. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, in a slow, stately voice.

'Montaigne,' he began, ‘said that aging diminishes us each day in a way that, when death finally arrives, it takes away only a quarter or half the man. But Montaigne only lived to be 59, so he could have no idea of the extreme old age I find myself in today' – which, he added, was one of the 'most curious surprises of my existence'. He said he felt like a ‘shattered hologram' that had lost its unity but still retained an image of the whole self.

This was not the speech we were expecting. It was intimate, it was about death.

Lévi-Strauss went on to talk about the 'dialogue' between the eroded self he had become – le moi réel – and the ideal self that coexisted with it: le moi métonymique. The latter, planning ambitious new intellectual projects, says to the former: 'You must continue.' But the former replies: 'That's your business – only you can see things whole.' He then thanked those assembled for helping him silence this weird dialogue and allowing his two selves to 'coincide' again for a moment. 'Although,' he added, 'I am well aware that le moi réel will continue to sink toward its ultimate dissolution.'

It was pretty affecting stuff, and I must admit that I had to avert my eyes and do a little manly fist-clenching and shoulder-squaring before I was ready to go out into the drizzly Parisian night for a nice comforting plate of choucroute.


  • 6 November 2009 at 7:14pm
    geoffhar says:
    Dear Jim Holt,

    My friend Randy Bouchard had this comment when I showed him your blog on Levi-Strauss.
    Geoff Hargreaves
    San Miguel de Allende

    Hearing about the death of LS reminded me of something he wrote for us many years ago as part of his Foreword to our editing and annotation of the translation of Franz Boas's 1895 Indianische Sagen. Here is the passage that came to my mind:

    " . . .This translation of Franz Boas’ first major work is also a brilliant homage to the memory of a great ethnologist without whom our knowledge of the cultures of the Pacific Coast would still be only rudimentary. Like any scholar, he sometimes made mistakes in his work, but whenever he had the opportunity, he was always the first to correct his previous judgements. These instances when he was feeling his way are hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the prodigious mass of data he collected and published over a period of more than half a century on societies which, through the magnificence of their art, the originality of their economic system and the richness of their social organization and religious practices, earned themselves a prominent position in the great scheme of humanity.

    Did Boas himself see them this way? I remember one occasion when I was invited to dinner at his Grantwood home. I was as in a dream in front of the magnificent carved, painted chest in his dining room and I said imprudently that, in his life as an ethnologist, his sojourns with people capable of creating such a masterpiece must have been an extraordinary experience. With his legendary puritanism, he answered drily, "They were Indians, like any others," and I did not dare continue. He was probably reluctant to allow any kind of hierarchy to be introduced among cultures which his oft-proclaimed relativism bound him to respect equally. It seems to me, however, that by devoting his most important books year after year to the Pacific Coast, he betrayed an unspoken predilection for cultures which reminded him of his youth, and about which he wrote so much, that although a number of texts came out posthumously, even today there is still unpublished material waiting to be released.

    The incident I have just related took place a few weeks before he died. Since I witnessed this directly, perhaps the time has come for me to describe its circumstances which will remain engraved on my memory forever. Boas was a host at a luncheon at the Columbia University Faculty Club in honour of Paul Rivet, then a refugee in Columbia, who was passing through New York on a mission for General de Gaulle. I was invited along with a few other people, including Mrs. Yampolski, Boas’ daughter, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard and Ralph Linton. It was December 21, 1942. The city was in the grip of a bitter cold spell and Boas arrived from Grantwood wearing an astonishing faded fur hat that must have dated back to his travels among the Inuit. The meal began gaily; you could tell that Boas was happy to see an old friend again and to be surrounded by former students, some of whom had followed in his footsteps. The conversation was going along at a good pace when suddenly, in mid-sentence, Boas jerked violently backwards, as under the effect of an electric shock, and fell over, taking his chair with him. I was sitting next to him and hurried to help him up, but he remained motionless. Rivet, who had been an army medical officer, tried in vain to revive him; he was only able to pronounce him dead. Boas’ son Ernst, a professor at Columbia, arrived a little later. Leaving Mrs. Yampolski and him to their sorrow, we withdrew in silence, grief-stricken at the loss of the greatest ethnologist of all time.

    I relived these memories as I leafed through the translation of the Sagen, a work which Boas published at the age of thirty-seven. (He was eighty-three when I first visited him in the office which, as a professor emeritus, he had kept at Columbia.) And, when I thought of the fantastic number of books and articles which followed and the diversity of their subject matter, which ranged from physical anthropology to folklore, from archaeology to linguistics, from geography to ethnology, from the most minute description of objects and customs to far-reaching theoretical ideas, I said to myself that, on this December 21, 1942, a handful of people of whom I was one had been given the dramatic privilege of witnessing the passing of a man who was not only the honoured master of their discipline, but the last of those intellectual giants produced by the nineteenth century, the likes of whom will probably never be seen again." [underlining added]

    It seems to me that in a way, people will be saying about LS what LS said about Boas, in this paragraph I have underlined (which is published at page 13 of our 2002 Boas book).