Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908-11-28) is a French anthropologist.


  • [Serialism] is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain, who has grown tired of its being used only as a pontoon, and who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination.…
    • Doreen and John Weightman, trans., The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: I (Harper, 1975), pp. 113–114 (French title: Le Cru et le Cuit)

Tristes Tropiques (1955)

[This is the Penguin edition, ISBN 0-14-016562-2, translated by John and Doreen Weightman]

  • While I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see.
    • Chapter 4: The Quest for Power, p.43
  • Teaching and research are not to be confused with training for a profession. Their greatness and their misfortune is that they are a refuge or a mission.
    • Chapter 6: The Making of an Anthropologist, p.55
  • Not only does a journey transport us over enormous distances, it also causes us to move a few degrees up or down in the social scale. It displaces us physically and also — for better or for worse — takes us out of our class context, so that the colour and flavour of certain places cannot be dissociated from the always unexpected social level on which we find ourselves in experiencing them.
    • Chapter 9: Guanabara, p.86
  • In the case of European towns, the passing of centuries provides an enhancement; in the case of American towns, the passing of years brings degeneration. It is not simply that they have been newly built; they were built so as to be renewable as quickly as they were put up, that is, badly.
    • Chapter 11: São Paulo, p.95
  • The work of the painter, the poet or the musician, like the myths and symbols of the savage, ought to be seen by us, if not as a superior form of knowledge, at least as the most fundamental and the only one really common to us all; scientific thought is merely the sharp point — more penetrating because it has been whetted on the stone of fact, but at the cost of some loss of substance — and its effectiveness is to be explained by its power to pierce sufficiently deeply for the main body of the tool to follow the head.
    • Chapter 13: Pioneer Zone, pp.123-124
  • Freedom is neither a legal invention nor a philosophical conquest, the cherished possession of civilizations more valid than others because they alone have been able to create or preserve it. It is the outcome of an objective relationship between the individual and the space he occupies, between the consumer and the resources at his disposal.
    • Chapter 16: Markets, p.148
  • One must be very naïve or dishonest to imagine that men choose their beliefs independently of their situation.
    • Chapter 16: Markets, p.148
  • The image a society evolves of the relationship between the living and the dead is, in the final analysis, an attempt, on the level of religious thought, to conceal, embellish or justify the actual relationships which prevail among the living.
    • Chapter 23: The Living and the Dead, p.246
  • The police are not entrusted with a mission which differentiates them from those they serve. Being unconcerned with ultimate purposes, they are inseparable from the persons and interests of their masters, and shine with their reflected glory.
    • Chapter 37: The Apotheosis of Augustus, p.378
  • If we judge the achievements of other social groups in relation to the kind of objectives we set ourselves, we have at times to acknowledge their superiority; but in doing so we acquire the right to judge them, and hence to condemn all their other objectives which do not coincide with those we approve of. We implicitly acknowledge that our society with its customs and norms enjoys a privileged position, since an observer belonging to another social group would pass different verdicts on the same examples. This being so, how can the study of anthropology claim to be scientific? To reestablish an objective approach, we must abstain from making judgments of this kind. We must accept the fact that each society has made a certain choice, within the range of existing human possibilities, and that the various choices cannot be compared with each other: they are all equally valid. But in this case a new problem arises; while in the first instance we were in danger of falling into obscurantism, in the form of a blind refusal of everything foreign to us, we now run the risk of accepting a kind of eclecticism which would prevent us denouncing any feature of a given culture — not even cruelty, injustice and poverty, against which the very society suffering these ills may be protesting. And since these abuses also exist in our society, what right have we to combat them at home, if we accept them as inevitable when they occur elsewhere?
    • Chapter 38: A Little Glass of Rum, pp.385-386
  • Logically, the "infantilization" of the culprit implied by the notion of punishment demands that he should have a corresponding right to a reward, in the absence of which the initial procedure will prove ineffective and may even lead to results contrary to those that were hoped for. Our system is the height of absurdity, since we treat the culprit both as a child, so as to have the right to punish him, and as an adult, in order to deny him consolation; and we believe we have made great spiritual progress because, instead of eating a few of our fellow-men, we subject them to physical and moral mutilation.
    • Chapter 38: A Little Glass of Rum, pp.388-389
  • Natural man did not precede society, nor is he outside it.
    • Chapter 38: A Little Glass of Rum, p.392
  • Enthusiastic partisans of the idea of progress are in danger of failing to recognize — because they set so little store by them — the immense riches accumulated by the human race on either side of the narrow furrow on which they keep their eyes fixed; by underrating the achievements of the past, they devalue all those which still remain to be accomplished.
    • Chapter 38: A Little Glass of Rum, p.393


  • Any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Lévi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination.
    • Luciano Berio, in Richard Kostelanetz and Joseph Darby, eds., Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music: A Continuing Symposium (Prentice Hall, 1996), ISBN 0-02-864581-2

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