The Structuralist

1292264773kirsch_121310_380px Adam Kirsch in The Tablet:

In Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (Penguin Press, $29.95), Patrick Wilcken has written the biography not just of a man, but of an intoxicating intellectual moment. This was the moment of structuralism, a new way of thinking about human culture that emerged in France in the 1950s and enjoyed a worldwide vogue. The literary critic Roland Barthes, the cultural historian Michel Foucault, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan—all were structuralists of one sort or another, and all declared their indebtedness to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of “structural anthropology.” Half a century later, all these names are still by-words for strenuous difficulty and theoretical sophistication; though they are classics by now, they retain the acrid perfume of the avant-garde. When people express contempt or dismay about “French theory,” it is usually the structuralists they have in mind.

It is a wonderful irony, then, that this most cutting-edge and Parisian of movements can be traced to a moment of epiphany in a primitive Indian village in western Brazil. In 1936, Lévi-Strauss and his wife Dina led an anthropological expedition to study the indigenous peoples of this region, at that time barely accessible from the big cities of Brazil’s Atlantic coast. One of the tribes they visited was the Bororo, and though Lévi-Strauss spent just three weeks with them, Bororo culture and myth would lie at the heart of his work for the next 60 years.

What fascinated Lévi-Strauss was not the picturesque elements of Bororo life—what Wilcken calls “the fetishized objects of the Western imagination: penis sheaths, multicolored headdresses, nose feathers, lip ornaments and body paint.” Rather, he became obsessed with the way the Bororo village was laid out.