From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Endings (1)—Tristes Tropiques

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings." 

[b] Tristes Tropiques
[a] Tristes tropiques
 Tristes Tropiques is one of a small handful of my very favorite books. It is as though Claude Lévi-Strauss set out to destroy the certainty with which anthropologists read ethnography, and his unusual combination of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation (not to mention impossible-to-fathom details from isolated field observations of ox-cart axles and household economies) makes the book a compelling literary document, even as it frustrates the literal-minded (many of these were called, back in the day, "British social anthropologists"). Consider it Claude Lévi-Strauss's answer to Bronislaw Malinowski, with ample mockery of a sacred, "objectivist" ethnographic tradition. 

[c] Lévi-Strauss in Brazil
Reactions ranged, even in 1955, from a wink of recognition to a befuddled and curmudgeonly huh? The committee awarding the Prix Goncourt in 1955 (France's top literary prize), stated that they would have given Tristes Tropiques its award...had it been fiction—the prize's area of concentration.[1]  Alas, the work was classified as nonfiction, and my favorite assessment remains that of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote of Tristes Tropiques in the late 1960s "...though it is very far from being a great anthropology book, or even an especially good one, [it] is surely one of the finest books ever written by an anthropologist."[2] 
[d] Lévi-Strauss after Brazil
The only problem with the magnificent ending of Tristes Tropiques is...where to start. In some ways, the work itself is an elaborate conclusion all its own. At the very least, any of the last twenty pages could serve as the literary "beginning of the end." I have chosen the last full paragraph, but it will not be lost on anyone that the ending power is channeled through the phrase adieu sauvages! adieu voyages! ("Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!").

***  ***
The Return
[e] En mouvement
Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted in every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists—Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!—in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.                                           October 12th, 1954—March 5th, 1955

Le Retour
[f] Exchanging glances
Pas plus que l'individu n'est seul dans le groupe et que chaque société n'est seule parmi les autres, l'homme n'est seul dans l'univers. Lorsque l'arc-en-ciel des cultures humaines aura fini de s'abîmer dans le vide creusé par notre fureur; tant que nous serons là et qu'il existera un monde—cette arche ténue qui nous relie à l'inaccessible demeurera, montrant la voie inverse de celle de notre esclavage ce dont, à défaut de la parcourir, la contemplation procure à l'homme l'unique faveur qu'il sache mériter: suspendre la marche, retenir l'impulsion qui l'astreint à obturer l'une après l'autre les fissures ouvertes au mur de la nécessité et à parachever son œuvre en même temps qu'il clôt sa prison; cette faveur que toute société convoite, quels que soient ses croyances, son régime politique et son niveau de civilisation; où elle place son loisir, son plaisir, son repos et sa liberté; chance, vitale pour la vie, de se dépendre et qui consiste—adieu, sauvages! adieu voyages!—pendant les brefs intervalles où notre espèce supporte d'interrompre son labeur de ruche, à saisir l'essence de ce qu'elle fut et continue d'être, en deçà de la pensée et au-delà de la société: dans la contemplation d'un minéral plus beau que toutes nos œuvres; dans le parfum, plus savant que nos livres, respiré au creux d'un lis; ou dans le clin d'œil alourdi de patience, de sérénité et de pardon réciproque, qu'une entente involontaire permet parfois d'échanger avec un chat.
                                                                                            12 octobre 1954—5 mars 1955

[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 414-415.
[4] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Oeuvres Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2008), 444-445.

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