From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Middles (7)—Tristes Tropiques

[a] Thoroughfare  PD
It should not be surprising that I have found a way to discuss my favorite book within the context of "Beginnings," "Middles," and "Ends." There is so much to say about this gem of a text that I will not even try to defend my choice. See for yourself. This "Middles" post is particularly resonant, however, and justly famous in the lore of anthropology. It is called A Writing Lesson, and it is the rare anthropologist—even among young ones, today—who has not heard at least a few references to its themes. I had the pleasure of writing several pages of analysis on this topic many years ago during the Committee on Social Thought's Fundamentals Examination. The episode was always interesting to me, but working through its implications in that essay cemented it in my memory.

I will include a large swath of the text below, but it is necessary to point out something that I have not seen other writers stress when discussing Claude Lévi-Strauss. You see, Tristes Tropiques presents a peculiar and rich kind of anecdotal anthropology (anthropologie anecdotique). It is a term that Lévi-Strauss never mentions, and I myself used it for the first time when trying to find an "angle" for that Social Thought essay more than twenty years ago. 

Generations of anthropologists have struggled with Tristes Tropiques, and not least because they try to read it like they would any other ethnography. British and American readers have, over the decades, been particularly frustrated (one might say "gullible"). General readers (including Anglophone anthropologists with some training in French academics) have had fewer problems with the text. The key is to understand that Claude Lévi-Strauss was trying to do something altogether different (and just a little bit radical for 1955) with Tristes Tropiques. To paraphrase a very fine essay by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, it was as though Lévi-Strauss sought to guarantee that any reader completing Tristes Tropiques would never, ever be able to read an "ordinary" ethnography the same way again. Ever.[1]

This is where, for me, the role of the anecdote comes in. They are everywhere, from ulcerous mules to the broader lessons of writing and power. Take your time with this long passage, and save it (if you must) for another order to savor it. Above all—because even this quotation is only part of one small chapter out of forty—get yourself a copy of the whole book and read it (over and over and over).

Claude Lévi-Strauss
A Writing Lesson
I was keen to find out, at least indirectly, the approximate size of the Nambikwara population. In 1915, Rondon had suggested a figure of twenty thousand, which was probably too high an estimate; but at that time, each group comprised several hundred members, and, according to information I had picked up along the line, there had since been a rapid decline...Now, there were perhaps no more than two thousand natives scattered across the area. A systematic census was out of the question, because of the permanent hostility shown by certain groups and the fact that all groups were on the move during the nomadic period. But I tried to persuade my Utiarity friends to take me to their village...I promised to bring presents and to engage in barter. The chief of the group was rather reluctant to comply with my request: he was not sure of his guests, and if my companions and myself were to disappear in an area where no white man had set foot since the murder of seven telegraph employees in 1925, the precarious peace which had prevailed since then might well be endangered for some time to come.

[b] Brasil  RF
He finally agreed, on condition that we reduced the size of our expedition, taking only four oxen to carry the presents...In retrospect, this journey, which was an extremely hazardous one, seems to me now to have been like some grotesque interlude. We had hardly left Juruena when my Brazilian companion noticed that the women and children were not with us: we were accompanied only by the men, armed with bows and arrows. In travel books, such circumstances mean that an attack is imminent. So we moved ahead with mixed feelings, checking the position of our Smith-and-Wesson revolvers (our men pronounced the name as 'Cemite Vechetone') and our rifles from time to time. Our fears proved groundless: about midday we caught up with the rest of the group, whom the chief had taken the precaution of sending off the previous evening, knowing that our mules would advance more quickly than the basket-carrying women, whose pace was further slowed down by the children.

A little later, however, the Indians lost their way: the new route was not as straightforward as they had imagined. Towards evening we had to stop in the bush; we had been told that there would be game to shoot; the natives were relying on our rifles and had brought nothing with them; we only had emergency provisions, which could not possibly be shared out among everybody. A herd of deer grazing around a water-hole fled at our approach. The next morning, there was wide-spread discontent, openly directed against the chief who was responsible for the plan he and I had devised together. Instead of setting out on a hunting or collecting expedition, all the natives decided to lie down under the shelters, leaving the chief to discover the solution to the problem. He disappeared with one of his wives; towards evening we saw them both return, their heavy baskets full of the grasshoppers they had spent the entire day collecting. Although crushed grasshopper is considered rather poor fare, the natives all ate heartily and recovered their spirits. We set off again the following morning.

[c] Farther  RF
At last we reached the appointed meeting-place. It was a sandy terrace overlooking a stream lined with trees, between which lay half-hidden native gardens. Groups arrived intermittently. Towards evening, there were seventy-five persons representing seventeen families, all grouped together under thirteen shelters hardly more substantial than those to be found in native camps. It was explained to me that, during the rainy season, all these people would be housed in five round huts built to last for some months. Several of the natives appeared never to have seen a white man before and their surly attitude and the chief's edginess suggested that he had persuaded them to come rather against their will. We did not feel safe, nor did the Indians. The night promised to be cold, and as there were no trees on the terrace, we had to lie down like the Nambikwara on the bare earth. Nobody slept: the hours were spent keeping a close but polite watch on each other. 

It would have been unwise to prolong such a dangerous situation, so I urged the chief to proceed without further delay to the exchange of gifts. It was at this point that there occurred an extraordinary little incident that I can only explain by going back a little. It is unnecessary to point out that the Nambikwara have no written language, but they do not know how to draw, either, apart from making a few doted lines or zigzags on their gourds. Nevertheless, as I had done among the Caduveo, I handed out sheets of paper and pencils. At first they did nothing with them, then one day I saw that they were all busy drawing wavy, horizontal lines.

I wondered what they were trying to do, then it was suddenly borne upon me that the were writing or, to be more accurate, were trying to use their pencils in the same way as I did mine, which was the only way they could conceive of, because I had not yet tried to amuse them with my drawings. The majority did this and no more, but the chief had further ambitions. No doubt he was the only one who had grasped the purpose of writing. So he asked me for a writing-pad, and when we both had one, and were working together, if I asked for information on a given point, he did not supply it verbally but drew wavy lines on his paper and presented them to me, as if I could read his reply. He was half taken in by his own make-believe; each time he completed a line, he examined it anxiously as if expecting the meaning to leap from the page, and the same look of disappointment came over his face. But he never admitted this, and there was a tacit understanding between us to the effect that his unintelligible scribbling had a meaning which I pretended to decipher; his verbal commentary followed almost at once, relieving me of the need to ask for explanations.
[d] Onward  RL

As soon as he had got the company together, he took from a basket a piece of paper covered with wavy lines and made a show of reading it, pretending to hesitate as he checked on it the list of objects I was to give in exchange for the presents offered me: so-and-so was to have a chopper in exchange for a bow and arrows, someone else beads in exchange for his necklaces...This farce went on for two hours. Was he perhaps hoping to delude himself? More probably he wanted to astonish his companions, to convince them that he was acting as an intermediary agent for the exchange of the goods, that he was in alliance with the white man and shared his secrets. We were eager to be off, since the most dangerous point would obviously be reached when all the marvels I had brought had been transferred to native hands. So I did not explore the matter further, and we began the return journey with the Indians still acting as our guides.[2]

It is amusing that Lévi-Strauss ends this passage with the phrase "So I did not explore the matter further" because he actually continues to explore the matter further for the rest of the chapter and (I would argue) for the rest of the book. I will present some of that material in future Round and Square posts.  —RL for RSQ

[1] Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 29.
[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 294-297.

Geertz, Clifford.Works and Lives. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman]. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

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