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Introduction (g)—Impassioned Communities Introduction (h)—History, Language, and Culture, c.1985
|[a] Helper RF|
I couldn't help myself, and temporarily tuned out the advice I had heard in the bookstore an hour before. In minutes I was immersed in books entitled 歷史. I paged through Chinese history and world history—early and late. Names such as 秦始皇帝 (the first emperor of Qin) and 明太祖 (the first emperor of Ming) vied with 圖坦卡蒙 (Tutankhamen) and 哥倫布 (Columbus). To be sure, the language looked like a bit of a challenge. At the very least, I saw, I would have to learn a few hundred—and more likely a few thousand—more characters, as well as ten times that many vocabulary items.
I approached the matter with the respect it deserved, yet I could not help but sense that (despite the challenges of fairly advanced language) this was familiar territory. I had just spent the better part of a history major in college thinking about these matters, and (despite the language issues) this didn't seem to be terribly difficult terrain in a conceptual sense. The names, dates, and terms were dense, but they were hardly new. This wasn't Foucault, I thought to myself. If I were embarking on an archaeological dig toward knowledge, I would be looking mostly at shrapnel I had seen before.
|[b] Port RF|
These lengthy and superfluous cogitations are leading up to the fact that
one morning, in February 1934, I arrived in Marseilles in order to tak ship
for Santos. Later there were to be many other departures, and all of them
have blended together in my memory, which has retained only a few
These ships called at many ports. Indeed, the first week of the trip was
spent almost entirely ashore, while the cargo was being loaded or
unloaded, and we sailed during the night. Each morning, on awakening,
we found ourselves docked in a new port: Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia,
Alicante, Malaga, and sometimes Cadiz; or again, Algiers, Oran and
Gibralter, before the longest stretch leading to Casablanca, and lastly to
Dakar...It was the opposite of a voyage. More than a means of transport,
the ship seemed to us to be a dwelling-place and a home, in front of which
the revolving stage of the world would halt some new setting every morning.
|[c] Culture call RF|
However, the anthropological approach was still so foreign to me that I did
not think of taking advantage of these opportunities. I have learned since
then what a useful training in observation such short glimpses of a town, an
area or a culture can provide and how—because of the intense concentration
forced upon one by the brevity of the stay—one may even grasp certain
features which, in other circumstances, may have long remained hidden.
|[d] Familiar RF|
It all seemed like I had been there before. Something was wrong. I got up, paced, checked on the parakeet, looked out the window, sipped my tea, and ate a few pistachios. I had seen this movie before. I thought it over, and then decided.
Postponing my entry into high school, I reached for the little green books. At last I understood: that's where I needed to start.
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 61-62.
|[e] Green book time RF|
Even then, I had a strong suspicion about where this was all going. In time, I would discover just as many riches in those seemingly stale history texts, but that would lie many months in the future. Instead, I went to grade school, learned aspects of language, history, and culture that I doubt I could have learned in other ways, and found a community that lasts to this day.