Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
|[a] Moving RF|
|[b] Passages RF|
Lévi-Strauss does not merely describe his foreign world and use that data to begin his broader project. He describes his passage between the two as well, often in highly symbolic terms. The book begins in the groves of French academe, and will continue on to four different societies in Brazil. Some of the most interesting passages in Tristes Tropiques deal with the years, and voyages, between France and Brazil. Nowhere is the passage expressed more evocatively than in his description of the Doldrums as a metaphor for the interaction of two worlds.
The air is so still that one might think oneself in some confined space
instead of out on the open sea; dark clouds, with no breeze to disturb
their balance, are affected only by gravity, and slowly disintegrate as
they drift down towards the sea…
The inky sky over the Doldrums and the oppressive atmosphere are
more than just an obvious sign of the nearness of the equator. They
epitomize the moral climate in which two worlds have come face to face.
This cheerless sea between them, and the calmness of the weather whose
only purpose seems to be to allow evil forces to gather fresh strength, are
the last mystical barrier between two regions so diametrically opposed to
each other through their different conditions that the first people to become
aware of the fact could not believe that they were both equally human. A
continent barely touched by man lay exposed to men whose greed could
no longer be satisfied by their own continent.
From the first pages of Tristes Tropiques, the reader grows accustomed to straightforward narration masking a deeper, layered meaning. Lévi-Strauss continues:
Everything would be called into question by this second sin: God, Morality,
and law. In simultaneous yet contradictory fashion, everything would be
verified in practice and revoked in principle: the Garden of Eden, the Golden
Age of antiquity, the Fountain of Youth, Atlantis, the Hesperides, the Islands
of the Blessed, would be found to be true; but revelation, salvation, customs,
and law would be challenged by the spectacle of a purer or happier race of
men (who, of course, were not really purer or happier, although a deep-
seated remorse made them appear so).
In all such instances, the sixteenth-century consciousness was lacking in
an element more important than knowledge: a quality indispensable to
scientific thought. The men of that time were not sensitive to the
harmonious arrangement of the universe… The mermaids and the
sheep tree constitute something different from, and more than, just
objective mistakes; on the intellectual level they are to be considered
rather as lapses in taste; a defect in minds that, in spite of the great gifts
and refinement they displayed in other fields, were deficient in powers
So it was for Claude Lévi-Strauss, and we'll take a closer look at that journey tomorrow.
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
|[d] Journey RF|
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 22.
 Tristes Tropiques, 74.
 Tristes Tropiques, 74.
 Tristes Tropiques, 77.