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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Academic Autobiography (2a)—Tristes Tropiques

One year ago on Round and Square (27 September 2011)—Styling Culture: Foreign Terms, Titles, and Emphasis
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
[a] Amazon headwaters RF
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
Note: The world after 2001 makes all of this somewhat jarring for American readers. Let me just say that the opinions expressed here are my best representation of Claude Lévi-Strauss's text. This post began many years ago as an essay response for the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought's "Fundamentals Examination." The classicist James Redfield asked a brilliant question, and this post is a less-brilliant but no less fascinated response to the literary legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss.
                    He who knows the masculine but holds to the feminine
                    Becomes the ravine of the world
                    Being the ravine of the world,
                    He dwells in constant virtue,
                    He returns to the state of the babe.
                                                            —Daodejing 28
In the closing pages of his multi-layered anthropological narrative, Tristes tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss provocatively states that “the West lost the opportunity of remaining female" through its militaristic contact with Islam. He notes:
          In Taxila, in Buddhist monasteries bristling with statues because of the 
          influence of Greece, I was aware of the slim opportunity of remaining united 
          which is open to our Old World; the schism is not yet complete. A different 
          future is possible, the very future that Islam opposes by erecting its barrier 
          between the West and the East, which, without it, would perhaps not have 
          lost their attachment to the common ground in which their roots are set.[1] 
For Lévi-Strauss, the femininity that the West has forsaken is closely attached to the Daoist conception of receptivity. Lévi-Strauss portrays Buddhism and nascent Christianity as quintessentially responsive doctrines, capable of growing through contact with an other. Lévi-Strauss’s Islam, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of Daoism’s extreme male principle—hard, unyielding, certain of itself, and wary of contact with outsiders. As Lévi-Strauss puts it, the Arab soul has always been associated with the qualities of jealousy, pride, and heroism.

Far from presenting a “survey” of world religion in the resonant closing chapters of Tristes tropiques, Lévi-Strauss pares each complex doctrine down to its essentials, looking not so much at the historical development of their teachings as at the “inner core” that gives them their power. He sees in the compassion of Buddhism and the openness of Christianity the fundamentally receptive quality of femininity; in Islam, he perceives only self-doubt and xenophobia:

          This great religion is based not so much on revealed truth as on an inability 
          to establish links with the outside world. In contrast to the universal kindliness 
          of Buddhism, or the Christian desire for dialogue, Muslim intolerance takes 
          an unconscious form among those who are guilty of it; although they do not 
          always seek to make others share their truth by brutal coercion, they are 
          nevertheless (and this is more serious) incapable of tolerating the existence of 
          others as others. The only means they have of protecting themselves against 
          doubt and humiliation is the “negativization” of others, considered as witnesses 
          to a different faith and a different way of life.[2] 

Islam is the West of the East, writes Lévi-Strauss; he sees in the intolerance of Islam the most serious danger confronting twentieth century Europe, particularly France. Although he never adequately explains what be means by such phrases as “Christian desire for dialogue,”[3] or the precise manner in which contact with Buddhism would have “Christianized us still further and…made us all the more Christian in that we would have gone back beyond Christianity itself,[4] he perceives an essential unity in the two that lies outside of history, outside of time.
There is an elemental similarity in both doctrines, and the civilizations they represent. Lévi-Strauss, like Rousseau before him, characterizes this ahistorical similarity in strikingly temporal terms. Beyond that, he encases his description in Christian imagery of the fall:
Mankind has made three major religious attempts to free itself from the persecution of the dead, the malevolence of the Beyond, and the anguish of magic. Over intervals of approximately five hundred years, it originated in turn in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; it is a striking fact that each stage, far from constituting an advance on the previous one, should be seen rather as a regression…

          Now I can see, beyond Islam, to India, but it is the India of the Buddha, 
          before Mohammed. For me as a European, and because I am a European,
          Mohammed intervenes with uncouth clumsiness, between our thought and 
          Indian doctrines which are very close to it, in such a way as to prevent East 
          and West joining hands, as they might well have done, in harmonious 

Lévi-Strauss continues:

          The two worlds are closer to each other than either is to the Muslim 
          anachronism. Rational evolution would have been the converse of what 
          actually occurred historically: Islam cut a more civilized world in two, he 
          states. What appears modern to it belongs to a bygone age; it is living with 
          a time lag of a thousand years…Islam fertilized actuality and sterilized 
          potentiality: it brought about a form of progress that is the reverse of 
          a project.

          If the West traces its internal tensions back to their source, it will see that 
          Islam, by coming between Buddhism and Christianity, Islamized us at the 
          time when the West, by taking part in the crusades, was involved in 
          opposing it and therefore came to resemble it, instead of undergoing—had 
          Islam never come into being—a slow process of osmosis with Buddhism…   
          It was then that the West lost the opportunity of remaining female.[6]
Lévi-Strauss, in the space of only a few pages, divides the world into three major religious systems, refines their doctrines to a limited number of key oppositions (such as masculinity-femininity, intransigence-receptivity), denies the importance of historical change in the doctrines, and finally—in richly historical terms—describes the relationship between all three.

          The West lost the opportunity of remaining female by opposing a doctrine 
          that is, as characterized by Lévi-Strauss, by its very nature insecure and 
          pugilistic. Opposition is a masculine and confrontational term, used quite 
          consciously by the author in this manner; osmosis is fundamentally feminine 
          and receptive. Lévi-Strauss speaks of two very different kinds of change here, 
          and the historical necessity of choosing one over the other has, he argues, 
          profoundly altered not only the history of the West, but its religious and 
          (hence) cultural orientation as well.[5]

Lévi-Strauss quite forcefully states the problem. Moreover, he alludes to the possibility of resolution—“the schism is not yet complete; a different future is possible. Nowhere, however, does he state explicitly what is to be done. Lévi-Strauss’s resolution lies in the narrative of Tristes tropiques, not at any single, definable point in the text. For a resolution to the problem, for a return to the “natural” receptivity of the Christian West, we must return to origins; for this return the discipline of anthropology is an ideal vehicle.

Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
[e] Return RF
[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 406.
[2] Tristes Tropiques 403-404.
[3] Tristes Tropiques, 403-404.
[4] Tristes Tropiques, 403-404.
[5] Tristes Tropiques, 409.
[6] Tristes Tropiques, 408-409.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman]. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.

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