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.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Academic Autobiography (2d)—Tristes Tropiques

One year ago on Round and Square (30 September 2011)—Fieldnotes From History: Utensils/Greasy Fingers
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
[a] Moving 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
          I wish now that I had been able, twenty years ago, to appreciate fully 
          the unheard-of luxury and regal privilege of being among the eight or 
          ten passengers who, on a boat built to accommodate 100 or 150, had 
          the deck, the cabins, the smoking-room and the dining-room all 
          to themselves. During the nineteen days at sea, all this space, which 
          seemed almost limitless through the absence of other people, became 
          our province; it was as if the boat were our appanage, moving with us.[1] 
[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.[2] 

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).[3]
This description, precisely the kind that a busy professional anthropologist might skim in search of the heart of the text, provides a launching pad, as it were, for an historical anecdotalism that runs through the New World section of Tristes Tropiques. We are presented, in succession, with the perceptual challenges of sixteenth century travelers in contact with the native population of Hispaniola (“both attitudes showed equal ignorance, but the Indians’ behavior certainly had greater human dignity”) and Columbus’s encounters with “mermaids” and cotton plants (which they mistook for “sheep trees”).

          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 
          of observation.[4]

From here we move on to the scents, the sounds, and the tumult—the petulant activité Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (“the tropics are less exotic than out of date”) and a host of passages that imply quite strongly that, for the true anthropologist, half the charm, half the story, lies in getting there. Indeed, on many levels, Tristes Tropiques (and perhaps his entire oeuvre) is about getting there. As one of my overheard anecdotes has it—I chanced upon the conversation in a coffee shop in 1998, with a guitar player talking to a young admirer—"It's all about the journey, man...the journey."

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:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
[d] Journey RF
[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 22.
[2] Tristes Tropiques, 74.
[3] Tristes Tropiques, 74.
[4] Tristes Tropiques, 77.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment