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GREAT BOOKS 17: Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, with Denis Hollier

 Claude Lévi-Strauss Tristes Tropiques is one of the great books of the 20th century: intellectually bold, morally capacious, and it aims to understand nothing less than the elemental workings of the human mind. Ostensibly a travelogue and ethnographic account of a European's fieldwork among indigenous people in mid-20th century Brazil, it is a work of impassioned curiosity and, even though it's a pessimistic diagnosis of the damage humans (especially Europeans) have inflicted on the planet, it's brimming with hope. The hope to grasp the essence of who we are and we continue to be below the threshold of thinking and above society: call it beauty, call it wisdom, call it human.

Claude Lévi-Strauss invented the field of structural anthropology. In the 1930s he set out to Brazil and studied the indigenous cultures there. Guided by his three deities of Freud, Marx, and geology (all examining the substrata of our existence), he found that human beings make sense of their place in the world - whether they are Parisian living in mid-20th century Europe or indigenous nomadic tribes in the plains and rain forests of South America -  through myths that follow certain patterns. What he wrote is a reflection on the devastation Europe wreaked around the world, and whether by studying and thinking with indigenous cultures, we may locate a position from which to think about our own situation in an increasingly overpopulated world.

For Lévi-Strauss myths are not fairytales or children's stories to delight or frighten us. Myths are the deeper patterns by which we make sense of our existence. They are different in all cultures but have underlying shared and universal structures. By recognizing how other cultures make sense of their place in the world, we learn that we, too, rely on similar patterns to make sense of ours. He has startling things to say in this book, for instance that freedom is neither a legal invention nor a philosophical conquest, but deeply linked to the material conditions of a given human's life on earth.

I spoke with Denis Hollier, an expert of French literature, philosophy and culture, about Lévi- Strauss’s radical reinterpretation of what constitutes a culture, about his pessimism, about his relation to academic philosophy, existentialism and deconstruction, and about what we may learn from this giant of a mind who shaped thinkers in all disciplines.