Renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss dies at 100

LÉVI- STRAUSS (1978 Twp File Photo By Harry Naltchayan - 1978 Twp File Photo By Harry Naltchayan)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 100, who was one of the preeminent anthropologists of the 20th century and whose erudite, often mind-bendingly labored studies of indigenous Brazilian tribes led to influential theories about human behavior and culture, has died. News reports said that he died Oct. 30 of cardiac arrest at his home in Paris.

Along with writers Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux, Mr. Lévi-Strauss was considered one of the towering French intellectuals of the last century. He wrote four volumes centered on mythology among indigenous tribes in the Americas in addition to books including "Tristes Tropiques" (1955), which mingled sociological findings with memoir and travelogue.

"Tristes Tropiques," sometimes translated as "A World on the Wane," follows Mr. Lévi-Strauss's travels through Brazil in the 1930s. It was praised by eminent American anthropologist Clifford Geertz as "surely one of the finest books ever written by an anthropologist."

"Tristes" and later titles such as "La Pensée Sauvage" (1962), "The Savage Mind," set out to show that there is little distinction between civilized and primitive societies. Mr. Lévi-Strauss preferred to call the latter, often dismissed as groups of savages, "societies without writing."

Mr. Lévi-Strauss said his life's work, which gained greater prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, was "an attempt to show that there are laws of mythical thinking as strict and rigorous as you would find in the natural sciences."

Philippe Descola, chairman of anthropology at the Collège de France, told the New York Times that Mr. Lévi-Strauss was "one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century. . . . He gave a proper object to anthropology: not simply as a study of human nature, but a systematic study of how cultural practices vary, how cultural differences are systematically organized."

Descola said that rather than search for commonalities, Mr. Lévi-Strauss did not think all cultures had to be seen through Western lenses. His work inspired the opening in 2006 of the Musée du Quai Branly, a Paris museum featuring the art of indigenous peoples.

In a long career, Mr. Lévi-Strauss popularized a social science theory known as structuralism. It is a philosophical method of approaching anthropology that identifies behavioral codes crucial to the functioning of any society, even those considered primitive.

His mid-1960s essay "Le Triangle Culinaire" ("The Culinary Triangle") viewed cultural development through the lens of food. He examined, for example, how Amazon people instinctively made distinctions between roasting and boiling.

"Boiling provides a means of complete conservation of the meat and its juices, whereas roasting is accompanied by destruction and loss," he wrote. "Thus one denotes economy; the other prodigality; the latter is aristocratic, the former plebian."

Mr. Lévi-Strauss's method of thinking intruded into many branches of academia, notably philosophy, comparative religion and comparative literature. His reputation as a theorist bounced in and out of favor.

Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago said that Mr. Lévi-Strauss's theories come down to this: Logically deduce all the possible ways in which people can behave. Observe which behaviors are exhibited. Then try to explain why some behaviors exist and other logically possible behaviors are never seen. The answers form a grammar, or structure, upon which all cultures are based.

Claude Gustave Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels on Nov. 28, 1908, to a French Jewish family. His father was a painter, and his great-grandfather was composer Isaac Strauss.

After attending the Sorbonne, he taught at a French high school until a chance conversation with a former professor in 1934 led to a journey to Brazil.

For much of World War II, Mr. Lévi-Strauss taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. He became acquainted with linguist Roman Jakobson, whose theories on the structure of language influenced Mr. Lévi-Strauss's structuralist principles.

After the war, he was a cultural official at the French Embassy in Washington, then returned to teaching, first at the Sorbonne and later at the Collège de France. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1973, he became a member of the French Academy, his country's elite society of literary and scientific figures.

His marriages to Dina Dreyfus and Rose-Marie Ullmo ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Monique Roman, whom he married in 1954; a son from his second marriage, Laurent; and a son from his third marriage, Matthieu.

"I feel like a very humble craftsman," Mr. Lévi-Strauss told The Washington Post in 1978. "I'm just working in my workshop on very particular questions which can hopefully make a little more rigorous some of the human sciences. Nothing I'm doing is going to particularly ease mankind's problems. I'm a theoretician."

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