ACCORDING TO a recent survey of French literary notables, Claude Levi-Strauss, professor of social anthropology at the College de France, is now the most influential living French writer. His remarkable and illustrations career, described in the autobiographical Tristes Tropiques , started inauspiciously enough with the study of law and philosophy; in 1934 he was called to the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and engaged in fieldwork in the dank reaches of the tropical jungle; and the next decades saw a veritable flood tide of important works flow from his pen. His espousal of "structuralist" principals in explaining everything from totemism to table manners, his encyclopedic, urban stance in the midst of the human and cultural sciences, and his brilliant and dazzling style make him an indispensable point of reference in contemporary intellectual discussion.
The latest work of Levi-Strauss to appear in English translation is the fourth -- and final -- volume of a grandly ambitious study entitled Mythologiques , which has as its nominal theme the systems of American Indian mythology. But Mythologiques is not simply a handbook on Indian myths any more than Plato's dialogues are a collection of interesting and sometimes bizarre conversations. It is instructive to recall that Levi-Strauss' original training was in law and philosophy: his real motive is to discern basic, fundamental principles and relationships at heart of the immensely variegated wealth of factual details he presents. There is, as his very title suggests, a "logic" to the myths.
The first three volumes of Mythologiques encompass more than $1,400 pages and are entitled The Raw and the Cooked (1964), From Honey to Ashes (1966), and The Origin of Table Manners (1969). The publication in 1971 of the final volume, L'Homme nu , was a long-awaited event among specialists in the field, and its appearance now in English translation as The Naked Man is perhaps overdue. But one has to sympathize with the task translators John and Doreen Weightman faced: this is a big book (the bibliography -- with over 500 entries -- and indexes alone take up some 50 pages), and it touches on geology, astronomy, linquistics, geography, zoology, botany and music -- often in their respective technical terms.
The Naked Man is concerned with a "vast transformational group" of myths found in two very specific places in the Western Hemisphere: central Brazil and the Pacific Northwest. Levi-Strauss' main thesis is that, despite their obvious differences and the thousands of miles and years separating them, the myths from the two areas form a single system. Even where -- or rather, precisely where -- the myths appear to be saying the opposite thing, they reveal deper underlying correspondences, since one can be considered an inversion or symmetrical "transformation" of the other. Individual myths studied in isolation teach us nothing, though they may be interesting stories; only when the whole "transformational group" they belong to is reconstructed do we appreciate the real significance of the individual components.
Levi-Strauss' style of logical argumentation may be conceived roughly as follows. Much, if not all of human experience, it might fairly be claimed, is structured around the presence or absence of specific features or characteristics of the natural and social worlds; when we say "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health," we give expression to some of the stark oppositions that condition our existence. Such opposition may, moreover, be coherently related: raw food, for example, is opposed not only to cooked food but also to rotten food. In both cases unprocessed (raw) food has been processed, either culturally (cooking) or naturally (rotting); the introduction of the axes unprocessed/processed and culture/nature allows the relationships between raw, cooked and rotten food to be expressed in a more general way. For a structuralist like Levi-Strauss, things are defined primarily in terms of what they are not, or are opposed to, and by their function and place in a system of "interchangeable combinatory variants."
If everything can be understood in terms of a binary opposition, then the limits of this sort of analysis are set only by the limits of our imagination -- "Oppositions taken from real life suggest others of a symbolic nature." Levi-Strauss' imagination is very fertile. The following vignette, taken almost at random from hundreds that could be cited, is a typical sample of the "action" in the myths and Levi-Strauss' analysis of it: "The Bororo hero invented the bow and arrows in order to drive off the lizards which, as they decomposed, were covering him with filth, whereas Aishish invents adornments and jewelery when persecuting porcupines are covering him with dust. In the first instance, the filth is moist; in the second, it is dry . . . I shall return later to this opposition, which is no more fortuitous than the others." A single set of myths may be plotted along innumerable axes of opposition, such as (to take another example) chromatic/achromatic, marked/non-marked, high/low, land/water, north-south/east-west, virtuous/depraved, fertile/sterile, agent/sufferer, victim of fire/cause of fire, savior/destroyer. "Only some of the possible states of the myth are actualized" on these grids which, "theoretically, could accommodate any number."
Levi-Strauss is certainly not a compiler of "prosaic inventories" of myths. "I was trying, in a different form and in an area accessible to me, to make up for my congenital inability to compose a musical work . . . I have tried to construct with meanings a composition comparable to those that music creates with sounds."