He doesn't get to the "New World" much anymore. The last time he was in Washington, for a celebration at the Smithsonian, was when "Mr. Lyndon Johnson was your president." That trip took 20 hours, what with fog in Paris and mechanical delays in New York. This time he came over on the Concorde.
"It was very curious to arrive at the Paris airport at 8:30, and then a little later find oneself at the Kennedy Airport, also at 8:30, quite with the impression of having started the day over," says Claude Levi-Strauss, nodding, talking mellifluently. Somehow, he looks like an aged and exotic cat.
Claude Levi-Strauss is a social anthropologist, though that description is grievously humble. By common consent he is one of the towering figures of French intellectual life in this century, up there with the more popularly known Sartre and Malraux and de Beauvoir. His influence as the leading exponent of "structuralism" (which believes that certain behavioral codes essential to any society are already inherent in the mind) has made quantum leaps and has distrubed a whole range of other disciplines, from music to art to philosophy to comparative religion to comparative literature.
Disturb is apparently the right word. "The outstanding characteristic of his writing, whether in French or in English, is that it is difficult to understand; his sociological theories combine baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition. some readers even suspect they are being treated to a confidence trick," summed up Edmund Leach, himself an anthropologist of renown.
Someone else has written: "The thought of no other philosophe of the 20th century is more subtle, more complex, more convoluted. His critics even claim his methodology and models deny his own theses."
The man is a behemoth. Ten years ago they were teaching a course on him at Cambridge University. Gore Vidal coyly wrote him into "Myra Breckinridge" Susan sontag's essay on him is titled "The Anthropologist as Hero."
Funny, the thin, parchment-like figure sitting here taking snuff from a small and ornate gold box doesn't feel like a hero -- much less look like one. What he looks like, in fact, sans beret, is one of those wispy old gents who meet in the Bois de Boulogne every summer afternoon to play checkers and roll small black balls in the dirt.
"I feel like a very humble craftsman," he says. "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."
Claude Levi-Strauss, who will be 70 next fall, has spent a lifetime theorizing. Why it is, for instance, that every society known to man has rules prohibiting mating between certain categories of its people -- something English speaking tribes call incest laws. Or why the most "savage" Indian mind in Amazonia can seem to make important culinary distinctions between the raw and the cooked, and sometimes even between the roasted and boiled. ("Boiling provides a means of complete conservation of the meat and its juices, whereas roasting is accompanied by destruction and loss. Thus one denotes economy; the other prodigality; the latter is aristocratic, the former plebian," he writes in "Le Triangle Culinaire".
STRAUSS ADD 4 STYLE FRI. CAP
Or why again Australia's aborigines, those "intellectual dandies," as he has called them, seem to possess a complex "totemism" embracing not only myth as we understand the term, but the concepts of time-present, time-past, and time-future. This from supposed "primitives." In his book, "The Savage Mind," Levi-Strauss sets out to demonstrate that the savage brings the same qualities of observation and abstract thinking to his world that, say, a biochemist brings to ours.
"There is really no such thing as primitive man," he says in liquid Gallic accents. In his fist is a Kleenex: he has been blowing his nose. "Western Civilization may be said to be a superior society -- but that statement does not extend universally. In some primitive societies -- which I would prefer to call societies without writing -- man is not necessarily considered the ruler and master of life. There is a balance struck between man and his natural environment, a balance we have all but lost in the 20th century. We are just starting to get back what the primitives knew all along."
His views for the future are not sanguine. "The greatest threat to mankind," he says, "is the family of man itself." Though he doesn't say it, there is a slight suggestion that American society is leading the collision course.
Professeur Levi-Strauss came to America for 48 hours this week to receive a honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Johns Hopkins University on the 102nd anniversary of the school's founding. (Chester Brooks Kerr, head of the Yale University Press, was also so honored). Getting Levi-Strauss here was something of a coup for the small, classy university -- 3,000 students, 300 faculty -- whose anthropology department was begun only four years ago and numbers just five faculty, 15 grad students, and 40-odd undergrades.
At one point in his stay he attended a graduate seminar, at which he entertained sticky questions such as the anthropologist's moral responsibilities to the people he studies. He sat at the head of a table hands clasped before him, answering in a voice that was generally too feeble to pick up on a tape recorder. He talked openly which is frequently atypical among Freach intellectual elite. (Sydney Mintz, senior anthropology faculty member at Hopkins, says it is nothing for French professors to enter a classroom by a side door, set up notes, talk nonstop for 50 minutes, and exit without so much as acknowledging anybody's existence.)
Levi-Strauss lives, with his third wife, on the Right Bank, near Le Tour Eiffel , and says that it is a miracle he got here at all. His apartment building sits alongside the four buildings that inexplicably ignited and blew up last week. "We were evacuated without even a toothbrush. It was quite like a bombardment."
He would know about bombardments, having served in the south of France at the outbreak of World War II. He already was an international scholar then, having taught in the '30s at the University of Sao Paulo, and having trekked in the deepest interior of Brazil, living for a time with the Kawahib and Bororo Indians, among others. (Out of these experiences would come 15 years later his masterwork "Tristes Tropiques," an intellectual autobiography that Sontag, for one, compares in brilliance to Montaigne's "Essays" and Freud's "Interpretations of Dreams.")
In the spring of 1941, his military regiment in tatters, Levi-Strauss learned that there was a place for him at the New School for Social Research. He boarded a boat and sailed for America via Martinique and Puerto Rico. the trip took three weeks.
"It was a ship built for seven passengers. There were 350 of us sleeping in that -- how do you call it? -- hold. I learned some anthropology there."
He taught in New York for a few years later serving as French cultural attache in the United States. In 1950 he returned to France and eventually became head of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the University of Paris. In 1973 he was chosen for the French Academy, which in prestige might be akin to being named to Carter's cabinet.
Currently he is a professor at the College de France, which is not so much a university ("It's against the university system, actually") as a state-sponsored open forum for ideas. There's no registration, the student come and go as they please, the 50 faculty members present a weekly seminar and lecture. The only proviso: Each year they must come up with a new topic.
"We are legally bound to retire at 70," he says. "But because of the war I have a three-year prolongation, which will extend me to 1982. I think I will last that long."
Tucked in that sentiment is perhaps a small, sad, cogent fact about Levi-Strauss. His day is largely regarded as over in his own country. Already, says a Hopkins faculty member, they are carving him up for posterity. According to reports, he made this trip to America as a way of saying to the international academic community he's not yet cold in the ground.
Levi-Strauss seems genuinely amused that so much has been made of his supposed "feuding" with Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of secular existentialism. The point of contention between the two giants is in the relation of history to human consciousness. Sartre would hold that man "makes himself," molds his culture and consciousness by the burden of history. Levi-Strauss would say "the advent of culture . . . coincides with the birth of intellect."
"It was never much of a feud," he says, waving it away. "the Sartre disciples said that nothing can be known without history I had to dissent. But it is not that I don't believe in history I just feel there is no privilege for it."
He has high praise for Margaret Meade: the two last saw each other in Sweden, where they picked up honorary degrees. "She is a great woman. We kiss whenever we meet now. Of course, we are very different in our approaches. She is a better field worker than I ever was or cared to to be -- I never had the patience. Also, she is concerned with helping find solutions to society's problems. I'm in an ivory tower, you might say."
He hesitates . . . "When I was 6 years old, my father gave me a beautiful Japanese print. It was, you might say, my first exotic experience with another culture. I still have that print. It is very old and in poor condition now -- like me. All my life I have been seeking to understand the meaning in that print. Sometimes I think I have it."