This book begins like a Tintin adventure. We first meet the young Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1938, leading an ethnographic expedition through uncharted Brazilian forests in pursuit of tribal cultures that have been untouched by Western modernity. Patrick Wilcken vividly describes Lévi-Strauss – hard, lean, determined - yomping across the territory accompanied by mules, native bearers, and other Europeans in pith helmets. This could be any of the great "scientific" explorers of the 19th century at work in Africa, mapping and classifying the exotic and the unknown.
But what we are witnessing is something else altogether. The results of Lévi-Strauss's endeavours would be published some 30 years later as Tristes Tropiques, which begins with the famous line: "I hate travelling and I hate explorers." Most importantly, Tristes Tropiques was not a celebration of Western science and civilisation, but rather a critique of their limits in the encounter with the non-Western world. It is both gloomy and funny, but most of all it is an attack on Western modernity.
Tristes Tropiques was in every sense a landmark book. Part, travelogue, part memoir, it is mainly an account of Lévi-Strauss's work among the indigenous peoples of Brazil, with digressions to Martinique, India, Pakistan, Paris, New York and other places. Interestingly, Lévi-Strauss began this book as a novel – which partly explains the intimate and deft prose style and the quick shifts of pace – but his real quest was to understand the symmetries of thought and behaviour across human societies. To this extent, the book is also a work of cultural anthropology. Most crucially, in describing his travels and adventures, Lévi-Strauss also redefines what it means to be a human being.
He did this by founding what later came to be called "structuralism", a philosophical school that posited that all human activity was shaped by "deep structures" which were common to all societies. More to the point, he revealed the complex fact that we all belong to the same species, adapting ourselves to local conditions rather than the other way around.
With this single insight, Lévi-Strauss shattered 19th-century notions of race and history – most crucially, he dissolved the opposition between the so-called superiority of European culture and the "primitive" cultures of the non-European world. He argued rather that all humans are equal, but differently human. With this observation he launched the big ideas that would define the late 20th century, and shape the careers of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault – to name only the most famous and French of the "structuralist" and "post-structuralist" generations.
Wilcken's book is more than a match for his subject. It is beautifully written, accessible and entertaining. Wilcken is extremely adept at handling complex themes, rendering them comprehensible without ever over-simplifying. The book is divided into two halves. In the first, Wilcken describes the formative events that shaped Lévi-Strauss's life – a journey without maps from Paris to São Paulo, via Vichy France and New York. Lévi-Strauss grew up in a turbulent period in Paris and his early ideas owed as much to the iconoclastic energy of the Surrealists and other revolutionary avant-gardists as they did to any form of "science". It is this fact, Wilcken suggests, which best explains the free-form idiosyncrasies which made him suspect as a pure theorist but so engaging as a writer.
The second half of the book is less dramatic as events are replaced by ideas as the key markers of Lévi-Strauss's life. But this section is no less engrossing, as Wilcken traces the reception and impact of Lévi-Strauss not only in the French-speaking world but the wider Anglo-American academy. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, "structuralism" and "post-structuralism" coursed like a virus through humanities departments in Britain and the US, dividing colleagues and wrecking all received notions of how to read literature or culture. Those battles now seem quaint and outdated, but in the 21st century - an age defined by the postcolonial tensions which he first identified as the core contradiction of the project of Western modernity - Lévi-Strauss suddenly now seems a more potent even prophetic figure.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Wilcken was able to interview Lévi-Strauss at length in his later years. He emerges as a cranky, ironic and ascetic figure, strangely disarming in his inability to shy away from uncomfortable truths or a fight.
This much is consistent with, for example, the critique Lévi-Strauss makes of Islam in the later pages of Tristes Tropiques. Essentially, Lévi-Strauss saw Islam as a doctrinaire and puritanical system which could not tolerate dissent or difference. It should be said, however, that he also noted the same tendencies and dangers in contemporary French philosophy which, he asserted, was also a closed system defined by backward-looking rituals and beliefs.
One of Lévi-Strauss's first readers was Georges Bataille, who was similarly a deliberately unsystematic polymath who embraced mystery and discontinuity as the guiding principles of his thought. Above all, Bataille admired in Lévi-Strauss the will to annihilate idealised and false conceptions of "humanity" and "humanism", although he did not know what to replace them with. This did not make Lévi-Strauss a nihilist but rather a passionate sceptic whose life's work was dedicated to investigating puzzles that he knew that he could never finally solve.
Lévi-Strauss lived a long life and became a literary and philosophical monument in France. He did not like celebrity or the fatigue that old age inflicted and, despite his revered status, described himself at the age of 90 as feeling like "a shattered hologram". The absurdity of fame pursued him after death (aged 100, in 2009) when, in a misguided and ignorant homage to Lévi-Strauss, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had clearly never read or understood a line of Tristes Tropiques, described him as "a tireless humanist". As this book demonstrates, the lingering fascination of the life and work of Claude Lévi-Strauss is that nothing could be further from the truth.
Andrew Hussey is director of the University of London Institute in Paris; his 'Paris: the secret history' is published by PenguinReuse content