Emmanuelle Loyer. Lévi-Strauss: A Biography. Translated by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff. New York: Polity Press, 2018. xi+744 pp., illus., notes, list of works, archives, index.
There is no shortage of books on Claude Lévi-Strauss. The defining force in French anthropology after World War II, an internationally-known intellectual, and a—many would argue the—founder of structuralism, Lévi-Strauss left an indelible mark on the intellectual culture of the twentieth century. Despite widespread interest in him, there have been relatively few biographies, perhaps because of the challenges he presents as a subject: his sojourns in the United States, Brazil, and France require potential biographers to be multilingual. His output was vast, demanding, and difficult to synthesize. His extraordinary fame makes documenting his influence a massive undertaking. Even his private life presents a challenge: Lévi-Strauss lived much of his life in his study, making most of his biography too uneventful to make for interesting reading. Happily, however, Emanuelle Loyer’s 744 page biography has achieved the seemingly impossible. This detailed, deeply researched, and relatively accessible volume makes it difficult to imagine that anyone will attempt a more exhaustive biography in the future. If they did, I am not sure what they could add to Loyer’s account. While many aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s life still await specialized treatment, I am confident that this book will become the definitive one-volume biography of Lévi-Strauss for the foreseeable future.
The English edition of Lévi-Strauss: A Biography was produced by Polity Press, which has found a niche translating doorstop-sized biographies of European thinkers into English. One thinks here of Fournier’s Durkheim, Radkau’s Weber, and Peeters’s Derrida. These good-but-thick volumes have had mixed success in terms of readability. I am pleased to say that Loyer succeeds quite well in this regard. Her book’s 598 pages of body text are divided into 21 chapters of manageable length. Each chapter is in turn divided into sections and subsections, the latter of which are sometimes no more than a few paragraphs. As a result the book’s structure offers readers regular stopping points and gives them a sense of progress as they move from section to section and chapter to chapter. Using the book for reference is trickier, however. There is no analytic table of contents to lead readers through the text’s skeleton of section and subsection headings. Additionally, while the headings’ evocative titles make for lively reading, they don’t help identify the topics of each section. For instance, it is not obvious that the section entitled “guilty anthropology” covers criticisms of Lévi-Strauss made by Robert Jaulin, Pierre Clastres, and others.
Luckily there is a serviceable index. Or rather, as is often the case in books of this type, there are actually two indexes: the index itself, and the entry for “Lévi-Strauss, Claude”! Unfortunately, this entry and others are organized alphabetically by topic, which makes them difficult to navigate. One cannot just search for “Roman Jakobsen,” but instead must know that his meeting with Jakobsen was “fabled” and go to entries beginning with F in the Lévi-Strauss index entry for “fabled encounter with Roman Jakobsen.” (The entry for Jakobsen does not have a separate entry for this event.) I would have preferred a listing in narrative order as in, for instance, Young’s Malinowski or Stocking’s After Tylor. However, I suspect the vast majority of readers will never notice these decisions, and they do not detract from the overall value of the book to anyone except a few endmatter-obsessed historians of anthropology.
Loyer’s prose is animated and easy to read. True, like Lévi-Strauss, she sometimes takes advantage of French’s penchant for conjunctions and subordinate clauses to produce sentences which, although elegant and sophisticated in the original, challenge the translator who must render them into English—a language with a lower tolerance for twisting turns of phrase than Loyer’s native tongue. Luckily, Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff’s translation successfully unwinds Loyer’s longer sentences into parsable English. The translation also conveys the vivacity of Loyer’s prose. There is very little technical vocabulary or conceptual language which needs to be explicated by the translators, so that is not an issue. Sophisticated readers will find Loyer’s style candid and engaging.
I will not attempt to summarize this lengthy work, except to say that it begins with Lévi-Strauss’s apparently-once-famous violinist great-grandfather, describes Lévi-Strauss’s life, and ends with an examination of his influence on recent works such as Debaene’s Far Afield. Loyer avoids focusing on intellectual history and Lévi-Strauss’s thought—a wise move given the amount of ink that has already been spilled on this topic. Individual publications are discussed, to be sure, but Loyer focuses on the writing of the works, the circumstances of their publication, and their reception. Only a brief summary of their content is given. Readers looking for a skeleton key to Lévi-Strauss’s work will not find it here. Loyer’s account is also not especially psychological and does not examine Lévi-Strauss’s personality, sexual life, secret thoughts and feelings, or anything of that sort.
Rather, Lévi-Strauss: A Biography focuses on the individuals and institutions which shaped Lévi-Strauss’s life. Loyer gradually builds her picture of Lévi-Strauss, stroke by meticulous stroke, as we see him influence and be influenced by others. In discussing his immigration to the United States during World War II, for instance, Loyer quotes letters of recommendation from (among others) Georges Devereux and Julian Steward which explain to officials (and the reader) why Lévi-Strauss was important enough to be rescued from Vichy France. The dates of each letter are documented in the body of the text. The weight each letter placed on the bureaucracy is noted, as is the dollar amount of the grant that Lévi-Strauss received to help with travel. She then gives us an image of the ship he traveled on. The caption below the image provides the name of the ship and the date it left France down to the month. It is an impressive accomplishment.
Lévi-Strauss lived through the entirety of the twentieth century and managed to spend it with some of the most prominent artistic and intellectual minds of his age, often with the help of some of the era’s most important institutions. Trying to contextualize this panorama of players would be a nightmare, and Loyer opts to spend little time providing readers with background. Instead she moves the narrative along briskly, with perhaps at most a sentence or two about the people and ideas that Lévi-Strauss encountered. Additional and often-juicy details can be found in the endnotes, which specialists will enjoy but are not necessary to the narrative. This decision keeps an already-long book from becoming mired in pages and pages of scene-setting. However, it also means that the book does not welcome the uninitiated. Loyer expects you to already know a good deal about Lévi-Strauss before you read Lévi-Strauss. In fact, it’s likely that most readers will have a browser window open to Wikipedia when reading the biography: Anglophone anthropologists will be unfamiliar with the Brazilian academy in the 1930s, literary critics will not understand the internal politics of Lévi-Strauss’s laboratory, and French readers will be left wondering who Julian Steward is and why he is qualified to evaluate the great Lévi-Strauss. Practically everyone, then, will need more background in at least some parts of the story.
Everyone, that is, except Loyer herself. Her steady grasp on a myriad of facts never seems to slip. I am sure many reviewers will compliment her on her mastery of the sources but to be honest, very few of us have mastered them sufficiently to judge her. Loyer conducted research in four countries for this work and draws heavily on the secondary literature in French and English as well. She also draws on interviews, films, and videos. One of the chief strengths of this biography is that it manages to be highly detailed while simultaneously wearing its learning lightly.
Loyer worked closely with Lévi-Strauss’s family and the book is clearly partial to him. At times, it verges into fetishization. There are images of Lévi-Strauss’s typewriter, his camera, even an uncaptioned image of him in Japan feeding a cow that one imagines does some sort of emotional work for the French audience. While excessive at times, I often appreciated these indulgences. One of the great charms of the book is its many endearing family photos. In fact, Lévi-Strauss’s father was a skilled portrait painter and one of the highlights of the book is his portrayal of a four-year-old Claude in a dress riding a toy horse.
Luckily Loyer does not seem captured by familial interests and is candid about controversial aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s life. She describes, for instance, the attempted suicide of his first wife and its prevention by his mother. A good example of Loyer’s judicious tone can be found in her description of the objectification of women at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale: “Lévi-Strauss and [Isac] Chiva’s hiring techniques were highly idiosyncratic: they considered faces first, staring at them in total silence, before looking at applications. […] A male gaze, but one that nonetheless remained irreproachably courteous at all times.” She notes later on in the same paragraph that “in moments of tension, the reigning atmosphere was one of a ‘seraglio’” (397-398). She also documents Lévi-Strauss’s opposition to the (successful) election of Marguerite Yourcenar to the Académie Française, the first woman to serve on that body. Many readers will find Loyer’s portrayal of Lévi-Strauss’s relationship with indigenous people cloying if not downright incendiary: in this biography they are usually passive recipients of aesthetic appreciation or, in the case of Kwakwaka’wakw people, extras in Lévi-Strauss’s life whose approbation of the master thinker is proof of his genius. Overall, these discordant notes establish Loyer as a credible and judicious narrator of Lévi-Strauss’s story, albeit a sympathetic one.
Loyer’s Lévi-Strauss is more nuanced than Anglophone anthropology’s stereotype of him as a detached, ascetic seer, the empty vessel through which the structures speak. While many of us are accustomed to photographs of Lévi-Strauss in his old age, or of him as scruffy and culture-shocked in the Amazon, Loyer’s book shows us a Lévi-Strauss who is youthful, worldly, charismatic, and handsome. In fact, his life as she describes it has many parallels with that of Franz Boas. Both anthropologists were nice Jewish boys from nurturing, close-knit extended families. Both were passionate institution builders and academic entrepreneurs—machers, to use a Yiddish term which these two assimilated intellectuals would no doubt have disdained. Both leveraged transatlantic connections. Due to his time in New York, Lévi-Strauss was uniquely placed to understand Americans and channel their postwar dollars to his favorite Parisian institutions. Boas went in the opposite direction, using the cultural capital of his German education to gain legitimacy in the United States. Both spent many years in the academic wilderness. Lévi-Strauss was 41 when he obtained a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études—the same age at which Boas began his professorship at Columbia. Both men were long-lived, chose women as their successors, lacked a formal degree in anthropology, and wrote at least one book on first nations people of the Pacific Northwest. The parallels are quite interesting.
There are differences as well, of course. Boas was the academic entrepreneur par excellence, with a political and scholarly agenda. Boas worked hard to make his views hegemonic, while Lévi-Strauss carefully avoided evangelizing for structuralism. He was also the opposite of a politically-engaged anthropologist and patiently sat out the political upheavals which erupted in France in May 1968. In fact, Lévi-Strauss seems to have achieved his position of prominence to ensure that he would be free to write whatever he wanted. Overall then, Lévi-Strauss’s academic diplomacy seems to have more in common with the conciliatory institutional politicking of Raymond Firth (another of his near-contemporaries) than with Boas.
Loyer portrays aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s career that may be unfamiliar to some readers. Despite Lévi-Strauss’s romantic aestheticism and love of nature, many English speakers see him as the epitome of mid-century modernism, the man who demolished totemism to make way for cybernetics, structuralism, and information theory. Loyer reveals him to be a much more Victorian thinker. For example, his fieldwork was organized as an “expedition” along the lines of Griaule and Haddon, rather than Malinowski. Moreover, the inner chapters of Pensée Sauvage are concerned with delineating the difference between caste and totemism—topics which were already moribund in the 1960s. Additionally, I was struck by how central Lévi-Strauss’s role as an Americanist was in the early part of his career. Few today would consider his ethnographic work to be of much value other than as raw material for his imagination, but he initially established himself as a sort of successor to Rivet.
Exhaustive, approachable, and complete, Lévi-Strauss: A Biography will be welcome to historians of anthropology interested in the institutional and personal scaffolding on which Lévi-Strauss built his career. I for one felt great swaths of blank space on my intellectual map being filled in as I read it. Anthropologists interested in the background to Lévi-Strauss’s work will be able to dip in and out of the book as needed. It is very gratifying to see that Lévi-Strauss has finally received the biographical treatment he deserves, and I highly recommend this excellent volume to anyone interested in learning more about a man who remains one of anthropology’s most important thinkers.
Alex Golub: contributions / firstname.lastname@example.org / Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
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