Study Guide

Claude Lévi-Strauss Biography

Basic Information

Name

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Nickname

Father of Modern Anthropology, The Structuralist's Structuralist, Claude the Barbarian

Sex

Male

Home town

Born in Brussels, but Mom and Dad were French, so we beat it back to France and lived just outside of Paris near that fancy castle called Versailles. In my teens, the fam moved to Paris itself—to the upscale 16th Arrondisement, to be exact—so I could attend some of the city's notable lycées (basically, French high schools). Being in Paris was a must for an up-and-coming intellectual like myself.

Work & Education

Occupation

My career exploded in Brazil like a crazy Mardi Gras party. But I don't want to get ahead of myself: after receiving my degree at the Sorbonne, I taught at a few high schools (we call them "secondary schools" in France) but then lit off for South America with my old lady by my side. That's where I found some "exotic" people (exotic to me, at least) and realized that although not everyone in the world feasts on croissants and café crèmes, they still live equally interesting and important lives.

I taught sociology at the University of São Paulo and did some wildly innovative work in anthropology and ethnography—that's fieldwork that involves getting out of your office and out among the people you are studying in order to get the "real" information about culture as it is lived by actual people.

I ventured out into the interior—that is, the Brazilian rainforest. In South America, I hung out with a bunch of different tribes, which I wrote about much later in my masterpiece Tristes Tropiques (that translates to "sad tropics"). At that point, I was a bona fide anthropologist—the real deal.

After life in the jungle, I held a bunch of academic appointments at such places as The New School in New York (I loved that city). I even served as "cultural attaché" for the French government and started a department of social sciences at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. My career reached new heights at the Collège de France and my election to the French Academy. At that point, my status as "The Man" was confirmed. Of course, I published many groundbreaking works along the way—chief among them my four-volume opus Mythologiques.

Education

Sure, the classroom is a great place to learn. So, in my early years, I went to law school (don't ask) and then went on to study philosophy at the crazy intellectual Sorbonne (a must for any French intellectual). I received my PhD at age 40.

During that time, I did some of the most important work of my life: I traveled around Brazil in everything from an old Ford to an oxcart; I hung out with indigenous people like the Nambikwara and Aikanã; and I documented their customs, kinship structures, and cultural patterns.

That's when my lifelong fascination with the many parallels between the so-called civilized and the so-called primitive began. Let's put it this way: my real education took place among poison dart frogs, piranhas, and carnivorous flowers. The library is so overrated.

Beliefs

Political views

Ah, politics. Guess what? They're universal. No one is immune from the hierarchies, competitions, and combats that feed the political machine.

My political interests were stirred in high school when I befriended a young member of the Socialist Party. I said, "Sign me up," and I started tearing through all of the Party's great literature—especially the works of the great bearded Karl Marx.

I became really pumped about Socialism. I even started a Socialist Study Group and became Secretary General of Socialist Students. I mobilized people to action and raised fists with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Eventually, Marxism got too conventional and pretty much petered out; that's when I got out of politics.

Of course, things got real messy when the Nazis took over most of France. I lost my job and my French citizenship because of my Jewish ancestry, so I just left France for the Caribbean island of Martinique. If you want to see "savages," don't travel to the thick bushes of Brazil to meet the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes; the real savages were running the Third Reich.

Religious views

I had some Jewish ancestry on my mother's side—actually, Gramps was a rabbi. My childhood home was full of artifacts of Jewish culture (the Nazis grabbed it all during the war). But my interest in religion was always cultural. I saw religion as a lens through which to understand different cultures and as a way of expressing human knowledge. I wasn't really religious, but I was interested in studying world religions, along with the myths, ceremonies, and totems that reflect their values.

I looked at plenty of religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Christianity—and you know what I saw? Structural similarity, universal qualities, and sameness—not difference. Not everyone was keen on that idea, but I say, who doesn't want to find meaning in life—and isn't religion but one way to do it?

Activities & Interests

Likes

Vegan meat substitutes
Tropical islands
Weddings
New York City
Nambikwara Indians
Being an academic celebrity
Poetry—can't get enough Shakespeare
Myths
Binaries—they're everywhere!
Taboos
Tricksters
Ravens and coyotes
All the world's living species

Dislikes

The idea of "us vs. them"
The privileging of the individual over the community
Rotten food
Farms
Burgers
Nazis
The FBI
History (as opposed to histories)
Homogenous culture
The increasing domination of modern culture

Interests

Tinkering
Hanging with fellow émigrés
Joining in on family reunions
Collecting honorary doctorates (Yale, Columbia, Oxford… too many to list)
Comparing radically different cultures
Weaving skirts
Globetrotting
Reconciling contradiction
Taking my sweet time to finish my PhD because I had more important things to do

Groups

Internationally Renowned Anthropologists
Raw Foodies
The Honorary Amazonians
Émigrés from Nazi Domination
Friends of the Nambikwara IndiansThe Mythologizers
The Structuralists
Defenders of Taboo
Anthropologist Chefs
Scientists for Surrealism