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Claude Lévi-Strauss Celebrates his 100th Birthday This Month!

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Yes, Claude Lévi-Strauss is still alive and will celebrate his 100th birthday in a few weeks.
Beyond his well-known scholarly accomplishments, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Professor Lévi-Strauss' personal longevity is a testament to the positive benefits of the pursuit of structural anthropology on long life and good health. Just carrying around his four-volume, 2200 page oeuvre, "Mythologiques" will improve your muscle tone and cardiovascular capacity.

In his Times Literary Supplement article (available here), Patrick Wilcken notes that Lévi-Strauss' three dimensional approach to myth analysis is like a Klein bottle:

"Mathematically generated, but with an organic feel, the Klein bottle’s bulbous, undulating form is self-consuming and conceptually difficult to grasp. It has no true inner or outer surfaces. Like Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre, it eternally feeds back through itself."

What Wilcken is referring to is the recursive nature of Lévi-Strauss' technique. A myth cannot be understood by itself, but only as part of the complete body of a culture's mythology. According to Lévi-Strauss, such an analysis is necessary because the reasoning taking place within a myth defies what we understand as logic. It is not linear thinking, but rather a metaphoric leap of faith that finds connections where there aren’t any and achieves the reconciliation of the irreconcilable.

The Klein bottle may be an apt metaphor for the recursive nature of Lévi-Strauss' technique. I like better his other metaphor of mythology as a culture's musical score of which we only see a bar at a time and which we must reassemble in complete "musical notation" form to fully grasp.

Lévi-Strauss' work came at a time when anthropologists in general were abandoning the belief of James George Frazer and the other pioneering anthropologists that pre-literate peoples were somehow more primitive, more childlike or less intellectually capable than modern man. His attempts to define the structures of aspects of pre-literate societies demonstrated a complexity of thought and a subtlety of mind equal to our own.

Some critics get hung up on discrepancies within the structural methodology which Lévi-Strauss used to explain mythology, totemic systems and kinship systems. Other criticism focuses on how a particular interpretation doesn't fit the recorded ethnography for a culture. While the methodology itself, or its particular application may be subject to review and revision, what is important is that Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that there is a universality to the human mind, and given sufficient symbolic material, all peoples —  whether within an oral culture, a literate culture or our post-literate culture — still retain a commonality which can be explored through our symbol systems and perhaps understood in terms of the underlying structures transmitted via the stories told.

Our own "modern" culture also has a mythic "score," but being part of it, it is difficult for us to see. The distinctions between "raw" vs. "cooked," "nature" vs. "culture" and "modern" vs. "primitive" that Lévi-Strauss finds in his studies of North and South America native populations drive the narratives, beliefs and social customs of 21st century populations as well.

Happy Birthday Professor Lévi-Strauss!

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