The View From Afar by Claude Levi-Strauss

One of the seminal thinkers of the twentieth century looks back over his main ideas, their antecedents, an their offshoots in a wide-ranging successor to his two-volume masterwork, Structural Anthropology. (Book jacket)

I ordered The View From Afar because the thought of ordering Structural Anthropology, the author’s much-more-widely-known “two-volume masterwork” frightened me. As it turns out, both are somewhat an academic text, but Structural Anthropology is more-so. I wasn’t up for the that kind of commitment, or so I told myself. The assumed intellectual challenge and imagined time commitment (“two volumes, too long”) didn’t appeal to me.

Yet, I wanted to read something by Levi-Strauss- he’s a “seminal thinker of the twentieth century”!

Ultimately, The View Form Afar appealed most to my instantaneous taste. It’s a collection of essays on a variety of topics which Levi-Strauss subjects to structural analysis. The text- mine is a weathered paperback with a simple, off-white cover, with the author’s name and title in a blue font with serifs- divides into five parts. Essays in the first two parts cover “classic” topics in anthropology (race, culture, kinship, marriage). The remainder of essays, while grouped into three parts, resembles “grab bag” of miscellaneous, sundry topics. For example, “Pythagoras in America” considers bean prohibitions, perhaps most notably- but certainly not exclusively- upheld by Pythagoras. For another example, consider “From Chretien de Toyes to Richard Wagner,” which discuss subjects The Holy Grail and related motifs to structural analysis.

Before I get into the specifics of any of these essays, I think it’s important for me to convey my understanding of structural analysis in the context of anthropology. Levi-Strauss employs that methodology more often than not.

“Structure” is the key word (duh!). In this context, think of structure in a similar sense to one thinks of form and function. That said, I have much more difficulty describing structure as a “property” than describing form or function.

The best way I can describe it- and I struggled with other strategies before settling on this one- is by likening it to feeling around a space in the dark. One’s understanding of the space is contingent on the opposition between features one recently touched. In a word, “triangulation.” You discover structure by identifying features which represent binary choices, and identifying themes.

For a simple example, consider a hypothetical myth where a witch lives in a cave. (Assuming the story is not true,) We can ask, Why does she live in a cave, not atop a mountain instead? The answer to this and other questions can penetrate deep into a culture.

Essays seven, eight, and (my favorite) seventeen best illustrate structural analysis. In essays seven and eight, Levi-Strauss tells strikingly similar stories from three different Indian tribes in Canada. Any reader would note similarity between these stories. It seems clear these stories have a common origin, so Levi-Strauss tries to account for their differences. For example, in one story a child scares off an ogress by wearing clam siphons (um, what?) as claws; in another another story, a child scares off an ogress by wearing mountain goat horns as claws.

* “Structuralism & Ecology,” “Structuralism & Empiricism,” and “From Chretien de Toyes to Richard Wagner.”

Levi-Strauss suggests an affinity for or proximity to either sea or land accounts for use of either clam siphons (sea) or mountain goat horns (land). It sounds straight-forward enough, but such a connection can be more illuminating than you think. For example, if both tribes were inland at the time the stories were related to the anthropologist, then a sea-themed detail may suggest the ancestral home of one tribe was the sea. Or, a sea-themed detail may indicate trade with a seaside tribe. These (sometimes striking) differences* reveal the “structures” of the tribes.

* More differences: in one story the ogress has poor vision, in another her eyes emit light (whatever that means, as far as vision goes); in one she has a white throat; in another she’s all black (pg 137).

I mentioned essay seventeen is my favorite of the three (in my opinion) most didactic essays . In that essay, “From Chretien de Toyes to Richard Wagner,” Levi-Strauss discusses motifs in Holy Grail literature. The ostensible origin of the Grail is Frenchman Chretien de Toyes’s late 12th century work, but certain motifs date back much further.

Although many individuals consider Grail literature as auxiliary to Christianity, certain motifs seem primordial. Consider the Grail in the most basic sense: a holy vessel. Levi-Strauss considers, could the motif not date back to Hellenistic Egypt (300 bc) (or earlier), when philosophers claimed divine wisdom would come down from the heavens, into a huge crater (pg 220)? The etymology supports that theory- the old French word graal derives from the Greek word crater, which may have unformed the Low Latin word gradalis (bowl).

Welsh and Irish traditions suggest more apparent Grail motifs. For some examples, consider stories of receptacles containing inexhaustible nourishment (whether material or spiritual, e.g. food, immortality) (pg 220); magical lances that bleed (also de Toyes’s text). Furthermore, de Toyes’s text features a hero with the nickname le Gallois, or “the Welshman.”

I mentioned many take for granted the Grail’s relationship with Christianity. For example, many say the bleeding lance in de Toyes’s text is the Spear of Destiny– the very spear used by a Roman Centurion to to pierce Christ’s chest after Crucifixion, thus ensuring his death. However, other features of the text seem at odds with Christian tradition. For example, in de Toyes’s text a woman carries the Grail, but in Christian tradition women played no such a role. (To account for such contradictions Christian tradition interprets the woman as an representation of “The Church.”)

These structural analyses may seem to dance around the question of “So, what’s origin?” But that’s not the point. As Levi-Strauss says,

[S]tructural analysis does not claim to supply an answer to every question. It’s ambitions remain modest: to pinpoint and determine problems, to arrange them in methodical order, perhaps to solve a few of them, but especially to suggest a useful path to researchers who hope to tackle the mass of problems that are, and will probably remain, unsettled (pg 137).

(It may not be very clear what Levi-Strauss means by the word “problems” in the previous quotation. I interpret it to mean “the seemingly incongruent element under investigation.”)

The point, as I said, is identifying features which represent binary choices, and identifying themes.

I’m going to cut myself off here- I’m sitting on a small stack off books I’ve completed reading, have yet to write about, and I worry if too many more accumulate I’ll give up this rewarding exercise of “intellectual disburdenment” (Susan Sontag’s term). I’ll just mention on more essay, “An Anatomical Foreshadowing of Twinship,” which discusses why certain cultures have treated individuals who (i) are twins, (ii) were born feet first, or (iii) were born with a cleft palate* similarly. Very interesting!

* I reread this essay for a second time recently, after learning a newborn cousin has a cleft palate (no worries, should be fine).

Those three conditions seem very different, completely unrelated, no? Well, if I have done the text any justice, then you will know it provides a compelling analysis, and you may desire to read it 🙂