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 🙂


Totemism by Claude Levi-Strauss

It is fitting that Totemism begins like this:

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. (pg 1)

I say it is fitting for 2 reasons. First, serving as an umbrella for sub-reasons: that sentence is characteristic of the remainder of the text. That is, (i) it is not an easy read; (ii) it is academic; (iii) it is a translation-which may (or may not?) account for some of the difficult sentence structures. For those reasons, despite its short length, Totemism was a difficult read.

Next reason the first quotation is a fitting introduction to Totemism is, while the sentence is difficult to unpack (see first reason), it perfectly encapsulates the thesis of Totemism. That is, when Levi-Strauss tried to define totemism empirically, he found there is no one sufficiently precise (or useful) definition. He says,

The supposed totemism eludes all effort at absolute definition. It consists, at most, in a contingent arrangement of nonspecific elements. It is a combination of particulars which may be empirically observable in a number of cases without resulting any special properties; it is not an organic synthesis, an object in social nature (pg 5).

If the word “totemism” is completely unfamiliar to you, I’ll mention some related terms. A “totem” is a sacred object (animate, inanimate, spirit) around which a culture variously organizes itself. A “totem pole” (simply put) is an edifice which depicts a culture’s important stories-often including visual representations of totems, and serves various ceremonial purposes.

Levi-Strauss’ beef is not with the word “totem,” which derives from Ojibwe; his beef is with the word “totemism.”

The word “totemism” implies likeness between the implementation of totems. There is some likeness, but as the aforementioned quotation conveyed, “It consists, at most, in a contingent arrangement of nonspecific elements.” (My emphasis on nonspecific.) Totemism systematically assesses (i) the prevalence and (ii) contingence of these “nonspecific elements” across “primitive” cultures around the globe-including such heterogeneous phenomena as:

lists of names or emblems, the belief in a supernatural relationship with non-human beings, prohibitions which may be alimentary but are not always such (e.g., to walk on grass and eat out of a bowl, in Santa Cruz; to touch a bison horn or foetus, charcoal or verdigris, insects and vermin, among the Omaha), and certain rules of exogamy <intermarriage among variously arranged groups> (pg 6).

The previous quotation comes from Boas’s 1938 textbook General Anthropology (Levi-Strauss paraphrasing), which also includes this passage:

Too much has been written of Totemism in its different aspects…to permit leaving it entirely out of the discussion… Since the manifestations are so varied in different parts of the world, since their resemblances are only apparent, and since they are phenomena which may occur in many settings not related to real or supposed consanguinity, they can by no means be fitted into a single category (pg 6).

Similar to a previous quotation from Levi-Strauss, no?

Indeed. So, why, about 25 years later, does Levi-Strauss write a treatise on something so similar? Well, first I should mention: of Boas’s 718 page text from 1938, only 4 pages address totemism-which is to say it did not really aspire to prove the point.

Twenty years earlier, ven Gennep said something similar in his 1919 text:

Totemism has already taxed the wisdom and the ingenuity of many scholars, and there are reasons to believe that it will continue to do so for many years (pg 6).

In short, the idea (that totemism isn’t really ‘a’ thing) had been had, but the treatise had not been written. On the contrary, thousands of pages to the contrary had been written-for example, Frazer’s 1910 text sought to (i) systematize totemism and (ii) classify tribes based on three criteria. (It ran 2200-pages in 4 volumes!)

(Frazer’s effort, after reading Totemism, strikes me as analogous to packing many many fragile treasures away into a single small box-by smashing them.)

In sum, between 1910 (Frazer’s text) and 1960 (Levi-Strauss’s text), anthropologists tended toward outright dismissal of totemism as ‘a thing,’ but stopped short of trying to “prove it.” Levi-Strauss sought to prove it.

As it turns out, Levi-Strauss’s work to impoverish the word “totemism” simultaneously enriched so many of its “nonspecific elements.” Taken out of the context of “primitive” cultures, certain elements, like Omens, feel more relevant, even urgent.

For example, consider a fascinating anecdote about the US Army’s 42nd Division in WW1: it came to be known as “Rainbow Division” because it “was composed of units from so many states their regimental colors were as varied as those of the rainbow” (pg 7). Soldiers started identifying as “rainbows.” They considered rainbows to be happy omens. Soldiers would claim they saw rainbow whenever they went into battle.

To some extent, rainbows were a totem for the 42nd Division.

One function of Totemism is elucidation of such nuances of “The Component Parts Formerly Known as Totemism.” To Illustrate a one nuance, consider rainbows in the context of LGBTQ imagery. There, the image of a rainbow is a symbol of solidarity, but rainbows are not. Have you ever heard of an LGBTQ activist/ally who considers the appearance of a rainbow as positive omen?

This is a difficult read. I should reiterate, this is an academic text, not pop science. For most readers (myself included), the first 20 pages will suffice. However, if you care to trek through the remainder, you’ll find encounter interesting passages here and there. I found certain functional theories totemism, or specific totems, especially interesting. For example, a passage on page 68 frames ritual attitude and interest/anxiety in a chicken or the egg scenario. That is, did certain interests or anxieties derive from rituals, or did certain rituals derive from interests or anxieties? The question is impossible to answer in a general way, nevertheless an interesting topic.

While Totemism is only 104 pages, it is packed, densely, with anecdotes and empirical data. Nearly any page (after the first 20 pages) refers to examples of such-and-such* from 5 or more tribes.

* Where “such-and-such” is: personal v. collective relationship between men and totems; ritual relationships between them (e.g. taboos and prohibitions); notion of totem as emblem v. ancestor v. spirit; distinction between “higher” and “lower spirits”; positive/good or negative/bad associations with totems; animate v. inanimate totems (e.g. animal/plants/nature symbolism v. conceptual symbolism, like “vomiting” and “laughter”); practice of endogamy v. exogamy, and functions and rules of marriage and descent; and so on..

If you can metabolize all of this information, I congratulate you. I could not. Or maybe I could, didn’t desire. I find themes in anthropology more interesting than its practice. In order to understand totemism, and demystify it, Levi-Strauss studied it around the world, from every perspective- formalist, functionalist, structuralist*. Along the way, he considers such interesting ideas as whether the origin of metaphor is myth (pg 27), whether or not it’s of value to consider instances of totemism amount to “sociological species” (pg 54).

Lofty stuff. Good stuff.

* More about this when I write about The View From Afar.

But ultimately we get to the point I spoiled very early in this essay: totemism isn’t really ‘a’ thing. Better put,

totemism does not constitute a phenomenon sui generis but a specific instance in the general field of relationships between man and the objects of his natural environment (pg 29).


the notion of totemism is inconsistent and that a careful re-examination of the fact leads to its dissolution. He [A.P. Elkin] confines himself to denying their unity, as if he thought it possible to preserve the reality of totemism on the condition that it be reduced to multiplicity of heterogeneous forms. For him, there is no longer a totemism but totemisms, each of which exits as an irreducible entity (pg 45).

While reading, and since then, I asked myself: Do we need the word “totemism” to discuss the concept represented by it? (Sorry, I’m going to ignore the contingent question, Who is “we”?)

I think the answer is: We don’t need it, but it has its uses. If we’re going to use it, we need to understand its limited meaning. It must be very vague, something like “systems related to totems,” because “totem” does not even have a very consistent meaning.

I’m not going to debate whether “we” need the word totem (remember, it’s an Ojibwe word)but one could; again, used in a general sense, its meaning must be very vague- something like “symbol with cultural relevance.”

Well, it having crossed my mind that I’ve reduced totems to “memes”- “symbol with cultural relevance”- I’m inclined to end this essay. 


Totemism 5/10