The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is arguably known for two pieces of writing: one being Tristes Tropiques, and the other being the four volume Mythologiques series. This is not to say that these are the only books of his that have left an imprint in the world. La Pensée Sauvage (or as translated into English, Savage Minds) is known for closing with a devastating disassembling of Jean-Paul Sartre; The Elementary Structures of Kinship is a synthetic masterpiece that transformed an entire anthropological sub-discipline; both Totemism and Structural Anthropology are classroom staples in many introductory anthropology courses. But when weighing Lévi-Strauss’s reputation as an author, I feel comfortable with the assertion that Triste Tropiques and Mythologiques are the texts that bear most of the weight.
This couple may be interesting, because to many eyes these texts appear to be wildly different from one another. According to reputation, Triste Tropiques is a travel memoir, saturated with a nostalgia for an indigenous (new) world that had faded before Lévi-Strauss ever had an opportunity to see it. Mythologiques, by contrast, is an exhaustive and encyclopedic crystallization of indigenous thought. It is presented as a totalizing autopsy of Native American myth, where Claude Lévi-Strauss erases himself as an author, leaving nothing behind but his structuralist intellectual apparatus and the myths which are simply the grist for that apparatus to grind apart. One thinks of images of Lévi-Strauss’s office, bloated with thousands of index cards, each containing a separate and decontextualized ’mytheme’ – the name for social roles, objects, and events that Lévi-Strauss considered to be the basic constituent material that myths are constructed from. Put this way, these two books fit a duality hinted at in the title of a recent biography of Lévi-Strauss, The Poet in the Laboratory. There is on one hand a melancholically poetic Lévi-Strauss, that is to say the Lévi-Strauss of Triste Tropiques, and on the other the unemotional pseudo-scientific Lévi-Strauss found in Mythologiques.
Such a divide, though, depends on great deal on Mythologiques to make its argument. Or rather, this argument depends on Mythologiques’s reputation. Perhaps, we could say, on the myth of Mythologiques.
I say this because when reading Mythologiques, that is not the feeling one has when the actual book is in the hands, or rather, when the actual books that constitute Mythologiques are in hand (in English, the four volumes are separately titled The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Origin of Table Manners, and The Naked Man). Obsessed with details, constantly falling into meditations on subjects such as geology, zoology, botany, art, and music theory, sprawling over two continents, Mythologiques reads as more post-structuralist explosion than as structuralist model. But this is a post-structuralism is of a different kind, not to be mistaken for faddish American nineteen eighties academic post-structuralism. Running from the rain forrest of central Brazil to Vancouver Island and Puget Sound, Mythologiques is as much of a travel narrative as Triste Tropiques is. And while Lévi-Strauss himself may be explicitly absent from the book (apart from his authorial voice), Mythologiques can still be read as a memoir of his, as the traveler himself is changed by his voyage during the course of the four volumes.
Not many people read Mythologiques that way; to be honest, though, not many people read Mythologiques at all. It is after all four volumes long, which is a heavy ask considering the fact that in contemporary anthropology, structuralism seems dead for both intellectual, political, and aesthetic reasons. In fact, it seems more than dead; structuralism has decomposed to the point where it seems to have lost its intellectual integrity to the corruption of the grave. Yes, there are ‘murmurs’ of Lévi-Strauss coming back, but they are always just murmurs. And if Mythologiques is Lévi-Strauss own ‘line of flight’ away from structuralism, then reading all four volumes seems to be less than rewarding. Why read four volumes just to see one the founders of structuralism trying to fight his way out of the wet paper bag of structuralist logic? True, one could read Mythologiques as a piece of literature, or an experiment in thought, or as a sliver of intellectual history, but even then, who would have time for something four volumes long?
But one of the odd things about time is that when one is rushing about, time seems to rush with you, and it is impossible to complete any task with dispatch because the time has contracted in a way that is commensurate with one’s speed. When reading slowly, though, things are different. Taking in only a few pages a day, one can cut through a book the way water cuts through stone: through steady erosion. Reading Mythologiques this way has other benefits. It is possible to attend to the details of an argument, to the craftsmanship in the writing; there is also time to look deeply into troubling aspects as well, rather than to simply judge and move on. And we can have the chance to be more judicious in deciding when Lévi-Strauss is writing about the people of the Americas, and when he is truly writing about himself. We can, in other words, stop to smell the wild pansies (if I can be excused, for those who caught the reference). Of course, such a way of reading is different from most other modes of academic reading. At this purposefully glacial pace, reading about this virtual voyage is more akin to undertaking a voyage oneself, and further a voyage where the path travelled, rather than the destination, is the true point of the trek.
Hence this website. This is a travel narrative and memoir of my trip through Mythologiques. For the most part, it is a going to be a voyage through what is to me also Terra Incognita. I am an anthropologist of America, but of a different America than the one that was so dear to Lévi-Strauss’s heart. I write about settler culture in the United States, focusing on forms of organized religion; and when I write in a different mode, it tends to be writing that borders science studies (this especially has been the case since I started writing and researching on religious transhumanism). Of course, I was acquainted with structuralist theory in graduate school, and I read the books by Lévi-Strauss that one was supposed to read during that long apprenticeship. But I am no structuralist. In fact, the closest I come to structuralism in my writing is probably when I let myself be informed by the writing of Gilles Deleuze, a French academic who rejected both Structuralism and Lévi-Strauss. But over the past few years I found myself thinking about both Lévi-Strauss and Mythologiques at odd times, wondering what this material might have to say to the present moment. And so, I read Mythologiques. Or rather, I read parts of Mythologiques. It was ‘reading,’ but it was reading in the same way that you could say an elite strike force goes ‘touring’ during a pinpoint military mission with immediate extraction. Large swaths of the book were passed over; they might as well have been blank pages for what I took from them. But afterwards, I longed to return. I know that saying ‘longed’ is strange, and perhaps overly romantic and writerly to the point of being purple. But it is the best term, to be honest, for how I felt. I wanted back in Mythologiques.
And so here I go back in. I do not expect the reader to follow along with me, though she is more than welcome along. You do not have to read the pages I read, at the pace that I read. Rather, I imagine people only occasionally reading the source material, and further occasionally reading my reports in the way that travel writing is consumed; something to be slipped in and out of, something you could perhaps learn from, but primarily something to be read for aesthetic effect, amusement, and perhaps a sense of how different the world can be. Every few days, a new set of reports, covering not chapters but pages, and perhaps sometimes just paragraphs. Some days, I imagine, I’ll just be writing about a single sentence by Lévi-Strauss.
And so I will start with the first volume of Mythologiques, The Raw and the Cooked, not beginning with an introduction, but rather (as Lévi-Strauss intended) with an overture.