Last month, I read a very informative book called How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People by Mauritius-born lecturer of Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, Dr. Sudhir Hazareesingh (I have explored a few observations of his on Tearing Down the Ivory Tower). As the title suggests, this is a scholarly yet playful enquiry into, and even celebration of, the “distinctiveness of French cultural thinking.” The French – committed rationalists who enjoy pulling binary concepts (mind/body, self-interest/common good) to the extreme for the sheer thrill of debate – are, undoubtedly, the most self-consciously intellectual of all peoples. They have, for centuries, been producing elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition. And they have always thought for “the entire world”.
Dr. Hazareesingh’s engaging account of French cognition and universality roughly begins with the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) and ends with contemporary thinkers such as Michel Houellebecq. About two-thirds of his way into the chronicle, in a chapter called “Freedom and Domination”, the author introduces the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), the famous anthropologist associated with the methodology of structuralism. His groundbreaking ethnological memoir Tristes Tropiques (literally, “Sad Tropics”) that primarily detailed his experiences with Brazilian tribes between 1935 and 1939 was the “cultural landmark of 1955” in France.
So poetically exquisite was Tristes Tropiques that the organisers of Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary prizes, publicly regretted their inability to award the book – for it was not a work of fiction. A few years later, in the 1963 issue of The New York Review of Books, the American writer and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) classed Lévi-Strauss’s work “as one of the 20th century’s ‘great books'”.
The book is ironic in nature; this is evident in the opening sentence itself: “Travel and travellers are two things I loathe – and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.” Although Lévi-Strauss was critical of the thirst and desire for exoticism, he also capitalised on it – grandly. Dr. Hazareesingh explains:
It [Tristes Tropiques] captured the public imagination with its contrast between the Western world’s grinding, monolithical drive towards uniformity and the fleeting glimpse of natural freedom enjoyed by the Amerindian communities, the reflection of ‘an era where the human species was comfortable in its universe’. This theme of loss was all the more resonant in the mid-1950s because France was still deeply scarred by the memories of war, divided by economic ideological conflict and plunged in the ever-deepening crisis of the Algerian War. But Tristes Tropiques conjured an unexpected antidote to this disenchanted mood.
Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological travelogue was French thinking at its boldest. It challenged established and entrenched ideologies. As it explored facial paintings, graphic art, religious rituals and kinship arrangements, Tristes Tropiques linked the mind of the “savage” with that of the “civilised man”. Here was a miraculous vision – human thinking was fundamentally catholic.
To quote Dr. Hazareesingh again:
Tristes Tropiques traded discrete Cartesian analysis for a holistic conception of knowledge, the rationalist search for certainty for an open-ended conception of meaning, the positivist yearning for clarity and stability for the inversions and dissonances of myths, and the comforting dogma of science for a sense of wonder at the mysterious of the universe.
The revolutionary book is made up of nine parts and thirty-six chapters and contains a range of reflections. It draws upon geology, literature, history, music, etc. and includes thoughts on the nature of anthropology and the effects of travel. Towards the end, Lévi-Strauss considers the place of humankind in the universe. This part remains unforgettable:
The world began without the human race and it will end without it. The institutions, manners, and customs which I shall have spent my life in cataloguing and trying to understand are an ephemeral efflorescence of a creative process in relation to which they are meaningless, unless it be that they allow humanity to play its destined role. That role does not, however, assign to our race a position of independence. Nor, even if Man himself is condemned, are his vain efforts directed towards the arresting of a universal process of decline. Far from it: his role is itself a machine, brought perhaps to a greater point of perfection than any other, whose activity hastens the disintegration of an initial order and precipitates a powerfully organized Matter towards a condition of inertia which grows ever greater and will one day prove definitive. From the day when he first learned how to breathe and how to keep himself alive, through the discovery of fire and right up to the invention of the atomic and thermonuclear devices of the present day, Man has never – save only when he reproduces himself – done other than cheerfully dismantle million upon million of structures and reduce their elements to a state in which they can no longer be reintegrated. No doubt he has built cities and brought the soil to fruition; but if we examine these activities closely we shall find that they also are inertia producing machines, whose scale and speed of action are infinitely greater than the amount of organization implied in them. As for the creations of the human mind, they are meaningful only in relation to that mind and will fall into nothingness as soon as it ceases to exist. Taken as a whole, therefore, civilization can be described as a prodigiously complicated mechanism: tempting as it would be to regard it as our universe’s best hope of survival, its true function is to produce what physicists call entropy: inertia, that is to say. Every scrap of conversation, every line set up in type, establishes a communication between two interlocutors, levelling what had previously existed on two different planes and had had, for that reason, a greater degree of organization. ‘Entropology’, not anthropology, should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of this process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms.
This talk of dismantling and disintegration sounds pessimistic. But by emphasising our propensity for error and by exposing the ultimate futility of our enterprises, Lévi-Strauss – much like the writer of Ecclesiastes – humbles us deeply. His melancholic observations are supplemented by confident assertions on our commonality:
Man is not alone in the universe, any more than the individual is alone in the group, or any one society alone among other societies. Even if the rainbow of human cultures should go down for ever into the abyss which we are so insanely creating, there will still remain open to us provided we are alive and the world is in existence a precarious arch that points towards the inaccessible. The road which it indicates to us is one that leads directly away from our present serfdom: and even if we cannot set off along it, merely to contemplate it will procure us the only grace that we know how to deserve. The grace to call a halt, that is to say: to check the impulse which prompts Man always to block up, one after another, such fissures as may be open in the blank wall of necessity and to round off his achievement by slamming shut the doors of his own prison. This is the grace for which every society longs, irrespective of its beliefs, its political regime, its level of civilization. It stands, in every case, for leisure, and recreation, and freedom, and peace of body and mind. On this opportunity, this chance of for once detaching oneself from the implacable process, life itself depends.
As it accomplishes the twin tasks of alerting us to the fact of our never-ending transgressions and reminding us of our inherent sameness, Tristes Tropiques emerges as a potent and indispensable read for a time of bitter divisions – be they political, religious or of any other sort.
Featured: A state park in Acre, Brazil, CC BY 2.0, Wikipedia