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New Left Review 71, September-October 2011

Perry Anderson


The twentieth century’s most famous anthropologist might well intimidate any prospective biographer. [1] Patrick Wilcken, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory, Bloomsbury: London 2010, £30, hardback 375 pp, 978 0 7475 8362 2 Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died two years ago, denied that he possessed any individuality of interest. He could remember little of his own past, he said, and did not even feel he had written his own books. He was just a ‘passive crossroads’ where ‘things happened’— ‘I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I”, no “me”’. Nor were such claims mere personal avowals. His intellectual system was based on a radical dismissal of the significance, even reality, of the subject. Such a double barrier might seem obstacle enough to a biography. But it could be thought to rear still higher from the fact that Lévi-Strauss was also, paradoxically, the author of a memoir, Tristes Tropiques, by any reckoning a literary masterpiece, in which he set down what he represented as the decisive experiences of his life. Who could hope to improve on it? Certainly no conventional chronicler. In Francophone culture, where the art of biography has long been noticeably weak, the one attempt at a full-length portrait, by Denis Bertholet in 2003, is testimony enough to that.

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Perry Anderson, ‘The Mythologian’, NLR 71: £3

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