Lévi-Strauss, Claude

Assigned: Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Ch. 28. “A Writing Lesson,” from Tristes Tropiques (1225-33). Also read the editors’ introduction (1222-25).

From Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Ch. 28. A Writing Lesson

1. On 1225-26 (“I was keen to find out…”), Lévi-Strauss narrates the beginning of the Brazilian expedition that will be the subject of his reflections. What is the purpose of this undertaking, what information is it based upon, and what difficulties does he encounter at the outset of his trip?

2. On 1226-27 (“In retrospect, this journey…”), how does Lévi-Strauss describe his and his party’s anxieties as they start out on their arduous journey, guided by some Nambikwara people, to meet other Nambikwara “natives” who are entirely unused to (or scarcely used to) the ways of Europeans? How does Lévi-Strauss describe the meeting-place and the natives who are there when he finally arrives?

3. On 1227-28 (“It would have been unwise…”), when Lévi-Strauss arrives at the meeting-place, his guides have arranged, an exchange of gifts takes place, and he gives the natives some paper and pencils to see what they will do with them. What do most of them subsequently do with these previously unknown objects? However, what does the clever Chief of the Nambikwara group do with the pencil and paper? What potential power does he apparently see in the act of writing (and “reading” or interpreting) that his subjects do not? (1227) What practical anxieties beset Lévi-Strauss as soon as this strange encounter concludes, and what role do the Nambikwara play in relieving him of those anxieties? (1228)

4. On 1228-29 (“Being still perturbed by…”), what insights about the significance of writing does Lévi-Strauss draw from his recent observation of the pretend-literate Nambikwara chief he met? What had this “native still living in the Stone Age” (1228) promptly figured out about one of the most important uses of writing—a use having nothing to do with the often-assumed desire to advance the human mind and spirit through the accumulation and sharing of knowledge? How is this story about a savvy, power-conscious chief also a plausible story about the origin or development of writing? How does Lévi-Strauss’ brief discussion of his experiences among illiterate eastern Pakistani villagers and their “scribes” complement this line of thinking?

5. On 1229-31 (“Writing is a strange invention…”), Lévi-Strauss moves on to consider the “strange invention” (1229), writing, in a detached philosophical manner, apart from his encounter with the Nambikwara chief. What assumptions about the cause of writing’s invention and its utility (its supposedly revolutionary bestowal of greater civic organization and historical consciousness) does he set up, and with what reasoning and history-based facts does he promptly invalidate such assumptions? Why, according to Lévi-Strauss, is the invention and prevalence of writing no proper grounds for proclaiming one culture superior to another, or “civilized” and not “barbarous”?

6. On 1230-31 (“To establish a correlation between…”), to delve deeper into the possible cause underlying the invention of writing, Lévi-Strauss ponders examples from ancient civilizations in Egypt and China (where, he says, writing seems to have been conducive to slavery) to the supposedly democratic-spirited drive towards literacy in modern times (1230 middle; … “If we look at the situation nearer home…”). How does this fairly recent European history run counter to the noble assumption that literacy and genuine democracy are perfectly adapted to each other? In what sense does this history suggest (as the clever Nambikwara chief intuited) that writing’s invention and promotion has more to do with power than with knowledge or community?

7. On 1231-33 (“While we were still at Utiarity…”), Lévi-Strauss narrates a tense part of his visit to the natives, a time when illness struck and violence threatened to break out among disgruntled groups of Nambikwara. This experience (along with reflection on his observation of the clever, “writerly” Nambikwara chief) led him to another and more general issue, that of “the political relationships between individuals and groups” (1231) in Nambikwara culture. What insights does he go on to offer about that culture’s way of handling aggression? Similarly, what thoughts does he set forth about the Nambikwara people’s generosity in handling their interactions (exchanges and so forth) with other groups? (1232-33)

8. General question: On 1231 of our selection from Tristes Tropiques (“While we were still at Utiarity…”), Claude Lévi-Strauss mentions his wife for the first time in our selection. What is the narratival advantage of minimizing the presence of other Western visitors, and making it seem as if he were alone among the Nambikwara? More generally, how would you describe Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropological method and his style as a writer in the selection we have read? If he isn’t judging the Nambikwara or enlisting some modern variant on the old “noble savage” myth to assess this group of people, what is he trying to accomplish in relating his interactions with them?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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