When I first encountered Lévi-Strauss in graduate school, I thought the title of his monumental work sounded strange. At that time, I spoke absolutely no Portuguese but knew enough Spanish to understand that tristes meant sad. However, I could not for the life of me penetrate the “meaning” associated with the title of this passionate, perilous quest into (what at that time was considered) the dark world of myth, ritual and magic in the country of Brazil. Even today, Brazil is considered by most to be a land of far-off peoples, unexplored territories, and exotic culture. But really not so much.  Even Leví-Strauss acknowledged this when he wrote in 1935,”…the tropics are not so much exotic as out of date.” Having lived, learned and lingered in Brazil for seven years now and having acquired an extensive local knowledge (including reasonable fluency in the Brazilian Portuguese language) along with my anthropological training in skilled observation, I decided to revisit this pivotal work to attempt to understand precisely its meaning. But perhaps more important, to see if I could verify some of the same underlying order of reality set off by this highly original and influential work.


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Comment by Michael Alexeevich Popov on August 16, 2015 at 1:06pm

Levi-Strauss and Surrealism
There is some deep interconnection between LS style of thinking and Andre Breton, founder of modern surrealism. They lived in New York between 1941 and 1945.Surrealism or "art of pure psychic automatism " with its anarchy doctrine and anthropologism of intuitive objects is probably very similar with LS idealism.Thus, history of structuralism is not finished, and new unexpected complexities of post surrealistic anthropology could be found.May be with support so strange surrealist category mathematics?

Comment by Neil Turner on July 22, 2015 at 2:46pm

Thanks John, I always look forward to your comments...best regards...tchau.

Comment by John McCreery on July 22, 2015 at 4:21am

Neil, I have just got around to reading this post, and a great reading of Tristes Tropiques it is. It strikes me as too perfect to stimulate conversation in an online medium where "dialogue" is usually Punch 'n Judy tit-for-tat. Lacking obvious flaws, it is read, enjoyed, slips over the mental horizon. But to me, too, Tristes Tropiques was an inspiration as I was beginning my study of anthropology. The idea that cultures might be described as combinations of elements derived from a "Mendeleevian Table of the Mind" has informed my thinking ever since I first encountered it. 

That said, I read your concluding paragraph,

Perhaps, the “meaning” behind the word sad in the title reflects the disappointing experiences Leví-Strauss encountered when first attempting to engage a strange world. But then, on the other hand, perhaps it metaphorically represents how the majesty of such a beautiful land and people have been destroyed by the restless ambition, pride, egoism and cultural parochialism of a mechanical civilization. And if the latter is the case, then perhaps the title should read “the sadness of the tropics” instead (A tristeza dos trópicos).

I feel my own sadness that anthropology, a field that once seemed so promising, has failed to achieve the vision with which Lévi-Strauss inspired me.


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