In the Library of Lévi-Strauss

The walls were lined with books, as one might expect. Among them were a number of wooden masks, woven baskets, and a tapestry of a bodhisattva. The desk was ...

The following is a lightly edited excerpt from Anand Pandian’s A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times, published by Duke University Press.

The walls were lined with books, as one might expect. Among them were a number of wooden masks, woven baskets, and a tapestry of a bodhisattva. The desk was washed in light from the balcony window, overlooking a gracious district of Paris. More than anything else, however, what struck me about the study where Claude Lévi-Strauss read and wrote for decades was the imposing door that regulated entry into the space. Built in several layers of white metal and wood, and spanning an astounding four to five inches in thickness, the door looked like something more appropriate for a bank vault than a personal library. Closed against the commotion of the outside world, the slab would reveal to the study’s sole occupant a fraying and yellowed map of the languages spoken by the “Indian Tribes of North America,” carefully buttoned into a protective plastic sleeve.

“I realized early on that I was a library man, not a fieldworker,” Lévi-Strauss said.1 This distinction between field and study is an old one in anthropology. And yet, the business of learning and engaging in the discipline could never be reduced to simply one or the other. We encounter the history of anthropology as an archive of stories that assume their most enduring form in books and essays. And whether these texts are engaged aloud or in silence, whether in one’s own company or in the midst of others, their reading is a sensory and embodied practice, as at home in the world and its myriad fields of activity as any technique of ethnographic immersion.2 What does it mean to be absorbed in the anthropology that comes in the form of written texts? Does the practice of reading have anything in common with the field ventures we expect anthropologists to pursue?

Lévi-Strauss makes a uniquely compelling subject for such questions. His Tristes Tropiques chronicles field expeditions undertaken among the Bororo, Caduveo, Nambikwara, and other native peoples of Brazil. But the structural mode of investigation that gained Lévi-Strauss renown grew from his meticulous readings of the evidence already gathered in the anthropological archive, as seen in the four monumental volumes of the Mythologiques that he published between 1964 and 1971. “Experience has taught me,” Lévi-Strauss writes, “how impossible it is to grasp the spirit of a myth without steeping oneself in the complete versions, however diffuse they may be, and submitting to a slow process of incubation requiring hours, days, months—or sometimes even years—until one’s thought, guided unconsciously by tiny details, succeeds in embracing the essential nature of the myth.”3 Doesn’t it sound oddly like fieldwork, this practice of reading?

It was this question that led me to seek out Monique Lévi-Strauss at the Paris apartment she had shared with her husband until his death in 2009. The French anthropologist Frédéric Keck had worked closely here with Lévi-Strauss on a recent edition of his works, and kindly offered to take me back one afternoon in 2016 to meet his widow. “He had his head full, he was afraid it would burst!” Monique Lévi-Strauss told me near the beginning of a long and spirited conversation, describing her husband’s sense of a tenuous hold on the hundreds of Amerindian myths he had absorbed through a devoted reading of the ethnological corpus. She spoke of how this space in which we sat together, his former study, had been carefully soundproofed by Lévi-Strauss when they moved here in the 1950s: “He couldn’t work with the maid singing while she was cleaning the windows; he couldn’t stand all these things.” And yet, she insisted all the same, Lévi-Strauss did his reading as an anthropologist, deeply immersed in the events of the world: whether encountering a text or the people on a bus, the very same attitude was at work.

“All of this was America, you see,” Monique Lévi-Strauss said, gesturing toward one of the bookcases on the far wall. The books had been arranged here with geography in mind: works on North America on shelves above texts of South American ethnology, with Europe to the right and Africa below Europe. The massive wooden desk used by Lévi-Strauss was ringed by these shelves, and beside it was a cabinet full of notes on index cards that the anthropologist had made from his readings. Work with these cards would constantly take him back to the books, his wife recounted, leading him in a continuous movement between the desk, files, bookshelves, and typewriter. His swiveling armchair would turn so much, Monique Lévi-Strauss told me, that it wore away the floorboards below. And indeed, when she lifted the carpet at that spot, I could see how these itineraries of reading and thinking had literally written themselves into the surface of the floor, leaving behind the unmistakable impression of a circle in the wood. Everything in the study seemed to convey an idea of reading as a passage through space.

These reflections ought not to imply that what happened here was an aimless wandering. “My husband was a very meticulous, scrupulous man,” Monique Lévi-Strauss insisted. Careful planning went into everything. Daily routines were followed precisely, deadlines met without fail. And yet, listening to what she said, it struck me that all of these efforts at control—including the massive door that bounded the study—were meant to ensure the fundamental openness that was thinking itself. For, as his wife recalled, what Lévi-Strauss sought from the books on his shelves was an experience of the unexpected. His index cards recorded individual sentences that had once stood out as significant in a particular text. But working with these cards, he would wonder what else was said in these works, beyond those words that he had extracted. “I want to go back to the book, and see what is really around,” Monique Lévi-Strauss imagined him saying as he returned to those books. Surprise was structured into this practice of reading: the study was a disciplined space of undisciplined drift, a means of planning for unplanned encounters.

“I try to be a place through which myths pass,” Lévi-Strauss once explained about his method: “This operation is not the outcome of a premeditated plan: I am the intermediary through which the myths reconstruct themselves.”4 This process of reading and reflection, which Boris Wiseman describes as “the slow assimilation of the mythical material into Lévi-Strauss’s own unconscious,” also depended to a great degree on the experience of music.5 The study, isolated so carefully from certain forms of ambient noise, was opened at the same time to the sounds broadcast by a radio that played as Lévi-Strauss worked, tuned always into Radio Classique or France Musique. “The words bothered him terribly,” Monique Lévi-Strauss told me, explaining why he had preferred to listen to classical music while he read and wrote. The radio allowed for a “passive listening,” she explained, releasing him from the more conscious and active engagement that selecting records would entail. As Lévi-Strauss himself would declare in The Raw and the Cooked, there was a fundamental affinity between music and myth: “The structure of myths can be revealed through a musical score.”6

A text in anthropology gives its readers knowledge that retains a charge of the unknown, torquing always and ever through a familiar structure into an unexpected place.

One of the most curious aspects of this book, The Raw and the Cooked, is that it is composed as a series of melodic ventures—song, sonata, symphony, fugue—inviting one to experience its passages musically. “When the reader has crossed the bounds of irritation and boredom and is moving away from the book,” Lévi-Strauss writes hopefully in the “Overture” to this first volume of the Mythologiques, “he will find himself carried toward that music which is to be found in myth and which, in the complete versions, is preserved not only with its harmony and rhythm but also with that hidden significance that I have sought so laboriously to bring to light.”7 I have always been intrigued by this suggestion, which presents reading as a kind of listening. I thought of the reverence that Lévi-Strauss often expressed for the German composer Richard Wagner, from whose 1882 opera Parsifal the anthropologist once selected a line—“you see my son, here, time turns into space”—as “the most profound definition that anyone has ever offered for myth.”8 And so I decided to see what might happen if I devoted a week to reading the book again very slowly, listening continuously to Parsifal all the while.

The Raw and the Cooked begins with a Bororo myth from central Brazil, the story of a young man trapped in a nest of macaws that Lévi-Strauss gleaned from the early 20th-century works of the Silesian missionary Antonio Colbacchini. Picking out a series of concrete elements—feathers, waters, infection, incest—the anthropologist tracks patterns that wed this myth to others in a common field of transformations. Gradually broadening the scope of inquiry to encompass diverse tribes and themes, the book outlines a deeper level of systematic thinking at work in the myths, a logic of sensible qualities such as the titular contrast between raw and cooked states of matter. This is a logic best revealed, Lévi-Strauss argues, through a mode of analysis itself mythic by nature, a style of thinking that seeks “to conform to the requirements of that thought and to respect its rhythm.”9 Here is why the composer Wagner could be said to anticipate structural analysis in the form of his music. In Parsifal, Lévi-Strauss writes, “alternate images become simultaneous images, which are, however, diametrically opposed.”10

Like all of the Mythologiques, The Raw and the Cooked can be difficult to read. Although I had staked out a place in my university library for a patient and leisurely reading of the book, I found it difficult to stay day by day with the dense texture of its allusions, its great digressive spirals of reflection. Lévi-Strauss himself acknowledged the risk of “los[ing] one’s bearings” amid the material he had gathered, and there was little solace in his assurance that “this may seem to be a roundabout procedure but it is in fact a shortcut.”11 Then there was the music I was also absorbing, many times over, through a pair of headphones. I’m no connoisseur of opera to begin with, and having read a fair amount of Nietzsche in college, Wagner was an enemy I had learned to loathe without ever hearing. The German libretto was opaque to me, as was the interplay of “pure diatonicism” and “chromatic flux” that critics have lauded in Parsifal.12

And yet, strangely enough, something unexpected happened in the midst of this peculiar mode of reading and listening. I was trying to keep my mind from wavering one afternoon as I read from a chapter on astronomy called “Double Inverted Canon.” Then I noticed that I could anticipate, for the first time, what would come next in the hours-long flow of music and song that I’d been hearing now many times over. The harbinger seemed to be one sequence of four notes that came in and out of prominence at this point late in the first act of Wagner’s opera. And once I’d noted this pattern, I could suddenly see that Lévi-Strauss also returned throughout this chapter to harbingers of another kind, signs of a coming rain in the form of constellations. I saw that the chapter itself, like so much of the book, worked with myths whose existence the author had anticipated before identifying. Through an accident of convergence, in other words, the music brought into focus one of the fundamental ways in which The Raw and the Cooked was written, as a temporal structure of anticipation and recognition. I began to understand what Lévi-Strauss might have meant in suggesting that “the myth and the musical work are like conductors of an orchestra, whose audience becomes the silent performers.”13

A text in anthropology gives its readers knowledge that retains a charge of the unknown, torquing always and ever through a familiar structure into an unexpected place. The experiments in reading conducted by Lévi-Strauss help us understand how this happens. Something seen and reported may have taken place somewhere distant, but the anthropological text does not resolve the significance of this occurrence for those who come across it. Instead, what we find in the discipline’s literary experiments are “experiences made with writing and through writing” that unfold, as Vincent Debaene puts it, as “a true continuation of fieldwork.”14

To read a work of anthropology is to enter into a space of ongoing and open-ended encounter. What happens here may inspire boredom rather than conviction, the feeling of incomprehension rather than a sense of having a secure hold on something worth knowing. These uncertainties lend our texts their experiential depth and purchase. To read in anthropology is to kindle what Lévi-Strauss once described as “a neolithic kind of intelligence,” one that “sometimes sets unexplored areas alight.”15

Reading is a sensory and embodied experience. With this truth in mind, here is the text again, as a video essay: a montage of written word, visual image, spoken voice, and fragments of music.



  1. Patrick Wilcken, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (Penguin Press, 2010), p. 111.
  2. Jonathan Boyarin, ed., The Ethnography of Reading (University of California Press, 1993).
  3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Naked Man (1971; Harper & Row, 1981), p. 632. A singular guide to questions of method in Lévi-Strauss may be found in Boris Wiseman’s Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology, and Aesthetics (Cambridge University Press, 2007), which takes up this passage as an example of the importance of unconscious suggestion for Lévi-Strauss.
  4. Quoted in and translated by Wiseman, Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology, and Aesthetics, p. 200.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, vol. 1 of Mythologiques, translated from the French by Doreen and Jonathan Weightman (1964; Harper & Row, 1969), p. 15.
  7. Ibid., pp. 31–32.
  8. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “From Chrétien de Troyes to Richard Wagner,” in The View from Afar, translated from the French by Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss (1983; Basic, 1985), p. 219.
  9. Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p. 6.
  10. Lévi-Strauss, “From Chrétien de Troyes to Richard Wagner,” p. 232.
  11. Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, pp. 118, 286.
  12. Arnold Whittall, “The Music,” in Richard Wagner, “Parsifal, by Lucy Beckett (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 64.
  13. Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p. 17.
  14. Vincent Debaene, Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature, translated from the French by Justin Izzo (2010; University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. x.
  15. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman (1955; Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 53.
Featured image: In the Library of Lévi-Strauss. Photograph by the author