The poetic logic of myths
Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
by Patrick Wilcken
Bloomsbury, $59.99 hb, 383 pp, 9780747583622
In retrospect, it seems hard to explain the widespread influence of the anthropologist ClaudeLévi-Strauss. When he died at the age of one hundred in 2009, the New York Times said in its obituary that he was ‘the French anthropologist whose revolutionary studies of what was once called “primitive man” transformed Western understanding of the nature of culture, custom and civilization’. It was a typically inflated assessment. Not so Patrick Wilcken’s excellent biography of Lévi-Strauss, which brings into sharp focus the extremely idiosyncratic nature of his oeuvre, while at the same time showing how it managed to catch a post-World War II Modernist wave of popularity. When the intellectual surf rolled out again later in the century, Lévi-Strauss was left standing alone, but by then that was exactly how he liked it.