Thursday, November 12, 2009

Camille Paglia Bashes Claude Levi-Strauss

In her Salon column this week Camille Paglia spared a few column inches to consider and then completely trash the entire career of Claude Levi-Strauss:

"Continuing on the theme of overrated male writers, I was appalled at the sentimental rubbish filling the air about Claude Lévi-Strauss after his death was announced last week. The New York Times, for example, first posted an alert calling him "the father of modern anthropology" (a claim demonstrating breathtaking obliviousness to the roots of anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and then published a lengthy, laudatory obituary that was a string of misleading, inaccurate or incomplete statements. It is ludicrous to claim that Lévi-Strauss single-handedly transformed our ideas about the "primitive" or that before him there had been no concern with universals or abstract ideas in anthropology.

Beyond that, Lévi-Strauss' binary formulations (like "the raw and the cooked") were a simplistic cookie-cutter device borrowed from the dated linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the granddaddy of now mercifully moribund post-structuralism, which destroyed American humanities departments in the 1980s. Lévi-Strauss' work was as much a fanciful, showy mishmash as that of Joseph Campbell, who at least had the erudite and intuitive Carl Jung behind him. When as a Yale graduate student I ransacked that great temple, Sterling Library, in search of paradigms for reintegrating literary criticism with history, I found literally nothing in Lévi-Strauss that I felt had scholarly solidity.

In contrast, the 12 volumes of Sir James George Frazer's "The Golden Bough" (1890-1915), interweaving European antiquity with tribal societies, was a model of intriguing specificity wed to speculative imagination. Though many details in Frazer have been contradicted or superseded, the work of his Cambridge school of classical anthropology (another of whose ornaments was the great Jane Harrison) will remain inspirational for enterprising students seeking escape from today's sterile academic climate."

Now you know I couldn't let that go unanswered! I posted the following comment:

Bashing Levi-Strauss? Really?

As someone who made your academic bones explicating ad nauseum the opposition between Apollonian and Dionysian, I am surprised that you so blithely dismiss Claude Levi-Strauss. To reduce his massive career to a few-sentence caricature implies that you haven't read him carefully or completely.

Even if its granted that his structural armature was a bit overwrought; even if you discount his visionary explication of Amerindian mythology; even if you deduct from his oeuvre all writings from the 1960’s onwards, at least you can grant him some props for the sense and sensibility of his Tristes Tropiques and let him rest in peace. Just sayin’.

1 comment:

Jeanette Bennett said...

I wouldn't worry about it. Camille's blog yabbered on and on and kept changing subject so many times, I doubt that many people saw her comments on Claude Levi-Strauss buried in the middle. I only knew they were there because you pointed it out. :-)