THE NAKED MAN by Claude Levi-Strauss
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Tour de force"" probably does not do justice to 20 years' study of New World mythology, yet tour de force seems precisely the right term to describe the unique strengths and strong personality of Levi-Strauss. Here, in the fourth volume (completed in 1970) of the series that comprises The Raw and the Cooked, The Origin of Table Manners, and From Honey to Ashes, the leading structuralist-anthropologist brings the banquet to its final course. Analysis of some 800 myths and a comparable number of variants leads him to conclude that there is but one myth--the war of earth and sky: terrestrial and celestial peoples. The myth points to a former time when earth and sky were united. War leads to a permanent separation, but not without exchange: ""in the form of the stars in the sky and cooking fire on earth, there survives the two-fold proof that the high and low were once united."" The exercise of structural analysis that leads to that grand conclusion occupies much of the text of the present and preceding volumes: summaries of myths as they first presented themselves to L-S as a young scholar among the Bororo and other Brazilian tribes, and subsequently as he pored over traditions found in the northern hemisphere, among the Plains Indians, the northern crescent, and finally, in an extraordinary abundance of richness and diversity, among the Northwest coastal Indians in Washington and Oregon. Should the reader plunge into volume four without prior baptism, he will find intensely complex Northwest coastal myths on the theme of the bird-nester, the loon woman, the hidden child and so on, which are later revealed to be inversions or transformations of themes spelled out in more elemental terms in the Brazilian traditions. The structural analysis abounds in dichotomies: water-land, earth-sky, male-female, raw-cooked, horizontal-vertical, spatial-temporal, mortal-immortal, being-non-being; and it is these very commutable, invertible, weaker or stronger elements and forms that make structural analysis the exciting foil for theory it is. To criticize the resulting synthesis amounts to a criticism of structuralism itself: Can this logical, increasingly mathematically-based technique of analysis reveal fundamental truths about human nature and culture? Those who say no accuse the author of selectivity, special pleading, or simply employing a bit of rational sophistry that produces an indigestible concoction, with no real insight into the ""primitive mind."" A more considered opinion is that structuralism is a legitimate method, not the only one, of course, but one that has yielded fruitful insights and that can be tested further in studying past-cultures (Maya, Aztec) or other cultural groups remanent today. Certainly scholars can be grateful for the superb compilation of data the volumes present. As for the interested outsider, rest assured that Levi-Strauss is demanding but not dull. The reader is engaged, stimulated, aroused to agree or disagree--intensely.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0226474968
Publisher: Harper & Row