Edmund Leach, Claude Levi-Strauss

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Text of Edmund Leach, Claude Levi-Strauss

Copyright 1970, 1974 by Edmund Leaeh Al! rights reserved Original!y published in 1970 Revised edition published in 1974 in a hardbound and paperbound edition by The Viking Press, Ine., 625 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022 SBN 670-22515-0 (hardbound) 670-01980-1 (paperbound) Library of Congress eatalog eard number: 74-1122 Printed in U.S.A.


Biographical Note

ix 1

///vii iv v vi iii

The Man Himself



Oysters, Smoked Salmon, and Stilton Cheese 15 The Human Animal and His Symbols The Structure of Myth Words and Things The Elementary 93 57 35

Hill and Wang, Ine., and ]onathan Cape Ltd.: From The Elements of Semiology by Roland Barthes. Translated by Dr. Annette Lavers' and Dr. Colin Smith. Translation 1967 by ]onathan Cape Ltd. Reprinted by permission. The University of Chicago Press and GeorgeWeidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd.: From The Savage Mjnd by 1966 Claude Lvi-Sh'auss. English translation by George Weidenfeld & Nieolson Ltd. Al! rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Structures of Kinship


Machines for the Suppression of Time Short Bibliography lndex143






The Human Animal and His Symbols

111Lvi-Strauss' central intellectual puzzle is one to which European philosophers have returned over and over again; indeed, if we accept LviStrauss' own view of the matter it is a problem which puzzle s all mankind, everywhere, always. Quite simply: What is man? Man is an animal, a member of the species Horno sapiens, closely related to the great apes and more distantly to all other living species past and presento But man, we assert, is ahuman being, and in saying that we evidently mean that he is, in some way, other than "just an animal." But in what way is he other? The concept of humanity as distinct from animality does not readily translate into exotic languages, but it is Lvi-Strauss' thesis that a distinction of this sort-corresponding to the opposition culture/nature-is always latent in men's customary attitudes and behaviors




The Human


and His Symbols









even when it is not explicitly formulated in words. The . '" ; infancy to be self-centered and individualistic, to fear human Ego is never by himself; there is no ''1'' that is the impurity of foreign things-a doctrine which we not part of a "We,"l and indeed every ''1'' is a member of embody in the formula "Hell is the others" (1'enfer, primitive myth has the opposite c'est les autres)-but many "We"s. In one sense these we-groups stretch out moral implication, "Hell is ourselves" (l' enfer, e' est to infinity in all directions to embrace everybody and "In a century when man is bent on the nous-meme)." everything. "Man is not alone in the universe, any more destruction of innumerable forms of life," it is necesthan the individual is alone in the group, or any one sary to insist, as in the myths, "that a properly apsociety alone among other societies" (Tristes Tropiques, pointed humanism cannot begin of its own accord but p. 398), but in practice we cut up the continua. My must place the world before lHe, life before man, and particular "we," the people of my family, my comthe respect of others before self-interest." (Mytholomunity, my tribe, my class-these are altogether special, they are superior, they are civilized, cultured; the others giques IIl, p. 422) But, the puzzle remains, what is a are just savages, like wild beasts. human being? Where does culture divide off from nature? Lvi-Strauss' central preoccupation is to explore the Lvi-Strauss himself takes his cue from Rousseau, dialectical process by which this apotheosis of ourselves as human and godlike and other than animal is formed though he might equally well have followed Vico or Hobbes or Aristotle or a dozen others. It is language and re-formed and bent back upon itself. Adam and which makes man different: "Qui dit homme, dit lanEve were created as ignorant savages in Paradise in a world in which animals talked and were helpmeets to gage, et qui dit langage dit socit." (Tristes Tropiques, man; it was through sin that they gained knowledge p. 421) But the emergence of language which accomand became human, and different, and superior to the panies the shift from animality to humanity, from nature to culture, is also a shift from affectivity to a animals. But are we really "superior"? God made man state of reasoning: "The first speech was all in poetry; in his own image, but are we so sure that in achieving humanity (culture) we did not separate ourselves from reasoning was thought of only long afterwards."3 God? This is the note on which Lvi-Strauss ends Tristes Rousseau's thesis, as elaborated by Lvi-Strauss, is that man can become self-conscious-aware of himself the book which first brought him internaTropiques, as a member of a we-group-only when he becomes tional renown outside the narrow world of professional anthropology-to discover the nature of man we must capable of employing metaphor as an instrument of contrast and comparison: find our way back to an understanding of how man is related to nature-and he comes back to the same IlI. theme in the closing paragraph of Mythologiques e The reader is expected to recognize that 'enfer c'est les autres is a quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre's play Huis dos We (Europeans), he comments, have been taught fromTristes Tropiques (Paris, 1955), p. 448: "Le moi n'a pas de place entre un nous et un rien."1


(Paris, 1944). Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (Geneva, 1783).

"Essai sur l'origine

des langues"




The Human Animal and His Symbols





lii :~

It is only because man originally felt himself identi,do this not so much because of any instinct but because cal to all those like him (among which, as Rousseau ".~ the architecture of the human mouth and throat and its explicitly says, we must incIude animals) that ,he .associated musculature makes this the natural way to carne to acquire the capacity to distinguish himself' go about it.Lvi-Strauss asks us to believe that category as he distinguishes them, i.e. to use the diversity of formation in human beings follows similar universal species as conceptual support for social differentia"natural" paths. It is not that it must always happen tion. (Totemism, p. 101) the same way everywhere but that the human brain is so constructed that it is predisposed to develop cateRousseau's insight can be held to be "true" only in a gories of a particular kind in a particular way.4 All animals have a certain limited capacity to make strictly poetic sense, for the thought processes of protoman are even less accessible to us than those of apes category distinctions. Any mammal or bird can, under and monkeys. But the phylogenetic form of the arguappropriate conditions, recognize other members of its ment is mixed up with Lvi-Strauss' search for human own species and distinguish males from females; some universals. Verbal categories provide the mechanism can further recognize a category of predator enemies. through which universal structural characteristics of Human beings, in the process of learning to talk, extend human brains are transformed into universal structural this category-forming capacity to a degree that has no .characteristics of human culture. But if these universals para11el among other creatures, but nevertheless, at its exist, they must, at some rather deep level, be considvery roots, before the individual's language capacity has become elaborated, category formation must be ered innate. In that case, we must suppose that they animal-like rather than human-like. At this basic level are patterns which, in the course of human evolution, the individual (whether animal or human) is con cerned have become internalized into the human psyche along with the specialized development of those parts of the only with very simple problems: the distinction between human brain which are directly concerned with speech own species and other, dominance and submission, formation through the larynx and mouth and with sexual availability or lack of availability, what is edible and what is not. In a natural environment distinctions speech reception through the ear. And why not? After of this sort are a11 that are necessary for individual all, although the human infant is not born with any survival, but they are not sufficient within ahuman innate language, it is born with an innate capacity to environment. For human (as distinct from animal) surlearn both how to make meaningful utterances and how to decode the meaningful utterances of others. vival every member of society must learn to distinguish Not only that but, if Jakobson's argument is correct, all human children will learn to master the basic ele4It should be stressed, however, that unlike Piaget LviStrauss does not speculate about the ontogenetic or philoments of their phonemic inventory by making the same, genetic development of category systems; he simply relies or very nearly the same, initial series of basic dison this style of argument to explain the otherwise surpriscriminations-consonant/vowel, nasal consonant/ oral ing fact that he is able to discover strikingly similar "structures" in widely different cultural contexts. stop, grave/ acute, compact/ diffuse. They presumably



The Human Animal and His Symbols


his fe110w men according to their mutual social status., ..that elements of "totemic" behavior occur even in :sophisticated cultures, but the earlier writers interpreted But the s