Ships, Cities, and Savages: Levi-Strauss’ Adventures in the New WorId

The boat set sail with all its lights blazing and crackling. It paraded in front of the sea, which writhed as it seemed to inspect a floating section of some street of ill fame. Towards evening there was a thunderstorm and the water glistened in the distance like a beast’s underbelly. At the same time, the moon was hidden by ragged patches of cloud, which the wind blew into zigzags, crosses and triangles. These weird shapes were lit up as if from within, and against the dark background of the sky they looked like a tropical version of the Aurora Borealis. From time to time a reddish fragment of moon could be g1impsed through these smoky apparitions, as it appeared, disappeared and reappeared, like an anguished lantern drifting across the sky.

I begin with this description of a ship setting sail, burning its way into the new world. This is the essence of Levi-Strauss’ journey into self, across time, and through space. Captured here is a description of a violence made manifest in an ambiguous and contradictory fashion. It is hinted at and exposed like “a beast’s underbelly.” Here the violence resides in the manifold possibilities latent in the meanings of ‘beast’ and the threatening image of the storm clouds. Unspoken but understood we picture the tall dark thunderclouds rising above the water emblematic of natural violence, yet overwritten with the primordial European fear of the wild and the untamed. Yet the full force of the beast is weakened by reference to its underbelly. This is a point of weakness, of softness and of vulnerability. Against the sky the sea writhes (in agony? in pain? or perhaps in the heat of emotion or stimulation?) as if, says Levi-Strauss, “to inspect some … street of ill fame.”

I am constantly confronted by the contradictory and antagonistic senses embedded between the words and sentences in his description of the ship leaving port on what has the feel of an endless voyage. Within the line “a floating section of some street of ill fame” there is a double sense in which “ill” can be understood. One is first brought to an urban street corner,brightly lit, rundown, filth and garbage strewn about: people loitering under street lamps. Liquor, drugs, and sex all flowing for a price. Here is one sense of ill: morally corrupt, evil, malevolent, and harmful. There is a second sense: ill as in poor health, rundown, dying. Now the same street reveals a place of sorrow, sickness, and absence. We hear crying and coughing. Hunger is the defining need. On the first street the people are acting out of their desires and wants, shaping their world. On the other the people are constrained, limited, and beater, down by inexplicable forces. Between these two realms and bathed in the “blazing and crackling” light of the European enlightenment Levi-Strauss watches.

Who is our observer, our guide on this tour of a decadent new world? He is a student, a Jew, a professor, an ambassador of French culture; he is man, presumably a husband and perhaps a father (though on this he says very little).  In his text he makes very clear from the outset what he is not. “I hate travelling and explorers” (1978:17). He is not interested in adventure: “it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks” (1978:17). Neither does he want “to condemn hoaxes nor to award diplomas of genuineness” (1978.18). Is he the “psychologically maimed” observer cut off from his own group for long periods of time: the anthropologist who “tries to study and judge mankind from a point of view sufficiently lofty and remote to allow him to disregard the particular circumstances of a given society or civilization” (1978:55).

One thing we can be certain of.  Our narrator maintains a cavalier attitude toward historical time. Plot fades to black and the capriciousness of memory directs the scene: “Forgetfulness, by rolling my memories along in its tide, has done more than merely wear them down or consign them to oblivion.  The profound structure it has created out of the fragments allows me to create a more stable equilibrium and to see a clear pattern.  .  Sharp edges have been blunted and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an aging planet.  Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without trace” (1978:44).  Our narrator weaves these insignificant details –“a fleeting episode, a fragment of landscape or a remark overheard” (1978:48)- into a wondrous tale of adventure, exploration, and ultimately a quest for power that exists outside of historical time.

In my reading of Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques three words are key: ship, city, and savage. Each carries a baggage drenched in a European sensibility and a history of violence, expansion, and denial.  They form the triangular skeleton on which Levi-Strauss’ tale of adventure and his search for power in the form of knowledge hangs itself. The ship simultaneously connects and separates the new world from the old.  It is the physical space that weaves together old world and new through its history of transporting people and things between them. To step onto the deck of a ship is also to leave behind the firm footing of everyday life and move into a domain of turmoil, disruption, and the constraint of individual movement. Levi Strauss takes us through this unstable zone within which his own sense of status is transmogrified. The ship moves between port cities: the points of entry and exit into Levi-Strauss’ world of adventure and travel. But before his treasure is finally revealed to us we must first pass through the city and wind our way through progressively smaller towns, villages, and then encampments. Finally, our narrator brings us face to face with the savage and in this encounter we reach the end of the journey and are free to return home.


The disjuncture between expectation –our expectation- and representation is crucial in how Levi-Strauss structures his travels. We expect the ship to move. However, for Levi-Strauss the ship and its European cargo –human and inanimate– was “more than a means of transport. … [It was] a home, in front of which the revolving stage of the world would halt some new setting every morning” (1978:61-2).  His representation of the ship as a “big box,” a “body, a “rusty hull,” and a narrow space” within which “engines throb” and men work segregates the living moving aspects of the ship. Levi-Strauss hermetically seals himself away from the reality of shipboard life and translates it into an abstract space (1978:61-4).  On top of this space Levi-Strauss erects “a finer acropolis for his prayer than Athens did to Renan” (1978:77). Here he raises his prayer to the (dead?) “Indians, whose example, through Montaigne, Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot, enriched the substance of what I was taught at School. Hurons, Iroquois, Caribs and Tupi —I was now on my way to them” (1978:77).

Levi-Strauss inscribes a sense of immobility to this place.  It is “as if movement were creating a sort of stability more perfect in essence than immobility” (1978:61). The immobility of the ship is only disrupted in two senses: in the first “a fantastic amount of time [is spent] dodging into various ports” (1978:25).  In the second “the boat slips along with a kind of anxious haste” (1978:73).  Here we confront the narrator’s own ambivalence with being “translated [from] damp and remote winter gardens … to tropical seas and luxury liners” (1978:19).  Echoes of an earlier movement of people “translated” from villages and family in Africa to mines and plantations, brutality and slavery can be heard n our narrator’s ambivalence and in the furtive movements of the ship and its “clandestine cargo (1978;73).

The ship is borderland smothered between “the polished surface of the sea [and the] inky black …sky” (1978:73) and locked by Levi-Strauss’ nostalgia of desire into a mythic past of virtuous savages. Levi-Strauss follows a “anguished lantern” backward into a romantically reconstructed past.  He tries to pull us back with him to the sixteenth century violence of European contact with the Americas.  By dehistoricizing, immobilizing, and respatializing the ship Levi-Struass disconnects the ‘new world’ from the real flow of time and shifts it into a n abstract immaterial space within which his theories of structure can be played out without the interference of the trammels and contagion of the actually existing world of imperialism and global capitalism.


 Levi-Strauss brings us into his image of the new world through the portals of the cities: New York, Chicago, Rio, Santos, Sau Paulo. The old world is left behind imagined in a departure from Paris via the south of France.  The comparison of degenerative, flimsy, and fading new world cities with the grandeur and antiquity of the old world cities underlines the fundamental process of dependence and expropriation that is made manifest in the webs of transport and communication between cities. New world cities are the portals through which the European adventurer must go in order to reach the untouched “virgin interior.”

As opposed to his descriptions of old world cities Levi-Strauss relies on a language evocative of a primordial and untouched world to describe the new world and its cities: “The pattern which is  perpetually blurred by a pearly vapor, seems like the earth itself, emerging on the first day of creation” (1973:90-·1) or “put beyond man’s reach a virgin forest” (1978. 91) . The central buildings of Sao Paulo are described as being “like large herds of mammals assembled at nightfall round d waterhole” (1978:99). The local elite sheltered by the “stony fauna … constituted a more languid and exotic flora than it was aware of itself” (1978:99).

Nature is everywhere present in Levi-Strauss’ vision of the new world.  There is, however, no harmony in these natural images: nature is not “manifestly subservient to man” as it is in Europe” (1978:95). In the new world man and nature are engaged in a raw struggle. Land is laid waste, degraded, “ruthlessly mastered” (1978:94) and “ground violated and destroyed”

(1978:92) . Yet, our narrator does not “sulk” (1978:95) when he is unable to locate antiquity in the new world cities. He does, however, “find It difficult to forgive them for not remaining new. In the case of the European town, the passing of centuries provides an enhancement; in the case of American towns, the passing of years brings degeneration.  … [They] pass from freshness to decay without every being simply old”(1978:95).

As I read over and over the text I am continuously assaulted by Levi· Strauss’ covert and explicit misogyny in which untouched virgin forests wait to be laid bare or are in some placed put out of man’s touch by imposing mountains (cf., 1978:91). By naturalizing his description of the new world and through a gendered language embedded with the imagery of male-violence Levi-Strauss establishes his parallel role in the pantheon of European explorers whose aim it is to penetrate and debase the “virgin forests” and “virtuous savages.”

Lost in Levi-Strauss’ comparison of European and American cities is their essential unity of function: nodal points in the flow of commodities and capital in a world economy. Most superficially and easily found in Tristes Tropiques is the role that these cities play in connecting the new world with the old.  The ship sets sail from Marseilles and arrives in Santos.  Cargo moving between these ports connects “a rapacious form of agriculture [that] appropriated what was readily available and then moved on, after wresting some profit from the soil” (1978:92) with the “Parisian banlieure” (1978:87).  Beyond and within this flow of cargo and people is the role cities play in the formation of industry and the extraction of value from labour.

Cities mark sites of heightened commercial and industrial activity.  They are nodal points of communication in the nervous system of capital.  Like fellow Europeans, before and after, Levi-Struass passed from port city to interior town in search of raw goods to export and to process in the urban industrial center.  Levi-Strauss’ export of raw material –“Scrapes of a culture” (1978:358)—is merely one more step in a history of Amazonian resource extraction beginning with metals and manifest today in the deforestation of the Amazonian Basin and the export of timber.  The raw resources of the hinterland, gathered and crafted for export and occasionally threatened with being “scattered on the quayside just when the boat was weighing anchor (1978:31), ultimately end up I the belly of the old world.  The city is the point of transfer and transformation in a system of global capitalism.  Levi-Strauss, despite his protestations to the contrary, was no different from other agents of a rapacious global capitalism spiraling out from Europe.


although I had just set off on the adventure with enthusiasm, it had left me with a feeling of emptiness.  I had wanted to reach the extreme limits of the savage; it might be thought that my wish had been granted, now that I found myself among those charming Indians whom no other white man had ever seen before and who might never be seen again.  After an enchanting trip up-river, I had certainly found my savages.  Alas! They were only too savage” (1978.332-3)

… “only too savage.”  Revealed here in the cry of an eager ethnologist and buried within his regtret for not knowing the language of this group “whom no other white man had ever seen” is the “extreme limits” of a romantic vision locked in a nostalgic desire to experience the moment of contact.  His regret is part of an overarching vision of the “savage” in which the indigenous peoples of Europe’s colonies were expected to assimilate or die. I am sure that our narrator’s desires were honest in that his desire to preserve a memory of this small group of people was rooted in a profound dismay at what the extension of capitalism was doing to them: “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown intot he face of mankind.  So I can understand the mad passion for  … something which no longer exists but still should exist” (1978:38).  Yet his desires to do so were also part of the larger modernist project that contributed to the very destruction he bemoans. 

To our narrator the aboriginal people he meets were not people.  Rather, they wer a path way “through layers of time” (1978:372). Levi-Strauss’ self stated goal was not “the revelation of a Utopian state of nature or the discovery of the perfect society in the depths of the forest” (1978:392).  However, the closer the Indians were to the direct impact of trade and industry the more disparaging is Levi-Strauss’ description: “Their make-up was not so much intended to create an illusion of beauty as to give an appearance of health.  Under a layer of rouge and powder they were hiding syphilis” (1978:371).  In his search for the “virtuous savage” and in his desire to “build a theoretical model of human society, which does not correspond to any observable reality” (1978:392) Levi-Strauss participates in the destruction of these people as he relegates them to a non-existent Rousseauian pre-history.


I suppose that had Levi-Strauss been writing today cities would have become airports and ships planes. He would not have “enjoyed supremacy” (1978:22) but rather would have been “herded into the hold” of some trans-Atlantic jet jostling and struggling with the other passengers.  No “Pantgruelin” meals served by “excellent Marseilles stewards with heavy mustaches and stoutly soled shores” (1978:22).  As the cabin of the plane inexorably “turned into dining-room, bedroom, day-nursery, washhouse” (1978:25) Levi-Strauss may well have been driven to wish that he had opted for first class and had “paid the difference out of [his] own pocket” (1978:22).  Between Levi-Strauss’ “marvelous crossings of the ‘thirties” (1978:23) and the crossings embarked upon by the generation raised in the shadows of May ’68 the world has shifted.  The privileges of the intellectual class have clearly diminished.  Savages, such as we are, are no longer virtuous.  Capitalism has returned to a form of utter barbarism that even erstwhile liberals are just as conversant with the language of economic efficiencies as their right wing opponents. 

In my reflections I have, clearly, taken some liberty with the narrator’s own stated objectives.  Perhaps I have not been faithful to his intentions.  Perhaps, I have not been considerate of the moments and places within and about which he wrote.  Perhaps I have allowed my own vantage point to take precedent in these reflections. It is hard for me to say as I have a small confession that clouds my own memories of intention.  I was myself about to embark upon a journey of exploration when I first drafted this piece.  With my partner and our two young children we were heading off to rural Brittany in search of the materials that would, I hoped, form the heart of my own dissertation. While my own sense of trepidation and excitement shared features with those of Levi-Strauss, I was very much heading in a different direction. 

            Levi-Strauss was chasing the Rousseauian savage.  I was seeking out people who lived and worked in the heart of one of Europe’s oldest and most storied nations.  While Brittany may well be on the edge of the metropolis, it was still a part of the center of European colonialism.  While Levi-Strauss and his generation sought out the remote corners of the globe my own generation was far more likely to return home as to head overseas.  And, if we went overseas it was not in search of fragments of remnant cultures. Growing up, as I have, in the shadow of the generation of ’68 I knew that no study of the local could honestly be separated from the global flows of capital, labour, and the logic of capitalism.

As I look back on my reflection on Levi-Strauss I can see the flaws of an older anthropology even as I recall my pleasure in the story he spun.  My commentary is harsh, it spares little and affords no allowance to the time in which Levi-Strauss wrote or of the moments that he lived through. If I were to write this today perhaps I would not be quite so harsh on the old master. Perhaps the colonialist nostalgia that I saw in Levi-Strauss was more an attempt by him to deal with the violence of his own Europe.  I say very little about his escape from Europe – a journey that Levi-Strauss himself overwrites with reflections upon his first journey.  You will find fragments and glimpses of his second crossing in my account.  Yet, my concern was with the complicity of anthropology in the colonial moment and the refusal of our anthropological ancestors to recognize what seemed a self-evident truth.

Yes, I think that my older self would be more forgiving of the old master.