Tristes Tropiques: Revisited

When I first encountered Lévi-Strauss in graduate school, I thought the title of his monumental work sounded strange. At that time, I spoke absolutely no Portuguese but knew enough Spanish to understand that tristes meant sad. However, I could not for the life of me penetrate the “meaning” associated with the title of this passionate, perilous quest into (what at that time was considered) the dark world of myth, ritual and magic in the country of Brazil. Even today, Brazil is considered by most to be a land of far-off peoples, unexplored territories, and exotic culture. But really not so much.  Even Leví-Strauss acknowledged this when he wrote in 1935,”…the tropics are not so much exotic as out of date.” Having lived, learned and lingered in Brazil for seven years now and having acquired an extensive local knowledge (including reasonable fluency in the Brazilian Portuguese language) along with my anthropological training in skilled observation, I decided to revisit this pivotal work to attempt to understand precisely its meaning. But perhaps more important, to see if I could verify some of the same underlying order of reality set off by this highly original and influential work.

From the very beginning of his book, Leví-Strauss alludes to his motivation for wanting to seek out and study the “indigenous primitive” (although throughout the work he refers to them as “savages” as one reads further one begins to understand that it is the fabled “noble savage” that he is really searching to find).  That is, he was interested in investigating and penetrating into a deeper understanding of the realities of native Indian communities in Brazil that were uncontaminated by Western civilization. Geertz describes it as “ …They were sailing toward an unknown world, one hardly touched by mankind, a Garden of Eden ‘spared the agitations of history’ for some ten or twenty millennia.” And Leví-Strauss writes, “…But the spectacle of a humanity both purer and happier than our own (in reality, of course, it was neither of these, but a secret remorse made it seem so) made the European skeptical of the existing notions of revelation, salvation, morality and law.”  One can only imagine Leví-Strauss’ disappointment when he discovered he was “sailing toward a spoiled world, one which navigators had destroyed in their greed, their cultural arrogance, and their rage for progress.” It appears he only found remnants of a world that had been transformed and left impoverished.

Not only did Leví-Strauss find Rio de Janeiro disappointing but the promise of native Indian communities just outside of the city of São Paulo showed that by his arrival hardly any Indians had been left. Geertz wrote,

“…The nearest (Indians) were several hundred miles away…neither true Indians nor true savages, they were a perfect example of that predicament which is becoming ever more widespread…they were ‘former savages’, that is to say [ones] on whom civilisation had been abruptly forced; and as soon as they were no longer ‘a danger to society’ civilisation took no further interest in them.”

And Leví-Strauss,

“It was a great disappointment to me to find that the Tibagy Indians were neither ‘true Indians’ nor, for that matter, ‘true savages’…Not only were they less ‘intact’ than I had hoped: they also had secrets that I could not have guessed on first acquaintance.”

Clearly, this was a disillusioning encounter for a foreign anthropologist eager to discover the realities of a mysterious country, culture and people.

When I first developed an interest in coming to Brazil to do ethnographic fieldwork, I was motivated by the fact that only three countries in the world were doing anything significantly new in terms of cultural transformations – China, India and Brazil. Already, I had spent two years in China and wasn’t really interested in traveling all the way to India. On the other hand, Brazil was experiencing enormous economic growth (at that time, GDP was 7,5%), had all but completed its rapid urbanization process, lived through a growth explosion that more than doubled the population in less than fifty years, and was a world leader in several different commodities markets. Today, it is pretty much a well-know fact that the concept of urban transition coincides with demographic transition theory. The original theory by Skeldon suggests that as countries move from rural-agricultural to urban-industrial and from high levels of mortality and fertility to lower levels, they achieve economic success.

With this in mind, I came to Brazil expecting to find communities that were themselves growing, developed, and relatively self-sufficient with a society benefiting from Brazil’s rapid and enormous economic success. I was made to realize that it was nothing of the kind. Despite the enormous financial success of the country, what I discovered was an impoverished, anachronistic country with low levels in almost all social indicators. There were severe problems in education, housing, employment, security, health, infrastructure and widespread inequality throughout most of the country. On the other hand, one region, the Southwest, is by far the richest, most advanced area of the country and is responsible for approximately 60% of the national GDP. It leads the country in population density, employment, vehicles, industries, universities, airports, ports of call, highways, hospitals, schools, housing and many other areas. Demographically, it contains various populations of European descent and immigrants from neighboring South American countries. It is also the economic center of the country and headquarters for many foreign, multi-national companies. Unfortunately, I too was disappointed with what I found.

In several chapters throughout Tristes Tropiques, Leví-Strauss describes the almost mystical beauty of the land of Brazil in vivid detail. In superb ethnographic prose, complete with settings, objects, action,  people and details (the reader is reminded that this work was done long before the bevy of academic literature that has been written describing how to do ethnographic fieldwork), Leví-Strauss describes the beaches, jungles, cities, landscapes, skies and people with amazing acumen. Having traveled from the Black River (Rio Negro) in the Amazon to the beaches of Copa Cabana in Rio de Janeiro, I have witnessed the  beauty of this land and been captivated by its majestic grandeur as well. Yet, on the other hand, Leví-Strauss alludes to the manner in which Brazil has been ravaged and destroyed.  He writes, “…erosion had done much to ravage the country before me; but above all Man was responsible for its chaotic appearance.” And again, “…Here in Brazil, the soil had been first violated then destroyed. Agriculture had been a matter of looting for quick profits.” The early history of Brazil reveals that the Portuguese colonists came to Brazil with the intention of exploiting the resources of the land. It was not their intention to develop Brazil as an independent nation or even a territory but to extract as much of the natural resources of the country for profit as possible. Even today this mentality continues to exist within Brazilian society and remains its dark, unspoken legacy.

When Leví-Srauss succeeds in making contact with native Indians, he discovers that he is not able to communicate with them due to language difficulties. He writes,

“There they were, all ready to teach me their customs and beliefs and I knew nothing of their language. They were as close to me as an image seen in a looking-glass. I could touch, but not understand them. I had at one and the same time my reward and my punishment…”

Now, Leví-Strauss faces a strange dichotomy. He must decide to travel with men that to some extent share his own western culture, men whom he can communicate with, or among those whose language is incomprehensible to him. It is here that he realizes the importance of a command of the native language to his research. For language is the portal by which the realm of cultural investigation and analysis is opened to the ethnographer. In order to accomplish this, it sometimes takes years. Even with fluency in a language, it still can take considerable time to understand the content or meaning that is latent within a particular linguistic expression.

My own research has revealed that the importance of a command of the native language to ethnographic research cannot under any circumstances be overstated. Within the already complex relationship between language and symbol, it is also important to understand the inflectional system of a language.  It not only indicates the necessity for understanding how to communicate in the language in general but secondarily the value of the manner in which representation is modified radically. For example, there are those languages whose verbs, pronouns, articles and conjunctions are modified by gender – giving the masculine and feminine attributes precedence. Also, significance in some languages can be divided between two variables – certainty and probability. And, it is here that the variables of representative relationships become important. First, there is the certainty of the relationship: i.e., language can be consistent so that one may be certain of its accuracy. Second, there is the type of relationship: language may belong to that which denotes or describes. And, the third variable is the origin of the relationship: language may be naturally derived or conventionally conceived.

Further, my own experiences as an anthropologist in a foreign country has prepared me to confront with more objectivity the fact that when we attempt to understand and reveal how human beings live in the world, we are necessarily obligated to engage them on their own terms in a relatively undirected way. This type of inquiry is relational and empirically motivated focusing on values, ideas and practices that are plausible and self-evident. It requires considerable patience, theoretical reflection, and attempts to clarify existing ways of thinking and acting in relation to specific situations. But this process has two consequences for which considerable caution needs to be exercised. The first is we must recognize the limits of those systems based on the tendency to formalize our knowledge in scientific or metric terms in order to show coherence. The second consequence is we must be aware of the ways in which our own involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research; a difficult task, uncomfortable and uneasy, but necessary in order to arrive at new knowledge and new understanding. Inquiry into the fundamental aspects of culture, especially those governing its language, schemas of perception, values and hierarchy of practices does not afford us precise meaning. On the contrary, the common ground on which such elements exist is dynamic and continually evolving and changing. However, what is possible is not the exactitude of the things listed but the site on which their relativity might be possible. Thus, the study of human sciences consistently shows us that things might be other than what had been previously assumed.

Although Geertz states that Tristes Tropiques is far from being a great anthropological book (…”though it is very far from being a great anthropology book, or even an especially good one, it is surely one of the finest books ever written by an anthropologist.”), I think it is safe to say that it represents, at the very least, an amazing tour de force of ethnographic genius. That is to say, not anthropology in the sense that it seeks to establish synchronological correlations in cultural forms but an ethnology that advances toward the region of the “unconsciousness” of culture (that which exists below the consciousness in man); not in the area of significations laid down by the functions of life but flowing in the opposite direction toward that which leads back to the epistemological basis that characterizes the system of any given culture. In other words, as Leví-Strauss states, “…the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute man but to dissolve him.” It seems to me that what makes this book very special is it defines for us a system of cultural unconsciousness that gives coherence and necessity to the rules that regulate the needs and norms of an incredibly different cultural experience.

Perhaps, the “meaning” behind the word sad in the title reflects the disappointing experiences Leví-Strauss encountered when first attempting to engage a strange world. But then, on the other hand, perhaps it metaphorically represents how the majesty of such a beautiful land and people have been destroyed by the restless ambition, pride, egoism and cultural parochialism of a mechanical civilization. And if the latter is the case, then perhaps the title should read “the sadness of the tropics” instead (A tristeza dos trópicos).

Leví-Strauss, Claude.  Triste tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955; Leví-Strauss, Claude. The savage mind (La Pensée Sauvage). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962; Geertz, Clifford. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973; Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1970; Skeldon, R. Population Mobility in Developing Countries. London and New York: Belhaven Press, 1990.

4 thoughts on “Tristes Tropiques: Revisited

  1. I thought the title, Tristes Tropiques, was French. Is it also Brazilian Portuguese?

    How many professional (academic) anthropologists working today know an obscure language so well as to be able to detect irony, parody, metonymy, or other figurative devices, some of which may not even have equivalents in other languages? You mention cases and inflections but that’s just grammar, man. Seems to me that you can be a competent linguist and even then still not ‘understand’ the full richness of meaning conveyed in a native speech act.

    You spouted off a lot of bromides in this piece and never really, as you intended, got around to “understanding its precise meaning.” You also failed to put it in the context of Levi-Strauss’s larger career. I think it’s helpful to note that there were “literary” reasons for the production of TT, not just social scientific ones.

    To readers interested in more rigorous yet still accessible criticism, I recommend George Steiner’s review of the piece upon its first full English translation, published in the New Yorker in 1974 and collected in various other anthologies. I like it even better than the Geertz piece you quote from.


    1. Dear Mr. Acosta,
      I agree with you that not many “academic” anthropologist would know the inner meaning of certain linguistic figurative devices especially when working in the field and even more so if working in the field for only a short period of time. But I’m not sure I know what you mean when you say “obscure language.” I guess it really depends upon your meaning of the term obscure. Also, I agree that even a competent linguist still may not understand the full richness of meaning conveyed in native speech particularly if the language is not their native language and even then certain educational restrictions could impede their understanding. As a matter of fact, I have met native speakers that do not understand the full meaning of their own language. As for Levi-Strauss’ larger career, most of my readers are already familiar with his career and I didn’t feel that was necessary.


  2. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this superb blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!


Comments are closed.