The Savage Detective

Claude Lévi-Strauss, anthropologist, writer and adventurer, died just over a week ago at age 100. He died discreetly, which was as he had lived, though he was the most eminent and probably the last French philosopher. His ideas had as much influence on his contemporaries as the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

His edifice, structuralism — the theory of a structural unity in all cultures — was built on the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and on the sociology of Marcel Mauss. But Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s great achievement was that he managed to reshape the simple art of gathering information about so-called primitives. In his book “La Pensée Sauvage,” published in 1962, he showed these “primitive” people as the equals of those in the most elevated cultures of the civilized world. (In English, this title is translated as “The Savage Mind,” though the title in French may also suggest the flower called “wild forget-me-not.”)

What always struck me most about Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s thought was his ability to dodge the traps of modern ethnology, sometimes so much like old colonialism. There is an enormous difference between Mr. Lévi-Strauss and his most notable predecessors, E. E. Evans-Pritchard or Bronislaw Malinowski: his humanity and his melancholy kindness, which made him reluctant to go into the field for fear of intruding on the people he studied or finding himself disappointed by what had been lost to the evolution of modern times.

Still, Claude Lévi-Strauss overcame his reluctance and went, opening our minds to the extraordinary complexity of the Bororo’s and Nambikwara’s way of life. He expressed in his books the beauty and intelligibility of myths. And he kept in his heart the warmth and the modesty of the young man he once was, a man who was struck by a pessimistic sympathy for dying civilizations, dying people.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss was — and would have liked to be remembered as — a simple witness to the course of modern time. He was never sure that what he had put to light would even survive the present, an inevitable and bitterly lucid truth elucidated in “Tristes Tropiques,” one of his most famous books: “The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it.”

J. M. G. Le Clézio, the author of the novel Desert and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.