Harkin_LeviS_Moon_Opinion_FEATURE

Lévi-Strauss on the Moon

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Michael E Harkin


歌川国芳 (Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 - 1861) Image courtesy of Wikicommons

歌川国芳 (Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 – 1861). Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Perception of the world begins with the construction of paracosms—imaginings of the wider world outside—outside our door, our city, our country. The young child in her nursery may only be able to see the branches of an oak tree through the window, but imagines a completed world, fantastical, possibly, like a Hundred Acre Wood, but bounded and self-consistent. Recent psychological research suggests that children’s ability to create paracosms is closely linked to intelligence. I do not doubt that we could trace this faculty to the deep past, when ancestral humans were constantly processing information about new landscapes, trying to anticipate the location of resources and hazards. Obviously, we see the highest elaboration of paracosms in works of art and literature, such as the Arcadian landscapes of Poussin or the rich geography of Middle Earth. However, it is a tool we all use: a type of bricolage constructed of fragments of the place, associations, and dreams.

The frisson of travel lies precisely in seeing a place, long imagined, as it really is, an experience both exciting and sad, as the paracosm in pure form is lost, like visiting the “secret garden” of a childhood home, only to find it ordinary and much smaller than remembered. Walking down the Champs-Élysées in 1984 I lost the ability to see it through the eyes of Jean Béraud and other nineteenth-century painters that I had known since early childhood from my mother’s book of reproductions of French art. We anthropologists are constant, even (judging solely by Facebook postings) compulsive, travelers. We also tend to read and consume images at a high rate, and thus come to new places with especially robust and well-organized paracosms. And, it is important to recognize that the paracosm does endure, even after months or years of experience of a place. It is a palimpsest, in which the underlying image retains some power to shape the more recent one.

Although we all experience this phenomenon, only Claude Lévi-Strauss explicitly made it part of his method. We get a hint of this in Tristes Tropiques, where he famously discusses his anticipatory images of Brazil, including the olfactory sensation of grilling meat, based on the phonetic similarity of Brésil to grésiller (“to grill”). While Brazil no doubt held some place in young Claude’s imagined world, the preeminent place was rather held by Japan. Claude’s father, a professional artist, collected objets d’art from Japan, which he gave to Claude to reward him for academic successes. Thus, from a child’s room in the leafy 18th arrondisement, a whole world was created.

It is a happy coincidence that young Claude was considering Japan when constructing a paracosm based on purely aesthetic data, because for the Japanese aesthetic considerations are paramount, as attested by that other great paracosmic anthropologist (and aesthetician), Ruth Benedict. As Boris Wiseman argued, the basis of Lévi-Strauss’s entire worldview, including his anthropology, was an aesthetic sensibility. This may explain his less acute intuitions about American society, although it was the foreign country in which he spent the most time; we undeniably produce masterly art, but it would be a mistake to say that we organize our lives around aesthetic principles.

Lévi-Strauss speaks about his love of Japanese culture as early as 1952, in Race and Culture, the UNESCO publication, as part of a larger argument that both cultural attractions and repulsions were a natural part of the global human ecosystem, which thrived on the creation and maintenance of cultural boundaries. It was a controversial point at the time, but interestingly anticipated the multiculturalism of the 1990s and warned, if in very Gallic fashion, of the real dangers of cultural entropy, which have arguably been the root of many of the problems of our current world. The remarkable thing to realize is that Levi-Strauss did not visit Japan until 1977. Was this evident reluctance to go there, when he was a world-famous intellectual figure who had traveled widely, due to a desire to preserve the paracosm of his childhood? Lévi-Strauss himself quotes Baudelaire’s phrase “le vert paradis des amours enfantines” (“the green paradise of childish love”).

He visits Japan initially at the invitation of the Suntory Foundation, affiliated with the distillery. (I cannot help but be reminded of the comedic film Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray comes to Japan to record a commercial for a thinly-disguised Suntory, makers of a famously inferior Scotch whiskey). He comes, armed with a lifetime of informed preconceptions about Japanese art, literature, music, and society, to lecture to elite Japanese audiences. He visits Japan five times in a decade. The occasional pieces associated with these visits were published in French in 2011, and have been produced in a volume The Other Face of the Moon by Harvard University Press. The masterly translation, by Jane Marie Todd, is clear and faithful to the original. A foreword by the eminent anthropologist Junzo Kawada is helpful. The pieces, while original and lapidary in the way we expect from him, are nonetheless cloying, with Lévi-Strauss frequently protesting his naivety and ignorance of Japanese culture, even while constructing one of his famous tripartite classifications from Noh, Kabuki, and Kyogyen styles of theatre. As Robert Launay argued recently in Reviews in Anthropology, these minor pieces do not represent his best work, and are at times redolent of the preciousness that accompanies such rarified events. Nevertheless, they do address an important problem for anthropologists: how do we integrate specialist knowledge based on intensive fieldwork with other sorts of knowledge and experience of other cultures? No one would now presume, à la Benedict, to write an ethnography of an unseen land, but at the same time, what role can non-specialist anthropologists have in observing and commenting on cultures and inter-cultural dynamics? Should we cede this territory entirely to the Thomas Friedmans of the world?

My own Japanese paracosm grew in the rich soil of a public elementary school in Southern California in the mid-1960s. Japanese music, art, and folklore were featured in the curriculum. I had Japanese-American school friends. From this beginning, I have deepened my interest in Japanese landscape painting and, especially, poetry. In July of this year, my daughter and I will make our first trip to Japan.

Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the University of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal Reviews in Anthropology and co-editor of Ethnohistory.

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One Comment

  1. mary ayers
    Posted May 15, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    My family and I live in the house I grew up in, and the author’s initial example of parcosm resonated with me. My earliest memories are of green, leafy branches, far above my head, viewed from my swing, or from the windows above my bed. I constructed a fantasy world in which I roamed the tree tops, like a bird, or a squirrel. The trees still canopy the house, and the birds, (and squirrels, unfortunately- that fantasy ended long ago) still flock to the feeders and baths. I’ve asked our daughter about her early perceptions of her world, and they sound very similar, with the addition of deer, which were missing from my childhood landscape. I would also include not only the landscapes of our early lives, but the sounds and smells. The song of the wood thrush evokes many of my childhood summer memories, as does the smell of watermelon, or freshly cut grass. As an example of a diminished, or more palimpsest-like paracosm, there is an N.C . Wyeth painting- “The Giant” which depicts a group of children on the beach, envisioning a club wielding giant in the approaching storm clouds. My parents used to haul us to Hatteras or Ocracoke Island, on the NC Outer Banks, usally right after a big storm,. That’s when the fishing was best, and while they fished, we roamed at will over the old ship wrecks, or climbed the un-attended light houses. Mom and Dad would be arrested for child neglect today, and that wild, lonely, windswept shore is no more the wide open space it once was.

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