Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lévi-Strauss's Vegetable Flotsam

I've been amusing myself lately by reading Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1955 memoir of his time in Brazil, Tristes Tropiques, with a mental Werner Herzog accent (I'm reading the English translation). The famous French anthropologist and father of structuralism makes some pretty strong declarations and denunciations that could easily be attributed to the equally opinionated German director. Listen:

I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.... I have often planned to undertake the present work, but on each occasion a sort of shame and repugnance prevented me making a start.

And on the anthropologist's profession as decidedly unadventurous, unglamorous:

...periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose and reduce dangerous living in the heart of the virgin forest to an imitation of military service...

Lévi-Strauss finds himself disgusted with the public's taste for sensationalistic travel accounts of Amazonia, Tibet, and Africa whose dominant tone is a desire to impress. He blames lazy writers but also their undemanding readers: "Instead of having his critical faculties stimulated, he [the reader] asks for more such pabulum and swallows prodigious quantities of it."

Already enjoying this rather spicy pabulum my French elder had been spooning into my brain, my vegetable radar went haywire when I hit this amazing passage comparing his old advisor, psycologist Georges Dumas, to some eerie kind of vegetable while giving a lecture at a mental hospital :

In that room, one already had the sensation of being exposed to a peculiar kind of exotic experience; there was a platform on which Dumas ensconced his sturdy, angular frame, crowned by a knobbly head resembling a large root that has been bleached and stripped through a long stay on the sea bed. His waxy complexion created a unity between his face, his short, white bristling hair and his goatee beard, which was also white and sprouted in all directions. This curious piece of vegetable flotsam, still bushy with little roots, was suddenly humanized by the flashing of coal-black eyes, which emphasized the whiteness of the head.

Immediately, I knew Dumas to be un semblable, a kinsman, of my parsnip creature!


I particularly relish the thought that a vegetable could last and last on the bottom of the sea, like a whale bone, and suddenly be washed up on shore for tribes of people to encounter and incorporate into elaborate rituals. You may also be interested to note the difference between flotsam and jetsam. The former is the wreckage of a ship and its cargo that have been washed ashore, while the latter are materials or goods that have been tossed overboard, perhaps to lighten the vessel in times of duress, and subsequently, also, wash ashore. The same endpoint, but different ways of getting there. There must be another soul out there that gets pleasure from this sort of semantic precision.

I'll keep my carrot eye out for any vivid accounts of Brazilian vegetables our noble adventurer has to offer as I progress through the reading. And look how very cute his professor Dumas looks even when he's not doing a vegetable impression:

photo found here

3 comments:

Jerry said...

oh yes!!!! it's often difficult to remember that levi-strauss did fieldwork, as most of his stuff is culled from other people. it gives me great pleasure that one of the great anthropologist heroes of the last century was basically an airmchair anthropologist and that his own adviser was a bipedal root vegetable! both of those are things i want to be!

but if you really want to think about levi-strauss and vegetables you have to somehow pick vegetables that don't matter except that they can be first mapped into binary oppositions which are then later mapped onto other binary oppositions! i love immaterial symbolic vegetables that only ever differentiate from one another

kale daikon said...

Most amazing WV comment ever, Jerry. I'm trying to think through what you mean about levi-straussian vegetables. I would say that lemon cucumbers might fit this rubric in that they waver ambiguously between the fruit/vegetable binary in a double drag maneuver of F to V to F that can then be mapped onto ways of thinking about how we structure gender oppositions. The F is round, voluptuous, has blooms and seeds, while the V is defined by its lack (of seeds). The lemon cucumber is technically a fruit though many insist that the cucumber be consumed with other vegetables and should *not* be tossed into fruit salads based on its taste and perhaps texture. However, the relative blandness of its contents are at odds with its name, which is based solely on its citrusy appearance. Is gender--is vegetable/fruit identity--a matter of performance or biological structure? But the problem is that lemon cucumbers *do* matter beyond their symbolic capital, so maybe we should just eat them.

kale daikon said...

But then this all gets complicated by the fact that all fruits are in fact subsets of vegetables, if we understand the vegetable to be any edible part of the plant. So I just exploded the binary, I guess. I give up.