It’s intriguing that the great classifier of kin relations should come from a densely interconnected family: “Lévi-Strauss grew up in a densely intermarried family circle made up exclusively of cultivated Parisian Jews of Alsatian descent. . . . All his three wives came from the same milieu. The first, Dina Dreyfus, was the sister of a schoolfriend, Pierre Dreyfus. The second was Pierre Dreyfus’s sister-in-law. He discovered, without surprise, that his third wife, Monique Roman, a Guggenheim on her mother’s side, was related to him through her father.”
Exiled to New York during World War II, he lived with other French emigrees in Greenwich Village. When they “set up a Free French university in exile, the École Libre des Hautes Études, Lévi-Strauss joined the faculty and found a mentor, the exiled Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. A charismatic polymath, Jakobson had apparently cracked the atom of linguistics, the phoneme. . . . A phonetic system must therefore be analysed as a structure of contrasts, a system of relationships, rather than as a series of individual sounds.”
Jakobson’s insights were revolutionary. Levi-Strauss “decided that the new linguistics could inspire a Newtonian revolution in the human sciences. And he now embarked on a dizzyingly ambitious project. He would make a structural analysis of kinship systems.” Working for three years in the New York Public Library, he formulated “a Cartesian first principle: the original cultural rule was the incest taboo.”
He came to believe that “Societies were, originally, machines for the exchange of women between men.” Mixing in the gift anthropology of Marcel Mauss, he determined that societies were organized by gift exchange: “Because of the incest taboo, a man had to give up his sister to gain a wife. Options were limited. Three algorithms could account for all systems of marriage exchange in the simplest societies.”
The product of his research, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté was published in 1949, but didn’t see an English translation for two decades. Fame came later, not with his kinship studies but with Tristes Tropiques (1955), a memoir of his time as a teacher and ethnologist in Brazil: “it was an anti-traveller travelogue, radically pessimistic about the prospects of an overcrowded and homogenizing world, a lament for Europe’s rape of the tropics, and a critique of Western civilization itself. The book captivated and astonished the French literati. Sartre was ‘dazzled.’ Raymond Aron compared it to Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes.”
He never looked back. A manifesto for structuralist anthropology followed, then four volumes of Mythologiques. By the time he died in 2009 (age 101), he was commonly thought of as one of the most influential French intellectuals of the century.