Wild Thought.

Francis Gooding’s LRB review (archived) of Wild Thought: A New Translation of ‘La Pensée sauvage’ by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt, is full of good stuff and gives me a better understanding of Lévi-Strauss than I have heretofore had; I’ll quote some passages of Hattic interest:

That word sauvage has been the cause of a lot of trouble when it comes to translating Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological masterwork. The first English translators went for ‘savage’, giving the book a real facepalm of a title: The Savage Mind. The original French has the primary sense of wild or untamed thought, but it also plays on the name of the flower – la pensée, pansy – whose image appeared on the cover. The connection was also made through the epigraph from Hamlet that Lévi-Strauss placed in a later edition: Ophelia’s ‘and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’ Both pun and quotation were gentle invocations of the book’s main theme: for Lévi-Strauss, human thought in all its complexity is as natural a thing as a wild flower, and La Pensée sauvage tried to show how its garden grows.

The play on words doesn’t carry into English (this new translation has a bouquet of pansies on the cover in lieu), but calling it The Savage Mind butchered the primary sense too, suggesting the brutal and witless natives of the colonial imagination – a reversal of the book’s intention. Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt generously suggest that the choice of ‘savage’ might have been an ironic reference to the anthropological vocabulary of an earlier generation, whose theories Lévi-Strauss had set himself to overturn. Maybe, but if so it didn’t come off, and in any case it was only the most obvious symptom of a deeper malaise. ‘“Wild thought” and not “the thought of wild men”,’ Lévi-Strauss explained, to no avail. The new title is much better.

Lévi-Strauss’s complex prose style combined with the breadth of his references make things difficult for any translator, and the first time around, in the 1960s, no fewer than three people were involved: the anthropologist Rodney Needham, the Oxford philosopher Sybil Wolfram (whom Needham seemingly asked to help because he felt unsure handling the philosophical content), and the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, who was brought in to look over the text when Wolfram and Lévi-Strauss couldn’t agree. (The title was among the sticking points: ‘Mind in the Wild’, ‘Untamed Thinking’ and ‘Natural Ideas’ were all considered and rejected.) When The Savage Mind was published in 1966, Lévi-Strauss said he didn’t recognise his own book. Needham countered that if it was filled with obscurities that’s because it had been translated directly from Lévi-Strauss’s French. ‘Not only did “too many cooks spoil the broth,”’ Wolfram later said, ‘but they were able to transform the cooked to the raw.’ None of the translators would put their name to it, and it was left unattributed, a notorious disaster. Clifford Geertz declared it ‘execrable’.

The arrival of Mehlman and Leavitt’s new translation is, then, an event. Finally, there is a fresh, agile English rendering of one of the 20th century’s greatest, strangest and most challenging works. Working from the Pléiade edition of 2008, the translators have also incorporated some significant alterations that Lévi-Strauss made in his final versions of the text. Still, the passage of time evidently hadn’t made the task any easier: La Pensée sauvage was, Mehlman and Leavitt write, ‘a nightmare to translate’. […]

Wild Thought opens with a demonstration of the intellectually meticulous attitude that indigenous societies take towards the natural world. Drawing on ethnographic evidence gathered in places as widely dispersed as Zambia, California, the Philippines and Siberia, Lévi-Strauss shows that the extensive, careful scientific classification of natural phenomena – sometimes with binomial and trinomial vocabulary, comparable to the Linnaean model – is the norm among peoples historically dismissed by Europeans as ‘primitive’. In the Philippines, for instance, the Subanun have a botanical lexicon of more than a thousand terms; the Pinatubo recognise more than six hundred plants and have more than a hundred terms for different parts of plants; and the Hanunóo have a complex classificatory system with thousands of names to identify birds, snakes, crustaceans, spiders, insects, molluscs and so on. […]

For Lévi-Strauss, evidence of this sort gives the lie to the old canard that ‘primitive’ people were interested in knowing about things only if they were useful. In fact, he says, the opposite is true: things ‘are found to be useful or interesting because, first of all, they are known’. The classification of beings that have no medicinal or comestible use indicates the existence of a shared scientific bent among indigenous people, as well as widespread, well-developed cultures of close observation and systematic investigation. This knowledge is ‘not practical in nature’, but intellectual. ‘The real question,’ for Lévi-Strauss, ‘is not knowing whether contact with a woodpecker’s beak cures toothache, but whether it is possible … to make the woodpecker’s beak and the human tooth “go together”.’ Such punctilious classification of natural beings and objects brings the various observable elements of the world into meaningful relation with one another, organising the raw material for what Lévi-Strauss called a ‘science of the concrete’ – a mode of understanding that works through the logical combination and recombination of the myriad natural units that can be perceived in the world. […]

This concrete science, or ‘mythic thought’, ancient or contemporary, epitomises the kind of wild thinking Lévi-Strauss was looking for. Precise and minutely calibrated, it both describes the world and accounts for its structure, but rather than putting knowledge in service of a relentless progress, it is dedicated to the accommodation of change and the maintenance of conceptual balance. It deals with the possibilities of the actual, not the pursuit of the possible. It is concerned with aesthetics, and takes full account of both primary and secondary qualities: where modern science neglects the former in favour of the latter, concrete science might conclude that, for instance, ‘a seed in the shape of a tooth protects against snakebite’ or that ‘a yellow juice is a remedy for bilious disorders’, proceeding ‘as though an equivalence satisfying one’s aesthetic feeling also [corresponds] to an objective reality’. It refuses the onward march of history, preferring states of social and environmental equilibrium. Concrete science is ‘not the thought of savages or of a primitive or archaic humanity, but thought in the wild state’ – the natural functioning of the mind, when it hasn’t been trammelled by the methodologies of modern science, the rigid timelines of academic history or the barren orthodoxies of philosophy. And in Lévi-Strauss’s view, this kind of undomesticated thought isn’t just valuable in its own right: it is able to transcend and resolve some of the difficulties that continue to dog the European intellectual tradition. […]

There are many such complex detours in Wild Thought, and they do connect, in more or less convoluted ways, to the preceding discussion of concrete science. But the sudden, disorientating acceleration and the apparently uncontrolled threading together of disparate fields and facts are hallmarks of the book as a whole. It isn’t at all the methodologically sober scientific analysis that Lévi-Strauss would have us believe, but reads more like the rapid unspooling of a supremely confident mind, prodigiously erudite, adept at making poetic connections between meticulously categorised phenomena, and capable of absorbing and neutralising any challenge or apparent contradiction. A mind that takes items which might appear far from the point – Georges Méliès’s set designs, fragments of Dickens, the ‘Palais Idéal’ of the Facteur Cheval – and rapidly turns them to account. A mind that works, indeed, rather like the one he is trying to describe: the ‘neolithic’ intelligence of Tristes Tropiques, busily transcribing its own operations and seeing in them the universal structures of human thought. No wonder Clifford Geertz described some of the sections – in particular a truly obscure rumination on the names given to horses, cattle, dogs and cats – as ‘triumphs of self-parody … far-fetched enough to make a psychoanalyst blush’. […]

Lévi-Strauss’s purpose is to show that the logic of such systems is usually highly coherent and complete, though as with a language this logic can’t be worked out a priori from the elements at hand, which are in a sense as arbitrary as signs. Only a detailed ethnography can provide an understanding of why, for instance, the Osage classify eagles in the ‘earth’ category of beings and not the ‘sky’ category (it’s because eagles are associated with lightning, lightning with fire, fire with charcoal, and charcoal with earth: eagles are one of ‘the masters of charcoal’).

Similarly subtle and flexible logics are not in fact foreign to the European intellectual tradition. As Lévi-Strauss notes, the examples he presents demonstrate ‘a way of thinking at ease with all the exercises of speculation, close to that of the naturalists and hermeticists of antiquity and the Middle Ages: Galen, Pliny, Hermes Trismegistus, Albertus Magnus’. Lévi-Strauss isn’t trying to identify the peculiarities of something exotic, but the typical features of something universal, something which happens to have fallen out of favour in European thought. With each succeeding chapter, he examines a different modality or application of mythic thought, moving from considerations of clan groups and their natural science, through food prohibitions, problems of the particular and the universal, the value of number, the notion of caste and much more besides, finally arriving at the rules organising the most reduced, essential class, that of specific individuals and proper names. […]

It is an absurdly grandiose project, and there are plenty of skilful elisions. In particular Lévi-Strauss is very slippery on the question of whether the forms of thought he discusses are actually ‘wild’, or merely give us access to the anterior ‘wildness’ present in all thought. His methods, too, were regarded as deeply idiosyncratic, not to say suspect. An early sticking point among more orthodox anthropologists was his insistence on adducing as evidence not only carefully gathered material from the ethnographic record, but any scrap of information ever gathered about human social life. With barely a hint of a critical attitude, he drew freely from antiquity, Jesuit records, travellers’ tales, early colonial accounts, paintings, music and novels. (‘His scholarship was unreliable,’ Rodney Needham drily noted.) Some of his practices were borderline esoteric: his manner of myth analysis was to break stories down into discrete elements, give each element its own index card, then arrange the cards into a huge grid, continually shuffling them in order to discern previously hidden relationships. Such methods couldn’t be replicated with any precision by other researchers and could not, therefore, be considered scientific, even in the limited sense demanded of the social sciences. Yet Lévi-Strauss conceived this Surrealist scrying as part of a true anthropological science that would contribute to an almost cosmic intellectual task: ‘reintegrating culture into nature, and finally life into the set of its physico-chemical conditions’.

Lévi-Strauss wasn’t aiming merely to dismantle the follies of anthropology – that was nothing but a minor skirmish, really – but to overcome the chauvinism and domesticity of all post-Enlightenment European thought, which, like an industrial farm in a once pristine landscape, threatened the older, wilder forms of thought with extinction. In his attempt to shatter Western solipsism, he set out to prove that the intellectual culture of so-called savages had the potential to take European thinking by the hand, like an older sibling, and help it past the stumbling blocks it had set for itself. He would do nothing less than restore the untamed thought of the universal human mind to its proper place, ‘legitimating the principles of wild thought and re-establishing its rights’. The whole project is excessive, hubristic and brilliant. It is the flawed keystone of a revolutionary anthropology that could never really be built, a firework of renegade Surrealism that imagined itself as a new science. Wild thought, indeed.

While I admire untamed thought and agree that Western solipsism is unfortunate, I can’t get past the fact that post-Enlightenment thought works — it has saved millions of lives and provided us with the wonders of the internet, among many other obvious benefits. Tales of eagles as masters of charcoal and the like are poetic and should be preserved, but they do not represent reality in the same (effective) way, and I resist all fashionable efforts to paint them as somehow superior.

I can’t resist reposting an enjoyable exchange from this 2006 thread:

J. Cassian:

As every schoolboy knows, the first pair of jeans was made by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural haberdashery.

Michael Farris:

“Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural haberdashery”
As so memorably detailed in his book “The Raw and the Acid-washed”.


  1. The sixth quoted paragraph reminded me of the first lesson that Ogion the Silent teaches Sparrowhawk:

    “You want to work spells,” Ogion said presently, striding along. “You’ve drawn too much water from that well. Wait. Manhood is patience. Mastery is nine times patience. What is that herb by the path?”


    “And that?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Fourfoil, they call it.” Ogion had halted, the coppershod foot of his staff near the little weed, so Ged looked closely at the plant, and plucked a dry seed-pod from it, and finally asked, since Ogion said nothing more, “What is its use, Master?”

    “None I know of.”

    Ged kept the seedpod a while as they went on, then tossed it away.

    “When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” Ogion went on a halfmile or so, and said at last, “To hear, one must be silent.”

  2. ktschwarz says

    I’d considered posting that Ogion quote in the thread on Nabokov’s requirement that writers must know the names of plants. Probably just great minds thinking alike, but conceivably Le Guin might have picked up the attitude from Nabokov, either from reading (his Eugene Onegin commentary was first published in 1964, four years before A Wizard of Earthsea) or from hearing about him.

  3. “suggesting the brutal and witless natives of the colonial imagination ”

    Cf. https://savageminds.org

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    “The Savage Pansy” would have been a great title. (Your “I think I saw them opening for NAMEOFBAND at NAMEOFVENUE in 198__” punchline goes here.)

    ETA: or maybe “Savage Pansy & Les Faux Amis”?

  5. Trond Engen says

    For the The Grimm Shifters at Die Urheimat in 1988 or -89.

  6. Hell, I went to shows at Die Urheimat when it was still located in Ur.

  7. David Marjanović says

    IM IN UR

  8. 𒋀𒀊𒆠

  9. Trond Engen says

    You know what they say of Die Urheimat: If you knew where you were, you weren’t there.

    [I really wanted to say “That must have been the Sumer of 69”, but then I remembered I’d used it before,]

  10. I wonder if any copies of their irregularly issued periodical Das ungeheure Ungeziefer still survive? It was pretty eldritch, as I recall (though of course useful for reminding you which bands you saw).

  11. jack morava says

    C L-S says, in The structural study of myth, Journal of American Folklore 68 (1955):

    Finally, when we have succeeded in organizing a whole series of variants in a kind of permutation group, we are in a position to formulate the law of that group. Although it is not possible at the present stage to come closer than an approximate formulation which will certainly need to be made more accurate in the future, it seems that every myth (considered as the collection of all its variants) corresponds to a formula of the following type:

    Fx(a) : Fy (b) ≃ Fx(b) : Fa^{−1} (y)

    where, two terms being given as well as two functions of these terms, it is stated that a relation of equivalence still exists between two situations when terms and relations are inverted, under two conditions: 1. that one term be replaced by its contrary; 2. that an inversion be made between the function and the term value of the two elements…

    Here, from

    A Doja, Politics of mass rapes in ethnic conflict . . . ,
    Crime, Law and Social Change (2019) 71 : 541 – 580,

    is a proposed example:

    marriage_solidarity : rape_hostility ≃
    marriage_hostility : dissociation_rape

    [This is a kind of calculation of ratios of ratios of metaphors, \ie if A is to B like C is to D, and moreover etc…]

    I find it hard to take this sort of thing seriously, but then, as a friend says, I look around…

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Loosely related and perhaps of a certain anthropology-of-imperialism interest. I just by happenstance became aware of one of the wildest non-fictional band names of all time, viz. “The African Dance Band of the Cold Storage Commission of Southern Rhodesia,” who in or about 1947 cut the original version of this tune which became an improbable worldwide hit in ’54: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skokiaan

    The ADBotCSCoSR demonstrated that cultural exchange was a two-way street by also recording their own rendition of “In the Mood,” which is Out There on youtube.

    One wonders if in those days multiple bureaucratic entities of the Southern Rhodesian regime each maintained their own African Dance Band and the CSC just ended up with the best one?

  13. Cheeky of you to just link to the Wikipedia article! Here’s the lively original recording itself.

  14. John Cowan says


    Urim, Thummim hit the floor
    Priests go dashing to the door
    For the cops have caught the crap game in full swing.

  15. One wonders if in those days multiple bureaucratic entities of the Southern Rhodesian regime each maintained their own African Dance Band …

    There’s a long tradition in gritty Northern U.K. of works brass bands. For example Yorkshire Copper Works Band; Grimethorpe Colliery Band; Black Dyke Mills Band. The movie ‘Brassed Off’ depicted a (fictional-ish) colliery band. ‘The Buena Vista Social Club’ would be the same idea?

    The name ‘Grimethorpe’ surely inspired ‘The Cloggies’: a works-based competitive clog-dancing team. One episode involves the Smokeworks Choir practicing downwind of the main chimneys. Inadvertently, the chief engineer closes the valve supplying the smoke and — gasp! — the choir is exposed to a blast of FRESH AIR, thus ruining their chances at the upcoming competition.

  16. Chicago UP has a 75%-off sale on ebooks this week, so Wild Thought costs $5 with discount code EBOOK75

  17. The Buena Vista Social Club

    i’ve always assumed the name was a ry cooder invention, inspired by the new orleans brass bands named for their affiliations with various Social Aid & Pleasure Societies. but that’s pure assumption.

  18. From Wikipedia:

    The Buenavista Social Club was a members-only club originally located in Buenavista (literally good view), a quarter in the current neighbourhood of Playa (before 1976 part of Marianao), one of the 15 municipalities in Cuba’s capital, Havana. The original club was founded in 1932 in a small wooden venue at calle Consulado y pasaje “A” (currently calle 29, n. 6007).

  19. the more you know!
    (is proportional to time spent in these parts)

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