And so, it was at Puerto Rico that I first made contact with the United States; for the first time I breathed in the smell of warm car paint and wintergreen … those two olfactory poles between which stretches the whole range of American comfort, from cars to lavatories, by way of radio sets, sweets and toothpaste … The accidents of travel often produce ambiguities such as these. Because I spent my first weeks on United States soil in Puerto Rico, I was in future to find America in Spain. Just as, several years later, through visiting my first English universtiy with a campus surrounded by Neo-Gothic buildings at Dacca in Western Bengal, I now look upon Oxford as a kind of India that has succeeded in controlling the mud, the mildew and the ever-encoroaching vegetation.

What strikes me more and more now as I am rereading this book is how many different ways it finds to reflect its facets on each other. I’m not sure where to find the point of origin of any of its themes. Or are they themes, like melodies in a piece of music, subject to repetition, variation, and inversion? – or are they more like the instruments, themselves invariant, producing the infinite variety of melody? Should I say that the way the scents of America are strung along a single line with conceptual endpoints is a feature of the author’s psychology? Or is it more suitable to say that the world and human nature are like that, which is why his mind reflects it? Or does it have something to do with the specific portrait the book is painting: of a world aranged in the rigid graphs of an order of concepts, where the concepts are made of fluid perceptions that merge and separate like a kaleidoscope with colored water-droplets for beads; the way his memories and experiences merge into and are shaped by his analysis and later understanding.

Those magic caskets

So we’ve got through the first section of the book. Chapter three, of course, just finishes the story begun in ch. 2 and, although there are some amusing anecdotes, he’s not really going anywhere except on a narrative jaunt. But chapter 4! The first section of the book is like one of those shortbread cookies with jam in the middle: the jam is always uninteresting and a bit of a disappointment compared to the actual cookie, but without the jam the cookie wouldn’t taste nearly so good. Chapters 1 & 4 are the cookie (i.e. the substance), and 2 & 3 are the jam (meagre travellog with all the annoying pips and sugary congealments of the genre). I was thinking of beginning with a quotation like I did last week and I just couldn’t choose: I wanted to quote the whole chapter. E.g.:

Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories (37f.).

And so on and so forth on the falsity of travel narratives – as though he weren’t implicated, though he is and realizes it:

I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt; I wished I had not trodden that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier or Manucci did … Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing date and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape (….) In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lost on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should (43).

With that I’m going to sit back and see what the rest of the book brings.

I did want to ask (and this will display my ignorance) how that would fit in with the recent Bakhtin craze, if at all? The word ‘spectacle’ set off some little bells in my head and I’m wondering how far it’s legitimate or how much it’s just a false alarm brought on by silly pseudo-critical conditioning.

On board ship

[T]here was a general urge to complete the operation quickly and get out, for the unventilated huts were made of planks of unseasoned, resinous pine which, after being impregnated with dirty water, urine and sea air, began to ferment in the sun and give off a warmish, sweet and nauseous odour; this, added to other smells, very soon became intolerable, especially when there was a swell.

One of the things I like best about Tristes Tropiques is the pleasure it takes in getting the sensuous detail right. There’s a kind of knowledge muscle it likes to flex as well: “unseasoned, resinous pine” has the ring of expertise to it that pulls the trust from me needed to allow him to give me the whole picture of the cramped, unpleasant on-board showers. It’s the same kind of implication of explanatory power that helps me take in his picture of wartime Martinique, with its purposeless guard, confused as to which side they were on and who their enemy was, taking out their agression with bureaucracy on a helpless boatful of refugees.

The nature of the beast

Adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…

Having read the first two chapters of Tristes Tropiques, I can only say that I like how Levi-Strauss fleshes out his narrative. In the first chapter he firmly states his dislike of the travel genre, cutting himself off (or setting himself apart) from it and all its weaknesses. By the second chapter, though, he’s added a historical element, provided a context both personal and historical for the writing of the book. It’s the promise of flesh (observations on history and culture and his own personal development) for the skeleton he set out in the first chapter (anthropologist goes to Brazil). A good start for what looks like a complex and thoughtful book.

Tristes Tropiques

Blogs collect unfulfilled projects. (It’s a form of internet lint.) Why should this one be different? One more thing I plan to use this site for, another thing I get to avoid doing in avoiding coming here, I won’t notice it. So let’s announce it: We, Mfc and I, plan to read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a couple chapters a week, for the next however long, and blog an exchange about it. It’s one of my favorite books, and I haven’t read it in five years. I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. You’re welcome to participate, comments are open.

The rough idea is: we’ll choose a short passage, one each each weekend, and write a short, off-the-cuff post about it. Dialogue, hopefully, to follow, threaded beneath. (No promises, though.)