the opening chapter of claude lévi-strauss’ tristes tropiques (the great french non-fiction novel?)


1    Departures

Travel and travellers are two things I loathe—and yet, here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions. But at least I’ve taken a long while to make up my mind to it: fifteen years have passed since I left Brazil for the last time and often, during those years, I’ve planned to write this book, but I’ve always been held back by a sort of shame and disgust. So much would have to be said that has no possible interest: insipid details, incidents of no significance. Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part; merely one of its bondages, it represents no more than a dead weight of weeks or months wasted en route; hours spent in idleness when one’s informant has given one the slip; hunger, exhaustion, illness as like as not; and those thousand and one routine duties which eat up most of our days to no purpose and reduce our ‘perilous existence’ in the virgin forest to a simulacrum of military service . . . That the object of our studies should be attainable only by continual struggle and vain expenditures does not mean that we should set any store by what we should rather consider as the negative aspect of our profession. The truths that we travel so far to seek are of value only when we have scraped them clean of all this fungus. It may be that we shall have spent six months of travel, privation, and sickening physical weariness merely in order to record in a few days, it may be, or even a few hours an unpublished myth, a new marriage-rule, or a complete list of names of clans. But that does not justify my taking up my pen in order to rake over memory s trash-cans: ‘At 5.30 a.m. we dropped anchor off Recife while the seagulls skirled around us and a flotilla of small boats put out from the shore with exotic fruits for sale. . . .’

And yet that sort of book enjoys a great and, to me, inexplicable popularity. Amazonia, Africa, and Tibet have invaded all our book stalls. Travel-books, expeditionary records, and photograph-albums abound; and as they are written or compiled with an eye mainly for effect the reader has no means of estimating their value. His critical sense once lulled to sleep, he asks only to be given ‘more of the same’ and ends by devouring it in unlimited quantity. Exploration has become a profession; not, as one might suppose, that it’s a matter of unearthing new facts in the course of several years’ laborious study — not at all! Mere mileage is the thing; and anyone who has been far enough, and collected the right number of pictures (still or moving, but for preference in colour), will be able to lecture to packed houses for several days running. Platitudes take shape as revelations once the audience is assured that the speaker has sanctified them by travelling to the other side of the globe.

For what do these books, these lectures, amount to? A luggage-list, a story or two about the misdemeanours of the ship’s dog, and a few scraps of information — scraps that have done a century’s service in every handbook to the region. Only the speaker’s impudence and the ignorance and naivety of his hearers could cause them to pass as an ‘eye-witness account’ or even, for all I know, as ‘an original discovery.’ Doubtless there are exceptions; every age has its authentic travellers, and among those who today enjoy the public s favours I could point to one or two who deserve the name. My aim, however, is neither to expose the one nor to authenticate the other, but rather to understand a moral and social phenomenon which is peculiar to France and is, even there, of recent origin.

Not many people travelled professionally in the 1930s, and those who returned to tell their tales could count not on five or six full \houses at the Salle Pleyel, but on a single session in the little, dark, cold, and dilapidated amphitheatre that stood in a pavilion at the far end of the Jardin des Plantes. Once a week the Society of Friends of the Museum organized — and may still organize, for all I know — a lecture on the natural sciences. Lantern lectures, they were; but as the screen was too large for the projector, and the lamp too weak for the size of the hall, the images thrown were intelligible neither to the lecturer, who had his nose immediately beneath them, nor to the audience, who could with difficulty distinguish them from the huge patches of damp that disfigured the walls. A quarter of an hour before the appointed time there was always doubt as to whether anyone would come to the lecture, apart from the handful of habitués who could be picked out here and there in the gloom. Just when the lecturer was losing all hope, the body of the hall would half fill with children, each accompanied by mother or nanny, some delighted by the prospect of a free change of scene, others merely craving relief from die dust and noise of the gardens outside. This mixture of moth-eaten phantoms and impatient youngsters was our reward for long months of struggle and hardship; to them we unloaded our treasured recollections. A session of this sort was enough to sever us forever from such memories; as we talked on in the half-light we felt them dropping away from us, one by one, like pebbles down a well.

If this, our return, had its funereal side, as much could have been said of our departure, which was signalized by a banquet held by the Franco- American Committee in a disused private house in what is now the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. A caterer, hired for the occasion, had arrived two hours earlier and set up his apparatus of hot-plates and china and table-silver: too late, however, for a hasty ‘airing’ to blow away the stench of desolation.


No less unfamiliar to us than the solemnity of our surroundings was the aroma of fusty tedium with which they were permeated. There had been just time, quite clearly, to sweep clean the centre of the enormous saloon in which we were to dine, and it was at the table — dwarfed, like ourselves, by its environment — that we made one another’s acquaintance for the first time. Most of us were young teachers who had only just begun work in provincial lycées; there had stretched before us a damp winter, with lodgings in a second-rate hotel in a market-town and an all-pervading smell of grog, cellars, and stale wine. And now, George Dumas’ slightly perverse whimsies were to whisk us away from all that and set us down in luxury-liners headed for the tropical seas: an experience which was to bear only the most distant resemblance to the stock notions of travel which were already forming within us.


I had been one of Georges Dumas’ students at the time of the Traité de Psychologie. Once a week — Thursday or Sunday morning, I can’t remember which — the philosophy students would go and hear him in one of the lecture-halls at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. The walls feeing the windows were covered with hilarious paintings by madmen; these set, from the very beginning, a peculiarly exotic note. Dumas was robustly built, with a body like a billhook and a great battered head that looked like a huge root which had been whitened and pared down by a sojourn on the sea-bed. He had a waxy complexion that unified his whole face with the white hair that he wore very short and en brosse and the little beard, also white, that grew in all directions at once. A curious fragment of vegetable matter, one would have said, with its rootlets still adhering to it, had not the coal-black gaze affirmed that it was beyond doubt a human being. The antiphony of black and white recurred in the contrast between the white shirt, with its starched and downturned collar, and the large-brimmed black hat, the black tie with its flowing knot, and the unvarying black suit.


We never learnt much from his lectures. He never ‘got them up’ in advance, because he knew that he never failed to cast a spell over his hearers. His lips, though deformed by a continual rictus, were marvellously expressive; but it was above all the hoarse and melodious voice that did the trick. It was a veritable siren s voice, with strange inflections that took us back not only to his native Languedoc but to certain ancient modes of speech, musical variants that went beyond all regional considerations and partook of the quintessential music of spoken French. In voice, as in looks, Dumas evoked a particular style, at once rustic and incisive: the style of the French humanists of the sixteenth century — the doctors and philosophers of whom he seemed to be the mental and bodily perpetuation.


A second hour, and sometimes a third, was devoted to the presentation of individual ‘cases.’ Often they were veterans who knew exactly what was wanted of them, and we would then witness astonishing displays of virtuosity in which they and the lecturer would vie with one another in cunning and guile. Some would produce their symptoms at exactly the right moment; others would offer just enough resistance to call for a display of bravura from the lecturer. The audience, though not taken in by these demonstrations, found them entirely fascinating. Those who won the maestro’s particular favour were allowed a private interview with one or other of the patients. And never, in all my experience of primitive Indian tribes, was I as intimidated as I was by the morning I spent with an old woman who told me, from within her enveloping shawls, that she likened herself to a rotten herring buried deep in a block of ice: intact to all appearances, that is to say, but menaced with disintegration should the protective cover turn to water.


Dumas was not above mystification; and the general syntheses of which he was the sponsor had, for all their ample design, a substructure of critical positivism which I found rather disappointing. And yet, as was to be proved later, he was a man of great nobility. Just after the armistice of 1940, and not long before his death, when he was almost blind and in retirement in his native village of Ledignan, he made a point of writing me a discreet and considerate letter, with no other object than to put himself firmly on the side of those who had been the first to suffer from the turn of events.


I have always regretted not knowing him in his first youth, when the scientific perspectives opened up by nineteenth-century psychology had sent him off, wild with excitement and bronzed as a conquistador, to make the spiritual conquest of the New World. Between Dumas and Brazilian society it was to be a case of love at first sight: a mysterious phenomenon, in which two fragments of a four-hundred-year-old Europe met and recognized one another and were all but joined together again. Certain essential elements had remained intact in both cases: in a southern Protestant family, on the one hand, and on the other in a fastidious, slightly decadent bourgeois society that was turning over at half speed in the tropics. George Dumas’ mistake was that he never grasped the authentically archaeological character of this conjunction. The Brazil that he wooed and won was only one of the possible Brazils, although it later seemed, when it came momentarily to power, to be the real one. In Dumas’ Brazil the ground landlords were steadily moving their capital into industrial holdings financed from abroad; seeking for an ideological cover of some sort, they settled for a right-thinking parliamentarianism. Our students, meanwhile, were the offspring of recent immigrants or squireens who lived by the land and had been ruined by fluctuations in world prices; to them, Dumas’ friends were the grao fino — a bitter phrase that meant ‘the smart set’. Oddly enough, the foundation of the University of São Paulo, which was Georges Dumas’ greatest achievement, made it possible for people of modest station to begin to climb up the ladder by obtaining the diplomas which allowed them access to the civil service. Our academic mission did, in fact, help to form a new elite. But neither Dumas nor, later, the Quai d Orsay would realize that this 61ite was a very valuable creation. As a consequence it drew steadily clear of our influence. It aimed, of course, to do away with the feudal structure which we had introduced into Brazil; but we had, after all, introduced it partly as a surety for good behaviour, and partly as a way of passing the time.


But, on that evening of the Franco-American dinner, neither my colleagues nor I — and that goes, of course, for our wives, who were to accompany us — had any idea of the role which we were to play, however involuntarily, in the evolution of Brazilian society. We were too busy taking stock of one another and avoiding, in so far as we could, the fatality of social error. Georges Dumas had just warned us that we must be prepared to lead the same life as our new masters: the life, that is to say, of Automobile Club, casino, and race-course. This seemed quite extraordinary to young teachers who had been earning twenty-six thousand francs a year; more recently — so few were those who applied to go abroad — our salaries had been tripled.


‘Above all’, Dumas had said, ‘you must be well dressed.’ And as he wanted to reassure us he added, with rather touching candour, that it could be done at no great expense, not far from the Halles, at an establishment called À La Croix de Jeannette, where they had fitted him out very acceptably when he had been a young medical student in Paris.


—from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques