Claude Lévi-Strauss did not want to grant an interview that summarized his career and his thoughts, but, on the occasion of the Year of Brazil in France, which will begin in March, he wanted to return to his relationship with the «Country of ember-colored wood “. With extreme courtesy, he receives us in his library, in a dark suit and tie with a metallic knot adorned with indigenous motifs – “a trivial craft,” he says. Among the bound volumes, a totem from Oceania, many Asian objects, a scroll of Tibetan prayers.
Since 1935, he has taught sociology at the University of Sao Paulo. What does Brazil mean to you today?
“She represents the most important experience of my life: for the distance and the contrast, but also because she determined my career. I feel deeply indebted to this country. I left it in early 1939 and only saw it again in 1985, when I accompanied President Mitterrand on an official five-day visit. Although very short, that trip aroused a real mental revolution within me: Brazil had become entirely, totally, another country. The city of São Paulo, which I had known when it barely reached one million inhabitants, already had more than ten million. The traces and footprints of the colonial era had disappeared. It had become a frightening city, with miles of towers. I had decided to review, not so much the house where I had lived – which probably no longer existed – but at least the road I had traveled for years. Instead, I spent the morning stuck in traffic without being able to get there ».
Did you go back to your friends, the Caduveos, Bororó or Nambicuara Indians whom you had studied in Brazil?
«In 1985 Brasilia was one of the stops on the presidential trip. The newspaper O Estrado de Sao Paulo suggested that I take me back to the Bororó family, a journey that in 1935 had cost me a lot of effort but which, by plane, could be done in a few hours. So one morning we boarded a small plane that could only carry three passengers: my wife, a Brazilian colleague and myself. The plane flew over the Bororó territories, and we could even see some villages still with their circular structures, but each one now equipped with a landing ground. After flying over them, the pilot told us: I could land, but the runways are so short that maybe I won’t be able to leave! We therefore gave up and returned to Brasilia, going through a terrifying storm. I thought our life had never been so exposed to risk, not even at the time of my expeditions. All of this showed how much the country had changed. Therefore, I did not see the Bororó in flesh and blood again, but their territory; I flew over that Rio Vermelho, a tributary of the Paraguay River, which I had taken several days to get back in a pirogue and which, now, was bordered by an asphalted road ».
Can one be physically and forever marked by a country?
“Surely. As I said, what struck me the most when arriving in Brazil was nature, as it could still be contemplated on the slopes of the Serra do Mar; then, when I was able to go inside, again, it was a nature so totally different from the one I had known … But there is also a dimension to which we do not always pay attention and which for me has been capital: that of the urban phenomenon . When I arrived in São Paulo it was said that a house was built per hour. And there was a British company that, for only four or five years, had been opening the territories west of the state of Sao Paulo. He built a railway line and planned a city every 15 kilometers. In the first, the oldest, there were 15,000 inhabitants, in the second five thousand, in the third a thousand, then 90, then 40 and, in the most recent, only one, a Frenchman. At that time, one of the great privileges of Brazil was to be able to witness, in an almost experimental way, the formation of that fantastic human phenomenon that is a city. Here, the city is sometimes the result of a decision by the state, but above all of millions of small individual initiatives taken over the centuries. In Brazil in the 1930s, this process was shorter, taking place in a few years. Of course, since I practiced ethnography, Indians were essential for me, but this urban experience counted for a lot; one Brazil and the other lived together, but at a safe distance. When I went to Mato Grosso for the first time, Brasilia did not yet exist, but there had already been a first attempt to create a city from nothing, Gioiania, which did not go through. The central plateau, the Planalto, is magnificent: there the sky attracts more than anything “.
Mario de Andrade had imagined with a lot of humor Macunaïma, a liar and lazy Tapanhuma Indian from the Amazon: became emperor of the virgin forest with his marriage, he landed in the city of São Paulo to retrieve an amulet before being transformed into a constellation, the Great Bear . Does this indigenous spirit, this link between city, forest and myth still persist? Did it follow its evolution?
“I follow the evolution of the indigenous people, whom I had studied regularly at the time, with my thoughts, and thanks to colleagues much younger than me, such as those from the University of Cuiaba, in Mato Grosso, who among other things work for the Nambicuara. They write to me and send me their works. These peoples have suffered terrible suffering. They were more or less exterminated, to the point that only 5 or 10 percent of the original population had survived. But what happens today is of immense interest. These peoples got in touch with each other. By now they know what they have ignored for a long time: they are no longer alone on the universe stage. They know that in New Zealand, Australia or Melanesia there are individuals who, at different times, have gone through the same difficulties as themselves. They are aware of their common position in the world. Of course, ethnography will never again be what I was still able to practice in my time, when it was a question of finding evidence of beliefs, social formations, institutions born in complete isolation from ours, which therefore constituted an irreplaceable contribution to World Heritage Site. We are now, so to speak, in a regime of “mutual interpenetration”. We are moving towards a civilization on a world scale, where certain differences will probably appear. At least, we hope so. Differences that will no longer be the same, they will be internal and no longer external ”
The speed of movement, the speed of propagation of cultures, communication are determining factors …
«Once, my colleagues and I took mixed cargo which, after many stopovers, took nineteen days to arrive in South America, stopping along the Spanish, Algerian and African coasts. After all, of Africa I only know the places where we stopped on the way to and from Brazil “.
Can photography, which you have practiced as evidenced by the numerous clichés you have published about her, fix these lost worlds?
«I have never given great importance to photography. I photographed because it was necessary, but always with the feeling that it was a waste of time, a loss of attention. Yet, as a teenager, I loved photography. My father was a painter and did a lot of photography. For me, it is a separate profession. Mine was a zero-level photographer’s job. In 1994, I published a photo book, Saudades do Brasil, which can be translated as “Nostalgia for Brazil”, because it was requested. The publisher has chosen, among many others, a little less than two hundred clichés. During the first expedition to the Bororó, I had brought a very small movie camera. It happened to me every now and then to press the button and take some pictures, but soon I was disgusted because, with the eye behind the lens, you don’t see what happens and even less understand. There are clips left that in total correspond to an hour of film. They were found in Brazil, where I had abandoned them, and were once shown in the Beaubourg. I must confess that ethnological films bore me enormously ».
She is a music addict. Mythological, she begins with an overture and ends with a finale. Il Crudo e il cotto, the first of the four volumes of Mythological, begins with the story of a Bororó song, the motif of the bird discoverer. Has he analyzed their music?
«No, I am not an ethnomusicologist; I have not studied their songs. Sometimes they hit me, others moved me. One of my first emotions dates back to the ceremonies on the occasion of my arrival at the Bororó. They accompanied their songs by waving certain trinkets with a virtuosity similar to that of a great conductor with his baton. Months ago I received a visit from two Bororó Indians in the company of two researchers from the University of Campo Grande del Mato Grosso, where they teach. On their own initiative, they wanted to sing and dance in my office at the Collège de France. And here, in fact, is one of the paradoxes in which we live: those Bororó colleagues preserved in all their freshness and authenticity songs and music that I had heard seventy years earlier. It was truly moving. That said, music is the greatest mystery we face. In my day, Brazilian popular music was very enjoyable ».
What can you tell me about the future?
“Don’t ask me. We are in a world I already feel I don’t belong to. The one I knew, whom I loved, had one and a half billion inhabitants. The world today has six. It’s not mine anymore. And that of tomorrow, with nine billion men and women – even if they assure us, to console us, that it will be the highest point of the parable – forbids me to make any predictions ».
Taken from: VERONIQUE MORTAIGNE, Le Monde – The New York Times Syndicate – Agenzia Volpe, Translated by Daniela Maggioni.