Monday, 3 November 2008

Extracts from "Tristes Tropiques"

To me it’s like Levi-Strauss is analogizing the impression that this book leaves you with when he is describing the principle of sunsets:

“Memory is life itself, but of a different quality. And so, it is when the sun declines towards the polished surface of calm water, like alms bestowed by some heavenly miser, or when its disc outlines mountain summits like a hard, jagged leaf, that man is eminently able to receive, in a short lived daydream, the revelation of the opaque forces, the mists and flashing lights that throughout the day he has dimly felt to be at war within himself”

P29 Tristes Tropiques
Now that the Polynesian Islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty-towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American or Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of traveling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history? Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.

P101 Tristes Tropiques
Certain European cities sink gently into moribund torpor; those of the New World live feverishly in the grip of a chronic disease; they are perpetually young yet never healthy.

P133 Tristes Tropiques
The town is perhaps even more precious than a work of art in that it stands at the meeting point of nature and artifice. Consisting, as it does, of a community of animals who enclose their biological history within its boundaries and at the same time mould it according to their every intention as thinking beings, the town, in both its development and its form, belongs simultaneously to biological procreation, organic evolution and aesthetic creation. It is at one and the same time an object of nature and a subject of culture; an individual and a group; reality and dream; the supremely human achievement.

P505-507 Tristes Tropiques
The world began without man and will end without him. The institutions, morals and customs tat I shall have spent my life noting down and trying to understand are the transient efflorescence of a creation in relation to which they have no meaning, except perhaps that of allowing mankind to play its part in creation. But far from this part according man an independent position, or his endeavors –even if doomed to failure- being opposed to universal decline, he himself appears as perhaps the most affective agent working towards the disintegration of the original order of things and hurrying on powerfully organized matter towards even greater inertia, an inertia which one day will be final. From the time when he first began to breathe and eat, up to the invention of atomic and thermonuclear devices, by way of the discovery of fire –and except when he as been engaged in self-reproduction- what else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration? No doubt he has built towns and cultivated the land; yet, on reflection, urbanization and agriculture are themselves instruments intended to create inertia, at a rate and in a proportion infinitely higher than the amount of organization they involve. As for the creations of the human mind, their significance only exists in relation to it, and they will merge into the general chaos, as soon as the human mind has disappeared. Thus it is tat civilization, taken as a whole, can be described as an extraordinarily complex mechanism, which we might be tempted to see as offering an opportunity of survival for the human world, if its function were not to produce what physicists call entropy, that is inertia. Every verbal exchange, every line printed, establishes communication between people, this creating an evenness of level, where before there was an information gap and consequently a greater degree of organization. Anthropology could with advantage be changed into ‘enropology’, as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration.
Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist an there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists –Oh! Fond farewell to savages and explorations!- in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

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