On Christmas Eve 1951, Santa Claus was hanged and then publicly burned outside of the Cathedral of Dijon in France. That same decade, ethnologists began to study the indigenous cultures of central New Guinea, and found men and women affectionately consuming the flesh of the ones they loved. "Everyone calls what is not their own custom barbarism," said Montaigne. In these essays, Claude Levi-Strauss shows us behavior that is bizarre, shocking, and even revolting to outsiders but consistent with a people's culture and context. These essays relate meat eating to cannibalism, female circumcision to medically assisted reproduction, and mythic thought to scientific thought. They explore practices of incest and patriarchy, nature worship versus man-made material obsessions, the perceived threat of art in various cultures, and the innovations and limitations of secular thought. Levi-Strauss measures the short distance between "complex" and "primitive" societies and finds a shared madness in the ways we enact myth, ritual, and custom.
Yet he also locates a pure and persistent ethics that connects the center of Western civilization to far-flung societies and forces a reckoning with outmoded ideas of morality and reason.
Claude Levi-Strauss was born in Brussels in 1908. He held the chair of social anthropology at the College de France from 1959 to 1982 and was elected a member of the Academie Francaise in 1973. He died in Paris on October 30, 2009. Maurice Olender is maitre de conferences at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Jane Marie Todd has translated more than seventy books, including Catherine Clement and Julia Kristeva's The Feminine and the Sacred.
Foreword, by Maurice Olender Part 1: Santa Claus Burned as a Heretic, 1952 Part 2: We Are All Cannibals, 1989-2000 1. "Topsy-Turvydom" 2. Is There Only One Type of Development? 3. Social Problems: Ritual Female Excision and Medically Assisted Reproduction 4. Presentation of a Book by Its Author 5. The Ethnologist's Jewels 6. Portraits of Artists 7. Montaigne and America 8. Mythic Thought and Scientific Thought 9. We Are All Cannibals 10. Auguste Comte and Italy 11. Variations on the Theme of a Painting by Poussin 12. Female Sexuality and the Origin of Society 13. A Lesson in Wisdom from Mad Cows 14. The Return of the Maternal Uncle 15. Proof by New Myth 16. Corsi e ricorsi: In Vico's Wake Notes Index About the Author