Friday, November 28, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Happy Birthday!

Today - November 28, 2008 - is finally the day Claude Lévi-Strauss turns 100. And yes, he is still alive. I've tried during this last week to offer a glimpse of what he's written and what others have said about him. It's stayed on the fairly heavy side, so for today, here's something everyone can relate to. This takes place in 1941 (I think) when he arrived in the US to teach at Columbia University.

...I arrived in the spring and classes were already over. I went to introduce myself at the New School where I was told all of a sudden, "You can't posibly call yourself Lévi-Strauss. Here you'll say your name is Claude L. Strauss." I asked why, and they said, "The students would find it funny." Because of the blue jeans! So for several years I lived in the States with a mutilated last name.

Ever since, this unfortunate coincidence has continued to haunt me. Like a ghost! Hardly a year goes by without my receiving, usually from Africa, an order for jeans. Shortly after 1950, in Paris, a total stranger came to my door, saying he sold fabric. He had found my name in the telephone book and wanted to propose my name for a pants factory. I objected, saying my position at the university and as a scholar was incompatible with that sort of undertaking. He told me not to worry and explained that the affair would never see the light of day, all he would have to do was suggest it. "Rather than lose exclusive rights to their brand-name, the company would pay handsomely to halt the project. All we would have to do is split the proceeds." I declined.

A few years ago I was at Berkeley as a visiting professor. One evening my wife and I wanted to have dinner in a restaurant where we didn't have reservations. There was a line. A waiter asked for our name so he could call us when our turn came. The moment he heard it, he asked, "The pants or the books?"

One has to admire the level of education of the waiters in California, for in Paris, when my wife leaves her name in a store for an order and people exclaim because it is such a well-known name, it's always because of the pants, never the books
From Claude Lévi-Strauss and Didier Eribon (1988) Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 30

The rest of the posts in honor of Lévi-Strauss' birthday are here.

I've seen almost nothing in the mainstream media about this 100 birthday. Googling today, I did find this audio report on National Public Radio.

[Update 9:30pm: Anthropologi has a list of web tributes to Lévi-Strauss.]


  1. "One has to admire the level of education of the waiters in California," ...or sigh over the job options for Berkeley PhDs.


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