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Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss is ostensibly a travelogue dealing with Amerindians, their native lands and their society. The actual story is more than discovery and exploration, delving into the mind of the author, a French philosopher. It is ironic that Levi-Strauss bemoans the losses that his subjects have endured when he knows that it is his society that has caused theirs to fade away. Tristes Tropiques, the Sad Tropics, relates the story of the anguish and misery caused by the introduction of Western values and mores on a non-Western group of humanity.
Levi-Strauss begins this work by saying that he hates traveling and explorers. “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind,” (Levi-Strauss et al. p 24). He says that either we journey to a distant land to find the true savage, though there are precious few actually left in this world and their difference makes them impossible to know, or we are the gawking tourist looking for a reality that does not exist, if it ever did.
It is this paradox that drives Levi-Strauss.
Levi-Strauss agrees to a meeting with the Tarunde Indians in their village. It is to be a ceremonial gift swap in which he gets to witness first hand the structure and social order of the group. This passage is fraught with tangible fear for outsiders had been murdered there. It is a surreal episode and told with a sense of urgency.
Yet the author goes on for pages describing a sunset at one point.
Chapter after chapter delve into philosophic meandering and observations on world religions. “Or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat,” (415) he says in closing. Perhaps there is some deep, or even metaphysical meaning to this. Or perhaps the emperor has no clothes. He takes a far too circuitous route to arrive at a vague point.
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