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In tributes acknowledging his contribution to intellectual life in France and the world, Claude Levi-Strauss has been called a “giant,” and “one of the greatest ethnologists of all time.” President Nicolas Sarkozy described the centenarian who was regarded as the father of modern anthropology and who died just weeks shy of his 101st birthday, as “a tireless humanist," a curious and free-thinker who was always in search of knowledge.
More extraordinary than being honored after one has passed is receiving such accolades while one is still living.
Though he mainly stayed out of the public eye in his later years, Levi-Strauss' 100th birthday was a widely celebrated affair last Nov. 28 with an exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and tributes in dozens of countries. I happened upon the Paris event quite by chance. I'd gone to the museum in search of another French intellectual with three names, Bernard-Henri Levy, who was among the more than 100 French public figures tapped to take turns reading from Levi-Strauss’ works. I wanted to introduce myself, tell him about a not-yet-launched venture called GlobalPost and see if he wanted to contribute any thoughts about the recent U.S. election.
I spent my first visit to the museum known for exhibiting indigenous artwork expecting to round every corner and come face-to-face with a flamboyant middle-aged Frenchman, with wild salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a white, button down collar shirt, with a few of the top buttons undone, blue jeans and a black blazer. In the caricature of Levy — a writer, pundit and personality known as BHL — that I had invented, I expected him to be surrounded by an entourage of tall, beautiful women, all dressed in black, a different image from what I was observing and learning of the erudite Levi-Strauss.
In space after space, throughout the museum, I discovered photographs and objects Levi-Strauss had brought back from various trips through the Amazon and the Americas. I listened to the broadcast of a radio station that had set up a studio in the museum's lobby and featured guests debating live on the air the anthropologists' pivotal works. In various corners, I stood shoulder to shoulder with museum visitors who'd waited in long lines and now strained to hear passages from Levi-Strauss' works as they were read by French personalities. I didn't recognize anyone, but the murmurs and movements of the crowd sometimes indicated that someone important was nearby.
The whole event was the kind of tribute one would expect to see long after someone has passed away. But Levi-Strauss was very much alive. In fact, Sarkozy had visited him that day at his Paris home "to express the gratitude and appreciation of the entire nation."
I discovered a little of Levi-Strauss that day but never found BHL, not at the musem nor at the cafe, Les Deux Magots, where I ventured the next day. I had been told BHL liked to hang out at the old left bank haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
I wonder now, with Levi-Strauss' passing, who will pick up the torch. No figure that I know of is dominating the French intellectual scene of the 21st century the way Levi-Strauss apparently did in the 20th, by all accounts. As part of the birthday tribute last year, BHL contemplated in an essay published online what place Levi-Strauss would inhabit in the stratosphere of contemporary ideas. I can't help but wonder if BHL is thinking the same now, but about his own place. Is a celebrity intellectual the next incarnation of the country's great thinkers? Can we still call it France if there aren't any chain-smoking sophisticates sitting in cafes debating lofty ideas?
Preoccupations are different today and the president's tribute message hinted at the world as Levi-Strauss came to see it. "Recently, he expressed grave concern at the disappearance of many living plant and animal species, and wondered about the changing world and the impact of human activities on Earth," the message said.
The scholar lamented the effects of globalization and offered this gloomy prediction in a statement that's been cited often in the last days: “The world began without man, and will end without him.”
I wonder which intellectuals are sitting around right now debating global warming.