Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Not long after reading the news of Claude Levy-Strauss' death yesterday, I came to a passage in Ryszard Kapusciniski's book "The Soccer War" that reminded me of how ideas coincide (for me, not in a Jungian sense, but rather in that sense that grows out of lots and lots of reading coupled with coincidence):

"In Lagos, when I was ill, I read through Tristes Tropiques. Claude Levi-Srauss has been staying in the Brazilian jungles, carrying out ethnographic research among the Indian tribes. He is running into difficulties and resistance from the Indians; he is discouraged and exhausted.

Above all, he asks himself questions. Why has he come here? With what hopes or what objectives? Is this a normal occupation like any other profession, the only difference being that the office of laboratory is separated from the practitioner's home by a distance of several thousand kilometres? Or does it result from a more radical choice, which implies that the anthropologist is calling into question the system in which he was born and brought up? It was now nearly five years since I had left France and interrupted my university career. . . . . By whom or by what had I been impelled to disrupt the normal course of my existence? . . . Did my decision express a deep-seated incompatibility with my social setting so that, whatever happened, I would inevitably live in a state of ever greater estrangement from it? Through a remarkable paradox, my life of adventure, instead of opening up a new world to me, had the effect rather of bringing me back to the old one, and the world I had been looking for disintegrated in my grasp. . . . Travelling through regions upon which few eyes had gazed, sharing the existence of communities whose poverty was the price -- paid in the first instance by them -- for my being able to go back thousands of years in time, I was no longer fully aware of either world. What came to me were fleeting visions of the french countryside I had cut myself off from, or snatches of music and poetry which were the most conventional expressions of a culture which I must convince myself I had renounced, if I were not to belie the direction I had given to my life.

Kapuscinski writes about his own depression, about depression that befalls him in the tropics: "the depression torments you and you try to free yourself of it. But the requisite strength is not born in a moment. It takes time to accumulate it in sufficient quantity to overcome the depression. You drink beer and wait for that blessed moment. . . . Describe other behaviour from periods of depression. Physiological changes in chronic states: the slumber of cortical cells, the numbness in the fingertips, the loss of sensitivity to colours and the general dulling of vision, the transient loss of hearing. There would be a lot to say."

And, as I experience every year at about this time of severely shortened days, depression isn't only a tropical event. I fight it with exercise and diet and light and, of course I drink beer and wait for that blessed moment. And I'm tormented by the culture I left behind even as I came back, and I'm haunted by the PBS interviewer who asked me about academic freedom at BYU and commented: "Princeton, Vanderbilt, BYU, UVSC -- I've never seen an academic career in such precipitous decline!" And I answered then, and I answer now in the midst of my doubts and sorrows: "Yes, and every step was carefully chosen."