Emmanuelle Loyer, “Anthropology, literature and the paradigm of the last witness”

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In memory of Daniel Fabre.

I would like to thank the organizers of this event for providing me with an opportunity to reflect on the notion of bearing witness, which in modern history — both in France and, I believe, in Britain — has become a prerequisite course in historiographical methodology, yet one in which I had never taken much interest. When Catherine Robert, to whom I owe my presence here, suggested that I think about this question, it struck me that the last word in Lévi-Strauss’s inaugural lecture at Collège de France (in January 1960) was none other than the word “witness.” What he said on that august occasion — in a long phrase that I will spare you for now —was that for the “savages” who had welcomed him into their midst, all he had strived to do was to become “their pupil and witness.” This might seem surprising coming from the leading figure of structural anthropology, a science said to take the view from above, as if we were to discover that Fernand Braudel had interviewed trimmers in the port of Seville and Muslim pirates to produce his history of the Mediterranean!

A recent development that has not gone unnoticed — especially in Britain, where “Shoah Studies” are far more established than in France — is the historiographical rise of witness accounts, whose status as evidence of truth has considerably grown. This comes in the face of a traditional epistemological suspicion within the historical discipline: witness accounts are not reliable, they must be corroborated with other sources, etc. In the new conception, on the contrary, witnesses deliver a truth that is not of the order of fact, but of a deeper nature, due to their co-presence with the event being recounted. They are marked by the event, of which they are the repository. In fact, this reconsideration is of a necessarily ethical nature. Witnesses — in particular survivors of the camps, who reconfigured our whole way of thinking about witness accounts — stood as evidence of a higher truth, to which their damaged selves could testify. Paradoxically, the ethical anointment that has made the witness an essential contemporary figure has been accompanied by the radical devaluation of fiction, with the definitive pronouncements of Adorno and others in the aftermath of World War II. And yet, the witness account has resurfaced through literature — though in some sense considered its polar opposite — with the development of a poetics of witness testimony and a “documentary ethics,” which have become ubiquitous and productive in European literature over the past half century. I am thinking here of authors as varied as W.G. Sebald, Imre Kertesz, Chalamov, Paul Celan, Antonio Munoz Molina, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Rosetta Loy, Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Ismail Kadaré, Patrick Modiano, etc. In fact, literature is always implicated in the question of witness — especially when it takes written form, since the testimonial account is always a narrative of the “misfortunes of the times” (war, famine, epidemic) in the classical age, or of partial or total destruction, of the contemporary genocide, or, in a less spectacular vein, the slow but sure vanishing of traditional habits and customs under the ineluctable steamroller of modernity. In any case, the witness always tells of a swallowing up, and literature has a central place in the putting into writing of that interment.

If, among professional historians, extensive recourse to witness accounts is a relatively recent phenomenon, it was on the contrary at the very origin of anthropological curiosity, as has been masterfully demonstrated by Daniel Fabre, to whom this paper is dedicated. The anthropology that developed during the Romantic period became the only social science to be resolutely oriented to the past, assigning itself the mission of faithfully recording that which was doomed to vanish, to be undone, vanquished — often through the voice of a “last witness,” the ultimate testimony of a world that no longer existed.[1] As I will try to show, Lévi-Strauss — albeit imbued with the scientific modernity of the next century — strongly identified with this paradigm. These reflections on the notion of witness accounts have thus taken the form of a series of meanderings between 19th and 20th century history, literature and anthropology, conceived in the dynamic process of separation/constitution that characterizes the establishment of distinct forms of knowledge.


History: witness accounts as a record of the misfortunes of the times


Archival records — initially administrative documents for authenticating notarized agreements, serving as proofs of identity, ownership, and contract, and as such part of the business of the state — became, with Michelet, historical sources. We can trace a similarly roundabout trajectory for witness testimony: originally deployed within a legal framework and framed by the language of the law, the witness account has come out of the courtroom to speak of misfortune, the past, and even truth. In French, it was Annette Wieworka, in a now classic study, who traced the history of the witness account, which first became a mass phenomenon with the First World War, the first historical conjuncture favourable to a widespread reflex to write (diaries, letters) among a now literate society.[2] The conversion of archival records and eyewitness accounts into historical sources marked a radical transformation, for it opened up the possibility of writing another history, one from the perspective of history’s vanquished.

Indeed, whether coming from a French soldier in the trenches of WWI, or a Jew in the Warsaw ghetto (or a Breton peasant, for that matter), the witness account, whether written or oral (I am not distinguishing here), is a token left by the vanquished — who know it to be such — to qualify, amend, contradict, inform a story (that of the victors) that historians have long told — chronicling the rulers, the mighty, the grand strategists. The winners of history might simply describe what happened. The witness account, in this respect, offers to take us into the side alleys of official History, into what might have happened or happened differently. The “Chronicles of Destruction” — which is the title of the journal of the Central Historical Commission of the Committee of Jews who were liberated after the war — as well as the archive of the Warsaw ghetto, were conceived as so many survival operations for documenting a vanished world — that of Polish Ashkenazy culture. In the midst of total war, “everyone was writing.” This striking burst of written expression on the part of men and women who knew themselves to be doomed must of course be considered in its deeper meaning. These hastily written chronicles were produced to preserve a trace, a memory of that which was about to die; they were also intended to bear witness to events that had reached such a pinnacle of horror that they would become hard to believe later on. They are all, as Annette Wieworka has put it, “memoirs from beyond the grave,” whose truth is guaranteed in blood — i.e. by the death of the writer, a kind of living dead (the deportee), that is, a living being awaiting death. The witness account thus engages, like religion, the relation between the dead and the living. Hence the reference to the figure of Lazarus, to evoke both the camp “survivor” and, in Lévi-Strauss, the status of the anthropologist, who becomes dead to his society in order to open up to another but who then returns to it, like Lazarus returning to the living.

In France, the status of the witness radically changed a few decades later, with the release of the film Shoah (1985), by Claude Lanzmann, who opted against both archival footage and fiction, showing nothing on screen but the faces of witnesses being interviewed by Lanzmann, himself the demiurge of a catharsis experienced and filmed live — as if the truth of the Shoah could only emerge out of such a painful anamnesis.[3] The exclusion of fiction from narratives of destruction was proclaimed very early on, before even Adorno’s definitive pronouncement, by a Franco-American historian, Jean Norton Cru, who was rediscovered in France in the 1990s, but whose great work, Witnesses, dates from 1929.[4]

Jean Norton Cru was a Protestant from the Ardèche region of France, a history professor in the United States, and a veteran who had fought on the French side in World War I. Rather than making yet another contribution to the steady stream of books that came out after 1918 (or sometimes before), he undertook a comprehensive critical overview of all the accounts of the experience of war, conceiving of this work as support for a new historiography to come. Indeed, once purged of the “bad” accounts (which, in Cru’s opinion, included those of Barbusse and Dorgelès), witness accounts opened up the possibility of writing a new history of the war, “at a human level,” a history of the combatants’ experience, as opposed to that of the strategists and generals. This was the sacred mission that the ardent Ardéchois had set for himself. He was obsessed with debunking war, ridding it of all the chivalric representations that had fuelled the western (male) conception of civic virtue and virile courage, as well as the culture of war in the period from 1914 to 1920. Cru emphasized fear, moral agony, the lack of patriotism, and the insignificance of hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. Norton Cru also expressed early misgivings about the indecency of dealing with such horror through artistic expression, and the moral aporia that lay between fiction and apocalypse. Focusing on both novels and “essays” — a category that encompassed a wide range of autobiographical writing (or “ego-documents”) — he was however not hostile to aesthetics, per se. Indeed, he constantly wavered between two antagonistic conceptions: on the one hand, the idea that only literature, i.e. reflective writing, could convey a sense of the traumatic experience of war; on the other, the notion that literary artifice, with its emphasis on the lyrical or morbid, was detrimental to the truth, and ultimately crippled the potential for knowledge in novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front, which he deemed “excessively macabre, featuring knife combat, ignorant of everything a foot soldier ought to know.”

War narratives often, more or less explicitly, combine the genres of diary and fiction. And Norton Cru, however constrained by the strict rules he set for himself, ultimately converges with the writer W.G. Sebald, in that they both implicitly call for an aesthetics and ethics of the witness account — one that is free of literary sleight of hand, expressing itself in plain language, a kind of “degree zero writing” that Roland Barthes was later to identify as the sign of literary modernity. In a major text on the literary treatment of the bombing of Germany by the Allies at the end of World War II (a category of writing that the Germans call Trümmenliteratur), Sebald also promoted a documentary poetics, which would inform his own subsequent literary production.[5] His anthropology of a Europe traumatized by war — described by a narrator-witness traversing, usually on foot, the scenes of the crime — is interspersed here and there with photos and reproductions of intimate archives (a page from a personal diary, a letter, an object, a photograph, etc.). These are the vestiges of daily life, whose impact on the reader is only further intensified by their trivial and fragile aspect or, conversely, because they reveal all too plainly the project of the administrators of horror, as for instance documents from Nazi medicine. In all these cases, fiction pales in comparison with the force of authentic documents. An ideal of truth, of objectivity — free of all pretence and, above all, of any flashy avant-garde effects or metaphysical one-upmanship — must govern all literary efforts.

Let’s come back to World War I. The historian Nicolas Beaupré has identified two waves of writing on the conflict:[6] a first generation of writer-combatants, who produced books whose testimonial value was reinforced (they were there!) by the suggestion that truthful accounts of war could only emanate directly from the world of war, without any mediation. In fact, this mass of writings often faithfully reproduced a consensual rhetoric that is rather banal and studied. The second wave of literature, published about a decade later, at the end of the 1920s, had a quite different feel to it: the work of professional writers (including Jean Giono and Louis-Ferdinand Céline), these books offered fictional accounts depicting, in a more pacifist vein, the chaos of combat and the intimacy of daily defeats. It is, paradoxically, that second and more literary wave that proves more effective at telling what war really was like. The ten-year gap in between may have been necessary for memory to become sedimented into a more profound truth. Indeed, the anthropology of witness testimony has often observed a similar decades-long lag. For instance, in France, it was only in the late 1950s that the Holocaust was given filmic representation, in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), and in 1961 that atomic destruction was fictionalized, in Hiroshima mon amour, by the same director, based on a script by Marguerite Duras — as if again, the passage of time was necessary for the truth of an experience to become established.[7] This runs counter to the belief that the fresher the experience, the more its truth will be available to those seeking to capture it. Similarly, it was only after a period twenty years that Lévi-Strauss undertook to write a narrative of his Brazilian journey and of his radical experience of the decentring of the world — the origin of his anthropological vocation. But from the ruins of memory arose a new order, that had been invisible to the contemporary eye. Tristes Tropiques is the result of this temporality of witness, which Lévi-Strauss described in geological terms: as a tectonics of memory that enables the emergence of a real that is more real than the lived reality — with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as his explicit model.


Ethnology: the paradigm of the last witness


If for the discipline of history, the witness account has become the token of a renewed historiography — as the new cultural history of World War II demonstrates — the issue is different with regards to anthropology. From the outset, the witness account, and more specifically that of the last witness, has been one of the avenues to knowledge of the Other, and — for Daniel Fabre, who himself practiced such exhumation — the most intimately connected to the emergence and development of anthropology as a discipline, as the study of the vanishing.

In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans became a phenomenal success both in the United States and Europe, where it was praised by many of the writers of the Romantic generation. What was it about this story of a white trapper gone native that captured the imagination of the century? The short answer is: it recorded the end of a world. Chateaubriand had laid the ground for it with Les Natchez (1821). In the United States, the theme of the “vanishing Indian” had given rise to a political, scientific and artistic movement that was the very mirror opposite of the American pioneer and colonial ideology. Germain de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” (1831) provided a gripping narrative of irreversible westward urban expansion, i.e. of the destruction of the Indian through white encroachment: “Man gets used to everything — to death on the battlefield or in the hospitals, to slaughter and to suffering. He becomes inured to everything he sees — an ancient people, the original and rightful masters of the American continent melting away daily like snow in sunshine and disappearing before our eyes from the face of the earth. In the same areas another race rises in their stead at an even greater pace. This race instigates the clearing of the forests, the draining of the marshland; lakes as big as seas and huge rivers offer empty opposition to its triumphant progress. Every year wild areas become villages; villages become towns. The American, a daily witness of these wonders, sees nothing astonishing in any of that. This unbelievable destruction, this even more surprising growth, looks to him like the normal forward march of events. He grows accustomed to it as to the unchangeable order of the natural world.”[8]

As opposed the white American frontiersmen, Tocqueville and Beaumont, barely 30 years old when they wrote this in 1833, foresaw the coming disaster. According to Daniel Fabre, the emergence of the last witness in the Romantic era “was in no way temporary or anecdotal, it structured a broad swath of modern sensibility and defined a very specific condition of knowledge.”[9] And since we are here in Scotland, let me also point out that Ossianic poetry also bore the mark of the end of a cultural world: that of free chiefdoms, of the last of the race of Fingal, sung by Ossian, the last bard. The historical paradox, incidentally, is that by recording the vanishing of a world, the mournful tone of the Romantic sensibility founded a new one: that of nations, in which each motherland rose out of the resurrection of “vestiges” that were recast as “original” and “founding.”[10]

In any case, the end of ancient liberties (whether Scottish or Amerindian), as well as the quest for the last native speaker, and the theme of the dead language, became recurring themes of a literature that called for the urgent collection of “remains” before it all disappeared — in a tone characteristic of a certain urgent anthropology that became very present a century later, in Lévi-Strauss and others of his generation. According to Daniel Fabre, “the theme of the last witness, prior to becoming a conventional expression of regret [UNESCO, heritage policy, etc.], gave rise to a new paradigm in the social sciences that Romanticism powerfully expressed, and not without nuance.”[11] This paradigm represents one of the archetypal situations where knowledge about the other finds its source and shape — the other two being: 1) The so-called Herodotus paradigm: the frontal engagement with alterity through a play on exoticism, as in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters; 2) The quantified and administrative management of otherness (and especially of the poor) that can be found both in realist literature (Balzac, Zola, etc.) and in governmental social science (demographics, sociology, economics, etc.). Each paradigm profoundly shapes the knowledge it conditions. The awareness of gradual disappearance thus made possible the “ethnographic pact,” which brought together the anthropologist and a native informant who often served as the ultimate witness, the spokesperson, the one that Daniel Fabre was to call the world-individual: like Dersu Uzala (both in the book and film of the same name), who incorporated a large part of Siberian culture through his intimacy with the world of the taiga; or Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians of California, celebrated by the anthropologists Kroeber and Waterman.

The entire 19th century is caught in a dialectic of a nascent modernity and the persistence of traditional customs. As opposed to other social sciences, which were institutionalized through a focus on the future and the march of Progress (including the History of historians, in its republican, national and progressivist version), anthropology looked backwards to the relics of the past, and considered “the self-evident truth that this advance served to proliferate losers, victims, outcasts, outsiders and last witnesses, who perpetuated the practices and manifested the ‘mentality’ of yore.” The Romantic writers were often torn, as George Sand was: a socialist and a republican, a devout Christian and a firm believer in Progress, she wrote rural literature from her refuge in the Berri countryside and, in her rural novels, produced a fine ethnography of the local peasantry that showcased the persistence of a magical culture into the mid-century;[12] the entire French literature of the 19th century wavered between a recording of emergent forms — capitalism, new social physiologies, new ways of being — and acute, often affectionate, though sometimes indignant observations of the vanquished of post-revolutionary history, for instance, as in Barbey d’Aurevilly, the uptight world of the old ultra-aristocracy of the small towns of western France.[13] The anthropologists who adopted an evolutionary schema nevertheless always made sure to give a voice to defeated cultures. In the end, anthropology does not operate so much on the distance between here and there, but rather on the gulf between yesterday and today.

In this vertiginous condition, literature is an ally — and sometimes, as we have seen, even a precursor. Particularly well equipped to describe the swallowing up of entire expanses of society and culture in the temporal fault lines of our modernity, literature, at its best — and most modern! — also took up the paradigm of the last witness. Think of Marcel Proust: Monsieur de Charlus is the world-individual of the Ancien Régime aristocracy. Similarly, Elias Canetti and Isaac Bashevis Singer became the erudite chroniclers of worlds that no longer existed except in their memories: that of the Sephardic Jews of Turkey, for the former, and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, for the latter. We could accumulate many examples from French literature. Daniel Fabre, a connoisseur of regional literature, singled out the case of Frédéric Mistral, whose literary production went hand in hand with an investigation into his native region and its people. Was literature an ally of the cause of anthropology? Yes, since only literature, “moved by the desire to know and make known, was in a position to name the victims and stir up, or at least keep vigil over, their ashes.”


Claude Lévi-Strauss and the spread of the paradigm in the 20th century


Even though his project was heavily informed by scientific modernity, it was with this paradigm of the last witness, which had shaped early anthropology, that Claude Lévi-Strauss appears to have taken sides a century later. It is an inflection in his work, and more still in his scholarly ethos, that has not been emphasized enough.

As I said earlier, his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, an intense virtuoso performance, ended on a melancholy, even dark tone, which cast a pall over the entire event. After having laid out a vast interplay of constructions and interpretations, he appeared to give himself over to the indigenous perspective, to these Amerindians who had taught him so much: “To them I have incurred a debt which I can never repay, even if in the place in which you have put me I were able to give proof of the tenderness which they inspire in me and the gratitude which I feel toward them by continuing to be as I was among them, and as, among you, I would hope never to cease being: their pupil and their witness.”[14] A witness in the strong sense of the term, with the solemn inflection borrowed from the paradigm of the last witness, of whom the anthropologist is only the pious transmitter.

This paradigm operated in a specific and contradictory way in the making of the young scholar Claude Lévi-Strauss into an apprentice anthropologist in 1930s Brazil. On the one hand, the fantasy of the inaugural encounter of modernity, that moment when the first white man sees the first savage — which Lévi-Strauss himself experienced when he spotted, on the banks of Rio Papagaio, his first Nambikwara; and, on the other, the flipside of the same coin, the fantasy of acting as the ultimate custodian of a doomed civilization, whose remains he must collect. The freshness of beginnings v. the melancholy of endings. This mood informed his relationships with the first Amerindians he met in the State of Paranha, whom he considered already corrupted. Confronted with these Amerindians who were nothing but very poor Brazilian peasants, he felt he had arrived too late.

Lévi-Strauss was far from unique in this respect. Urgent anthropology was a very fashionable notion in the 1930s: both science and museography laid considerable emphasis on objects as the material and visible remains of a culture in agony. The rescue operation that justified many anthropological expeditions indeed sometimes concealed ambiguous acts of despoliation carried out in the name of universal heritage — as illustrated by the Dakar-Djibouti mission and the account Michel Leiris gave of it in L’Afrique-fantôme. The young Lévi-Strauss, back from his expedition to the Caduveo and Bororo peoples, wrote in the catalogue to the exhibition inaugurating the Musée de l’Homme in Paris: “Only a few years remain for us to collect what still survives and what will soon disappear.” That was in 1937… The public who was invited to appreciate the spectacular pieces — notably the Bororo feather ornaments and the Caduveo arabesques painted on skins — experienced, in addition to their aesthetic value, a striking metaphysical dimension: even more than from remote lands, these amazing objects came from an immemorial past, being engulfed by an advancing Brazilian civilization. Anthropology verging on archaeology.

I have already mentioned that, in Tristes Tropiques, Lévi Strauss had popularized the figure of Lazarus returning from the dead to characterize the position of the anthropologist returning from fieldwork to his own society. His choice is troubling because the Lazarus motif, after 1945, was used as a metaphor for another figure returning from another underworld, that of the concentration camp.[15] The recycling of the term therefore identified Amerindians as the dead-to-be of the globalized and western-centred world of the 20th century. These Amerindians, who were no longer very much alive but not yet quite dead, called us back to the concentration camp. This is all the more striking since Claude Lévi-Strauss has often been blamed for not talking about the Holocaust — which is in fact not entirely true, since he evokes it in Tristes Tropiques, but only obliquely rather than frontally, through a comparison I shall return to later. In fact, I believe Lévi-Strauss fully understood what was at stake in the testimonies on the Shoah by Robert Antelme and Primo Lévi (who, incidentally, translated Claude Lévi-Strauss into Italian). As Giorgio Agamben has shown, Primo Lévi described the grey zones of abjection in the camps, “below” good and evil, in the shifting borders of humanity and non-humanity.[16] Which is properly speaking an anthropological issue, since as Lévi-Strauss repeatedly said, the discipline positions itself on the threshold of what a society considers to be humanity. Today for example, that threshold is being stretched to include transhumanism. There is no essence of humanity. Lévi-Strauss depicted the space of negotiation between humanity and animality as a quotidian flipside of the concentration camp in his description of the “rest-houses” that hosted pilgrims in the sanctuaries of Calcutta — with their bare cement platforms that served as beds, their sewage gullies and water pumps. “As soon as the human cargo has got up and been dispatched to its devotions, during which it begs for the healing of its ulcers, cankers, scabs and running sores, the whole building is washed out by means of hoses so that the stalls are clean and fresh for the next batch of pilgrims. Nowhere, perhaps, except in concentration camps, have human beings been so completely identified with butcher’s meat.”[17] This may explain why Lévi-Strauss refused to consider the destruction of the Jews during World War II as sui generis. Indeed, he considered it — like other genocides, large and small — as a monstrous laboratory for experimenting on humanity’s threshold, which he linked to the original sin of Renaissance humanism: the separation of the human species from the rest of the living world.[18]

Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work includes a world-individual of the kind theorized by Daniel Fabre. Indeed, while American anthropological literature was rife with Amerindian “autobiographies,” co-written by an Amerindian and an anthropologist, they remained more of an oddity on the French scene. However, Claude Lévi-Strauss sponsored one of these autobiographies, writing the preface to Hopi Sun, which was published in the “Terre Humaine” series founded by Jean Malaurie. Indeed, the series mostly comprised “witness accounts,” chronicling, in sometimes folkloric terms, the vanishing of “savages” both far away and close to home, i.e. the regional and rural cultures — for example that of Brittany, powerfully described by Pierre Jakez Helias in Le Cheval d’orgueil, a bestseller of the series published in 1975. But much earlier, Hopi Sun (1959) had emerged out of the collaboration between anthropologist Leo Simmons and Don Talayesva, a partly Americanized Hopi who had returned to his native village following a spiritual crisis to act as the “conscientious guardian of traditional rites and practices.” Lévi-Strauss had a passion for these narratives. In his preface, he pays tribute to their evocative power, the anthropologist’s dream: “From the very start, Talayesva’s narrative achieves, with incomparable ease and grace, what the anthropologist dreams his whole life of attaining but never fully manages: the restitution of a culture ‘from within’, as experienced by the child and then the adult. A bit as if, archeologists of the present, we unearthed, one by one, the beads of a necklace; and then we were suddenly given a glimpse of them, threaded in their original order and supplely placed around the young neck they were designed to adorn.”[19]

If he was so enthused by this figure of the world-individual, it might also have been because he had become one himself, in his old age. A world-individual of the long 19th century, which included vast Jewish kinship networks, music and art, the Parisian scene, the figure of his great-grandfather Isaac Strauss, a conductor and composer, Balzac, Offenbach, a certain kind of bourgeois lifestyle that consisted of vast apartments crammed with “scrap antiques” of which he remained a connoisseur. For it was through objects — especially those that Isaac Strauss had collected, or rather the “remains” of that legacy, the “fragments” that had escaped wear and tear, the dispossessions of war and hard times — it was this art, this furniture and these assorted Jewish ritual objects that restored his own prior world to him in the early 1980s (when he was over 70 years old himself), when an exhibition around the Strauss collection was mounted. It was on that occasion that Claude Lévi-Strauss, the great grandchild and the archaeologist of his own vanished past, rediscovered the intimate connections he had maintained with these material objects and the world of his childhood: “The memory of Isaac Strauss thus reconnected the links of the chain. Through those I have known and who knew him — whose mother is said to have narrowly escaped the guillotine, though I am not sure why — I feel I belong to other centuries, less through a genetic heritage that supposedly informed common passions than through the intimacy, maintained since childhood, with physical objects — musical, artistic or decorative objects — among which these, now gathered again in this exhibition, that I used to be brought to the Cluny museum to see, in the room where they were on permanent display, and where the name of Isaac Strauss, engraved over the doorway, filled me with a sense that, not only due to their origins, but because they were associated with my entire familial past, they were somehow a part of me, or better, that in more ways than one, I was part of them.”[20]

His own longevity, as well as that of his mother and aunts, made him, in the late 20th century, a kind of keeper of the 19th, which had been unceremoniously wrecked in the chaos of World War II and the all-out modernization of the post-war — whereas until 1940, Parisians’ experience of their culture and society, even though there had been changes, remained largely the same as that of their grandparents. Lévi-Strauss experienced in his own person the kind of epochal shift that is the basis of the knowledge paradigm of the last witness. At odds with his present (like many men of letters of the so-called anti-modern tradition, but unlike many scholars), Claude Lévi-Strauss had no doubt a wide-ranging historical imagination, but strangely, his openly admitted rupture with the present gave him a highly contemporary gaze. Witness of another age, the anthropologist made use of the discrepancy to vigorously adopt a “faraway gaze” and affirm a Weltanschauung based on the inclusion of man in the natural world and the safeguarding of particularities and differences as the absolute condition of invention.


Two remarks, in conclusion: 1) Just as Carlo Ginzburg had elevated the “evidential paradigm” as an alternative knowledge paradigm to that of modern science, Daniel Fabre offers, with the paradigm of the “last witness,” a model for thinking the historical genesis of the social sciences, and especially anthropology, as they became disassociated from literature. 2) Every time the problematic of witness accounts has fed into a social science, the latter has had to do with literature: we saw it in the Romantic moment of the 1830s; as well as with what I would call the “Sebaldian” moment in European literature and the “historiography of the vanquished.”

Two episodes offer two variations on “yesterday’s worlds.” The first is the end of slow-paced country life, of ancient customs caught in the ineluctable advance of modernity; and the second is when that very modernity (that of the 20th century of wars and revolutions) was crushed by the apocalyptic destruction of World War II. The tragic end of another world — revisited by many literary works in the early 21st century and explored by a historiography that embraces the accounts of witnesses outside the courtroom. What did Lévi-Strauss have to do with all this? In his life as well as in his work, it seems to me, he partook of both of these moments: through the profoundly reactionary conception he maintained of the early romantically inclined anthropology, as well as through the very Sebaldian feel of Tristes Tropiques which reads, sixty years later, as heralding the apocalypse that has already happened — in grandiose prose reminiscent of Chateaubriand — yet another witness to the rupture between two worlds.











[1] Fabre’s ideas on this subject can essentially be found in two articles: his long introduction entitled “D’une ethnologie romantique” in Daniel Fabre and Jean-Marie Privat (eds), Savoirs romantiques. Une naissance de l’ethnologie, Presses universitaires de Nancy, 2010; and “Chinoiseries des Lumières. Variations sur l’individu-monde,” L’Homme, 2008/1, n. 185-186, p. 269-299.

[2] A. Wievorka L’Ere du témoin, Plon, 1998, republished by Fayard, 2013.

[3] In fact, the film captures a truth of the witness account that is dynamic and changing based on the various “testimonial situations” — while not necessarily diminishing the assertive of the spoken accounts. Cf. C.Delage, “Simon Srebnik: les récits d’un survivant de la Shoah,” Vingtième siècle: Revue d’histoire, Oct-Dec 2016.

[4] Cf. Frédéric Rousseau, Les procès des témoins de la Grande guerre: L’Affaire Norton Cru, Paris, Seuil, 2003; see also Carine Trevisan “Jean Norton Cru, anatomie du témoignage” in Jean-François Chiantaretto and Régine Robin (eds.), Témoignage et écriture de l’Histoire, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002; and Patrick Lefebvre and Madeleine Frederic, Sur les traces de Jean Norton Cru, Bruxelles, Musée royal de l’Armée, 2000.

[5] W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction [1999], translated into English by Anthea Bell,  Modern Library Classics 2003.

[6] Nicolas Beaupre, Ecrire en guerre, écrire la guerre, France-Allemagne, 1914-1920, Paris, CNRS éditions 2006.

[7] Antoine de BAECQUE, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012. See, in particular, chapter 1: “Foreclosed Forms: How Images of Mass Death Reemerged in Modern Cinema.”

[8] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, New York, Penguin Classics, 2003, p. 875.

[9] D. Fabre, “D’une ethnologie romantique,” op.cit., p. 49.

[10] See Anne-Marie Thiesse, La création des identités nationales, Paris, Seuil, 1999.

[11] D. Fabre, “D’une ethnologie romantique,” op.cit., p. 51.

[12] Vincent Robert, La petite fille de la sorcière: Enquête sur la culture magique des campagnes au temps de George Sand, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2015.

[13] Judith Lyon-Caen, “Introduction” to Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Romans, Quarto Gallimard, 2013.

[14] Published in English as “The Scope of Anthropology,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (April 19966), p. 123.

[15] Upon his return from the camps, Jean Cayrol (1911-2005) wrote Lazare parmi nous (1950), or “Lazarus among us,” in which he spoke of a Lazarus-like figure to describe the survivors who had returned from the Nazi camps.

[16] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, 2002.

[17] Tristes Tropiques, p. 128.

[18] E. Loyer, Lévi-Strauss, Flammarion, 2015, p.606 ff.

[19] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Preface,” Soleil hopi: L’autobiographie d’un Indien hopi, Paris, Plon, 1959, p. 9 (translated from the original English publication, Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian).

[20] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Foreword,” Catalogue raisonné de la collection juive du musée de Cluny, Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1981, p. 7.