Can flame twist upon flame? 


Notes on a Levi-Strauss essay

“That the Nambikwara could not write goes without saying. But they were also unable to draw, except for a few dots and zigzags on their calabashes,” is the opening sentence in the essay “A Writing Lesson.” Claude Levi-Strauss (no relation to the jeans manufacturer of the label with the same name), a french anthropologist and ethnologist and a key contributor to the field of structuralism and structural anthropology, wrote this essay in 1961. It is a striking piece, one that reminds me of Shooting the Elephant by Orwell. Levi-Strauss is in a strange place literally and trying to make sense of what is it about writing—what is the nature of its power? The leader of the Nambikwara tribe takes to the pencil and inscribes on the paper symbols that seem to not hold any meaning yet have a power that both men are cognizant of. “He had allied himself with the white man, as equal with equal, and could now share his secrets.”

The observation is cut short as Levi-Strauss has to travel to another village. He is lost on the way there, helped by the locals who take him to his destination. He thinks back again to the act of the leader scribbling on paper and sees that both men have an agreement on one aspect of the act ofwriting —that it has the effect of “enhancing the prestige and authority of one individual or one function at the expense of the rest of the party.” But it was the following passage that is stunning in identifying the effect of writing:

“The villages where I stayed in the Chittagong hills in Pakistan,” noted Levi-Strauss, “were populated by illiterates; yet each village has a scribe who fulfills his function for the benefit both of individual citizens and of the village as a whole. They all know what writing is, and, if need be, can write: but they do it from outside as if it were a mediator, foreign to themselves, with whom they communicate by an oral process. But the scribe is rarely a functionary or an employee of the group as a whole; his knowledge is a source of power so much so, in fact, that the functions of scribe and usurer (locally known as a baniya or money lender) are often united in the same human being. This is not merely because the usurer needs to be able to read and write to carry on his trade, but because he has thus a twofold empire over his fellows.”

“Writing may not have sufficed to consolidate human knowledge,” he wrote, “but it may well have been indispensable to the establishment of an enduring dominion.”

“For it is only when everyone can read that Authority can decree that ignorance of the law is no escape.” I don’t know why this reminds me again and again of the “honor killing” vernacular I kept trying to avoid when working on the Herald cover story.  

Here is a link to the full essay: A Writing Lesson by Claude Levi-Strauss.