Claude Lévi-Strauss: the Fondation Loubat lectures 

In the 1949-50 academic year, Claude Lévi-Strauss gave the Fondation Loubat lectures at the Collège de France. Although he was trying to get elected to a chair there at this time, and giving a guest series of lectures was often a prelude to that, he was unsuccessful. He did not take up his chair there in Social Anthropology until 1959.

The Loubat lectures are generally given the title of “L’expression mythique de la structure sociale”, “The Mythic Expression of Social Structure”. The lectures might have had an expanded title – i.e. Oliver Jacquot‘s brief history of the Loubat lectures suggests “L’expression mythique de la structure sociale chez les populations indigènes de l’Amérique [… among the Indigeneous Populations of America]”. Lévi-Strauss’s EPHE page gives a more specific focus in a description: “Analyse structurale du thème du Glouton dans la mythologie de l’Amérique du Nord [Structural Analysis of the theme of the Wolverine in North American mythology]”.

Of course, these reports are not entirely contradictory – an initial title given might have been quite general, then a focus on North America given the remit of the Fondation, and then a concentration on a specific myth as Lévi-Strauss developed the work.

That sense is supported by the fullest published discussion of the lectures of which I am aware – a letter to Roman Jakobson, 27 January 1950. The letter has only been published in French, but a large part is quoted and translated in Emmanuelle Loyer’s excellent biography of Lévi-Strauss.

I have chosen to focus on the theme of the wolverine [glouton] in North America, of which I am trying to provide a structural analysis. This entails studying the connections between 1) the traits of the figure (gluttony [gloutonnerie], clownishness, obscenity, scatology, cannibalism, beggary, etc.); 2) the sociological level at which it is expressed in each culture (collective behaviour, individual vocation, ritual personification, folkloric theme, mythical theme, etc.), 3) the relation between the ‘territory’ defined by these two axes and the rest of the social structure.

In a part of the letter not quoted by Loyer, Lévi-Strauss says to Jakobson: “Anyway, this will be the next book I write next summer [De toute façon, cela fera un prochain livre que je rédigerai l’été prochain]”.

But he didn’t develop the lectures into the book he mentions. In the 1950s, Lévi-Strauss published his long introduction to Marcel Mauss; Tristes Tropiques; and the first volume of Structural Anthropology, as well as shorter pieces and lectures. But these particular lectures were not published. There is a discussion of the animal called the wolverine in La pensée sauvage in 1962, but nothing like as developed an argument as suggested here. 

The online inventaire of the fonds Claude Lévi-Strauss does not indicate a place where they could be – the listing of Collège de France courses begins with his chair there, other teaching records or conferences seem to be dated and placed elsewhere. I’ve asked a couple of people who work on Lévi-Strauss and know these archives, and they have said there is no trace of the lectures.

As this is almost a decade before he was elected to a chair at the Collège de France, there is also no record in the otherwise very useful Paroles données/Anthropology and Myth collection.

There is however a file of correspondence relating to the lectures, and a brief summary, in the Collège de France archives. It expands on the points in the letter to Jakobson, and is the fullest description of the lectures that seems to exist. I think this summary was written for the Collège de France Annuaire, but it wasn’t used. Instead, the Annuaire published just this very brief notice – which even manages to misspell Lévi-Strauss’s name.

excerpt from the Annuaire du Collège de France, 50, p. 246 [with misspelling of Lévi-Strauss’s name]

The summary Lévi-Strauss wrote was never published. The rejection for a chair in 1949-50 perhaps helps to explain why he never wrote up the lectures and – at least as far as we can tell – did not even keep the manuscripts.

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1 Response to Claude Lévi-Strauss: the Fondation Loubat lectures 

  1. Pingback: Indo-European Thought in Twentieth-Century France update 12: working in some UK archives; Benveniste’s EPHE teaching; some talks on the research | Progressive Geographies

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