The Ex-Files

It’s one of the most famous Gotcha! moments in the history of the social sciences. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) presented language, economy, and kinship as variants on the same logical “structures”: the exchange of messages, the exchange of goods, the exchange of women. Women might suspect something strange was going on with their transformation into analogues of messages or objects, with men doing all the exchanging, but Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the book graciously and added: “although a woman is something other than a sign, she is nonetheless, like language, something that is exchanged.” Then Gayle Rubin questioned the objectivity of Lévi-Strauss’s description, making it complicit with the objectification of women (“The Traffic in Women,” 1975). Levi-Strauss’s feminist cred was not augmented by the fact that, as Jean-Pierre Mileur observes, in Tristes Tropiques (1955) it is “only after around three hundred pages” that Lévi-Strauss “gets around to mentioning that his wife accompanied him on his expeditions– and then to say that she fell ill and he had to leave her behind.”

What a dreadful pig, you may be saying. But another piece of the puzzle emerges from Emmanuelle Loyer’s biography (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris: Flammarion, 2016). Lévi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques at top speed during several months in 1955, typing up his reflections and old notes with constant advice, input and critical reading from his wife Monique, who received every batch of thirty pages fresh from the machine and returned them with interleaved commentary (Loyer, 415-17). A partner in dialogue. But the “wife” who fleetingly and belatedly appears, like a suppressed excuse, in TT is not Monique but the first wife, Dina. Could it be that an unwillingness to dwell on his ex and the collapse of his first marriage in this sustained communication with his second wife accounts for Dina’s near-invisibility? If a marriage is an exchange of women between groups of men, already a scandalous idea, the exchange of a woman (or of a sign representing her) between a man and a woman must be so complicated a matter that it can hardly be allowed to happen. In the fuller account of the book’s composition, it’s not that women are invisible, it’s that one woman is a topic that the male narrator would like to avoid in his address to another woman. The two women are thus both out of the frame–but in two different ways and for two different reasons. The invisible omnipresence of the one explains the near-invisibility and near-absence of the other.