French social anthropologist and author Claude Lévi-Strauss has died at age 100, doing his part to fulfill his prophecy that the human species will become extinct, one coffee-sipping intellectuel pessimiste at a time. But I don’t think of him as a pessimist whatsoever. I think of him as someone who devoted his entire life to illuminating the commonalities between cultures, between people, to form some kind of honest understanding of what we share just by being human. If you think about it, there is no more powerful information than that, and none more sought: who we are, how we make our way through the world, and what will happen to us. Few have been able to analyze and explain as well as Lévi-Strauss. Fewer still may have had the ability to see some of mankind’s future and then live long enough to see that future being played out.

His remarkable brain no doubt also caused him great anguish at times. Think of him like this: You = 5” black-and-white TV with a broken antenna; Claude = 103”plasma HD 3D screen. For the latter, sometimes the incredible amount of detail you see distracts you from being able to enjoy the overall picture. Lucky he was French, where brilliant suffering is noble and noted by receiving the Jerry Lewis “Artiste de Grande Profondeur” Award.

A century ago he was born into a privileged family that gave him a grand classical education, one of the truly great gifts anyone can receive in a lifetime. He studied law and philosophy and music and art and politics and history and geology and psychology, long before “liberal arts” was a poisonous barb and “core curriculum” classes were bland overviews designed for colleges to pretend they were educating the masses in some kind of well-rounded way. He went into teaching, and then spent several years as an explorer/professor in Brazil in the late 1930s. He returned to France to find Hitler and his ilk running their own kind of social expeditions in Europe, and as a really smart Jewish guy wanting to remain alive, then fled to America to continue his work. After the war he returned to France where he remained until his more-reasonably-timed death, teaching and writing some of the most influential books of the 20th Century.

I like the way he thinks. I too like deconstructing the complex into bits and fragments, then re-organizing them into rows, relating one thing to another, seeing what to put here and what to put there, and what must remain in the grey mushy middle. Lévi-Strauss was lauded and also greatly criticized for his theories, as is also the European way of building things up just to tear them down. But what he said makes so much sense. Is it complete? No. Is it sometimes based more on throwing an idea out rather than hard science? Sometimes. But, damn, he still hit home runs more often than not. Or did well at whatever sports analogy would be appropriate in France.

I would go on here for another few paragraphs discussing his monumental work about the universal nature of mythologies (which, we could add, gives reason and rise to religious structures and stories as well) but I have a ton of laundry to do. I encourage you to read his work, or read about his work. Even if you do not think he was as awesome as I do, you will think something, and that is always good. Unless you are in fact Hitler, to which I would say “You get NOTHING! You LOSE! Good day, sir!” and push you off a sausage factory roof.

Every landscape appears first of all as a vast chaos . . . . [But] the most majestic meaning of all is surely that which precedes and, commands and, to a large extent, explains the others. . . . [My aim is] to recapture the master-meaning, which may be obscure but of which each of the others is a partial or distorted transposition. . . . I quite naturally looked upon [Freud's theories] as the application to the human being of a method the basic pattern of which is represented by geology. . . . [Marxism, psychoanalysis and geology] demonstrate that understanding consists in reducing one type of reality to another; that the true reality is never the most obvious; and that the nature of truth is already indicated by the care it takes to remain elusive. . . . But I had learned from my three sources of inspiration that the transition between one order and the other is discontinuous; that to reach reality one has first to reject experience, and then subsequently to reintegrate it into an objective synthesis devoid of any sentimentality.

-Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques