Lévi-Strauss Joins Don Corleone

If Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous anthropologist, met Don Corleone, the Godfather, what do you think they would talk about?

For starters, they would agree that writing has been intimately connected to power. Lévi-Strauss might recall the time he met an illiterate Amazonian chief who, rather than answer questions verbally, asked for a writing pad, drew wavy lines on it, and insisted that Lévi-Strauss pretend to understand the meaning of his scrawled "answers." This illiterate chief immediately grasped that writing can be used to enforce power. Lévi-Strauss concluded, "Writing...seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment."

That's quite a condemnation of writing, yet Don Corleone shared the same view. Don Corleone got his godson Johnny out of a bandleader's legal contract by making him "an offer he couldn't refuse." Eschewing the whole legalistic, government system symbolized by written contracts, Don Corleone based his power on personal relationships and the exchange of food and drink ("you look terrible, I want you to eat more"). When Don Corleone says he refused to be "a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots," he's rejecting what Lévi-Strauss called writing's "exploitation of human beings." So Lévi-Strauss and Don Corleone could agree on the power of writing.

And they'd probably bond by drinking wine together. Lévi-Strauss appreciated the "science of the concrete," and he wrote at one point about the poignant custom in certain French restaurants of pouring the table wine for the person next to you, even if he or she is a stranger. 

Don Corleone also had a taste for wine. Toward the end of The Godfather, he told his son Michael, “I like to drink wine more than I used to." But this isn't table wine; it's wine that invokes a Last Confession.  Notice how Michael faces away from his father while he reviews his lifelike a penitent and a priest in a confession booth

And of course Don Corleone's wine resonates with the wine so central to the Catholic mass. On the other hand, Don Corleone isn't necessarily being absolved of his sins. When he says he's drinking more wine than he used to, Michael says “It’s good for you, Pop.” And though Don Corleone hints at having regrets, he quickly adds, "I don't apologizethat's my life." So this is a confession...but not really.

Either way, this sacrament prepares Don Corleone for what most people would call "a good death." Shortly after drinking that last glass of wine, Don Corleone died while playing with his grandson in the tomato garden, with a sun sheet flying overhead as if it were the canopy on a bed ready to float gently to the heavens. 

Lévi-Strauss also died a “good death,” even though the empire he'd built, like Don Corleone's, was on the wane. He died on October 30, 2009 at exactly 100 years of age, still admired by the French public, dignitaries, and intellectuals around the world. Sure, many people thought that, like Don Corleone, he had committed sins, and they wanted to push him out of the game. But Lévi-Strauss didn't have to apologize to anyone—that was his life.

I hope Lévi-Strauss and Don Corleone are together now, sipping wine and reflecting on their lives.

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