Claude Lévi-Strauss and his wife Dina in the Amazonian village of Nalike, ca. 1935.
Musée du Quai Branly, France
bunk original / found

A Refugee in Puerto Rico, 1942

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the burden of our personal archives.
The impulse that informs this section of Bunk, “Found,” is the desire to archive. It is a uniquely human impulse. Granted, humans are not the only animal with an urge to collect. The male bower birds of New Guinea, for instance, make elaborate structures out of any materials that strike their fancy. They make individual choices. Some favor red, other bluish black; some prize flowers, others cigarette butts. These animals are collectors no less than we are. But they are not archivers.

To archive is not just to create an ordered display. That is something we do constantly, not even realizing it, in our internet browser histories, our Google searches, and our Amazon purchases. An archive is something different, more intentional: a cache of letters preserved against loss, a travelogue, a diary. It is the creation of a personal history. Archiving, perhaps, is the only form of historical authorship that everyone alive participates in.

When we fall victim to natural disasters, our archives are often the last things we abandon. A person who flees a flooded house – or a burning country – will quickly forfeit their appliances and furniture to the waters or the flames. But they might try to bring their letters and photographs with them. Archives are the things that we carry with us no matter what. 

So it is today, and so it was in 1942, when an anthropologist named Claude Lévi-Strauss found himself a refugee in an unfamiliar land, at an unfriendly border crossing. All he had with him was his personal archive: a record of his travels in the Brazilian Amazon several years earlier. It was the seed of the work that would make him famous.

But on this day in Puerto Rico, it was about to get him thrown into jail as a German spy.

Lévi-Strauss was more fortunate than most who find themselves in such a situation. For one thing, he had prestigious academic credentials. For another, he had entry papers. But even these were not enough for the U.S. border guards in San Juan. They scrutinized his archive, encapsulated in a battered steamer trunk, and demanded that he wait—for weeks, it turned out—for an FBI agent capable of reading French to travel to the island and determine if he was a spy working for the Nazis or their Vichy allies.

When the fateful day came, it was his archives that betrayed him:

"The FBI inspector arrived three weeks after the beginning of my stay at San Juan. I rushed to the customs office and opened my trunk; it was a solemn moment. A polite young man came forward and picked out a card-index entry at random. His gaze narrowed and he turned fiercely towards me: 'It's in German!’"

This was an ironic accusation, because Lévi-Strauss was a French Jew who been trying to flee the Germans for months. He had boarded a ship to the Caribbean in Marseilles alongside a disparate group that was mainly, as he recalled, “Jews and anarchists.” The sea voyage was agonizingly slow. The boat had sleeper cabins for seven but was packed with 350 other refugees, including André Breton (author of the Surrealist Manifesto) and the socialist revolutionary and Lenin acolyte Victor Serge, who was bound for Mexico. Ever an astute observer of human behavior, Lévi-Strauss was particularly interested in one of the only passengers who was not a refugee: “an extraordinary North African character who maintained that he was going to New York for a few days only (a weird claim, given the fact that we were going to spend three months getting there) and who had a Degas in his suitcase.”

Between the time that Lévi-Strauss boarded his ship in France and his arrival in Puerto Rico, the US regulations regarding refugees had changed. When he arrived, Lévi-Strauss discovered, to his dismay, that his immigration paperwork was no longer valid.

What’s more, his identity as a French Jew and his exotic background as an anthropologist of indigenous Amazonians made him a target of suspicion everywhere he landed. “After being accused [by the French soldiers in Martinique] of being a Jewish Freemason in the pay of the Americans,” he wrote, “I had the somewhat bitter compensation of discovering that, from the American point of view, there was every likelihood that I was an emissary of the Vichy Government, and perhaps even of the Germans."

In the end, Lévi-Strauss was luckier than most refugees: he succeeded in convincing the FBI inspector that the texts in his trunk were anthropological research, and not Nazi codes. “My explanation immediately cleared things up and the expert, for whom we had waited so long, lost interest in the whole business," Lévi-Strauss wrote. “I could enter American territory; I was free.”

Puerto Rico was Lévi-Strauss’s first introduction to the United States as a whole. It was in San Juan, he wrote, where “for the first time I breathed in the smell of warm car paint and wintergreen, those two olfactory poles between which stretches the whole range of American comfort, from cars to lavatories, by way of radio sets, sweets, and toothpaste.” He was struck by the flimsiness of the buildings compared to those of Paris. They looked, he thought “like some world exhibition that had become permanent.” 
Jack Delano, “Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico,” December, 1941. (Library of Congress)

Lévi-Strauss eventually made his way to New York City. Here he took up a visiting post at the New School for Social Research, where life continued to be eventful. Not long after arriving in New York, Lévi-Strauss found himself cradling in his arms Franz Boas, a man often called “the Father of American Anthropology,” as the aged anthropologist expired from a sudden heart attack.

* * *

What remains of Lévi-Strauss’s trunk – the personal archive that moved with him from the Amazon to Paris to Puerto Rico to New York? Some photos from his trip to Brazil in the 1930s survive. His personal letters and notes are preserved at his former academic home, the Collège de France. But that collection only dates from 1960. As with most relics of upheaval, we can assume that the vast majority of the precious notes that lay in his trunk in 1942 are lost to us now.  

Later, Lévi-Strauss would claim not to care for archives at all.  “My memory is a self-destructive thief,” he said in an interview. “Only the work of the moment counts for me, and it is over very quickly. I don't have the inclination or the need to record my progress.”

But this was not the whole truth. He admitted that he had built his life's work on “accumulating notes – a bit about everything, ideas captured on the fly, summaries of what I have read, references, quotations.” Perhaps, though, he had seen enough of the transitory and uncertain nature of life to understand that archives often fail us. They are misplaced, destroyed, misread, misunderstood. And even when we have access to our archives and the ability to understand them, they have no innate order, no built-in meaning. Lévi-Strauss incorporated this fact into his writing method itself. “When I want to start a project,” he said, “I pull a packet of notes out of their filing case and deal them out like a deck of cards.” It becomes “a game, where chance plays a role.”

In 1942, Lévi-Strauss was a refugee from a catastrophe, not natural but man-made, who sought out Puerto Rico as a safe harbor. The archives he carried with him were his liberation, but also his burden. Today, in Puerto Rico, in Mexico City, in Syria, in Myanmar, people are picking up the scraps of their old lives and shouldering the burden of their own personal archives. These personal histories might be difficult to carry, and harder still to understand when time and space has passed between them and their point of origin. But in each of them something precious remains, something worth preserving.