Savage Minds, Lost Steps

17 Mar


1. Today I ran across a blog called Savage Minds which also has a Facebook group. Its title refers to the famous French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ classic book, which you should not leave this course without having at least heard of. It was written in the 1960s and it criticizes and counters the idea that the “savage mind” is essentially different from the “civilized” or modern one.

2. People who have not scheduled oral presentations should do so!

3. Spring Break reading: a) Finish Los pasos perdidos and consider it in relationship to anything in Torgovnick, but especially chapters 4-6. That is the basis of our WRITING EXERCISE, due the TUESDAY WE COME BACK. b) Get hold of THE VORTEX – it’s our next reading (see the syllabus / reading list).

In class that Tuesday, we’ll talk about the writing and I will discuss Torgovnick, chapter 9, and introduce THE VORTEX.

I will expand this post this evening/this week to include SOME NOTES on chapters 2-4 of THE LOST STEPS. Notes on chapters 5-6 will appear later in the week.


We discussed this chapter (albeit briefly) in class Thursday. In it, note:

+ the  narrator’s reaction upon arriving in the tropical city. It is anarchical: the jungle keeps growing up through the buildings, which are themselves a sort of jungle. There are signs of architecture from the time of the conquest, the colony, the Independence era, and the present day. The roots of trees keep pushing the buildings out of place. There are many signs of modernity but there is a sort of “malignant pollen” in the air which breaks things down. People explain this by referring to a semi-mythical or metaphorical “Worm.”

+ as the plane started to land, the narrator regretted the voyage, but landing and hearing Spanish spoken makes him glad to be there. Among other things, the language lets him lord it over Mouche.  

+ he is at this point still hoping to buy the musical instruments in the city. Originally the plan was to buy fake ones, but now he hopes to find real ones in a flea market. Note: he is going to get increasingly disgusted with fake things in general, and go for the real ones. They don’t find anything, but Mouche buys a trinket she finds marvelous (it “is” Rimbaud’s black seahorse, i.e. the image of an image in a decadent French poem). He, on the other hand, smells a basil bush and is reminded of a little girl he had a crush on as a child in Latin America.


+ Awake in the middle of the night. Nature and culture both seem marvelous to him and bring back memories. Mouche is taking up too much room in the bed. She had a crisis (of happiness) the night before, so they couldn’t have sex (?) and he gave her a sleeping pill. He looks at the city and thinks of art. Everything seems very alive.

+ Earlier in the evening they went to the opera, and he felt nostalgic and open instead of laughing (he had expected to find this opera ridiculous). Mouche, on the other hand, thought the performance was bad, and although it wasn’t really great, he is insulted. Then they have a marvelous walk, but Mouche says she is tired and they have to go home. Now, watching her sleep, he laughs at her, but she doesn’t wake up, so he goes out in the dawn to look for the musical instruments.

+ The city continues to be marvelous and he keeps remembering a famous Baroque Spanish poem which was quoted in the grammar book he had as a child. Then there is a revolution (of course, they always have those in South America 😉 ), although Mouche sleeps through the first part of it.

+ He investigates the revolution, asks people about it, and they are fighting very old battles. Eventually he and Mouche actually see people get shot. Mouche meets a nice Canadian woman and he goes to get a drink, to get over the sight of the cadavers. Then he and Mouche get drunk together and have sex, correctly at last, and for the first time in a long time he sleeps well without a mask or sleeping pills.


+ The next day they can’t leave town, as it is under siege. People in the hotel start getting worried about running out of food and water, about epidemics. The servants left last night to join the revolution, and their absence is inconvenient and scary. The manager says it is all the fault of the Worm. And, in fact, the worms seem to appear, as well as ants.

+ The narrator goes with the manager to see about provisions, and everyone decides to drink…and the jungle seems to be taking over, indeed. Civilization is breaking down quickly. Drunk, the narrator decides to look for Mouche, whom he had left hanging out with the Canadian woman, and he gets lost in a labyrinth of corridors and rooms in the top stories of the hotel. It is all very strange and yet very familiar (like a house he’s already been in long ago) … and dimensions seem to be all mixed up; he loses his sense of reality for a while.

+ He goes back to his room and falls asleep. when he wakes up Mouche is there with the Canadian. The revolution is over, but there is still a curfew. There are no flights out with seats open, and the Canadian inivites them to spend time in her house in the hills.

+ He goes out to get cigarrettes since there are none in the hotel and shooting starts again; he takes refuge in a store. In the hotel they are having a party and he is afraid Mouche will sleep with someone else. There is still fighting, but a sargeant accompanies him back to the hotel. Everything seems to him to be a sort of prelude or prefiguring of coming events.

+  In the hotel the Kappelmeister has been shot. Civilization has definitely fallen apart and Mouche is having a nervous crisis. The Canadian woman says they will all definitely go to her house in the morning.


+ They get to the hills, and the house is in a beautiful old town (note: they are moving back in time, from the modern to the colonial era). He quickly identifies fifteen charming sights. However, he does not like the Canadian woman, because Mouche does. And he and Mouche are not getting along, they are not sintonizados. Mouche can’t see anything she hasn’t read about in books. She hangs out with the Canadian woman and talks. He is jealous but cannot catch her in anything.

+ They meet these musicians, a white, an Indian, and a Black one. Mouche speaks to them of Paris, but he asks them about their own country. They are not interested in the jungle – there is no culture there. They are more interested in the city and in European things. The narrator thinks this will end up emptying them, and will keep them from doing anything original. He is more interested in the voices of nature. And they play modern music.

+ He goes down to the bar for a taste of local firewater. There he hears an indigenous harpist play. The music seems very ancient and wonderful. The dances, rhythms, and scale system all seem new and different to the narrator. But the police come to enforce the curfew.

+ Because of the revolution hard currency is worth much more than it was. There is money to go to the jungle, and in the circumstances this is the best thing to do: get honest. The narrator buys bus tickets for the voyage, and feels great because now is the first time he has felt capable of imposing his will upon Mouche.

There is a whole lot more in this chapter on impressions and values, and the narrator’s change of attitude. Throughout, his foil is Mouche. Notice that he was a more like her in his orientation when they first set out – now he has gone through a process of transformation and has moved light years away from her (so to speak). 

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Posted by on March 17, 2008 in Carpentier


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