Anthropology Luc de Heusch
Patrick Laviolette, Pierre de Maret
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0118


A polymath in the true sense of the term, the Belgian Luc de Heusch (b. 1927–d. 2012) was a distinguished social anthropologist, filmmaker, art connoisseur, and prominent public figure, especially within Francophone spheres of influence. He took an active part in several of the major movements that shaped Europe’s intellectual landscape after the Second World War. As a young writer, he was in contact with the Surrealists and became involved in the well-known artistic avant-garde group CoBrA (an acronym for Copenhagen–Brussels–Amsterdam). As a social anthropologist, he was a student of Marcel Griaule in Paris. He then became a passionate proponent of Claude Lévi-Strauss and structuralism, which he applied to his own field of expertise, Central Africa and Bantu cultures. He was an expert on many things, including myths, rites, sacred kingship, sacrifice, trance, symbolism, kinship, religion, and art. In addition to publishing over 170 papers and chapters, de Heusch authored over fifteen monographs, of which several have been translated into various languages. Holding the chair of social anthropology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles for thirty-two years, he also lectured extensively in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. As a filmmaker, he was trained by the pioneer Belgian documentary film director Henri Storck. He first directed an experimental film under the auspices of CoBrA, before producing a series of films on major painters and writers as well as documentaries on various parts of Central and West Africa. Along with his friend Jean Rouch, de Heusch was one of the most prominent advocates of visual anthropology, especially in his role as deputy secretary general of the International Committee on Ethnographic Film from 1956 to 1962. As an art critic, he contributed to several catalogues and books on various artists, mainly his CoBrA friends Pierre Alechinsky, Christian Dotremont, Reinhoud, as well as James Ensor, René Magritte, Pierre Lahaut, Michel de Ghelderode and others. Luc de Heusch was equally an outspoken public intellectual, in the French tradition, denouncing early on the assassination of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, and criticizing colonialism and the perverse effects of nationalism. Among his many accolades, awards, and institutional forms of acclaim, he was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy, and he received a Honoris Causa Doctorate from Strasbourg University.

General Overviews

There is no comprehensive biography that deals with all the aspects of Luc de Heusch’s life, either in French or English, nor a fortiori, an exhaustive bibliography of his many publications. Nevertheless, the “Fonds Henri Storck” provides a fairly complete list of his published works, as well as a chronological and thematic list of his films. The most useful introduction to the many aspects of his personality and works is a special issue of the Revue de l’Université de Bruxelles (1991), entitled Cobra en Afrique, with contributions by de Heusch and many of his close friends and colleagues (de Heusch, et al. 1991). It opens with two lengthy interviews, Storck 1991 and de Maret 1991. A revised English version of the latter was published in de Maret 1993. An obituary written by Petit in 2013 (Petit 2013) offers a good overview of de Heusch’s life and work as a social anthropologist. An online version of it is available in the Biographical Dictionary of Belgians Overseas of the Belgian Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences. Luc de Heusch himself wrote a brief and lyrical autobiography, de Heusch 1998. A decade later, in 2007, Karine de Villers made the film “Luc de Heusch, une pensée sauvage/Wild thinking” (de Villers 2007), which reveals a lot about his character and mindset. Since his death, his archives and personal library are kept in the archives department of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

  • de Heusch, Luc. 1998. Mémoire, mon beau navire: Les vacances d’un ethnologue. Arles, France: Actes Sud.

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    In this unusual autobiography, dealing briefly with a multitude of topics, de Heusch jumps from Lévi-Strauss to Hieronymus Bosch, from Congo to the gypsies, from Haiti to Rwanda, from Eros to Thanatos, because, as he put it, “What is depressing in ethnology, is the need, each time one wants to approach a new problem, to review all the previous ineptitudes that have been written on that topic . . . while in pure science, a single conclusive experiment abolishes all previous erring ways. This is why, from time to time, I take holidays.”

  • de Heusch, Luc, Adolphe Nysenholc, and Pierre Alechinsky, eds. 1991. Cobra en Afrique. Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles.

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    Offers the best overview of the numerous activities, research interests, and friends of de Heusch. Starts with two long interviews by Storck and de Maret, followed by extracts of letters between him and his friends in their youth. The following two parts, on anthropology and films, comprise a series of tributes from various authors. The last part gathers testimonies, letters and interviews from major figures in art and anthropology, as well as a summary of the interviews with his four successive wives. The book ends with a brief bibliography and filmography. Well illustrated with personal photographs and facsimile of letters to de Heusch.

  • de Maret, Pierre. 1991. Et la suite: Interview de Luc de Heusch. In Cobra en Afrique. Edited by Luc de Heusch, Jacques Sojcher, and Adolphe Nysenholc, 31–59. Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles.

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    A long interview of de Heusch, the year before his retirement from Brussels University, focusing on his career as a social anthropologist, from his early fieldwork in Central Africa to the numerous theoretical debates in which he took an active part.

  • de Maret, Pierre. 1993. An interview with Luc de Heusch. Current Anthropology 34:289–298.

    DOI: 10.1086/204171Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A revised version in English of the interview first published in Cobra en Afrique.

  • de Villers, Karine, dir. 2007. Luc de Heusch. Une pensée sauvage/Wild Thinking.

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    A 50-minute film in French and English that allows us to understand how, through his books and films, de Heusch kept mixing science and art.

  • Petit, Pierre. 2013. Luc de Heusch, anthropologue et cinéaste (1927–2012). Journal des Africanistes 83:295–301.

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    This obituary offers a good review of de Heusch’s life and his many contributions to the symbolic structures that underpin kingship, mythology and rituals. A selective bibliography of his major published works is appended. An online version in the Biographical Dictionary of Belgians Overseas is available.

  • Storck, Henri. 1991. Les années d’apprentissage: Interview de Luc de Heusch. In Cobra en Afrique. Edited by Luc de Heusch, Jacques Sojcher, and Adolphe Nysenholc, 7–23. Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles.

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    This interview takes the shape of a dialogue between de Heusch and Storck, who taught him the art of filmmaking and was his father-in-law for a while. It explains how he grew up, who were his early friends, what he learned from Storck, and how he became interested in anthropology.

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