Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Claude Lévi-Strauss is primarily known as an anthropologist, one of the most influential figures in that field. He is closely associated with the structuralist school of literary theory. Structuralism, as Lévi-Strauss defines it here, is not limited to one discipline but is suited to any subject. In structuralism, the details of specific cases are simplified to reveal a scientific inner structure, such as the grammar which underlies the infinite expressions of language. Lévi-Strauss claims as a structuralist the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau because he developed a theory of musical chords that greatly reduced the complexity of earlier systems.
The essays in Look, Listen, Read are concerned with facets of aesthetic experience. Lévi-Strauss divides the text into six categories, within which he clusters related essays. The essays are not divided into single academic units. They interpenetrate one another by multiple references to the same great figures of (mainly) French art, music, and literature. They are bound by Lévi-Strauss’s contemplation of the structures which underlie art, music, and literature as sources of pleasure and as products of human skill.
Lévi-Strauss organizes these six chapters in the following order: “Looking at Poussin,” “Listening to Rameau,” “Reading Diderot,” “Speech and Music,” “Sounds and Colors,” and “Regarding Objects.” The essays deal with a wide range of historical periods and present a bewildering array of authors, artists, and classic and contemporary criticism. Beneath this surface, rich in detail and citation, however, lies a common structure. These collected thoughts, which stem from different places and times, work together to produce a nested argument where each fragment is self-contained yet an integral part of the whole.
Several explicit models for this view of intellectual activity are presented. A striking example is the opening essay in “Looking at Poussin,” where Lévi-Strauss discusses the writing technique of Marcel Proust. Another is essay 13, within “Reading Diderot.” Here Lévi-Strauss deals with the definition of fractals, patterns which are repeated throughout a structure at all of its scales of size. This concept, drawn from mathematics, is commonly illustrated by the branching of twigs in a tree, a pattern repeated in the larger boughs and in the shape of the whole tree. The image of fractals underlies the structure of Look, Listen, Read.
A grounding in art, music, and literary history is essential to understanding these essays (Lévi-Strauss assumes his reader to be familiar with the major artists under discussion and cites minor painters, musicians, writers, and critics with equal enthusiasm and detail) and to readily change context of reference to the opinions or characteristic techniques of other artists from other schools and periods. For example, it seems odd to find that the opening pages of “Looking at Poussin” concern Proust and the temporal nature of his multivolume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1926; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1932). Proust, after all, is a novelist of the early twentieth century, while painter Nicolas Poussin lived from 1594 to 1665. The juxtaposition of genres and eras, however, characterizes this collection. This essay serves as a veiled statement of purpose for the book. Proust did not write his monumental novel in chronological order but rather wrote and rewrote, using bits of text from different times, each to be integrated within a greater structure.
Generally, the other essays in “Looking at Poussin” concern aspects of Poussin’s painting techniques. In the second essay, Lévi-Strauss reflects on the fact that Poussin preceded his paint compositions with compositions of small statues draped in costume and placed in different positions to represent the figures which would appear on canvas. Thus each picture by Poussin the painter is prefigured by several works by Poussin the sculptor. This characteristic of Poussin echoes Proust’s sculpting a literary whole from temporally distinct fragments.
Look, Listen, Read is accompanied by four color plates, three of which illustrate the third essay in “Looking at Poussin.” Here Lévi-Strauss considers an article by his contemporary, Erwin Panofsky, about a group of paintings under the same title, Et in Arcadia Ego, and the translations of that title into English and onto canvas. The first painting is by an Italian painter, Guercino (1591-1666), the other two by Poussin; all depict groups of shepherds beside a tomb in a pastoral landscape. Lévi-Strauss analyzes the change in concept and composition of these canvases, particulary the assimilation and transformation of Death from a large skull in the first painting to a female divinity in...
(The entire section is 1977 words.)
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