Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1977
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 third. He differs with Panofsky’s conclusion that the third painting reflects a change in concept, a mistranslation of the Latin title (from I, too, am in Arcadia to I, too, have lived in Arcadia). The essay posits an essential relationship between the meaning of the canvas, the technique which forms the personages of the paintings and the ideas they carry, and the dynamic of the groupings in which these figures appear.
The fourth essay pursues an analysis of Poussin’s painting Eliezer and Rebecca based on its biblical source, color qualities, and the positions of the figures within it. Lévi- Strauss emphasizes the sculptural quality of Poussin’s paintings and reactions to Poussin’s color qualities and compositions from critics of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
In the Bible story, Abraham has been led by God to a new homeland, yet when it comes time for his son to marry he sends a servant, Eliezer, back to his original homeland and the people of his own blood to seek a bride, Rebecca. Eliezer meets Rebecca at the well, where she draws water for his camels. Poussin paints the moment when the title couple stands in the center of a group of women drawing water from the well. For Poussin’s contemporary critics, the lack of camels damaged the painting. For Lévi- Strauss, this canvas is a fully realized and logical unit. Each figure is modeled to stand alone, yet within the small groups and within the composition as a whole, each figure contributes to a total meaning, a structural conflict between homeland and blood relationships, the kernel of meaning within Abraham’s story. Camels, although picturesque, would add nothing to this thoughtful canvas.
Lévi-Strauss offers six essays in the Poussin section, three in the Rameau section, four in “Reading Diderot,” five in “Speech and Music,” three in “Sounds and Colors,” and three in “Regarding Objects.” Most are highly idiosyncratic texts which cannot be represented by any sort of group analysis. Moreover, although one section may bear the name of one figure in its title, the essays deal with other figures. In “Reading Diderot,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Poussin figure heavily, and Lévi-Strauss writes at length about the Abbé Charles Batteux, Denis Diderot’s contemporary literary theorist. The common question of these different essays, whether painting should preserve a temporal unity, presenting only the image of one moment, is one posed by Diderot but also considered by Rousseau and Batteux. Poussin’s painting of another Bible story, the manna given to the Israelites in the desert, is evoked to counter the position urged by Diderot. Poussin presents several “moments” in his canvases, several points of thought which enable him to tell a whole story in what appears on the surface to be one moment in time.
The title Look, Listen, Read alerts the reader to another dynamic besides Lévi-Strauss’s interest in the articulation of works to form other works. These essays are concerned with the senses, with the eyes and ears, and with their skilled employment: the reading of art, music, literature. The intersection of the sense with its art or science follows a model familiar to readers of Lévi-Strauss, the diagram where the diachronic and the synchronic meet, the horizontal line intersected by the vertical. One “looks” at Poussin and apprehends the colors and forms of the figures which make up his compositions, his sculptural individuals and three-dimensional groups within a two-dimensional context. Yet the viewer also is a reader who follows the story of Eliezer and Rebecca. Operagoers hear the chord progressions of Rameau as his chorus passes from one key to another. Do they feel the thrill of sorrow felt by eighteenth century listeners, or are they bored? The analysis devoted to Arthur Rimbaud’s sonnet “Voyelles” (“Vowels”), one of French literature’s most famous precisely because it posits a synesthetic intersection between the worlds of sound, color, and meaning, is as typical of this structure in Lévi-Strauss’s collection as the first essay, devoted to Proust, is of the fractal model.
While lamenting that the audience of the twentieth century is deficient in the technical knowledge of musical theory familiar to eighteenth century listeners, Lévi-Strauss presents technical citations from Rameau’s contemporaries and two pages of an operatic score as illustration. His analysis of crucial measures from Castor et Pollux (1737) illuminates a transition in key which was an innovation in its day, eliciting a dramatic reaction from its audience. Rameau no longer thrills the public. Why is the same operatic score “boring” in the twentieth century? Does the change in reception of Rameau’s work reflect a less sophisticated audience? Can music be calculated to convey emotion through melody and harmony? Does technical manipulation produce predictable emotions?
The section “Speech and Music” raises similar questions in different form. Lévi-Strauss juxtaposes prominent twentieth century linguists Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Richard Wagner to explore whether music can convey ideas and emotions, whether it can be understood as a language with a grammar which may be manipulated. Can an operagoer appreciate the meaning of a given work without knowing the language in which it is sung? Lévi- Strauss can.
Lévi-Strauss chooses his contemporary, the late Michel Leiris, as his antagonist over the language of opera. He argues other aesthetic points with other great figures now dead, with Rousseau and Diderot, but also with friends from his own past. One essay in “Sounds and Colors” details an exchange of notes with André Breton which led to Breton’s declaration of the principles of surrealism. Lévi-Strauss even probes his own misuse of “abrogation” in an earlier work, a lingering memory of reading other authors, mingled with a rearrangement of letters, changing “orb” to “bro” and finally, by intellectually subterranean paths, placing it in an inappropriate context. This eccentric note follows the personal, but abstract, exchange with Breton.
Who is the reader for this collection of essays? There are few who can match the erudition of the author or his interests. The reader with a good acquaintance with the poet Rimbaud will relish Lévi-Strauss’s essay on “Voyelles.” If the same reader is also familiar with Breton and his interest in the Symbolist poets, the juxtaposition of the two pieces is a happy one. That same reader would be unlikely to be equally versed in eighteenth century opera and painting or Diderot and the other philosopher scholars of the Encyclopédie (1751- 1772; Encyclopedia, 1965). Certainly, students of art and music will find this book fruitful material for reflection, but they must also be familiar with literature, for Lévi-Strauss does not confine his citations of Rimbaud or Proust to essays directly addressing literary questions. The final section of Look, Listen, Read devotes several essays to traditional tales of the Pacific Northwest about artists and the objects they make. These essays unite the themes of aesthetic endeavor and Lévi-Strauss’s own work as an ethnographer. They are, perhaps, the most accessible pieces in this remarkable collection, a fractal reflection of the life work of an exceptional scholar.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, May 1, 1997, p. 1473.
Choice. XXXV, September, 1997, p. 112.
Journal of Anthropological Research. LIII, Winter, 1997, p. 514.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, April 1, 1997, p. 528.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 22, 1997, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 14, 1997, p. 66.
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