The tout Paris of mid-20th-century intellectuals seems to have been a small world, small enough to pack into a few cafés, its members visiting each other in their cottages in the country or coming together at weekends in the houses of wealthy patrons. Artists, writers, philosophers and scientists shared a world. Claude Lévi-Strauss was the son of an artist, and two of his uncles were painters who had their moments of fame. Trained as a philosopher, he made it his ambition to turn anthropology into a natural science, but all his life he was immersed in the arts. 'We used to go with the Merleau-Pontys for lunch at Guitrancourt, where Lacan had a country house,' Lévi-Strauss has recalled. 'We hardly ever talked about psychoanalysis or philosophy; instead, it was usually art and literature.' (Fortunately, perhaps, since neither Lévi-Strauss nor Merleau-Ponty understood Lacan's theories, or so they told each other - 'We concluded that we didn't have the time.') Even during his wartime exile, when he was teaching at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes de New York along with the philosophers Alexandre Koyré and Jacques Maritain, Lévi-Strauss regularly went foraging for African and Native American art in the city's antique shops with Breton, Max Ernst and Duchamp.
LRB 24 June 2004 | PDF Download