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Overture and Finale: Lévi-Strauss, Music, and Religion

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Abstract Claude Lévi-Strauss’s writings are filled with intricate discussions of music, seemingly intended to clarify his thinking about myth and ritual. His peculiar, idiosyncratic musical remarks point in surprising directions, posing a significant and continuing challenge to scholars of religion. In an important recent book, music semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez explicates Lévi-Strauss’s musical ideas and levels a number of strong criticisms. Drawing on the original texts as well as Nattiez’s critique, I argue that while Lévi-Strauss is certainly wrong about music, this very wrongness reveals dimensions of his project of considerable importance for our own discipline. Specifically, I find that Lévi-Strauss’s conception of myth, as it arises in the context of his somewhat bizarre ideas about contemporary music, raises difficult methodological and ethical questions about particularism and the necessity of comparison.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religion, Boston University Boston, MA 02215 USA


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