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New Left Review I/15, May-June 1962

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Whether we think of the mummified cities of the Old World or the foetal towns of the New, we are apt to associate our highest material and spiritual values with city life. The great cities of India are a kind of wasteland. But what we in the West regard with shame as a kind of blight, something to be avoided like a colony of lepers, is there the ultimate expression of urban living: I mean the conglomeration of millions of individuals for the simple sake of conglomeration, regardless of physical conditions. Filth, promiscuity, disorder, physical contact; ruins, shacks, excrement, mud; body moistures, animal droppings, urine, purulence, secretions, suppuration—everything that urban life is organised to defend us against, everything we loathe, everything we protect ourselves against at great cost—all these byproducts of cohabitation never here impose a limit on its spread. On the contrary, they constitute the natural setting which the town must have if it is to thrive. To each individual, the street, path or alleyway provides a home where he can sit, sleep or pick out his food, straight from some glutinous mess of garbage. Far from repelling him, it acquires a kind of domestic status from the simple fact of having been excreted, exuded, trampled and handled by so many others.

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Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Crowds’, NLR I/15: £3

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