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Threads and Traces: True False Fictive by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by Anne Tedeschi and John Tedeschi California, 328 pp, £20.95, January, ISBN 978 0 520 25961 4
Carlo Ginzburg became famous as a historian for extraordinary discoveries about popular belief, and what was taken by its persecutors to be witchcraft, in the early modern period. The Night Battles and The Cheese and the Worms, each a case-study from the north-east corner of Italy, were followed by a synthesis of Eurasian sweep in Ecstasies. The work that has appeared since is no less challenging, but there has been a significant alteration of its forms, and many of its themes. The books of the first twenty years of his career have been succeeded by essays; by now well over fifty of them, covering a staggering range of figures and topics: Thucydides, Aristotle, Lucian, Quintilian, Origen, St Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Bayle, Voltaire, Sterne, Diderot, David, Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Warburg, Proust, Kracauer, Picasso and many more, each an extraordinary display of learning. No other living historian approaches the range of this erudition. Every page of Threads and Traces, his latest work to appear in English, offers an illustration of it. Ginzburg, who has a nominalist resistance to epochal labels of any kind, would like to override Fredric Jameson’s dictum that ‘we cannot not periodise,’ but it is impossible to grasp his achievement without recalling that the centre of his work lies in what, protestations notwithstanding, we still call the Renaissance. It is that pivot, on which his writing swings back and forth with complete ease and naturalness from classical antiquity and the church fathers across to the Enlightenment and the long 19th century, that is such a striking feature of this collection, as of its predecessors: Clues, Myths and the Historical Method; Wooden Eyes; History, Rhetoric and Proof; No Island Is an Island. By definition Renaissance scholarship requires transhumance between ancient and early modern sources, passing across what lies between them. At its highest, the kind of philological mastery it requires can also be seen in the work of the historian with whom Ginzburg can perhaps best be compared, Anthony Grafton, another astonishing comet of learning. The two, each from Jewish families with a political background, one in Turin, the other Manhattan, share a common starting-point in seasons in London at the Warburg Institute, with the influence of Arnaldo Momigliano nearby. There is also an occasional overlap in interests – Panofsky, Jesuits, Bayle, Judaica – and perhaps some similarity in civic sensibility. The most obvious difference is the anthropological cast of Ginzburg’s best-known work, exploring popular rather than elite culture. In the past two decades, however, there has been a convergence of terrain, as Ginzburg has shifted the focus of his writing to intellectual history, where Grafton has always worked. Yet such commonalities also highlight the contrasts. The essays that have become Ginzburg’s chosen instrument are unlike any other. They are all quite short: few of them over thirty, most under twenty pages. Typically, their form is that of a cascade, one intellectual reference – author or passage – tumbling after another, in a swift, staccato procession, to a sudden end. In one case, we move: from Paolo Sarpi through Augustine, Cicero, Vasari, Winckelmann, Flaxman, Hegel,
lies at a more reflexive level. is noticeable. perspective and proof. Why does epistemology figure so prominently in the work of a historian who has otherwise often expressed his aversion to intellectual systems? A possible answer might . A second leading theme is the importance of anomalies for historical inquiry. myths and narratives. Marcus Aurelius and popular riddles of Roman times. Questions of epistemology and issues of method are no mere preambles or afterthoughts in his work. overwhelmingly. Among other connections. The conventional ending of an article or essay takes one of two forms. Scott. from the time of Isaiah to that of Wojtyla. Montaigne. If the forms of this writing set Ginzburg apart as a historian. the claims of history and the ruses of rhetoric. which we could also call historical montage. Across one essay after another. Each of these strands in Ginzburg’s writing is an invitation to thought. What is distinctive about the Ginzburg ending is that it breaks sharply away from the latter too. its most conspicuous concern is with historical truth. its invitation to start thinking aslant what it set out to show. In a profession often incurious or gauche about such issues. These in turn inform Ginzburg’s case for micro-history. the premium is always – to use a contrast that gives its title to the opening entry in Threads and Traces – on citation. to finish in Proust – all in 25 pages. Ginzburg’s spare prose embodies Claudel’s maxim ‘La crainte de l’adjectif est le commencement du style’ – in this case adverbs too. Semper. at its direst. Finally. and this is the trio that has set much of the agenda of Ginzburg’s recent writing. Riegl. breaking new ground.Heine. in its own way no less marked. but the unannounced intimation of another one. Simone Weil and Adorno. In this procedure. Antonio de Guevara and the transmission of medieval tales to the age of Charles V. Voltaire. The first question that comes to mind is this. The unity of Ginzburg’s work. ending with Roberto Longhi. They are shapers of its direction. or – more respectful of the intelligence of the reader – it will be the logical culmination of an argument. Baudelaire. the document and the counterfeit. Feyerabend. so too do its themes. judgments of the court and judgments of the chair. what has been unusual from the start is the high theoretical pressure of his output. the writing of the last two decades has touched on issues of contemporary politics. In another. chronological speculations and astrological obsessions – in intellectual progress towards modern science and historical scholarship. in standard versions of North Atlantic social science. To an Attic terseness of language is joined the signature device of a sudden swerve of direction in the finale. Madame de Sévigné. at what he calls the modern form of scepticism that tends to erode any significant difference between fact and invention. a single overarching project: the demonstration that Renaissance humanism. long dismissed as something of a dead end – a maze of textual manias. was on the contrary a highly productive condition of these. set out more systematically now than in the works which had famously exemplified it. Either. This concern with the present is not separate from inquiries into even the remote past. pointing in a new direction and abruptly closing on it. it will recapitulate once again everything that has gone before. Any decent writer will avoid the former. These interventions are aimed. offering not the conclusion of an idea or an argument. from Viktor Shklovsky through Tolstoy. The subtitle of Threads and Traces is ‘True False Fictive’. a turn towards Jewish themes and problems. La Bruyère. rather than description. its impatience even with what it has itself just made known. The gesture can be taken as token of the restless fertility of this mind. at a tangent to what has gone before. Grafton’s variegated corpus forms. in effect. tackled from any number of different angles: the relationship between the veridical and the fictional. and the role of clues in identifying them. They run in tandem.
The overwhelming majority of practitioners have remained oblivious to them. There must be some truth in that. epic and tragedy – Motley or Deutscher – more frequently than comedy or romance. and certainly Ginzburg has made no secret of his dislike of the legacy of Derrida. Another answer might point to the spread of structuralism and post-structuralism as sources of a late philosophical relativism. his permanent inspiration became Auerbach’s Mimesis. But negationism of this particular genocide – others. But this too is not entirely persuasive. or indeed engaged with either doctrine himself. historians and memorialists along with poets and novelists. is the King Charles’s Head here – becomes such a bugbear. since he has never taken Lévi-Strauss to task for scarcely less cavalier handlings of truth. Not so much because it looms large in the discipline. but because it threatens the integrity of one conjugation of literature and history with false proximity to another. Of the intellectual productivity to which it has led there can be no question: we owe many of Ginzburg’s most remarkable essays to it. But. In Threads and Traces. he has told us. and has always thereafter lain adjacent to it. On the face of it. that the modern scepticism that would erase the boundary between history and fiction altogether – Hayden White. have had much influence on the practice of historians. and is original to him. as distinct from anthropologists or literary theorists. deleterious one. or even a more vaguely defined modern scepticism. There is a long tradition of the practice of history as a branch of literature. Jewish concerns have recurred in many of his essays. quite specific to Ginzburg. Saint-Simon.be: to parry the danger of a scepticism that could permit denial of the Judeocide. he has insisted that what novelists or poets can bring to an objective study of the past are cognitive instruments: techniques of estrangement as social critique in Tolstoy. nor a repertoire of genres. these are instruments to be found within what remain fictions. Ginzburg remarks that the biographical connection between his work on witchcraft and the persecution of the Jews took him some time to realise. He has also said that once he turned to history. It is from this standpoint. already criticised by Momigliano. have fared differently – is so negligible a phenomenon in the West that it would scarcely seem to warrant of itself such an investment of intellectual energy. Since then. whose route included Ammianus. In one essay after another. unmediated visualisation as access to fresh insight in Proust. but as a tool of knowledge. This is an individual motivation for a stance of embattlement rather than indifference. but what this has usually meant is either a studied elegance (or unbridled flamboyance) of style – Gibbon or Michelet – closer to works of imagination than of record. of course. ellipsis as at once suspender and accelerator of time in Flaubert. The bearing of literature on history. from the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf. there appears to be a puzzling disproportion between the extent of the phenomenon and the length and passion of the attack on it. Literature thus both preceded history in Ginzburg’s cursus. were literary. or the quasi-reproduction of literary genres in the construction of narratives: for obvious reasons. In his work. Moreover – and this is the really significant fact – there is little evidence that the epistemological doctrines of such thinkers. each in their way undermining any stable conceptions of truth. But we can pose a further question about the . What might explain this? A more compelling answer lies in the sources of Ginzburg’s historical sensibility. His first ambitions. however. the reconstruction by a literary scholar of the path to modern realism. literature is taken not as a standard of styles. free direct style as passage to a new interiority in Stendhal. as Armenians have reason to know. is of a different order for Ginzburg. Gregory of Tours.
it abuts on literature. the Bayeux Tapestry or the fall of Rome – than to prove one.epistemological passion driving them. Lorenzo Valla’s demonstration that the so-called Donation of Constantine must have been a clerical forgery. quite robust enough? The title of another of Ginzburg’s collection of essays is History. For Ginzburg these are sound objections. But he insists they should not obscure a crucial imperative uniting the judge and the historian: the commitment of each to the idea of proof. in the end. and on individuals only. though the logic of cui bono naturally indicated a churchman of one kind or another and a period well after the fourth century. The example then stands as an emblem of the correct relationship between the two. on the other hand. To no avail: Sofri was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment. at least in its deployments in courts of law. indeed. far from being an appeal to emotions as opposed to proof (the way it is usually. rather than merely weaving tales. Evidence. about the past. where traces thin out – is on the whole much less frequent. Commenting on the relationship between the judge and the historian. or the date of the forgery. prueba – covers what in English are distinguished as ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’. of an Italian policeman. understood today). Marc Bloch. But that proof was negative. In that. He then shows that one of the landmark achievements of Renaissance humanism. Luigi Calabresi. Evidence alone is not necessarily decisive: we can speak of ‘weak evidence’ as well as ‘strong evidence’. was missing. when he was a leader of the revolutionary group Lotta Continua. Yet the case may tell us less than we might infer from Ginzburg’s use of it. Ginzburg’s book demolished the case for the prosecution. is something quite different: it is conclusive evidence. in the spirit of the Annales. For if on one slope. he argues that for Aristotle rhetoric. Rhetoric and Proof (1999). The force of these interventions is a defence of history as an inquiry capable of attaining truths. following Cicero. whereas historians deal with groups or institutions too. Ginzburg’s one departure from the essay form has been The Judge and the Historian. without penal authority over them. But is this defence. on another it tilts towards law. Proof. was conceived by Valla as a rhetorical declamation. Ginzburg has remarked that the principal differences between them are two: judges hand down sentences. It is far easier to disprove a conjecture about an object or a controverted process – let us say. had rejected the intrusion of judicial models into history. Ginzburg tends to elide these two. But also because of another distinctive gradient in his work. They are amenable to evidence. is the normal stuff of history. and is typically negative. In the last two decades. was based. never to proof. and was widely thought to have been murdered. In the Latin languages a single word – prova. on the very idea of proof. preuve. they have been in the usual situation for any historian. not to proof. convicted of ordering the assassination in 1972. Partly. Valla’s demonstration that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery rested. Proof positive of the identity of the forger. on a proof stricto sensu: the presence in the text of anachronisms that could not have been written by any Roman of Constantine’s time. The problems attending these have not gone away. which must be weighed. under whose charge the anarchist Pino Pinelli had died. It excluded the authenticity of the document. a passionate defence of his friend Adriano Sofri. no doubt for the reasons of language suggested. here and elsewhere. . as encouraging not only concern with famous persons rather than collective structures. let alone diffusing falsehoods. but moralising treatments of them. When historians later argued – they still do – over the dating and provenance of the document. from which he has only just emerged. they could turn only to evidence. In it. Proof – as we move further back in time.
by appealing so insistently to the notion of proof. The illustration that Wittgenstein – a holy fool in these and other matters. the same kind of query can be put to his conjugation of history and law. and his image of a rope that may consist of multiple overlapping threads. For them. For the relationships it establishes are essentially uncontrollable: at the limit so indeterminable that anything can be ultimately connected with anything. we can look at the distinctive form of Ginzburg’s work in recent years: the cascades. and ideas and figurations in the more recent book. by suggesting too close a bearing of fictions on facts. those tumbling genealogies of concepts. The frailty of this way of parsing social or cultural forms should be plain. of registering what could not have happened. tropes. they may instead be linked as in a sequence – abc/bcd/def – in which the last unit in the series may have no trait in common with the first. absent from the second. for all the attraction of the book as a whole. who was? In other words. devices that mark out his writing as an essayist. in this case. matters will be quite otherwise. More technically. innocent either of interest in history or knowledge of the social sciences – gave of his conception was Spengler’s Decline of the West. be merely one of principle. acting on orders of the group. and if they were not its authors. By then – 1990 – Marino had a record of petty crime. this is the idea of a polythetic classification. so rarely amenable to the simple yes/no verdicts of a court of law? Such a paradox could. All that was necessary for a lawyer. a negative demonstration that the evidence against them did not stand up. yet still forming a single cord. But for historians. none extending through its full length. The same authority for the procedures at work is invoked in both: Wittgenstein. For a verdict in the trial. brought home starkly by Ginzburg’s study of Sofri’s trial itself. Legally. the obvious questions in a case like this must be: why did Marino bring false witness against his former comrades 15 years after the assassination. and repented of his role in the killing. as distinct from the judicial task. Might it not. judges are obliged to acquit an accused if the evidence against them is faulty or insufficient. on the basis of what evidence has survived. For the purpose at hand. His destruction of the case against Sofri and his codefendants was a disproof: that is. that he had been the driver of the car used in the assassination of Calabresi 15 years earlier. To see how far this may be so. Ginzburg expressly disavows any attempt at that. That evidence essentially came down to the testimony of another former member of Lotta Continua. and his testimony was. involuntarily weaken a sense of the complexities of historical evidence. It is to do with the status of evidence itself. The difference between a judicial verdict and historical inquiry is thus not just a question of the necessarily individual object and penal character of the first. of what actually happened in 1972. not for a historian. in which there is no need for all members of a given category to possess the same traits. he did all that was necessary. riddled with contradictions. but it overlooks a critical difference. So if we can ask whether Ginzburg’s conjugation of history and literature doesn’t involuntarily risk weakening the notion of truth. however. this was all that was required.The argument is impressive. . Leonardo Marino. the historical task to hand would be the most plausible reconstruction. as anthropology is succeeded by intellectual history. without effect on practice. as Ginzburg showed. with its quite narrow and rigid protocols. to save a friend from an unjust sentence. Any reader who is familiar with the earlier Storia notturna – bafflingly translated as Ecstasies – will perceive the kinship between his treatment of myths and rituals there. That it is a hazardous basis for the analysis of myths becomes clear in Ecstasies.
Texts are more resistant. offering multiple versions for the convenience of later interpreters: as their arch-interpreter Lévi-Strauss. however practised. where all kinds of well-established philological controls are available to check such dexterity. Ginzburg’s use of these legacies is no less productive. This is far less true of written texts. nonarbitrary – delimitation of the units it would interconnect: the problem is less conspicuous in the study of myths that typically lack any clear boundaries. the operation is one of extraction: what can be taken – to good purpose – from a text or an image. often invoked by Ginzburg. Examples include his handling of the lineage of estrangement as a device. How far is the kind of criticism the Cambridge School represents of relevance to the cascades? In one sense. arresting discoveries. was any objective – that is. and the presence of Georges Bataille in the composition and character of Picasso’s Guernica. for whom seizure of the telling detail was the key to unlocking any literary whole – Auerbach’s Ansatzpunkt. It is difficult to read any of them without a sense of intellectual excitement. when applied to the human sciences. the hidden links of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique. That said. capable of being transposed across centuries into widely contrasting styles and works of art – that early caught his attention. but from the visual arts that form such a rich parallel arena of inquiry in Ginzburg’s writing. In the long chain of authors he traces as practitioners of estrangement. The cascades of Wooden Eyes or Threads and Traces thus not only form a beautiful spectacle. Slicing and dicing them can be done. A secondary influence comes not from the study of literature. medieval and modern societies. whose shadow looms over Ecstasies. but have solider rock beneath them. as it has developed since the 1960s. Here the problem of polythetic classification returns. The historiography of ideas – the Cambridge School to the fore – has in large measure developed out of a reaction against these. they contain. of Auerbach and Spitzer. There it was Warburg’s notion of Pathosformeln – figural expressions of human emotion in stone or paint. Ginzburg has never set out to reconstruct the work of a writer or thinker as such: even the kind of abridgments of them at which Momigliano was skilled. yielding Spitzer’s ‘click’ of comprehensive insight. Myths are notoriously malleable. should it occur. . the same procedure is safer. fruit of that combination of extraordinary erudition and uncanny intuition that has been a hallmark of Ginzburg’s work from the start. not what actually composes it. once confessed. neither requiring exhaustive inspection of a writer. it might be said to be beside the point. as with the great German-Austrian Romanists. to indicate the range of these findings: the probable mediation of Edouard Drumont. Typically composed of a chain of radically unexpected connections across texts often separated by centuries. we may still ask how the cascades relate to the broader waters of intellectual history. with many intellectual rainbows curving above them. but the distortions that result are more readily checkable. But applied in compressed form to the history of ideas. but primarily from Stilistik. This was the legacy. author of La France juive. even millennia. above all. allowing them to be cut up in different segments in any number of ways at the will of the anthropologist. in the genesis of the Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. it can lead to arbitrary results. His way with texts comes not from any sort of Ideengeschichte. Here too. Here it is enough to mention only three recent such surprises in the modern period.Transferred from myths in pre-literate societies to arguments and ideas – most of them highly sophisticated – in classical. What this could never specify. they are agreeably manipulable. again and again.
and certainly more influential. not the rule. of the ‘prose of everyday life’ – exclaimed: ‘That is the beginning of the novel. the anomaly tells us more than the rule. here as elsewhere (the future villainy of the teacher of mathematics is as plain from his first physiognomic depiction as the outcome of Charles Bovary’s operation on the club-foot. remains central to intellectual history as a discipline. a wineglass lying on its side. If there is no rule. vanishes from the line. That holds. however. The work of novelists suffers too. The cataracts fall vertically across time. This. Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. remains as distant from the construction of any serious history as Tolstoy’s insistence on its unintelligibility. features of them such as these. In these two cases. In historical research. For there are rules that admit of no exceptions: mathematical . depicting a servant-girl drowsing at a table laden with fruit. little weight attaching to them. the anomaly. one might well reply that it’s a matter of taste. now in its fifth volume. The predictability of Flaubert’s narrative. An anecdote can serve as illustration. that is the beginning of the novel. because it speaks also of the rule. a narrative of ordinary people in a familiar setting – neither epic nor tragedy. he has often contended. futility. implying the recent departure of a male companion. on occasion. One day Franco Moretti and Carlo Ginzburg went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York together. are excised. Coming upon Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep. which do not serve the purpose of his argument. in Hegel’s phrase. there can be no exception to it. Flaubert’s scenes of revolution invert the case. eye-bespeckling – cataracts. By definition. That the cut cannot be clean can be seen from the judgments that then go astray: in Tolstoy no social paternalism. which ontologically commands it. whereas the rule speaks only of itself: the exception is thus always epistemologically richer than the norm. Here Ginzburg certainly had the better of the argument. and retorted: ‘No. recasting the originating principle of the novel as the adventure rather than the average existence. we could think of the majestic ocean of Pocock’s ongoing study of Gibbon. in which the leonine innocent Dussardier is slaughtered by the sinister turncoat Sénécal. In Ginzburg’s use of the novels as exemplars. and the connections between them are more tenuous than Ginzburg tends to suggest. A rule does not depend for its existence on an exception. At the opposite pole from Ginzburg’s sparkling – if. Tolstoy’s battle-scenes – panoramas of accident. nowhere more strikingly than in the episode singled out by Ginzburg. rather than dismembered at will. his nose deformed by syphilis. is not so. of the disfigured painter Gérard de Lairesse. arguably more radical than anything Voltaire or Tolstoy could offer. But the principle that texts. an anomaly is only such in terms of a rule. though not precluding outriders. once the chemist produces his nostrum). Moretti – reading the image as a depiction. What of the horizontal moves in Ginzburg’s work? Here the key term is the anomaly. confusion – are calculated illustrations of his long concluding rhodomontade on the pointlessness of history in general: not counsel that has moved many historians. Tolstoy and Flaubert are offered as inspirations for the historian on the basis of clips from War and Peace (the Battle of Borodino) and Sentimental Education (the Revolution of 1848). Yet these are far from irrelevant to the scenes offered as models for the historian. as Moretti has since in effect conceded. in Flaubert prevision of the KGB. Bracketed are both the structures and ideologies of these novels. Ginzburg then spun round to a portrait by Rembrandt on the opposite wall. whether discursive or imaginative.historically the most important of all never figures. Fiction is one thing. since they are after all novels. and an empty chair half-swung towards a door half-open. are best treated as wholes.’ In other words. a painting of Cupid on the wall above. But the converse does not hold. history is another.’ In other words. Barbarism and Religion.
but with a twist. In Ginzburg’s generation there was a strong reaction against grand narratives. For micro-history to alter these – the anomaly to yield a new rule – the objects of its study would have to be. as common expressions of an unchanging human nature. one exception. but not only them. Historiography does not possess covering laws like those of the natural sciences. a negative check. With this. however. more statistically minded kinds – give us. For what micro-history could reveal. in its modesty. Belief in the iconoclastic force of the anomaly can draw confidence from Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and its argument that such revolutions occur when a given scientific paradigm encounters an observational anomaly that it cannot explain. the micro-practices of a shamanism now scarcely visible reveal a macro-structure that encompasses us all. the logical question persists: does the anomaly alter the rule. was the existence of worlds undreamed of in standard versions of the past. in which the discovery of an anomalous patch here and there is less likely to unravel the whole cloth. The analogy is misleading. which in due course generates a new paradigm capable of accounting for it. In Ecstasies. we can do no better than turn to Ginzburg’s beautiful recent lecture ‘Our Words and Theirs’.ones. But this structure is invariant: it involves no change. But as Lyotard’s own trajectory would demonstrate. The positive claims of Ginzburg’s micro-history. but not as interconnected levels of a history in movement – rather. actually or potentially. after all. challenging their easy acceptance. Micro and macro are linked. however. which takes as its Ansatzpunkt – which he . Later formulations speak of the corrective administered by micro-history to the temptations of teleology and ethnocentrism. that sets it apart from other branches of the discipline? Early on. There is. as illustrated dramatically in The Night Battles and The Cheese and the Worms. in the first place. obliging it to be rewoven to a different pattern. the micro-history of which Ginzburg is the world’s most celebrated exponent. In it. Still. Ginzburg defined micro-history as ‘the science of real life’ – ‘la scienza del vissuto’ – that would investigate ‘the invisible structures within which … lived experience is articulated’. we step out of a historia rerum gestarum into another sort of inquiry. however. but something different: what would at one time have been called a philosophical anthropology. microcosms of another world to come. What kind of unanticipated knowledge does micro-history of the anomaly – there are other. there is no grand narrative as a story of macroscopic change over time. Does this matter? Many productive research programmes. the shaman’s journey to the dead becomes the master narrative of all other stories that human beings have ever told themselves. micro-history has not often claimed. and who could deny the productivity of Ginzburg’s research? One way of trying to adjudicate this is to look at the kind of history which fascination with anomalies has generated: that is. and micro-history was one of the first expressions of it. Macro-history is the study of the largest changes that societies undergo. In due course. the more or less complete disjuncture between the two implied by this was modified. For further reflection on this complex of issues. Simply. they are not escaped so easily. It is an altogether looser fabric. perfectly legitimate. as Lyotard called them while also denouncing them. nor codifications of them into paradigms. to which ‘analyses elaborated on a macro-historical scale’ were of ‘rare and sometimes nonexistent relevance’. the microhistorical discovery overthrow the macro-historical commonplace? That is less clear. rest on the power of the anomaly. But that. Ginzburg’s Ecstasies does so. have been founded on a misprision of method.
Warburg and Momigliano. Micro-history – understood not as the scrutiny of very small events. it posed the historical question: why had his country been routed? What is striking is that Bloch’s answers remain entirely within the psychological optic of the later work. Ginzburg recodes this problematic as a tension between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives. Written in anger and despair. etic questions generate emic answers that yet never absorb them without residue. What kinds of question. Bloch’s study of the medieval belief. few would question that Bloch was the greatest historian of his age. But the contrast so highlighted conceals another that is more significant. In The Historian’s Craft. Bloch is the other touchstone for Ginzburg. but modify them. In the opening pages of The Royal Touch. which in England persisted down to the time of James II. emotions – is not the same as to identify the causes of an action. pour tout dire. a single word. To see why. The most promising of these will be anomalies: cases that do not exemplify. in essence. written in very difficult conditions during the war. Alongside Auerbach. he argues. intentions. is unfinished. hierarchies. but deviate from expected or established norms. he argues. when at the age of twenty he read The Royal Touch. or an event. he has explained. we may look at the text Bloch composed a year earlier. It was the Annaliste who made the young Ginzburg a historian. the emphases might not have been very much altered. They are guiding principles right from the beginning. “understanding”. understanding – of realities that are fundamentally psychological in nature – stands contrasted with judging. The key sentence of the book reads: ‘When all is said and done. Today. psychological facts. Adopting terms coined by Kenneth Pike. he declares his study to be a contribution to ‘la connaissance de l’esprit humain’. There is no doubting the strength of Bloch’s conviction on this score. as historical to unhistorical approaches to the past. if we receive them uncritically. Causes in The Historian’s Craft are a bit like classes in Marx’s Capital. the characteristic effect of whose discovery is to subvert pre-existing historiographic. that the king could cure scrofula by laying hands on the sufferer – a puzzle in any modern retrospect. domine et illumine nos études: “comprendre”’. but rather as the very close scrutiny of any event – has.’ These successive dicta are not late developments in Bloch’s thought. But the respect we owe this manifesto and its author is not paid.renders as ‘connecting point’– Marc Bloch’s reflections in The Historian’s Craft on the gaps that can occur between words and meanings in the vocabulary used by people in the past. as indeed also political. memories. Where does causation figure in Bloch’s account of the historian’s craft? The answer is. His analysis consists essentially of an . The last few pages of his text broach it. Comprehension: is that the same as explanation? A large methodological literature tells us it is not. scarcely at all. his impassioned account of the fall of France in 1940. stressing that there may be conflicts not only between the two but within each of them. To reconstruct the consciousness of an agent – hopes. then peter out. is the beacon light of our studies’. But there are reasons for thinking that even had it been finished. (‘Un mot. Properly posed. or that The Historian’s Craft remains unsurpassed as a reflection on the tests and tasks of the discipline. Strange Defeat. yield the most fruitful answers? He recommends a focus on cases that can lead to new generalisations. and between this vocabulary and the vocabulary historians may use in writing about them. been the domain par excellence of the study of such anomalies. The Ansatzpunkt of this brief for micro-history is no random choice.) To which we can add these two others: ‘For in the last analysis it is human consciousness which is the subject matter of history’ and ‘Historical facts are. then. a word followed by … This could be because the text.
The reasons for that are twofold. he would deplore the violence of the Bolsheviks. without stopping to ask what might. among whom he numbered himself. The descent of liberal civilisation into barbarism he could still describe as late as 1941. tortured and executed by the Nazis as an organiser of the Resistance four years later. and treasuring his four decorations. But as a historical explanation of the collapse of France. which in 1940 led him to treat as explanations what are only descriptions of the variously deplorable – in his eyes – mind-sets of his countrymen. Not only that. who became an enthusiastic nationalist overnight in 1914. a parochial press.’ That is. he exulted in the final defeat of the boches. historically speaking. an indictment written at white heat by a patriot who did not spare himself in the effort to understand where his country had gone wrong. summoned a number of psychologists to his headquarters and asked their advice. as the French had not. and calmly declare in Rabat that ‘Morocco is not and has never . The death of millions in the carnage of war between rival imperialist powers appears to have occasioned not a moment’s critical reflection in him. Viewed morally and aesthetically. In addition to this epistemological weakness. What patriot could question France’s right to an empire stretching from the Caribbean across Africa to the South Seas? Bloch was a humane man. and his attitudes were widely shared. that in its fatigue and sloth had failed to educate the youth of the nation to its duties and dangers. narrow-minded and selfish trade unions. at the height of the war. and symmetrically with the reasons for the enemy’s victory. Bloch found it quite believable that ‘Hitler. the German high command had understood. All in all. ‘it was not only in the field that intellectual causes lay at the root of our defeat. Bloch had plunged with ardour into the trenches of the First World War. a triumph of intellect. ‘Before I myself had breathed the joy of victory in the summer and autumn of 1918 … did I truly know all that was contained in that beautiful word?’ he was still writing 22 years later.’ (‘Ce n’est pas seulement sur le terrain militaire que notre défaite a eu ses causes intellectuelles’). it is plainly wanting. Why had the Third Reich been victorious? ‘The German triumph was. a paltering parliament. even in retrospect. and lived up to its concluding call to his compatriots to risk their lives in the struggle to redeem it. to whom Ginzburg has dedicated another admiring essay. a pacifist and dogmatic left. incredibly. At the age of 28. that speed – the Blitzkrieg of tanks and aircraft – had become the key to victory in the field. and last but not least a defaulting professoriat. On the French side.’ he writes.enumeration of the states of mind – capacities. at the time or later.’ German dive-bombing then aiming more at nerves than bodies. as a fight for ‘justice and civilisation’. before drawing up his final plans for the campaign. where his regiment was dispatched to help put down resistance to the forcible conscription of peasants in the Maghreb for the killing-fields of Flanders. there was a political blind-spot. as he saw them. culprits for the defeat were to be found in every quarter: cowardly and incompetent generals. ‘essentially. So little had the realities of the conflict impinged on him that he never batted an eyelid. In part. eminently did. an unstable and cynical right. as Bloch. was once a socialist internationalist. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Strange Defeat is an impressive document. have brought about the condition of a republic as uniformly rotten as he then perceived it. outlooks and attitudes – of the actors in the tragedy. they stem from the psychologistic bias of Bloch’s work from early on. free from the chauvinist hysteria of Durkheim or Seignobos. at his own tour of duty in Algeria. Fresh from the massacres of the war. Rising to the rank of captain. a bitter and fearful bourgeoisie.
For. the sporadic character of scrofula as a disease. few of them. there were others – initially. as to dismiss the idea that ‘war is the concern of the rich and powerful. and occupies the bulk of the work. Instead of the term ‘imperialism’. None of this. Bloch was programmatically committed to a priority of understanding. but Bloch could never bring himself to use it. causes.’ remarking: ‘as though. Bloch could not even see that the defeat of France he mourned was an effect of the victory over which he had rejoiced. at the time and afterwards.been an Arab country. of course. taking us back to Ginzburg’s observation that there is always conflict within both emic and etic idioms. seemingly cursory. when the Second World War came. was the epistemological blankness to which it led. though of course in his greatest works. A contemporary word was readily available to grasp the real nature of the conflict. More than the – a priori predictable – desire of rulers to enhance their power and of sufferers to seek a cure. once set well back in the past. it remained an explanatory void. more obviously than any previous topic he addressed. with proportionately the highest losses of any of the major powers. By comparison. strikingly brief is his discussion of what on another way of looking at his story must be regarded as its real punchline: namely. in an old society. more explanation than its socio-psychologistic principle might have suggested. was essentially the mystique of sacred kingship and the outlook of the ailing supplicant. for good or ill. No historian is omnicompetent. More striking even than Bloch’s political blindness. . So. masterstroke. whose natural remissions put the touch beyond systematic discredit. he stuck to the tropes of social patriotism. At no point in his life does he ever seem to have asked himself what were its causes. What Bloch achieved with his deep commitment to understanding is extraordinary enough. The paradox of Strange Defeat is that the object of his analysis required. alongside interpretation. as the long predicted sequel to the first. in the most dismal single sentence he ever wrote. however. later very many – who saw perfectly clearly what Bloch shut his eyes to. Always? So much for the February and October Revolutions. that ‘the steadiest of minds did not and could not escape the common prejudices of the time’? That would be too easy. which remains unsurpassed. that the poor should have nothing to do with it. existentially central as the First World War always was to him. it is this materialist explanation of the miraculous that is Bloch’s. cemented by centuries of a shared culture. unlike any previous book-length study of his. which they are not. Understanding concerns intentions. which had left the country. constrained to make common cause with the mighty’. or for that matter Bertrand Russell or Romain Rolland. going so far. incapable of competing in the same way a second time. a triviality within the enormity of the surrounding catastrophe. In its practice. he offered many powerful explanations. French Rural History and Feudal Society. without any ally to the east. all but exclusively on subjective understanding. above all objective explanation. They would be indistinguishable only if events were always the outcome of human intentions. His only historical reflection on it was an essay on the collective psychology of false news – rumours – in conditions of war. the humble are not always. What primarily interested Bloch. It is enough to think of Luxemburg or Lenin. while his approach to it relied.’ So might it not be said in extenuation of Bloch what he himself said of Montaigne. it could often furnish. explanation. affects Bloch’s stature as a medievalist. For. The Royal Touch illustrates the way in which the two could coexist in his work.
In this context. the night-walking Benandanti. Does their generalisation also bring with it causation? For lack of evidence. but something closer to its opposite: in German. It is small mystery that it should have inspired the young Ginzburg to become a historian. André Jolles. the identification of an anomaly subverts. that now . myth. to classify or resolve. that literature arises. or special intellectual ingenuity. These findings are based on the discoveries of the historian. which was a favourite of Momigliano too. if it is to be of any purpose. for long close to the bottom of the hierarchy of which Ginzburg speaks. Its argument was that it is out of certain elementary forms of language. in the work of arguably the greatest living American historian.The misfit between object and method is so marked that only his attitude to the First World War would account for it. saga. Cases in the sense Ginzburg intends are. have revolutionised one of the most disgraced of all fields in the discipline. or the reigning historiographic hierarchy. as practised by Ginzburg? Recalling that coinage of the term came from the microscope. The Royal Touch. Jolles’s illustrations of this kind of simple form came. virtually by definition. recursive tales in 11th-century Kashmir. in the nature of these cases. saying. fairy story. successively. joke – and case. unsettling established norms. not the scale of what is scrutinised. from which this usage comes. defying straightforward application of a moral or logical rule to it. has to be focused on what is very small. these were legend. What Schroeder has done is rewrite the logic of 18th and 19th-century statecrafts into a new form of international history. themselves not yet literary. actual or hypothetical. werewolves of the Baltic. What are the implications for micro-history. and why was it so patchy? Answers are not to hand. Ginzburg’s reference is to a remarkable work. explanation. the diamonds or clubs. the miller of Friuli. Revelation and interpretation are the spades and the hearts of this kind of research. and associated essays. medieval minstrelsies. by prompting a new generalisation – the persistence of millennial traditions of shamanism. an event. but Kasus. and why eventually fade? Or where did popular materialism come from. and the one against which the Annalistes reacted most radically: diplomatic history. from faits divers in the 20th-century press. one might add. not Fall. as Ginzburg puts it. late 16th-century theology. as we normally use that term. But a microscope. that is less clear: why did shamanism persist. he remarks that the prefix alludes to the intensity of scrutiny. anomalous rather than typical: the two-tongued Nicodemists. What he meant by ‘case’ is what was once explored by the Roman church under the rubric of ‘casuistry’: that is. is the subversion of historiographic hierarchies a special capacity of the microscope. whose Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848. a feat requiring just the kind of understanding Bloch would have saluted as the ‘beacon light’ of the historian. Paul Schroeder. In its own way. Nor. and requiring a delicate act of judgment. a previous rule. riddle. In his studies of these. or the existence of underground currents of materialism. In each case. What all involve is an antinomy of some kind. Einfache Formen – ‘Simple Forms’ – by the distinguished Dutch philologist who became a Nazi. is another matter. For Jolles. there is always a reconstruction of the subjective universe of the anomalous agent. in the popular cultures of early modern Europe. It is no use gazing at the heavens through one. the word does not mean a ‘case-study’. perhaps not available. What he developed from Bloch’s example was the innovation he calls the ‘case’. memorabile. Other instruments are needed for that. no less striking an overthrow has occurred in the same period at the most macroscopic of levels.
Like any politics. It is no accident that it should be this conservative historian. Paris. and to be admired for it. Towards the institution responsible for the Inquisition. Not included are related topics: the Nakba. the dominion of financial markets. The most extended expression of his political outlook can be found in a dialogue with Vittorio Foa – a friend of his father. What is clear. are the politics of Ginzburg’s oeuvre? At first glance. as the realm par excellence of conscious. the most important for micro-history were popular mentalities – to be studied. the war on Yugoslavia. however. styles of imagery. that the emphasis on what is very longlasting and often unconscious in Ginzburg’s version of micro-history. To say that requires an immediate specification. It would be surprising if it were otherwise. not assertion. Of these. The taverns of the one and the triumphs of the other are not incompatible. The craft of the historian allows for as many kinds of research as painting. another key reference for Ginzburg. however. the query might seem misplaced. conceptual and empirical. DeMille. We do not have to choose between the two. he is a respecter of religions. in new intensive close-up. pursuing the excavation of profounder structures of society. The tremendous Italian critic of art Roberto Longhi. cloning. Here causes. the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Micro-history was in good measure inspired by the Annales of the interwar years. composing a dialogue between Tiepolo and Caravaggio. welcoming their multicultural coexistence and flexible reinterpretation in the light of contemporary developments. and Ginzburg’s liking of it takes us to one of the nodes of his politics. the church another. A look at Ginzburg’s recent essays. The issues to which Ginzburg alludes include: the Shoah. however. worked out through an arresting set of counterfactuals. No believer himself. the possibility of nuclear annihilation. of the First World War. Jesuits were past-masters of such ‘accommodation’. viewing the run-up to 1914 from the optical angle of Vienna. London or St Petersburg. But how should that politics be defined? It moves by oblique suggestion and allusion. whatever the scriptural accuracy of their treatments of Christian or other holy writ. he remarks that he is attracted to casuistics. which polemicised against political or military history. unchanging constituents of human nature as received by Warburg or Lévi-Strauss. rather than Berlin. are in command. But where it suggests. whom he accused of abandoning black and white for a technicolor worthy of Cecil B. Casuistry was perfected by the Jesuits. the destruction of the environment. it is selective. The importance of the Enlightenment as a central reference for his later writing comes in good part from this. too. finally. is enough to dispel the impression that this is an unpolitical historian.stands close to the most challenging heights of the discipline. the law in Italy. the war on Iraq. because it is not preacherly. The list in one sense speaks for itself. in a society as politicised as postwar Italy. active change. who has offered far the best single explanation. and killing Italian painting for a century. the nuclear oligarchy. the civilisation of capital. But religion – in nominalist mood. the regime of Berlusconi. often in the signature swerves at the end of the texts. detested Tiepolo. But even he. No posture is more foreign to Ginzburg than moralism of any kind. and a long-time leader of the Italian left – published in 2003. not cases. is that the primary impulse in this historian’s reaction to public events in the contemporary world is an ethical one. What. Ginzburg has never concealed his hostility. must tend to diminish the significance of politics greatly. allowed Tiepolo a final word. he sometimes doubts whether the term has any constructive meaning at all – is one thing. and a Vatican whose power remains pervasive in Italy. In it. the implications are plain. one of his idols. It might be thought. The .
and protection of bought witness – as a system that should be abolished. ‘Killing a Chinese Mandarin’. the term has some application. whom he saw as an Italian equivalent of a Narodnik. not of defence. Can anything more exact be attempted? Maybe this. Radicalism is a spirit of attack. Ginzburg’s sense of the debt we owe the minds of that age is a deep undercurrent in much of his later work. What then of the term which twenty years ago looked preferable to either of these: ‘populist’? This is one to which Ginzburg himself refers in sketching the background to his first writings. At the time. But it may be significant that – so far at least – Montesquieu and Rousseau have had less place in it. or simply. If we look at what has moved him to comment. that Enlightenment remains exemplary for us today. however. Might their relative absence from the roll-call suggest some unease with each? The deletion of Persian Letters from the genealogy of estrangement is noticeable enough. Hopes and aims should not be set too high. too focused on political structures of the kind Annalistes turned away from? Rousseau. and to which the church from Montini to Ratzinger has yet fully to live up: in its moral courage and imagination. confined to an ominous passage from Emile. Ginzburg’s defence of his friend Sofri can stand for his practice as a whole: to prevent an injustice. the description seemed misplaced. who knew Ginzburg. He was using the terms not in their American but European meaning. But there is an honourable sense of each that can be accepted as some indication of where Ginzburg might stand today: liberal as far as tolerance and fundamental liberties go. Ginzburg dislikes labels of every kind. but so too in the eyes of the European establishments is any revolt against them -– to more than gesture at his outlook. How then should the political side of this historian be described? In a review of Ecstasies. Diderot or Hume against persecution and intolerance stand in his eyes as the heritage that immigrants to Europe from other shores and faiths are entitled to expect from it in our own time. reads: ‘To express compassion for those distant fellow human . in the sense that all Ginzburg’s work is informed by a strong sympathy and solidarity with popular life – micro-history he once described as a ‘prosopography from below’. of Bayle. The Spirit of the Laws? Is it too systematic a work.campaigns. Too preacherly. ‘the dead leaves of radicalism’. directly or indirectly. as he puts it. Radicalism – Rousseau was one of its embodiments – has. and which Franco Venturi used of his father. to have earned Ginzburg’s attention. Like liberal and conservative. and evades any ready capture by them. for one who resists systems of thought. conservative as far as nature and the environment go. where no oxymoron is involved. a way of sprouting new leaves. the eminent Italian poet and critic Franco Fortini. direct or indirect. The ending of perhaps the most powerful of all his essays. But ‘populism’ is also an ambiguous term. found it the work of a liberal conservative. In his dialogue with Foa. ever since a Jacobin tree was planted in Rome in Year Six of the Revolution. It is a defensive politics. with too many other connotations – the Northern League is populist. Ginzburg pressed his friend to shed. on the numbing of our feelings that comes from remoteness. Both have their place in a wider politics. These were the great political theorists of the time. typically somewhat brighter than the evergreen of moderation: not least in Italy. Voltaire. too revolutionary? We must wait and see. not to implicate this justice – based on legal reward for delation. is perhaps the more pregnant omission. on issues of the day. it is nearly always some danger to life or liberty.
’  First published by Einaudi in 1989. edited by Michael Roth and Charles Salas (2001).beings would be. 8 · 26 April 2012 » Perry Anderson » The Force of the Anomaly (print version) pages 3-13 | 9323 words ISSN 0260-9592 Copyright © LRB Ltd. who devoted such vivid pages of The Historian’s Craft to the problem of forgeries in history.  Published as Apologie pour l’histoire.  ‘The Sword and the Lightbulb: A Reading of Guernica’ in Disturbing Remains. Our power to pollute and destroy the present. without questioning it. ou métier d’historien in 1949.edu/ginzburg. I suspect. the past and the future is incomparably greater than our feeble moral imagination..ias. 1997-2012 ^ Top . Vol. an act of mere rhetoric. Hermann Rauschning’s fake conversations with Hitler. should himself have become the victim of one: no fewer than three times in his account of the fall of France does he cite as a source.  ‘Our Words and Theirs’ has not yet been published but there is a video of Ginzburg delivering the lecture at video. 34 No.  There is more than a little irony in the fact that Bloch.
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