Rites of Passage Author(s): Carlo Ginzburg Source: The Threepenny Review, No. 80 (Winter, 2000), pp.

28-29 Published by: Threepenny Review Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4384907 Accessed: 23/02/2009 06:24
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=tpr. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Threepenny Review is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Threepenny Review.




YVETTECHRISTIANSj Christiansepresents an epic yet fragmentedpoetic story set on the island of St. Helena. "Aremarkablebook. It's a delight to discover a poet who makes use of all the techniques that have been too readilyceded to fiction." -Marilyn Hacker

from Duke
RAFAEL CAMPO Campo, one of America's most acclaimed younger poets, explores further the epic themes of his Cuban heritage, his work as a doctor, and his identity as a gay man. The collection culminates with his new and daring translations of Federico Garcia Lorca's sonetos. "Campo's rhymes and iambs construct their music against the edgy, recognizable world his poems inhabit...." -Mark Doty, author of Sweet Machine
II2 pages, paper $I4.95


Rites of Passage
Carlo Ginzburg

Editor's Note: If you are located in a university town, as we are, you annually have access to a specialized art form-that is, the commencement address. This one was delivered to UC Berkeley's History of Art department in May of 1999.

pages, paper $14.95

life takes a different form. For somebody like myself, born and educated in Italy, the most obvious parallel to a commencement ceremony would be an inaugural lecture, like the one famously delivered, more than five hundred years ago, by Lorenzo Valla, the great humanist, at La Sapienza, "The Wisdom"-the name given to the of Rome. But American University commencements are different, and not only because they take place at the end, rather than at the beginning of the academic year. Even more different is their content. A mixture of curiosity and worry led me to check entries for the word "commencement" in the UCLA Research Library catalogue. I came across, among no fewer than 920 items, the following title: The folly, guilt, and mischiefs of duelling: a sermon, preached by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College and professor of divinity in that institution, in the college chapel at New Haven, on the sabbath preceding the annual commencement, September, 1804. I could easily quote many titles of this kind. A commencement is the secular version of a religious ceremony, which for a long time involved a sermon. This is far from surprising. I could recall here the famous remark made more than a century ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, that most insightful observer of American society: "The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on my arrival in the United States." One can imagine Tocqueville's comment were he able to watch today's American political leaders offering public repentance for their private sins: "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." UC Berkeley is of course quite a secular institution. But the idea of delivering a sermon in a secular garb makes me rather uneasy, for reasons I will explain in a minute. I prefer to play a different role, that of the participant-observerin a rather exotic ritual. The ceremony we are performing, marked as it is by a special attire, and by a specific sequence of events, is a ritual, of the sort analyzed by Arnold van Gennep, the Flemish ethnographer, in his famous book, The Rites of Passage. "Rites of passage," van Gennep wrote, may be singled out "as a special category, which under further analysis may be subdivided into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation." The very word "commencement," applied to an event which takes place at the end of an experience, nicely points to an intermediate stage, to a transition.

Writers from the Americas Reading One Another

Mutual Impressions

Alsofrom RafaelCampo

What the Body Told
136 pages, paper $I4.95

Leading writers focus on the work of another literary figure from across the-hemispheric divide: Jorge Luis Borges reads Nathaniel Hawthorne. Susan Sontag reads Machado de Assis. And many more. 304 pages, paper $I7.95




Available at bookstores or toll-free 1-888-65I-0122





"Her writing is so alert to itself, so alert to language, it's like watching a dancer on a mirrored floor, stepping on her steps. She's practically playing with her words as she writes them down. 'Joycean'is a word that comes to mind ... This kind of writing could seem like pure playfulness, but in McHugh it rarely does
... She's a poet for whom wit is a form of spiritual survival" -ROBERT HASS, Washington Post Book World. $19.95 cloth UNIVERSITY PRESS OF NEW ENGLAND Hanover, NH 03755-2055 * 800-421-1561

Need a last-minute holiday gift idea? You can order Threepenny gift subscriptions online at


Van Gennep's categories are deliberately general, devoid of empirical content: in defining them he did not hesitate to include in the same sentence Australian tribes and ancient Greek city-states. But this universalizing tendency had limits, and the ethnographer noted that "to all the above-mentioned group distinctions, the semicivilized add still another-one for which our society has no real counterpart-a division into generation or age groups." In the first American translation of van Gennep's book, published in Chicago in 1960, an editorial footnote was appended to this sentence: "Writing in Europe in 1908, van Gennep did not know the awareness of age distinctions characteristic of modern American society." That awareness has spread from America to other continents. Today juvenile culture is probably a worldwide phenomenon. How are teachers to react to the existence of rigid boundaries between different 'age groups, especially if those teachers grew up in places where such boundaries were less formal? If teaching cannot serve as an antidote to the distance between generations, it does not deserve the name. Teaching, not preaching. The righteousness of the preacher is often associated with a more or less explicitly patronizing attitude, and this righteousness inevitably gives rise to a more or less bluntly dismissive rejection. But efforts to communicate across generations can fail because of more insidious problems. Oscar Wilde's ironical advice-"Never contradict your juniors"-would, if taken seriously, push the older generation to a grotesque effort to rejuvenate itself. As I attempt to answer the kind invitation I received to share with you some reflections on history and the visual arts, I will not disguise the distance between this audience and myself. Only distance (and the awareness of it) can make intellectual exchanges interesting. The dire straits in which art history stands were stressed some time ago by Hans Belting, the author of The End of the History of Art? "Both the artist and the art historian," Belting wrote, "have lost faith in a rational, teleological process of artistic history, a process to be carried out by the one and described by the other." Belting pointed to a "discontinuity" both in art and in art history: "Art historians for the most part declined to take part in modernism's challenge, a challenge which might have inspired a radical reexamination of the orthodox account of Western art." According to Belting, this reexamination had been so rare as to suggest


the existence of two histories of art, "modern" and "older." And he also pointed to a more recent phenomenon: "we have already attained a historical distance from certain aspects of modernist art, a distance which until now we have only been accustomed to with older art." Belting did not conceal his uneasiness: "If modernism refuses us the accustomed orientation as cultural norm, we are deprived of the fundamental symbols of our self-understanding. It is difficult to imagine a different perspective-such as the view of the entire history of art including modernism, with the renunciation of value judgments-without sustaining a cul-

ing, affect our approach to art history (and possibly to history in general)? Belting's answer to the question he posed in the title of his book was unequivocal: what had come to an end was a specific kind of art history, the one initiated by Giorgio Vasari (a figure to whom he dedicated an essay, appropriately included in the same volume). A different, much broader, anthropologically oriented form of art history-Belting concludes-will ultimately emerge, superseding Vasari's formalistic approach, which had been based on a mimetic relationship between art and nature. But Vasari's intellectual enterprise




Untitled(Newsboysat Nighwt, Rochester New York),1912

say, in accordance with (secondo che) places, times, and other similar circumstances; in truth, taking the example of Giotto, no matter how highly praised he was in his own day, I do not know what would be said of him and other older artists if they had existed in Buonarroti's times; moreover, the men of this century, which has reached the peak of perfection, would not have attained the heights they have reached if those who came before had not been as they were..." The importance of this passage did not escape Erwin Panofsky, who rightly pointed out the scholastic overtones of the opposition between simpliciter and secundum quid. On the one hand, there is an absolute judgment, based on measurable progress; on the other, a contextual, historical judgment. Vasari was clearly aware of the tension between evaluating the past-Giotto's paintings, for instance-on its own terms and evaluating the past as a step towards perfection. Vasari's retrospective uneasiness is instructive for us. A history without a definite goal would have been unthinkable for him-not for us. Moreover, he had learned from a passage in Cicero's De oratore that excellence can be reached by different ways: an idea which (as I tried to demonstrate elsewhere) has not lost its intellectual vitality. All this may contribute to a contexoriented tual, anthropologically to history and art history; if approach you are fond of labels (and I am not) you may call it microhistory. But don't misunderstand. I am not advocating a specific approach to historical research. Any teacher's motto is, or should be: "Look at me; listen to me; do not follow in my footsteps." There are no substitutes for experience. Everybody must pass the shadow-line in solitude. "One perceives ahead a shadowline," Joseph Conrad wrote, "warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind." His famous short story The Shadow-Line includes no female characters-except the ship herself, described (as has been noticed) in nearly erotic terms. Thii seems to reinforce the arguments of those who have presented Conrad's attitude on gender as primitive, limited4quaint, and regressive. But a closer reading of The Shadow-Line reveals something different. Recurrenteexpressions like "ghostly steamer," "supernatural evil," "supernatural spirit," "magic powder," "infernal stimulant," '.'maliciousspectre," show that Conrad told the story of the coming of age of a young man through a much older narrative pattern, based on initiation rites: fairy tales. They are explicitly mentioned in a crucial passage, in which the young hero is compared to a young girl: And first I wonderedat my state of mind. Why was I not moresurprised? Why?Here I was, invested with a command in the twinkling of an eye, not in the common courseof humanaffairs,but more as if by I enchantment. ought to have been lost in But astonishment. I wasn't.I was verymuch like people in fairy tales. Nothing ever astonishes them. When a fully appointed out to gala coachis produced of a pumpkin take her to a ball Cinderella does not exclaim.Shegets in quietlyand drivesaway to herhighfortune. The same I wish to all of you. O

In Memoriam

Paul Bowles


Writers Ask
Nuts, bolts,and informedperpecties: the newsletterforserious writers
I l'ractical anl d iiispired technliques itnudges fromiiaccoplishled



&' _ literary writers alid Inicntors.
( Jpem,i,iii top)ics: th1 wiiriting tile,



it illsinili miatenrial autobi(ographical su sfully, dialVgue, pwit of view, ssit' "e ; r l.aftlVue in pc)oetr)y Iiid of -i prose. P ltiblished qulartcrly by the " i editors of G(li,mmer Stories tlain, to support literary writers ill ^^^i^ of the advancemellntt their craft. 1 year, $33. $20; two years, vixa/lic/ck to:

71() SW Madison,#5()4 Plortlaind, 9720)5 Ot ph/fax: (50)3)221-()36/(5()3) 221-0(837 Or orderonline:www.glimmertrain.com

University MicrofilmsInternational,in cooperation with publishers of this offers a highly convenient joumrnal, Article ReprintService. Single articles or complete issue can now be obtained in sizes up to 8V112 11 Inches). x For more Informationplease conmplete and mail the coupon below.

turaldisorientation." Belting wrote these symptomatic words in 1983. Sincethen the perception of a fast-growing betweenourgap selves and modernism has become There is no need to recall widespread. hereT. J. Clark'smost recentand most book, Farewellto an Idea: challenging Episodes from a History of Modernism. what extentdoes this feeling To of a discontinuity, a gap, of an endof

was less monolithic,as a crucialquotation will show. At the end of his great work, Vasari retrospectively wrote: "To those who thinkI haveexcessively praisedsome artistseitherold or modern, and that drawing comparisons between the older ones and those of this era would be a laughingmatter,I do not know how else to replyexcept that I intended to give praise not absolutely(semplicemente) as they but,

University MicrofilmsInternational

I A about te more VESI wouldie b know


of Pleaseinclude catabogue avIIble es. I Nane Te_
en ? Dephrtm , Mdres_ U d _

Plme send m hi e debiS on tlW I can lser.



a Malto:

Unvuiuty Micrlims Iandtenaionmi Svee Mde Reprnt

300NomihZ"abRoad AnMor,I 48106 L-_______________________________


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful