- Storia Notturna: Una Decifrazione del Sabba by Carlo Ginzburg
Einaudi, 320 pp, lire 45,000.00, August 1989, ISBN 88 06 11509 X
Carlo Ginzburg has many claims to be considered the outstanding European historian of the generation which came of age in the late Sixties. Certainly few have equalled him in originality, variety and audacity. He made his debut with a spectacular discovery: the first, and still only, documented case of a magical fertility and funerary cult in the countryside of Early Modern Europe, the trances of the Benandanti in Friuli, stumbled upon unawares by the Roman Inquisition. Next, he transformed the genealogy of religious dissimulation in the age of the Reformation, by tracing the origins of Nicodemism – theological doctrines sanctioning public concealment of private faith – to the defeat of the Peasants’ War in Germany and milieux close to Anabaptism, well before the rise of Calvin, whose attacks on Nicodemism coined the term. There followed his vivid portrait of the autodidact Italian miller Menocchio, whose cosmology of spontaneous generation – the world born as cheese and worms – he referred to a subterranean peasant materialism. Changing terrain again, Ginzburg then suggested a new iconographic explanation of Piero della Francesca’s greatest paintings, linking them through an unnoticed Aretine Humanist to the abortive union of the Greek and Roman Churches, and the crusades projected around the fall of Constantinople. The intellectual unity, and novelty, of these different enquiries can best be grasped in the essays that make up the recent collection Myths Emblems Clues. Its centrepieces are two long methodological reflections, the first on the Warburg tradition of art history, and the second on the heuristics of attribution, from ancient divination to modern connoisseurship.
Ginzburg’s new book, Storia Notturna, more than keeps the promise of this record.[*] It is by far his most ambitious work to date. Subtitled ‘A Decipherment of the Sabbath’, it advances a vast, dramatic reinterpretation of the central image of the European witch craze. Far from being simply a phobic invention of the persecutors, confected from fixed stereotypes of heretical diabolism and garbled scraps of rural magic, the witches’ sabbath reflected the deepest mythological structures of popular culture of the age – a network of beliefs and practices rooted in Eurasian shamanism, stretching from Ireland to the Bering Straits, and running back across millennia past the Ancient World to the darkness of Indo-European and Ural-Altaic origins. In a polemical introduction Ginzburg criticises those historians who have concentrated on the authorities and procedures that set European witch-finding in motion, at the expense of research into the beliefs of those persecuted as witches – Trevor-Roper in the first instance, but also Keith Thomas, charged with reductionism and functionalism. Against this tradition Ginzburg sets what he sees as the superior programme of Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralist treatment of myths as symbolic systems, whose hidden meaning is generated by unconscious operations of the human mind – even though Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology has given insufficient weight to historical research proper. By contrast, Ginzburg’s aim is to combine the morphology and history of the Sabbath – its synchronic significations and its diachronic development – in a single, comprehensive reconstruction.
The argument of Storia Notturna is divided into three parts. The first opens dramatically onto a staccato account of the French pogrom of 1321 against lepers and Jews, accused of poisoning wells in a plot against Christendom orchestrated by the Muslim ‘King of Granada’. It then moves to 1348 and the massacre of Jews as agents of a conspiracy spreading the Black Death, which unfolded further east towards the Alps. In each case, confessions of a phantasmagoric iniquity were extorted, under pressure of torture. By 1380 the Inquisition was ferreting out Waldensian heretics on the southern flank of the Alps. Soon afterwards, Ginzburg suggests, the obsessive fears at work in these persecutions of successive marginal groups were condensed and displaced onto the spectre of a new sect practising witchcraft in the Alpine regions. With this, other dread themes surfaced, absent from the earlier confessions. By about 1440, the full nightmare of the Sabbath – diabolism, anthropophagy, animal metamorphoses, supernatural flight, promiscuity – had been incubated in the Christian imagination.
Ginzburg does not pursue the consequences. Breaking off his historical account here, he switches directly to the meaning of what he terms the ‘folkoric nucleus’ of the Sabbath – identified with the motifs of nocturnal flying and animal transmogrification. The second part of Storia Notturna pursues the archaeology of these motifs. It picks out three cultic origins behind the popular beliefs that went into the compound image of the Sabbath: ecstatic experiences (for women) of a night goddess surrounded by animals, and (for men) of a night battle to ensure fertility or prosperity; and ritual processions (of males) masked as animals. Ginzburg tracks each of these across formidable temporal and geographical distances, starting out from Archaic Greece and Gallo-Roman Gaul: the first in Lombardy, Scotland, Sicily, the Rhineland; the second in Latvia, Dalmatia, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Corsica, the Caucasus; the third in Germany, Bulgaria, the Ukraine. Through every kind of exotic variation, however, all betray a common source – the voyage to the dead undertaken in the shaman’s trance. The journey of the living to the land of death, symbolised in such practices over thousands of years, constituted the clandestine core of the Sabbath as it took shape at the end of the Middle Ages.
In the third part of the book, Ginzburg explores possible explanations for the morphological unity of a folklore extending far into Siberia and Turkestan. He starts by suggesting that it could have derived from the nomadic migrations which spilt out of Central Asia in the eighth century BC, bringing the Scythians – an Iranian people – into the Caucasus and the steppes to the north of the Black Sea, where Greek traders and colonists encountered them, absorbing certain shamanistic features of their culture. In the sixth century, Scythian contingents penetrated south, establishing themselves in the Dobrudja, where they ruled over a local Thracian population, subsequently joined by Celtic settlements. Could this Scythian region have been the original scene of a cultural synthesis, fusing mythological elements from all three peoples into a millennial substratum of beliefs and customs, capable of spreading across the continent and surviving in the depths of folk memory from the age of Herodotus to that of Galileo, if not beyond? Does the remarkable similarity of ‘Animal Style’ art, whose decorative forms stretch from China to Scandinavia in a continuum where the Scythian achievement was outstanding, testify to comparable historical connections? After dwelling on the plausibility of these hypotheses, Ginzburg then points to the limitation of all diffusionist explanations, which leave unanswered the question of why external contact between societies should lead to the internal reproduction of the forms of one in another. The problem posed by the persistence over time and space of shamanistic motifs can only be resolved, he concludes, by postulating the existence of general structural characteristics of the human mind.
To demonstrate these, Ginzburg proceeds to examine – in another sudden shift of focus – myths and rites involving lameness. This motif had already been discussed by Lévi-Strauss, who related it to the change of seasons. Rejecting this interpretation, Ginzburg scours (in the first instance) Greek mythology for every manifestation of a deeper category which he dubs ‘asymmetrical de-ambulation’, in which lameness is only one variant, along with the wounded leg, the perforated foot, the vulnerable heel, the missing sandal. Oedipus, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Dionysus, Achilles, Philoctetes, Empedocles and a host of other figures display this motif – as do Cinderella, the most far-flung of all folk-tales, and the Chinese crane-dance. Its symbolic meaning is a journey to the world of the dead. But if the pervasive recurrence of this motif belongs to a unitary Eurasian mythology, it is anchored in a universal human experience, ‘the self-image of the body’. Asymmetrical de-ambulation is the privileged signifier of contact with death, because all living beings are symmetrical in form, and among them humans are specifically biped. The impairing of the capacity to walk amounts to putting a figurative toe in the waters of extinction. There is thus in the end an ontological foundation for the symbolisation of the voyage beyond human experience, to the world inhabited by the dead. Myths dictate the limits of their own variation because they are constrained by the formal structures of the imagination.
Storia Notturna ends with a brief Conclusion which is in fact more like a coda. Here Ginzburg suggests that if the image of the witches’ sabbath could so effectively fuse clerical obsessions from above and folk myths from below, it was in part because they shared a common fear of conspiracy whose popular form was the belief that those who had recently died were moved by resentment towards those who were still living. Perhaps too, he speculates, there was a psychotropic element in the trances (hallucinogenic rye or mushrooms) which either contributed to or was projected onto the whole complex. However that may be, the myths which flowed into the Sabbath all converged on the notion of a journey to the beyond and back again, of a crossing over to the world of the dead and returning from it. Ginzburg ends by arguing that the permanence of this theme, through hunting, pastoral and agricultural societies alike, may have a simple but fundamental explanation: the voyage to the dead is not just one narrative among others, but the original matrix of all possible narratives. In the cauldrons of Walpurgis Night are concocted the ingredients of every human tale.
By any standards, this is a bravura performance. It is difficult to think of any other historian who combines such polymathic cultural erudition, grasp of textual and visual detail, and high theoretical aim – not to speak of literary skill. The result is a work of vertiginous effect. There can be little doubt of the audience it is destined to win. To do it critical justice, however, may not prove so simple. For with all its extraordinary gifts, Storia Notturna poses a series of difficult problems, concerning the methods it adopts, the conclusions it reaches, the outlook it suggests. It is best to begin with the first of these.
Ginzburg tells us at the outset that the procedure of his book was inspired by a comment of Wittgenstein’s on Frazer’s Golden Bough, to the effect that mythological materials did not need to be set out historically, as Frazer had done (situating them in an evolutionary sequence), but could equally well be presented ‘perspicuously’ – that is, he explained, ‘just by arranging the factual material so that we can easily pass from one part to the other’ and therewith ‘see the connections’. Hence, Wittgenstein went on – here is the motto Ginzburg took for his research – ‘the importance of finding intermediary links’, ‘as one might illustrate the internal relation of a circle to an ellipse by gradually transforming an ellipse into a circle’.
For Ginzburg this was the charter for the kind of morphology he was looking for. A more formalised version of it was to be found, as it happened, in an essay on ‘Polythetic Classification’ by the English anthropologist Rodney Needham, which Ginzburg duly uses. Needham, too, was much impressed with Wittgenstein’s insights, although he relied, rather, on the familiar text from the Philosophical Investigations which describes the notion of a game as indicating no more than a ‘family resemblance’, without any common feature in the set of which it is used, just as ‘the strength of a thread does not reside in the fact that some one thread runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’ Whereas monothetic classification requires the presence of at least one common trait in the class identified, polythetic classification – Needham argued – merely demands that each member of the set display a large number of the range of relevant traits, and that these traits are displayed in a large number of the members. He illustrated the basic idea with three descent systems, the first exhibiting features p/q/r, the second r/s/t, and the third t/u/v: such was the type of overlap that sufficed for polythetic purposes.
[*] Ecstasies, an English translation of Storia Notturna, will be published by Radius next year. The translator is Ray Rosenthal. Myths Emblems Clues, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, was published by Radius in January (231 pp., £16.95, 0 09 173023 6).
Vol. 13 No. 1 · 10 January 1991
I am very grateful to Perry Anderson for the attention he has paid to my book Storia Notturna (LRB, 8 November 1990). Above all, I am grateful for his lucid, probing, implacable critical remarks. Storia Notturna has now been published by Radius in an English translation, with a different title (Ecstasies), and readers will be able to evaluate the comparative strength of my arguments and Anderson’s criticisms. I will limit myself, therefore, to discussing some general issues raised, either explicitly or implicitly, by Anderson. Our conversations, interspersed with passionate disagreements, have been for me, since we first met two years ago, a source of enormous intellectual enrichment. Anderson’s review gives me the opportunity to reflect on some of these divergences.
Narrative. Anderson remarks that my historical narratives are based on ‘short, numbered paragraphs, with minimal connections’, which can be compared to ‘scenes or takes from stage or screen’. ‘This is a very effective way of unfolding a story,’ he goes on. ‘But it has a particular drawback as a method of writing history: it too often depends on withholding information.’ Anderson criticises my decision to represent the conspiracy ascribed to lepers and Jews in 1321 as a starting-point for the witchcraft persecution, in so far as I ‘neglected’ the extermination of the Templars which preceded it. This, he says, is an ‘especially relevant, and questionable’ example of my habit of suppressing general information.
Maybe. But Anderson’s criticism must not be taken in a literal sense. In fact, I did mention (Storia Notturna – hereafter SN – page 26) the persecution against the Templars, as part of a ‘series of sensational cases in France during the first decades of the 14th century’ which ‘helped to spread this fear of conspiracies’. I even said that ‘these are cases that seem to anticipate on a minor scale the conspiracy attributed some years later to the lepers and the Jews.’ I could have said more. I didn’t, because my argument about the origins of the Sabbath stereotype was centred on a specific element: the emergence of accusations against a sect (or a group) conspiring against society as a whole. Anderson says the charges made against the Templars ‘were in certain respects closer’ to the Sabbath stereotype than the lepers’ and Jews’ alleged conspiracy. From the point of view I chose, however, the opposite is certainly true: the Templars were never regarded as a menace to society as a whole. In my book I never claim that 1321 was an absolute beginning (a rather meaningless notion, outside metaphysics). But within my argument, 1321 provided a beginning, in so far as I regarded the notion of a group or a sect conspiring against society as a crucial element: much more important, for the development of the Sabbath stereotype, than, for instance, the isolated charge of idolatry raised against the Templars. What has been called by Anderson ‘withholding of data’ I would call ‘selection of evidence’. In the past – in ancient Greece, for instance – historians regarded completeness – that is, the recording of as much data as possible – as one of the goals of their work. Our society has invented better ways of storing data. Today the main task of historians lies elsewhere.
Anderson suggests that in order to write effective narratives I have paid a high cognitive price. I would say the opposite. I sometimes felt a tension between an aesthetic and cognitive goal, but the latter always had the right of veto. More often, however, my arguments and my way of presenting them were connected: they provided mutual constraints (and opportunities). I am ready to admit my fascination with discontinuous narratives in movies and novels. But for me they have above all a cognitive implication. Proust’s remark on the famous blank in Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, immediately after the end of Chapter Five, Part Three (Et Frédéric, béant, reconnut Sénécal), as well as Proust’s entire oeuvre, imply something more than a different way of telling a story: they suggest a different way of knowing and writing history.
Explanation. Anderson rejects on similar grounds my attempt to connect the folkloric side of the Sabbath to the mythical journey towards the land of the dead. According to him, the present writer ‘has now taken over Propp’s conclusion, and generalised it beyond the wonder-tale, to the farthest-flung corners of Eurasian mythology. The fascination of the data he assembles is beyond question. But once again, what is striking is the contrast between the richness and variety of the materials, and the paucity of the meaning to which they are reduced.’ ‘Paucity’, in reference to the powerful myth I detect, is probably an inappropriate word. But if Anderson would accept a change to ‘simplicity’, I would say that what is a flaw to him is a virtue to me. A reduction from complexity to simplicity is, after all, one of the aims of scientific explanation. I say ‘one of the aims’, because I would certainly have liked to repeat on a much larger scale the experiment I made in an earlier book, The Night Battles: to reconstruct the way in which a single myth had been lived in different ways by different individuals. Unfortunately, this time I didn’t have enough evidence for this kind of experiment (SN, p. xxxvii). But the only way to interpret the ‘richness and variety of materials’ (to use Anderson’s words) is to go beyond them.
Depth. ‘To go beyond the evidence’ suggests a strategy which, according to Anderson, has gone to extremes in my work, through the implicit assumption that ‘the deeper something lies, the more significant it must be.’ I would not reject this motto, although other metaphors – like ‘the meaning is on the surface’ – are more or less equivalent to it. The point is to reassemble and analyse the existing data in order to build different configurations. (Even to find the data where nobody is looking for it, as Poe taught us in his ‘Purloined Letter’.) If appearances could be trusted, science would never have emerged as an intellectual enterprise. But Anderson lightly dismisses the possibility of going beyond the surface of myths, since he considers them intrinsically impervious to analysis. He regards their plots, if ostensibly centred on issues related to family (Oedipus) or knowledge (Prometheus), as an ultimate reality, not as an organising principle of possibly heterogeneous elements. (A marginal note: the phrase ‘it has been suggested’, which, as Anderson remarks, recurs so often in my book, is always related to a specific article or book, duly mentioned in the corresponding footnote.)
Anderson is shocked by the claim I made that the most complete version of the Cinderella fable has been kept in just three cases, less than 1 per cent of the collected versions around the globe: ‘In such defiance of distributional frequency,’ he says, ‘it is difficult not to see a preconceived conclusion.’ The readers of my book will judge whether my interpretation of the Cinderella tales is supported or not by the massive dossier I collected on lameness, monosandalism and bone-collecting. But the idea that ‘distributional frequency’ must necessarily be regarded as a guarantee of truth seems surprisingly naive. The majority principle is a practical device, not a short-cut to the truth. Truth can be furnished by a single testimony, in the middle of silence, distortions, lies: an obvious remark, which can be referred to both ethics and evidence.
Morphology. In the introduction to Storia Notturna I explained at length why I chose – first unknowingly, then deliberately – a morphological approach in order to reconstruct the folkloric side of the Sabbath stereotype. Anderson denies any cognitive value to ‘family resemblances’, speaking ironically of their ‘fatuities’ (but see, on this issue, E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and Art’). He criticises me for having neglected ‘the problem of defining the acceptable character range of a class altogether. The result is a hermeneutic blank cheque, drawn from an uncritical reliance on Wittgenstein.’ Strangely enough, Anderson does not mention in this context the critical comments I made on Wittgenstein’s ‘Notes on Frazer’ (SN, pp. xxix-xxx). Having rejected Wittgenstein’s alleged superiority of morphology over history, I explained how I decided to use morphology ‘as a probe, to explore a deep, otherwise unattainable stratum’. This was going to be just a first step, however: at the end, morphology, although achronic, would have ‘established diachrony’. The attempt I made to combine morphology and history, to write, let’s say, a historical figure on my morphological blank cheque, has not been discussed by Anderson. He simply belittles the connections between ‘the ostensible subject [the Sabbath stereotype] and actual climax of the book [asymmetrical de-ambulation]’. An astonishing conclusion, given the ubiquitous presence, in witchcraft trials, demonological treatises, diabolical iconography (see, for instance, SN, Fig. 19), of limping devils or devils with animal feet.
Relevance. Having dismissed the morphological and morphologico-historical sections (second and third part, respectively) of Storia Notturna, Anderson concludes: ‘The first part of the book must be regarded as an effectively independent enquiry, to be judged on its own merits.’ The dominant approach, regarding the ‘witch-craze’ (that is, the persecution of witchcraft) as the only ‘proper’ historical topic (as opposed to witches’ beliefs and attitudes), is therefore reaffirmed: ‘The fundamental enigma of the European witch-craze is the pattern of its development in time and space: why it erupted when it did, whom it attacked, why and how it affected certain zones yet passed by others, why and when it petered out. In the answer to these historical questions must lie the key to deciphering the Sabbath.’ This statement does not imply a direct criticism of my book. I never claimed to provide, through a decipherment of the Sabbath stereotype, a key to the geographical and chronological pattern of the witches’ persecution (a truly absurd embryological approach). Anderson’s words must be read, quite simply, as a tacit dismissal of the questions I asked in my research – question he clearly regards as historically irrelevant. His lack of curiosity about what I called the ecstatic nucleus of the Sabbath stereotype has been anticipated, four centuries ago, by the inquisitors’ attitude towards the Friulian Benandanti: a parallel which, in Anderson’s eyes, proves the soundness of his own historical approach. His warm praise of Trevor-Roper’s essay The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries is based on a complete agreement about the fundamental (not to say exclusive) relevance of the questions to be asked. Trevor-Roper’s disregard for what he called ‘female hysteria’ and ‘peasant credulity’ was undoubtedly consistent with his aggressive ethnocentric attitude: ‘we may neglect our history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyration of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.’ Perry Anderson’s superior attitude towards the ‘gyrations of the shaman’ and his ‘misery’ are more perplexing.
Research Programmes and their Fruits. ‘How probable is it that both ecstatic voyages to the beyond and robust materialist denials of the divine were ancient peasant traditions in the same Friulian hills – existing beneath the surface of a European Christianity whose own divisions were also traversed by a clandestine movement profounder than Catholic or Calvinist confessions?’ This is a very appropriate question, even if my answer is a bit different from Anderson’s. Truth is sometimes improbable. Societies (including our own) can be heterogeneous: a feature easily missed by scholars who look above all for regularities (as well as by those who look for global configurations à la Spengler – a crude morphologist indeed).
Perry Anderson praises the empirical discoveries I made but dislikes the research programmes which inspired them. Which programme does he suggest, then? As far as I can understand from his review, it should imply a continuous narrative, a refusal to go beyond appearances, a rejection of dangerous methods, a hierarchy of historical relevances aiming to reinforce a pre-existing (ethnocentric) attitude. Above all, no experiments.
There is a motto I am very fond of. It has been recorded by Walter Benjamin, who heard it from Bertolt Brecht, when they were both exiles in Denmark after Hitler’s accession to power. ‘We should not start from good old things,’ Brecht said to Benjamin. ‘We should start from bad new things instead.’ For many years I have tried (successfully or unsuccessfully, I don’t know) to follow Brecht’s suggestion. Am I wrong in thinking that, in his criticism of my book, Perry Anderson has embraced the opposite alternative?
Vol. 13 No. 3 · 7 February 1991
Carlo Ginzburg’s engaging letter (Letters, 10 January) wonders whether my queries about his hook Storia Notturna (Ecstasies) are not prompted by a conservative resistance to all historical experiment. By no means. Discontinuous narratives, arcane readings, diagonal problem-shifters have often shed new light on the past. But they too, no less than other kinds of history, must answer to the controls of logic and evidence. Does Ginzburg’s use of the method of ‘polythetic classification’ satisfy these? In my review I doubted whether its principal outcome, the category of asymmetric de-ambulation, really unified the fields of Greek mythology and the witches’ Sabbath. In his response, Ginzburg expresses his astonishment at such scepticism, ‘given the ubiquitous presence, in witchcraft trials, demonological treatises, diabolical iconography, of limping devils or devils with animal feet’.
This, however, is an all too apt example of the danger indicated in this kind of classification: that the classes become infinitely stretchable. Cloven hooves may indeed signify the devil, but alas, they are symmetrical – and worn by satyrs before Satan. Similarly, while devils are naturally everywhere in witchcraft trials and the lore of the Sabbath, those with a limp emphatically are not. It is a logic of association, not of connection, that extends the claim of ‘ubiquity’ here. Ginzburg has so far demonstrated no special link between lameness and the Sabbath (or for that matter ecstatic fertility cults: the limbs of the Night-Walkers are perfectly sturdy).
So little has the Limping Devil to do with the organising phobias of the Sabbath that when it emerges as a specific motif in popular literature, it is at the antipodes of supernatural terror. Luis Velez’s El Diablo Cojuelo (1641) was written at a time when the Spanish witch-craze was still active. Its subtitle – ‘A Novel from the Other Life, Translated into This One’ – would seem to promise just what Ginzburg might have wished, a voyage into the land of the dead. In fact, Velez’s fiction is a burlesque survey of the morals of the living, in which a student on the run from a wanton encounters a devil on crutches, imprisoned in a flask, who on release lifts the roofs of Madrid to guide him panoramically over the mores of the city. Before setting him free, the hero repeatedly enquires what sort of devil he is looking at – Lucifer, Satan, Belial? ‘Those are demons of the higher callings,’ comes the reply, whereas he is no more than the spirit of gossip and intrigue, who brings the sarabande and chaconne, serenades and somersaults into the world. He even explains that the goat-footed devil of the Sabbath is his enemy, and that if he himself is lame, it is because when all the devils fell from heaven, the others landed on top of him – a nice twist of the ankle to asymmetric de-ambulation. In Lesage’s rococo reworking of the tale, Le Diable Boiteux (1707), the devil becomes the spirit of sexual espièglerie: ‘I am the demon of the voluptuous, or to put it more honourably, the god Cupid’ – lame since thrown to the ground when wrestling with the demon of pecuniary gain. Through Lesage, the figure of the Crippled Devil as dragoman to the satire of manners became a European device, inspiring collections of sketches down to the era of Hugo and Sainte-Beuve. What unifies this long tradition, from the Baroque through the Enlightenment to the Romantic period, is terrestrial mockery. Should we enrol it too, as one more secret outing in the perpetual expeditions of the human mind to the beyond? I hope the suggestion doesn’t pull anyone’s leg.
Ginzburg ends by taxing me with ethnocentric lack of interest, indeed of respect, for shamanism. His evidence: I spoke of the merits of Trevor-Roper’s famous essay on the witch-craze; elsewhere Trevor-Roper once used the word ‘gyration’ in a sentence disdainful of tribal experiences outside Europe; the same word is used of the trance of the shaman by myself; and I refer to another scholar, Vilamos Voigt, who uses the word ‘misery’ of shamanism to boot: ergo – superior ethnocentrism. Should I call this construction polythetic perversity, or playfulness? Whichever, I am tickled by its illustration of the method of ‘intermediate links’ Ginzburg found in Wittgenstein. Of course, for a more rationalist approach, to honour the merits of a writer’s essay on one subject is not quite the same as to assent to all he has written: tribes are not exactly identical with shamans; the metaphorical use of a term is a little different from its literal meaning; and to cite an author is not to disagree with him – especially if one expresses a demurrer. One could even object that it is difficult to describe the remark of a Hungarian folklorist on something familiar from Magyar experience as ethnocentric. But as I pointed out, the detection of ‘family resemblances’ permits just such assimilations, without end.
Protesting my reserve towards them, Ginzburg advocates Brecht ’s motto that it is better to start from the bad new things than from the good old ones. I’ve always been puzzled by the popularity of this dictum on the left. Why should we restrict ourselves to this simpleminded pair – what about the bad old things and the good new ones? Wouldn’t it be more advisable to start from the latter: let us say, in Ginzburg’s case, Gellner and Goody rather than Wittgenstein and Lévi-Strauss – perhaps further from fashion, but closer to truth?
Noel Annan (Letters, 24 January), on the other hand, appears to be suggesting that no one on the left can decently welcome any new intellectual developments if capitalism is scoring political triumphs. For a historian of ideas, this seems a self-destructive argument. But it points to one of the weaknesses of his portrait of Our Age – the assumption of a unitary Zeitgeist embracing the worlds of English government and thought alike, the vision of a single distended generation, with at most a sprinkling of ‘deviants’ round the edges. The starting-point of this collective biography is the transformation of British sensibility – among those who mattered – by the Great War, reaction to which moulded the outlook of this moral cohort. Since Annan’s account ends, if on a note of debonair deniability, with a repudiation of that outlook, it is perhaps logical that he should now defend Edwardian values from any responsibility for the disaster of 1914. Liberal civilisation, he suggests, had nothing to do with the outbreak of mass killing in 20th-century Europe. Between exclamation marks, the argument becomes somewhat syncopated. But its gist seems to be this. Of the Great Powers only England and France could be called liberal, and (are we given to understand?) their hands were clean. The war itself, for which Germany, Austria and Russia bear the blame, is not to be connected with the brutalities of inter-war politics – the rise of Fascism of Stalinism. Modern barbarism springs independently from the ‘émigré circles in which Lenin moved’ and which later instituted ‘Stalin’s regime and its antidote Hitler’.
One wonders whether, polemical ardours spent, Annan really wants to defend these contentions in the cold light of day. Does he need to be reminded that Germany, England, Austro-Hungary and France shared a common rule of law and set of individual liberties – the classic negative freedoms of European liberalism? Russia, which did not (as I pointed out), failed to last the course of industrial slaughter to no end. The Great War cost seven million lives. What serious historian seeks to explain the savageries which followed without relation to its structural and moral consequences?
For the rest, it was Ernst Nolte who discovered that Hitler was the antidote to Stalin – the Judeocide a reactive violence. But not even he imagined that Nazism was conceived in the Russian social-democratic emigration. Here one must be charitable, and assume that Annan got carried away at the races. But the horse he was – not unsympathetically – backing, the cause of Isaiah Berlin, is liable to be handicapped by wild cries from the stand.