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Witchcraft

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?

Carlo Ginzburg
Bologna


Distaste for Leavis

It is curious to see the variousness of one’s lived experiences assuming the simplicity of received opinion. Always more biddable than Angus Calder (Letters, 6 December 1990), I, along with others, made the trip from King’s to Downing to attend Leavis’s seminars. Rumour had it that there had been two-way traffic in the past, with Leavis’s students quietly encouraged to attend Dadie Rylands’s sessions on Shakespeare in performance. But, though polarities could be countered in this way, they still existed, and it should not be supposed that advice from King’s to visit Downing was either dispassionate or ingenuous.

What we found there was a performance that was in marked contrast to the lectures; no seminar, certainly, since the resident acolytes clearly disapproved of interruptions to the monologue, but a spritely and animated delivery that was clearly untroubled by the defensiveness engendered by perceptions of an anonymous or hostile audience. Although as interlopers we were seldom or never addressed directly, there were various indirect acknowledgments of our presence. In particular, we formed a kind of secondary audience that could be played off against the main one. Thus, while comparisons of Proust to Mrs Gaskell, to the disadvantage of the former, might be designed to provoke us, we seemed, without ourselves participating in it, to encourage Leavis to an auto-subversive kind of teasing, in which he would urge his astonished students to consider the neglected qualities of writers he was held to dismiss totally. The effect (since Calder speaks of a resemblance to Trot sects) was a bit like hearing Trotsky tell some Fourth Internationalists that Stalin had occasionally put democratic centralism to some very creative purposes, or (to adopt his other metaphor) as though C.L.R. James were to propose Mike Gatting for twelfth man in an all-time best cricket XI.

None of this, of course, can defend Leavis against the weightier charges that have appeared in your columns of late. But it is worth emphasising (because the contrary seems now to be generally believed) that there was no Leavisite hegemony in Cambridge in the early Sixties (you were advised that it was bad for your career prospects to be too publicly enthusiastic about him) and that what he spent most of his time opposing was not philosophy or literary theory (he was deeply ambivalent about the first, and there was precious little of the second around) but the kind of banal mix of scholarship and frivolity with intellectual and social conservatism that you did not have to look far to find. His tragedy was that he finally succumbed to this conservatism himself; Cambridge’s was that there was not a critical mass of Empson-like figures around any more to provoke his extraordinary sensitivity to language to new directions. But there was Raymond Williams, and the affinities between these two, which neither could properly acknowledge, would bear further investigation in your columns.

Peter Griffith
Droitwich, Worcestershire


Hoot

Peter Clarke seems to be unaware that the world does not stop at Dover (LRB, 22 November 1990). Who ruins Britain? Who runs Britain? Who cares? Clarke quotes Paxman on the public (i.e. private) schools, but who cares if seven out of nine of the Army’s top generals are public schoolboys when they have to take their orders from German and American generals anyway? Who cares if two-thirds of the external directors of the Bank of England fagged for Lord Turd and others, when they cannot make a move without consulting the Bank of Japan and, now, the Bundesbank and Brussels? The majority of the bishops in the Church of England were public schoolboys – who cares? The Pope, an infinitely more powerful man, the catalyst of the Communist collapse, is the son of a Polish sergeant-major.

Paxman says, quite rightly, that Oxbridge has lost its prestige in the world. The latest international ratings put Oxford ninth for postgraduate study, 27th for undergraduate studies; the figures for Cambridge are sixth and 47th. MIT, of course, is the world’s top university. An American journalist recently described Oxford and Cambridge as the Star Trek universities, far out on a time-warp. What a relief to have a prime minister who was neither sodomised at a Protestant public school nor perverted at Oxford or Cambridge. A real person. What was the name of that Labour Minister of Transport who said he didn’t know much about hunting and shooting but as a railwayman he knew all about shunting and hooting?

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Osaka Gakuin University


That and Which

Henry Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926) is not quite as definitive about the use of ‘that’ and ‘which’ as Richard Horton asserts (Letters, 22 November 1990). Wishing that he could impose a neat symmetry upon English usage, Fowler rather wistfully says (emphasis added): ‘if writers would agree to regard “that” as the defining [i.e. restrictive] relative pronoun, and “which” as the non-defining [i.e. non-restrictive], there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease.’ Writers, of course, had not come to any such agreement before Fowler, did not in his time, and have not since. As Mr Horton admits, Fowler goes on to remark: ‘but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.’ On which, in 1957, Bergen and Cornelia Evans comment with sweet reasonableness: ‘What is not the practice of most, or of the best, is not part of our common language.’

Through the 17th century, the relatives ‘that’ and ‘which’ were used indiscriminately to introduce both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. During the 18th and 19th centuries, literary use of the non-restrictive ‘that’ steadily diminished. In present-day edited prose, most non-restrictive clauses are introduced by ‘which’. On the other hand, the non-restrictive ‘that’ still flourishes in poetry (it fits unstressed positions more comfortably); it is apparently a natural idiom in unedited prose and in speech (especially in ‘that’s’); and it consequently occurs with verisimilitude in literary representations of speech.

As for Fowler’s dream of confining ‘which’ to the non-restrictive function, it is unlikely to come true. Historically, ‘which’ and ‘that’ were interchangeable in restrictive clauses: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (King James Bible). Modern ‘authorities’ on the point often seem somewhat confused. Thus Strunk and White in The Elements of Style (1959) strongly recommend using only ‘that’ in restrictive clauses; very soon thereafter they quote from one of E. B. White’s own essays: ‘the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar.’

Robert Allen
Philadelphia


Deep Decline

As a quondam teacher of Latin I found ‘To litel Latin’ by Tom Shippey most informative (LRB, 11 October 1990). Shippey’s remark that ‘early acquaintance with the tawse certainly left me able to decline mensa or utor till the air turned blue,’ however, put me in mind of a pupil I once had in a beginners’ Latin class. Asked to decline the noun puer, young Frank boldly and steadily proceeded to conjugate it like a verb: puero, pueras, puerat and so on. So stunned was I that he reached a triumphant puerant (‘they boy’?) before I was able to stop him. Now I see it rather differently. If Shippey can decline utor, why shouldn’t Frank conjugate puer?

Constance Putnam
Concord, Massachusetts


Slaughtered

It must be official: the LRB takes precedence over mere dictionaries. ‘Abbatoir’ is now the correct spelling (see Les Murray’s poem, 8 November 1990).

Christopher Driver
London WC1


Floreat Canada

Everything about Conrad Black is tedious, not to say banal, but it is surely a mistake to confuse individuals with the country that spawned them, or else where would England be? What lies at the root of dicta such as that attributed to the Economist (multiple cross-references, but see the Letters of 13 September 1990) whereby Canada is found to be ‘one of the most boring countries in the world’? Pine-tree envy? It appears to be little more than an up-market version of the Sun’s contemptible campaign to ridicule the French. Britain is overpopulated, badly polluted, deprived of the guarantee of basic human rights with, consequently, a self-serving judiciary and a sycophantic press. Such a country must, in all charity, he forgiven for a habitually sour response to another which has transformed its colonial status, most recently thanks to strong and effective human rights guarantees, and workable cultural pluralism. The Canadian-Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) has been unaccountably ignored in recent discussions as to how human rights should be entrenched in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that it provides an obvious contemporary model. Sensitive response to the natural environment is not seen to be the prerogative of selected inheritors of the nature poets, ‘Our Age’ or any other clique. The example of living native cultures makes such exclusivity untenable.

Canada is not perfect – that would, no doubt, be boring. As it is, the label can only be applied in ignorance.

Ian and Charlotte Townsend-Gault
Bowen Island, British Columbia


Showing the flag

From where does Perry Anderson (LRB, 20 December 1990) get ‘black-white-gold colours flying again in Moscow’? True, the Tsarist house flag was the black dvuglavyi orel on a gold field, but the Imperial banner of all the Russias, now waving in the Red Square, was borrowed by Peter the Great from the Dutch red-white-blue horizontal tricolour, the white stripe being put at the top. A very pretty flag it is too.

John Bayley
Oxford


Hit-and-Run

According to Jonathan Glover, Heidegger is ‘a bogus philosopher’ (LRB, 22 November 1990). If this is so, what in fact was Heidegger doing when he claimed to be doing philosophy?

Perhaps you should give Glover a chance to tell us, and there might then follow some serious discussion of Heidegger in your paper, instead of the present series of hit-and-run attacks. Isn’t that the way to do things in the republic of letters? John Passmore in The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy also wished to deny the title of philosopher to Heidegger. He proposed instead that we should think of Heidegger as a sage. So much for wisdom in the empiricist and analytic movements in philosophy in the medium of the English language. Perhaps this is what Glover has in mind. It might in the interim occur to him, when once again he contemplates Charles Taylor’s considerable contribution to Western philosophy in recent decades, characterised by Glover in an extraordinary figure ramifying round the supermarket, that Taylor’s opinion of Heidegger merits serious consideration on his part.

James Lund
London SE22