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