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Threads and Traces

Threads and Traces: True False Fictive

Carlo Ginzburg
Anne C. Tedeschi
John Tedeschi
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Threads and Traces
    Book Description:

    Carlo Ginzburg's brilliant and timely new essay collection takes a bold stand against naive positivism and allegedly sophisticated neo-skepticism. It looks deeply into questions raised by decades of post-structuralism: What constitutes historical truth? How do we draw a boundary between truth and fiction? What is the relationship between history and memory? How do we grapple with the historical conventions that inform, in different ways, all written documents? In his answers, Ginzburg peels away layers of subsequent readings and interpretations that envelop every text to make a larger argument about history and fiction. Interwoven with compelling autobiographical references,Threads and Tracesbears moving witness to Ginzburg's life as a European Jew, the abiding strength of his scholarship, and his deep engagement with the historian's craft.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94984-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Description and Citation
    (pp. 7-24)

    1. Today, for some people, words such astruthandrealityhave become impossible to utter unless they are set off by quotation marks, written out or mimed.¹ This ritual gesture, common in American academic circles even before becoming a fairly standard practice, was meant to exorcise the specter of a thoughtless positivism: the attitude of those who hold that reality is knowable directly without intermediaries. Behind this often encountered polemic one usually comes across a skeptical position, variously argued. Moral, political, and intellectual objections have been formulated against it, even by me. But to simply keep ourselves virtuously aloof from...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Conversion of the Jews of Minorca (a.d. 417–418)
    (pp. 25-33)

    1. This is an experimentin corpore nobilissimo. Peter Brown’sThe Cult of the Saintsis a splendid book, full of learning, imagination, and grace. Even the perplexities I am about to express will reveal my profound intellectual debt to this work.

    At the end of chapter 5 (“Praesentia”) Brown illustrates the “ideal ‘clean’ power associated with the relics of the saints” with an episode which followed the arrival of the relics of St. Stephen in Minorca in 417. The peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians in the town of Mahon came brusquely to an end. Tensions emerged; the Jews gathered...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Montaigne, Cannibals, and Grottoes
    (pp. 34-53)

    1. There are figures from the past that time seems to bring closer and closer to us. Montaigne is one such figure. We are irresistibly attracted by his openness toward distant cultures, by his curiosity about the multiplicity and diversity of human life, by the conspiratorial and pitiless dialogue he carries on with himself. These apparently contradictory traits make him seem familiar, but it is a deceptive impression: in the end, Montaigne eludes us. We must try to approach him on his own terms, not ours.

    This does not mean interpreting Montaigne through Montaigne himself—a highly questionable, and ultimately fruitless,...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Proofs and Possibilities: Postscript to Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre
    (pp. 54-71)

    1. Extraordinary, almost prodigious, is how this sixteenth-century story related by Natalie Zemon Davis appeared to contemporaries. The first to present it in this light was the judge Jean de Coras, who had actually investigated and narrated it. Montaigne alluded to it in his essay “Des boyteux,” (“Of the Lame”): “Il me souvient … qu’il me sembla avoire rendu l’imposture de celuy qu’il jugea coulpable si merveilleuse et excedant de si loing nostre connoisance, et la sienne qui estoit juge, que je trouvay beaucoup de hardiesse en l’arrest qui l’avoit condamné à estre pendu.”¹ It is a telling judgment introducing the...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Paris, 1647: A Dialogue on Fiction and History
    (pp. 72-82)

    1. Some years ago Marcel Detienne discussed with some irony Moses Finley’s attempt to identify historical elements in Homeric poems.¹ The elimination of the mystical element when writing history, Detienne suggested, is a penchant typical of historians: it seems worthwhile to examine this idea critically from its most distant roots.² Let us look first at an important occurrence, but from a perspective very different from Detienne’s.

    2. The dialogueDe la lecture des vieux romans (On Reading Old Romances), by Jean Chapelain, written sometime between the end of 1646 and early 1647, long remained unpublished; it appeared posthumously eighty years later.³ At...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Europeans Discover (or Rediscover) the Shamans
    (pp. 83-95)

    1. InLa historia del mondo nuovo, a book published in Venice in 1565 which was reprinted and translated many times, the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni described what he had seen in the course of a series of voyages, extending over fourteen years, to the “islands and seas newly discovered” beyond the ocean. On the island of Hispaniola, he recounted:

    Just as in the other provinces of these new lands, there are certain small trees, shaped like reeds, which produce a leaf resembling that of the walnut, but larger, held in the highest esteem by the inhabitants and greatly prized by the...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Tolerance and Commerce: Auerbach Reads Voltaire
    (pp. 96-114)

    1. In the sixth of Voltaire’sLettres philosophiques(1734, but written a few years earlier) we come upon a famous page:

    Enter the London Stock Exchange, that more respectable place than many a court; you will see the deputies of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian deal together as if they were of the same religion, and apply the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt; there the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quaker’s promise. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Anacharsis Interrogates the Natives: A New Reading of an Old Best Seller
    (pp. 115-125)

    1. “Every Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother in red ink and sealed it with three wafers; then he skimmed his history notebooks or read an old volume of the philosopherAnacharsisthat happened to be in the study hall.”¹ From the very first page of Flaubert’sMadame Bovary, Charles, the future husband of the protagonist, is presented as mediocre and ridiculous. (His heroic dimensions will emerge only at the end of the novel.) Every slight detail that concerns him, including the mention of “the old volume” of the philosopherAnacharsisread at boarding school at Rouen,...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Following the Tracks of Israël Bertuccio
    (pp. 126-136)

    1. In Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography,Interesting Times, the chapter entitled “Among the Historians” opens with a question regarding how history had changed in the course of his lifetime. The answer paints a picture filled with light and shadow. It begins with the long battle between innovators (Hobsbawm calls them “modernizers”) and traditionalists which began c. 1890 and climaxed in the mid–twentieth century. For a while the innovators called themselves “social historians,” a vague expression with which Hobsbawm does not fully identify. Their target was “the traditional bias of conventional historians in favour of kings, ministers, battles and treaties, i.e. top-level...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Bitter Truth: Stendhal’s Challenge to Historians
    (pp. 137-150)

    1. Balzac issued an explicit challenge to historians of his day; Stendhal, an implicit one to future historians. The first of these is known; the second is not. This is an attempt to examine an aspect of the latter.

    Erich Auerbach devoted one of the central chapters in hisMimesisto the relationships of both Stendhal and Balzac with historians.¹ To evaluate this properly we need first to point out a fact strangely neglected by critics: in the long series of passages that have been studied inMimesis, poets and novelists—Homer, Dante, Stendhal, Balzac, Proust, and many others—alternate with...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Representing the Enemy: On the French Prehistory of the Protocols
    (pp. 151-164)

    1. The present chapter concerns two texts and the relationship between them: the first is known almost exclusively to scholars; the second has circulated throughout the world. The first,Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, appeared anonymously in Brussels in 1864.¹ On the title page the unnamed author, Maurice Joly, called himself “contemporary.” The following year he was identified by the French police, tried, and sentenced to fifteen months in prison for having written seditiously and offensively against Napoleon III. TheDialoguewas promptly translated into German; in 1868 it was twice reprinted in Brussels, with the author’s name appearing.²...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality
    (pp. 165-179)

    1. On 16 May 1348, the Jewish community of La Baume, a small Provençal village, was exterminated. This event was just one link in a long chain of violence which had started in southern France with the first eruption of the Black Death just one month before. The hostilities against the Jews, who were widely believed to have spread the plague by poisoning wells, fountains, and rivers, had first crystallized in Toulon during Holy Week. The ghetto had been assaulted; men, women, and children had been killed. In the following weeks similar violence took place in other towns in Provence—Riez,...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Details, Early Plans, Microanalysis: Thoughts on a Book by Siegfried Kracauer
    (pp. 180-192)

    History: The Last Things before the Last, the posthumous, unfinished book by Siegfried Kracauer, appeared in paperback for the first time in 1995. For the occasion, Paul Oskar Kristeller, who had presented the first edition in 1969, wrote a new preface. In the twenty-six years that transpired between Kristeller’s two texts, an actual Kracauer renaissance had occurred, with reprintings, translations, and essays of various types in several languages. But for Kristeller in 1995 this late recognition was debased by the attempt to eliminate from Kracauer’s work everything that could not be traced back to the Frankfurt School. As examples of...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It
    (pp. 193-214)

    1. It must have been 1977 or 1978 when I heard of “microhistory” for the first time from Giovanni Levi, and I adopted this previously unheard-of word without asking what it meant literally; I suppose I contented myself with the reference to a reduced scale suggested by the prefixmicro-. I well remember, too, that in those early conversations we spoke of “microhistory” as if it were a label attached to an empty vessel waiting to be filled.¹

    Sometime later Levi, Simona Cerutti, and I began working on a series entitled preciselyMicrostoriefor the Einaudi publishing house in Turin. Twenty-odd...

  19. CHAPTER 15 Witches and Shamans
    (pp. 215-228)

    The path which brought me metaphorically from northeastern Italy, where my research on witchcraft began, to the Central Asian steppes is a tortuous one. I shall try to trace the journey.

    The great French sinologist Marcel Granet once said that “la méthode, c’est le chemin après qu’on l’a parcouru”: method is the path after one has already taken it.¹ The wordmethodactually comes from the Greek, even if the etymology proposed by Granet—meta-hodos, “after the path”—may be imaginary. But Granet’s quip had a serious—in fact, polemical—side to it: in any scholarly situation a discussion on...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 229-312)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 313-328)