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Threads and Traces: True False Fictive

Threads and Traces: True False Fictive

by Carlo Ginzburg

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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


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 Traces bears 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Included here are 15 essays by perhaps Italy’s most renowned historian, a professor emeritus at Pisa’s Scuola Normale Superiore. Ginzburg’s (The Cheese and the Worm) range is remarkable, from “The Conversion of the Jews of Minorca (A.D. 417–418),” to “Paris 1647: A Dialogue of Fiction and History.” While he seems influenced by the French Annales school’s emphasis on “mentalities,” the intellectual, cultural, and social currents that influence events, his interest here is on historiography. One of Ginzburg’s most original and accessible essays is on microhistory, the study of, for instance, one rural village (such as Natalie Zemon-Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre), that his own work has sometimes exemplified. This is a demanding book, assuming knowledge of much pre-modern and modern philosophy, literature, and historical writing. For example, in his essay “The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality,” a discussion of the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s refutation of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, soon segues into a discussion of Italian historians Giovanni Gentile’s and Benedetto Croce’s “metaphysical theory of history.” This is definitely not a work for the general reader. But for the specialist, it is rich in references to and insights about diverse historical perspectives. 10 b&w photos. (Jan.)
London Review Of Books - Perry Anderson

“No other living historian approaches the range of [Ginzburg’s] erudition. Every page of Threads and Traces, his latest work to appear in English, offers an illustration of it.”
Forward - Benjamin Ivry

“A collection of essays by the profoundly original, intellectually wide-ranging, Italian-Jewish historian Carlo Ginzburg . . . an illuminating collection of chapters, deftly translated from the original Italian by Anne C. and John Tedeschi.”
The Literary Review - Jonathan Beckman

“These essays humanely and generously explore the question of how history ought to be written.”
Jrnl Of Interdisciplinary History - Raymond Grew

“Surprising pace, intellectual range, and learned discourse is typical throughout the book. . . . Artfully constructed essays.”
Melbourne Historical Jrnl - Ben McDonald

“This is a brilliant text, the product of a scholar of rare breadth and knowledge.”

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Threads and Traces

True False Fictive

By Carlo Ginzburg, Anne C. Tedeschi, John Tedeschi


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94984-3


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1. Today, for some people, words such as truth and reality have become impossible to utter unless they are set off by quotation marks, written out or mimed. 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 the exaggerations of the positivists and the skeptics would serve no purpose. Walter Benjamin recalls a Brechtian maxim: "Don't start from the good old things but the bad new ones." Skeptics and deconstructionists almost always react to real questions in a dramatically inadequate way. Elsewhere I have argued against their responses, but here I would like to consider some of their basic assumptions.

2. A false statement, a true statement, and an invented statement do not present any differences among themselves, from a formal point of view. When Emile Benveniste studied the tenses of the French verb he did not hesitate to use examples taken from both romances and histories. In a short novel entitled Pontius Pilate Roger Caillois astutely explored the implications of this analogy. It is nighttime: the next morning Jesus will be tried. Pilate has not yet decided on the sentence. To persuade him to choose condemnation, someone predicts a long series of events that would follow the death of Jesus: some are important, others are insignificant—but, as the reader grasps, all are true. The next day Pilate decides to absolve the accused. The disciples repudiate Jesus; the history of the world takes a different path. The affinity between fiction and history brings to mind those paintings by Magritte which without a break portray a landscape and its reflection in a broken mirror.

To say that a historical narrative resembles a fictional one is obvious enough. More interesting is to ask ourselves why we perceive as real the events recounted in a work of history. Usually it is a result produced by both textual and extratextual elements. I shall focus on the latter and attempt to show some procedures, associated with literary conventions, with which both ancient and modern historians have attempted to communicate that "effect of reality" which they considered an essential part of the task they had set for themselves.

3. We can begin with a fragment from the Universal History of Polybius (34: 4, 4), quoted by Strabo. To demonstrate Homer's truthfulness, Polybius writes: "The object of history is truth, as when in the catalogue of ships the poet describes the features of the several localities, calling one city 'rocky,' another 'frontier-placed,' another 'with wealth of doves,' or 'hard by the sea.' But the object of picturesque detail is vividness, as when he introduces men fighting; and that of mythological allusion is to give pleasure or rouse wonder." In opposing history to myth, Homer stands squarely on the side of history and of truth: the purpose (telos) to which his poetry tends is in fact "vividness" (enargeian).

In some manuscripts we find energeian rather than enargeian, but the context makes us think that the second is the more convincing reading. A similar confusion occurs in the manuscript tradition of a passage of Aristotle's Rhetoric (1411 b, 33–34), echoed in much later texts and coming down to our own day. In actual fact, the two words have nothing in common: energeia signifies "act, activity, energy"; enargeia, "clarity, vividness." The importance of the first term in Aristotelian terminology, decisive for the European intellectual lexicon, explains why energeia has survived in so many languages: it suffices to think of "energia," "energy," "énergie," and so forth. Enargeia instead died out. But it is possible to reconstruct its meaning: more precisely, the constellation of meanings that revolve about it.

In the Homeric poems, often seen as supreme examples of enargeia, the word does not appear. We find enargés, associated with the "manifest presence" of the gods (Iliad, 20: 131; Odyssey, 16: 161), and a connected adjective, argos, which signifies "white, brilliant"—like a goose, like an ox—or "rapid." According to Pierre Chantraine, "we must suppose at its origin a notion that expresses both the blinding whiteness of lightning and velocity." Enargés can be translated, depending on the context, as "clear" or "tangible." Like enargeia, it is a word that can be connected to a sphere of immediate experience, as another fragment from Polybius suggests (20: 12, 8): "To see an operation with one's eyes is not like merely hearing a description of it. It is, indeed, quite another thing; and the confidence which such vivid experience gives is always greatly advantageous...." This passage, as well as Homer's cited above, concerns historical knowledge. In both, enargeia is considered a guarantee of truth.

The ancient historian had to communicate the truth regarding that of which he was speaking by using enargeia to move and convince his readers: a technical term which, according to the author of the treatise On the Sublime (15: 2), marked the aim of the orators, which was different from that of the poets, who attempted to enthrall their public. The Latin rhetorical tradition repeatedly tried to find terms equivalent to enargeia. Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, 4: 2, 63) proposed evidentia in narratione. "Palpability, as far as I understand the term, is no doubt a great virtue, when a truth requires not merely to be told, but to some extent obtruded, still it may be included under lucidity." In another passage (6: 2, 32), Quintilian noted that Cicero had used, as synonyms for enargeia, illustratio and evidentia, "illumination and actuality, which makes us seem not so much to narrate as to exhibit the actual scene, while our emotions will be no less actively stirred than if we were present at the actual occurrence." In effect, for Cicero, "inlustris ... oratio" indicated "the part of the speech that places, in a matter of speaking, the fact before the eyes." The anonymous author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium used similar words to define demonstratio: "It is ocular demonstration when an event is so described in words that the business seems to be enacted and the subject to pass vividly before our eyes."

Demonstratio. The terminology corresponding to this word in the European languages—dimostrazione, demonstration, démonstration, and so forth—conceals under a Euclidean veil a rhetorical nucleus. Demonstratio designated the orator's gesture that indicated an invisible object, rendering it almost palpable—enargés—to the listener, thanks to the almost magical power of the words themselves. Similarly, the historian succeeded in communicating to readers his own experience—direct, as a witness, or indirect—placing an invisible reality before their eyes. Enargeia was a means to communicate the autopsia—in other words, immediate vision—by virtue of style.

4. Even Demetrius, the author of the famous treatise On Style (long erroneously identified with Demetrius of Phalerum), dedicated a relatively long section to enargeia, describing it as a stylistic effect that ensues from a description which contains nothing superfluous. After citing a Homeric simile (Iliad, 21: 257), he observed: "We shall treat first of vividness, which arises from an exact narration overlooking no detail and cutting out nothing." Further on, however, we run into a broader definition, which identifies as examples of "vividness" even the cacophony and the onomatopoeic words used by Homer. We seem to have veered away from the discussion of historical method from which we began, but only apparently so. The definition of enargeia as an accumulation of particulars casts an unexpected light on the claim, recurring among Greek historians, that they have recorded every event, or at least all the significant ones. In a society in which archives were rare and oral culture still dominated, Homer offered historians a model that was both stylistic and cognitive.

In chapter 1 of Mimesis, Erich Auerbach juxtaposed two different types of narration: Homer's analytical richness and the Bible's synthetic concision. The importance of the Homeric narrative style for the birth in Greece of a new way to represent the human body on the one hand, and of history as a literary genre on the other, has been underlined by E.H. Gombrich and Hermann Strasburger. The latter, one of the scholars who has most profitably discussed the theoretical implications of enargeia, has noted that the term assumed a more technical significance in the Hellenistic age, when historians such as Duris of Samos and his disciple Philarchus created a new type of historiography, inspired by the tragic poets and aspiring to mimetic effects.

5. Thus far we have portrayed enargeia as a notion bordering historiography and rhetoric, but painting needs to be added to this semantic sphere. Here is a metaphor taken from Plato's dialogue the Statesman: "And our discussion might be compared to a picture of some living being which had been fairly drawn in outline, but had not yet attained the life and clearness which is given by the blending of colours."

These implications of enargeia emerge fully, at a distance of many centuries, in a passage from the Images of Philostratus the Younger, a famous collection of descriptions (ekphraseis) of artworks, presumably imaginary. We read the following passage in an account of a painting representing the shield of Pyrrhus, inspired by one of the shields of Achilles in the Iliad, the model for this literary genre: "And if you should also notice the herd of cattle which press forward to their pasture followed by the herdsmen, you might not, indeed, marvel at the colour, although the whole scene is made of gold and tin, but the fact that you can almost hear the cows lowing in the painting and that the river along the banks of which are the cows seems to be making a splashing sound,—is not that the height of vividness [enargeia]?"

This rhetorical query could be compared to an orator's gesturing: a demonstratio intended to present an invisible object, made vivid and almost tangible by the power of the ekphrasis. At this point we can grasp why Plutarch, in his treatise De gloria athenensium ("On the Fame of the Athenians") (347a), compared a painting by Euphranor representing the battle of Mantinea to Thucydides' description of that same battle. Plutarch praised the pictorial vivacity [graphiké enargeia] of Thucydides; then he clarified the theoretical implications of the comparison:

Simonides, however, calls painting inarticulate poetry and poetry articulate painting: for the actions which painters portray as taking place at the moment literature narrates and records after they have taken place. Even though artists with colour and design, and writers with words and phrases, represent the same subjects, they differ in the material and the manner of their imitation; and yet the underlying end and aim of both is one and the same; the most effective historian is he who, by a vivid representation of emotions and characters, makes his narration like a painting. Assuredly Thucydides is always striving for this vividness in his writing, since it is his desire to make the reader a spectator, as it were, and to produce vividly in the minds of those who peruse his narrative the emotions of amazement and consternation which were experienced by those who beheld them.

6. Some of the leading authorities on Greek and Roman history have recognized in the ekphrasis, along with Plutarch, the purpose of historical narration. The ekphrasis, writes Hermann Strasburger, was a concept embracing an extensive sphere containing pathos-ridden battle scenes, the Athens plague about which Thucydides spoke, and geographic and ethnographic descriptions (ekphraseis tou topou). If enargeia was the purpose of the ekphrasis, truth was the result of enargeia. We can imagine a sequence of this type: historical narration—description—vividness—truth. The difference between our concept of history and that of the ancients could be summed up as follows: for the Greeks and Romans historical truth was based on evidentia (the Latin equivalent of enargeia proposed by Quintilian); for us, on evidence.

This is not an oversimplification. In a passage of the Institutio Oratoria (4: 2, 64–65) Quintilian observed that there were those who protested against the use of evidentia in narratione: "Some, however, regard this quality as actually being injurious at times, on the ground that in certain cases it is desirable to obscure the truth. The contention is, however, absurd. For he who desires to obscure the situation will state what is false in lieu of the truth, but must still strive to secure an appearance of palpability for the facts which he narrates."

This fair-minded description of the comportment of lawyers could have been extended to historians, given the intimate relationship between history and rhetoric. The definitive criterion of truth did not correspond to the reactions of the public. And yet truth was considered above all a question of persuasion, linked only marginally to an objective weighing of the facts.

7. For historians who, from the sixteenth century on, considered themselves heirs of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy, this was an obvious conclusion. The breach emerged later. Only in the second half of the seventeenth century did one begin to analyze systematically the differences between primary and secondary sources. In his famous essay "Ancient History and the Antiquarian," Arnaldo Momigliano demonstrated that this decisive contribution to the historical method came from antiquarians who used nonliterary evidence to reconstruct facts connected to religion, to political or administrative institutions, to the economy—spheres not touched upon by historians tendentiously oriented toward political and military history and toward the present. In the face of the corrosive criticism, sometimes taken to paradoxical limits, which skeptics like La Mothe Le Vayer directed against Greek and Roman historians, antiquarians objected that medals, coins, statues, and inscriptions offered a mass of much more solid documentary material, and more reliable, as well, compared to literary sources polluted by errors, superstitions, or lies. Modern historical writing came into being from the convergence—actually realized for the first time in the work of Edward Gibbon—between two different intellectual traditions: Voltaire's type of histoire philosophique and antiquarian research.

8. But the trajectory vigorously argued by Momigliano should be moved up by a century. In the mid–sixteenth century both the crisis of the skeptics and its dissipation as a consequence of antiquarian labors were lucidly formulated by a philologist and antiquarian of exceptional qualities, Francesco Robortello of Udine. He is known today especially for a pioneering work on the emendation of ancient texts (1557), which has received the attention it deserves. The few solid pages written on Robortello's De historica facultate disputatio (1548) have instead met a different fate. Its success in the sixteenth century, exemplified by its posthumous inclusion in the first collection of writings on the historical method (Artis historicae penus, 1579), was often followed, in times closer to our own, by befuddled and superficial readings.

Robortello was fully cognizant of the originality of these pages. He was little more than thirty years old, teaching at the University of Pisa and a friend of the great philologist Pier Vettori. In his usual aggressive tone, Robortello declared in his dedication to Lelio Torelli (the philologist and jurist who a few years later would publish for the first time the famous Florentine manuscript of the Pandects) that he had tried to accomplish something totally new: to bring to light the art and method hidden in historical writing.


Excerpted from Threads and Traces by Carlo Ginzburg, Anne C. Tedeschi, John Tedeschi. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"No other living historian approaches the range of [Ginzburg's] erudition. Every page of Threads and Traces, his latest work to appear in English, offers an illustration of it."—London Review of Books

"Ginzburg's range is remarkable . . . rich in references to and insights about diverse historical perspectives."—Publishers Weekly

"A collection of essays by the profoundly original, intellectually wide-ranging, Italian-Jewish historian Carlo Ginzburg . . . an illuminating collection of chapters, deftly translated from the original Italian by Anne C. and John Tedeschi."—Forward

"These essays humanely and generously explore the question of how history ought to be written."—The Literary Review

"Surprising pace, intellectual range, and learned discourse is typical throughout the book. . . . Artfully constructed essays."—Jrnl of
Interdisciplinary History

Meet the Author

Carlo Ginzburg is retired from Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (Italy). He is the author of numerous books that have been translated into English including The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.

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