A conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the best-known historians working in the world today, and will visit India in December 2007 to deliver the first Indian Economic and Social History Review Lecture at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi on the evening of December 21, 2007. His work has been translated into many languages the world over. Born in Turin in 1939, he was educated at the Scuola Normale Superiorein Pisa, where he now teaches. He has also taught at the University of Bologna and was Professor of History and Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for an extended period from 1988 to 2006. Ginzburg is celebrated for brilliant and methodologically innovative explorations into mentalities, art-history, literature and social history. His The Cheese and the Worms (English translation: 1980) is an acknowledged classic. His other writings available in English include The Night Battles(1983); Clues, Myths and the Historical Method(1989); Ecstasies(1991); History, Rhetoric, and Proof(1999). Here he responds to questions and remarks from the Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

Carlo, you come from a family of intellectuals and writers. Were you ever tempted to be a creative writer, a film-maker or a painter rather than a historian? What do you think drew you to history? Were there some particular intellectual influences, and can you remember a time when you decided to take the turn to history in a definitive way?

I grew up surrounded by books; my mother was a novelist; my childhood and youth coincided with the golden age of Italian cinema. Predictably, as a teenager I toyed with the idea of writing fiction. I had come across a remark by Cesare Zavattini, the script-writer of many Vittorio De Sica’s movies (including Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. and so forth). Zavattini described his own approach as based on a kind of “roommate poetics”: that is participant-observation of a kind. This programme impressed me. But my silly project failed nearly immediately. The British historian John Brewer once suggested that Italian microhistory might have been related to Italian neorealist movies. As far as I am concerned, I think he was not far from truth.

My involvement with painting was perhaps more serious; it lasted some years. I was seventeen when I realised that I would have been a mediocre painter — as well as, probably, an awful novelist. But retrospectively I think that those two early failures shaped my later work as a historian. I enjoy writing; I am fond of narrative experiments; I have been working for twenty years on the competitive relationship between fiction and history. And I have been dealing with images of different kind — from Piero della Francesca’s frescoes to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruiting poster for the First World War.

My decision to study history was the result of a double experience. On the one hand, attending a seminar taught by Delio Cantimori, the great historian, on Burckhardt’s Meditations on World History; we read twenty lines in a week — for me, this exposure to slow reading was a revelation. On the other, reading Marc Bloch’s The Royal Touch. In a more implicit way I realise that I was walking in the shadow of my father, Leone Ginzburg: a philologist, historian, and literary critic. He died in a Nazi jail in Rome when he was thirty-five.

As your last remark suggests, you grew up in Italy in part during the Second World War, a terrible and tragic time both in general and for you personally. Since 1945, though things have been far more peaceful, still it has been really quite turbulent in Italy, in the sixties, seventies and even thereafter. You have both witnessed and even participated in some of these political movements. In what concrete ways have these political struggles and movements affected you as an historian? Or do you try to the extent possible to maintain a distance from them when you write as an historian?

I never became a militant, although the leftist movements of the sixties and seventies had a considerable impact on me, both personally and professionally. A book like The Cheese and the Worms (Italian version: 1976) and an essay like “Clues” (1979) emerged within that political atmosphere. (They have been my most successful works; whether they are also the best, I don’t know). Clearly, there has been a link: but how did it work? The answer is not obvious — at least, not for me. First of all, my response to 1968 as well as to the political movements of the seventies was framed by a previous layer of experience: I belong to a generation marked above all by the Second World War, and not to the ’68 generation. Some of the main themes of The Cheese and the Worms — the challenge to authority, the persecution of minorities — are to a large extent a development of my first book (The Night Battles, 1966) which was also based on Inquisition trials and dealt with the persecution of religious minorities (as I realised many years ago, recollections of having been persecuted as a Jew during the Second World War presumably played an important role in my approach to history). More specifically resonant with the leftist movements of the sixties and seventies was a critical attitude towards the alleged neutrality of scientific knowledge which (among other things) inspired my essay “Clues”. But I had no sympathy either for the rejection of knowledge as a mere appendix of power, or for the more circumscribed rejection of positivism. The triad I started from in “Clues” — Giovanni Morelli, Sigmund Freud, and Sherlock Holmes — implied homage to a tradition based on critical positivism, which ultimately goes back to the Enlightenment. To this tradition I do feel deeply indebted.

You have spent a good deal of time in the United States in the last twenty years. The relationship between the university campuses and society at large is quite different there compared to Italy. Some people also complain that when compared to Europe, the public culture of the US is deeply anti-intellectual. Is that your experience? Can a voice from the campus, even a prestigious one, make a difference in the larger public sphere in the U.S. as it could have once in Europe?

I agree with you: there is indeed a difference. Anti-intellectualism is stronger in the U.S.; in Europe, following a tradition which began in France, intellectuals are by definition considered as individuals committed to public matters. In the United States this is not the case, except for public intellectuals (an expression which to my knowledge does not exist in Europe); academics are not considered intellectuals per se. Such linguistic detail is certainly significant, but to oppose Europe and the U.S. baldly on this ground would be simplistic. After all, the most impressive example of a public intellectual who is also a specialist in his own discipline (which he profoundly transformed) comes from the U.S.: namely Noam Chomsky.

As you’ve remarked already, one of the three or four great themes that run through your work is an interest in persecuted groups and individuals, and the reader senses that there is a strong ethical drive at work. Yet you are constantly aware that one should not turn history into a simple exercise in ideological production. Would you care to reflect on this?

Historical knowledge is by definition, as it has been said, a located knowledge, but one should try to avoid preaching (an attitude I detest in all its versions: religious, ideological and so forth). Historians must be involved in a constant, contentious dialogue with their own internal devil’s advocate. To raise serious objections against oneself is not an easy endeavour (to be self-indulgent is tempting); but there is no alternative. I started working on the victims of the Inquisition; only later I realised how deeply my own cognitive approach had been shaped by the inquisitors’ (I tried to unfold the implications of this disturbing contiguity in an essay entitled “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”).

You have a strong interest in a kind of intellectual history, and your recent work on Hobbes (which you will talk about in Delhi) is an example of this. However, you do not want this to be a rarefied exercise, and you have written that “to understand the present we must learn to look at it obliquely.” What can reading a seventeenth-century author, even one as important as Hobbes, tell us about the present? Is it because he is summoned up as an ideological ancestor even for present-day actors?

Hobbes has indeed been invoked as an ideological ancestor; but perhaps this is not his most interesting link with the present. Other possibilities point to the crucial distinction between questions and answers. Many people (including some historians) usually try to find in the past answers to questions raised by the present. But trying to understand the questions raised by the past is often more rewarding. We are dealing with dead individuals who did not write for us, did not think for us, did not live for us; they couldn’t care less about us obviously. We have to learn their language, and listen for their voices. But inevitably we also have our agenda; we have our own questions, raised by the world we live in. This asymmetry between past and present (an asymmetry which is the result of a construction, not a given) generates the possibility of the oblique approach to the present I spoke about.

French and German intellectuals are often known to complain about how the hegemony of the English language has reduced their autonomy and margin for manoeuvre in the last half-century. Your mother tongue is Italian, though you have some Russophone ancestors. In the last some years, you even write directly in English sometimes. What is your feeling about the place of English in the world of intellectuals today?

I would recall the distinction which has been articulated in Roman law between two levels, de jure and de facto. In principle, any language has an equal right to exist; in the real world, some languages are more equal than others. Bilingualism (or tri-lingualism and so forth) is a good, although insufficient remedy to cultural and linguistic hegemony. But equality (in principle) does not prevent comparison, and even aesthetic comparison.

For a long time, from the time I started learning English, I have regarded the English language, and especially English syntax, as a model for conveying the results of scientific inquiry in any language — including in my mother tongue, Italian. There are splendid, deservedly famous examples of Italian scientific prose: from Machiavelli to Galileo, from Antonio Gramsci to Giorgio Pasquali, the philologist. But they are very idiosyncratic. English is a more accessible model.

You have written quite extensively about your objections to a kind of relativism, where history is treated as just a form of rhetoric. Some have even elevated this view to an ethical and political stance. Do you believe that this was just a passing fad which has now lost ground? Or do you see this as a real problem even today?

The argument put forward by the neo-sceptics is clear: since historical writing is just a form of rhetoric, there is no clear boundary between history and fiction. But as soon as I began to reflect on these issues I realised that already in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (the most ancient and authoritative treatise in this domain) there is a detailed discussion of proofs, which are considered a fundamental part of rhetoric. Therefore, in my book History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999), I opposed ancient to modern rhetoric, Aristotle to Nietzsche (and Nietzsche’s followers). To argue that truth and proofs have no place in historical writing seems to me fatuous and irresponsible. Is this fad losing ground?

Perhaps — although I feel that I must be cautious, having said this now for fifteen years. There are many reasons — cultural, psychological, political — which may explain this resilience. To stress our own power to manipulate reality, to the point of ignoring it, has an undeniable narcissistic appeal.

A final brief question. This will be your second visit to India, in December 2007. It seems from our earlier conversations that you clearly have very happy memories of your earlier visit. Leaving aside history and historians, is there any part of modern Indian cultural production — art, cinema, literature, etc. — that has particularly touched you or interested you?

I would immediately think of Satyajit Ray’s movies. I had missed them in the sixties and seventies; I discovered them in the early nineties. Seeing Devi and The Music Room (Jalsaghar) have evoked feelings that have been among the deepest emotions of my life as a moviegoer. (A short life, as it happens: my love-affair with movies ended in the late seventies; Satyajit Ray was a lucky, extraordinary exception to this rule). In watching those movies I experienced a feeling I often had during my visit to India: a sense simultaneously of emotional closeness and cultural distance. Ray’s characters also seem deceptively transparent but ultimately inscrutable to me.

>Click here for the extended version of the interview