The series comes to an
The series comes to an end with a conversation between two of the most renowned historians of our time: Carlo Ginzburg and Saul Friedländer.
From: Wooden Eyes. Nine Reflections on Distance. by Carlo Ginzburg, Columbia University Press, 2004
The reader will find here nine essays, three of them previously unpublished, that I have written during the last decade. The “distance” referred to in the book’s subtitle is both literal and metaphorical. Since 1998, I have been teaching in Los Angeles. Conversation with students such as those who attend UCLA, whose intellectual background is quite unlike my own and who are ethnically and culturally diverse, has obliged me to look afresh at research themes and topics on which I have long been working. My sense of their importance has not lessened, but that importance has become less self-evident.
I have come to understand better something that I thought I already knew: that familiarity which is in the last analysis bound up with cultural belonging, cannot be a criterion of what is relevant. To say that every place in the world is like our place does not mean that everything is the same; it means that we all find ourselves astray, out of place, vis-a-vis some things and some people.
I know that I am saying nothing new, but perhaps it is worth pausing to reflect on the intellectual fecundity of this condition. This is what I have tried to do in the essay that opens the collection.
Even the first written, however, on representation (chapter 3), was animated by a wish to awaken in the reader (and first of all, in the iter) his sense of being astray by compressing a vast topic into a few pages and by setting Europe and Italy in a very wide chronological and spatial framework. In it, I engaged with a double ambiguity: the ambiguity of images, which are simultaneously presences and surrogates for what is not present; and the ambiguity of the relationship between Jews and Christians, in which closeness and distance have been interlaced, often with fatal consequences, for two millennia.
These ambiguities come together in the theme of idolatry which is alluded to in the title of the book and discussed in the essay on idols and images. This ends abruptly in a juxtaposition of the first two commandments: “You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor the like ness of any ing” and “You shall not make wrong use of the name of the Lord.” I return to the contiguity of the word and the image in my inquiry into myth.
The Greeks both depicted their gods and spoke their names; and they reasoned on the nature of images and of words. However, this apparent contrast between the Greeks and the Jews perhaps conceals a hidden symmetry: both the Greek reflection on myth and the Jewish prohibition of idolatry are instruments of distantiation. Greeks and Jews, in their different ways, sought to develop tools that would allow them to cast a critical gaze on reality without becoming submerged in it. Christianity set itself against them both, and learned from them both.
I am a Jew who was born and grew up in a Catholic country; I never received any religious education; my Jewish identity is to a large degree the result of persecution. It was almost unaware that I began to reflect on the multiple tradition to which I belong, seeking to cast a distanced and possible critical gaze upon it. I was, and am, only too aware that I am less well prepared than I might be for such a task. Following the chain of scriptural quotations in the Gospels, I reached a position from which I was able to read them, and indeed to interpret the figure of Jesus, from a viewpoint that I myself had not anticipated. Here again I encountered e opposition between showing and telling, morphology and history—an inexhaustible theme and one that has long fascinated me. It is the theme on which I reason, from various angles, in the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth essays.
A practice of reflection inaugurated by the Greeks has allowed us to discover what image, name, and myth, despite their diversity have in common: the fact that they all lie beyond truth and falsehood. In our culture we attribute this character to art in general. Yet artistic fictions, like the fictions of the law, speak of reality. This is what I show in the essay on defamiliarization (the first), and also in a somewhat inverted way in the reflections of the eighth, on the Chinese mandarin: in one place the right distance, in the other too much; here absence of empathy, leading to critical distance, there lack of empathy leading to de-humanization. And now distance, which had prompted my reflections, became their theme—distance itself, historical perspective (the seventh essay): and I realizeded I had written this book.
Carlo Ginzburg (April 15, 1939 – Turin, Italy) is a noted Italian historian, the son of Natalia Ginzburg, a novelist, and Leone Ginzburg, a philologist, historian, and literary critic. Ginzburg received a PhD from the University of Pisa in 1961. He subsequently held teaching positions at the University of Bologna, the University of California, Los Angeles (1988–2006), and the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. His fields of interest range from the Italian Renaissance to early modern European history, with contributions to art history, literary studies, and the theory of historiography.
He is best known for Il Formaggio e i Vermi – The Cheese and the Worms (1976), which examines the beliefs of Menocchio, a 16th century miller twice undergoing trial by the Roman Inquisition. In this book, Ginzburg highlights, on the basis of an analysis of the trial papers, the different aspects of the surprisingly varied universe of Menocchio’s cultural, philosophical, political and religious orientations, only to a small extent due to the influence of “higher” culture. In 1966, he published The Night Battles, an examination of the benandanti visionary folk tradition found in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Friuli in northeastern Italy. He returned to looking at the visionary traditions of early modern Europe for his 1989 book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.
In the eighties he directed the “Microstorie” series published by Einaudi, with Giovanni Levi. He is part of the scientific council of the magazine Communications. He is academic correspondent of the Academy of Arts of Drawing, in Florence, and honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Prix Aby Warburg in 1992 and, in 2005, the Feltrinelli Prize of the Accademia dei Lincei, for the historical sciences. In 2010, at the Accademia dei Lincei, he was awarded the Balzan Prize. His books are translated into more than twenty languages.
Saul Friedländer (October 11, 1932) is an Israeli/American historian and currently a Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA. From 1953-55, he studied Political Science in Paris; in 1963, he received his PhD from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where he taught until 1988. Friedländer also taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University. In 1969 he wrote a biography of Kurt Gerstein. Since 1988 he has been Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He is considered one of the world’s premier historians in the field and the author of the definitive book Nazi-Germany and the Jews 1933-1945, and has transformed our understanding of this period by weaving into a coherent whole the perspectives of ordinary Germans, party activists, military and political figures, and, most importantly, victims and survivors. Drawing from documents, films, recollections, and his personal experience, he reconstructs these events with a judicious tone that defies the nature of the subject and demonstrates the interplay of memory and representation in the interpretation of historic events. Friedländer shows that a rational and many-sided reinterpretation of the evidence deepens a reader’s understanding of the nature, meaning, and complexity of the Holocaust.
His works include Pius XII and the Third Reich (1965), History and Psychoanalysis (1979), When Memory Comes (1979), Reflections on Nazism (1984), Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume One: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (1997), and Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume Two: The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 (2008).