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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the riddler and the imperial turn

One of LI’s favorite scholars is Carlo Ginzburg. We were in the University library a couple of days ago, looking up references for The Basho of Economics, the book we are translating. Going through the stacks, we came upon Wooden Eyes, a collection of Ginzburg pieces from the nineties. We were particularly struck by the first essay, “Making it Strange: the Prehistory of a literary device.” Ginzburg’s essays are hard essays to paraphrase because the joy in them is in the way they wander. Seemingly, one goes from point to random point, but the joy of the thing, for the reader, is that every point seems mysteriously charged with some as yet unexplained meaning. Until, as in fairy tale journeys, one arrives and makes the journey itself into a riddle – rather than a thesis, as is usual in scholarship.

My comparison is taken from the essay, which traces the Russian formalist notion of de-familiarization (“making it strange”) back, first, to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and then to the lore of the folk riddle. Aurelius, it turns out, was one of Tolstoy’s favorite writers. And Tolstoy’s novels were the occasion for Shklovsky, the most adroit Russian formalist, to explain description in the novel as depending on the technique of de-familiarization. Shklovsky claims that art, in general, is our counterfoil to the automatization of everyday life:

“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us into the knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “estranging’ objects and complicating forms, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.”

Ginzburg compares this notion to the stoic exercise of clearing what Epictetus called the phantasia from our impressions. [there is, by the way, a stupid typo in Ginzburg’s introduction of M.A.’s meditations – the Columbia Press translation has it that Marcus Aurelius wrote his autobiography in the second century B.C., rather than A.D. That’s an embarrassing mistake.]

“Wipe away the impress of imagination. Stay the impulse which is drawing you like a puppet. Define the time which is present. Recognize what is happening to yourself or another.”

Ginzburg follows the publication history of the Meditations, which, unsurprisingly, includes much forged or dubious material. Every ancient text, in either the medieval or Renaissance period, seems to have accrued a number of counterfeits. But what interested LI was the unexpected coincidence of those counterfeits with a tradition that we are very interested in: the imperial inflection in Europe. Normally, histories of Europe talk about colonialism in terms of a mother country, or center, and a periphery. But in actuality, the periphery was located in Europe itself. It was located in Europe’s peasantry. Colonialism and the agricultural revolution in Europe are parts of the same process – the process that gave us capitalism and, more generally, the process of production that has become the norm, either achieved or striven for, across ideologies, for the last century.

This coincidence happens under the aegis of a forgery. The Meditations were translated in the sixteenth century by a monk named Antonio de Guevara. However, the translation wasn’t true – there were many forged sections attributed to M.A. Among them was a section, inspired by Tacitus’ descriptions of the German tribes, that gives us a speech by one Milenus, defending the freedom of the barbarians against the rule of Rome, which begins:

“So greedy have you been for the goods of others, and so great has been your arrogance in seeking to rule over foreign lands, that the sea with all its deeps has not sufficed you and the land with its broad fields has not satisfied you.”

In essence, Guevara is using a German peasant, or savage, from Roman times, to speak about the Spanish empire of his own times, and criticize the conquest of the Indians. This doubling of the European and the American savage is the secret heart of the noble savage myth. While conventional histories attribute the noble savage idea, wrongly, to Rousseau, and attribute the savagery solely to the Indians, in actuality the topos was as much about the European peasant. The peasant was always considered a savage by the city intellectual – Engels called them simply stupid, and in Vienna, around 1900, intellectuals would say things like Vienna lives in the 20th century while Galician peasants live in the fifteenth.

I will return to this essay soon, I hope.

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