06/12/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg (Live From the NYPL)

By Joy Stocke, cross-posted from Wild River Review.

The case we have just presented confronts us with a difficulty, which recurs in our research. Despite the emotional solidarity that we feel for the victims of persecution, intellectually we tend to identify with the inquisitors... ~ Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg

One of the pleasures and intellectual challenges of attending the LIVE from the New York Public Library (NYPL) interview series, created and hosted by Paul Holdengräber, is that like the best literary mystery series Holdengräber's questions spark epiphanies in his subjects, surprising them and us with unexpected leaps and connections.

This year, as host of NYPL's annual Joy Gottesman Ungerleider Lecture, Holdengräber engaged the eminent microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg in a verbal chess match that ranged through history and culture, and the psychological and linguistic roots of Ginzburg's groundbreaking work. The conversation's title, suggested by Ginzburg: Being Jewish. Becoming Jewish, was deceptive. Ginzburg's scholarship morally challenges his perception of his own identity; and by extension, urges us to challenge our own.

"My goal is to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance. If possible, to make it levitate," said Holdengräber, slyly acknowledging the weight of intellect that has passed through the doors of the library's main branch on Fifth Avenue, adding that, "Carlo Ginzburg is the perfect partner in performing this feat of magic."

Holdengräber asked Ginzburg to describe himself in seven words, a question he asks each of his guests in lieu of a their biographies, numerous awards and honors. "A haiku of sorts," he calls it.

The words (and one set of numbers) Ginzburg chose were straightforward: Carlo Ginzburg, 1939, Historian, Lives in Bologna.

In his musical, Italian-accented English, an animated and effusive Ginzburg admitted that his work as a microhistorian - Microhistory is the intensive investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, a family or a person) - researching the lives of the victims of persecution, was complex and comprised many strands.

"I think of the composer Bertolt Brecht's reflection that it would be interesting to change the rules of chess as a game," said Ginzburg. "If a chess piece stays too long on a square it's going to lose its value. I thought that was also an interesting metaphor for my work. Insisting too much, in my case, on a single topic would not be fruitful..."

"Which, to use the chess metaphor, brings me to the initial move," said Holdengräber. "In some ways a move has been done before one even starts the game. It begins with where one is born, how one is born, who takes care of us and how and in what circumstances. So, I'm thinking that a fruitful point of departure, or first step in this game of chess we're playing would be to begin with the title you chose and which I adopted, 'Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish.' It was surprising in some ways to me...I remember telling my 94-year-old father, and he said, 'But Carlo Ginzburg is Jewish.' So explain this to me. Explain how you became Jewish."

Ginzburg was born in 1939 in Turin, Italy, the year the Nazis marched into the streets of Vienna. His father, the literary critic, translator, publisher and dissident, Leone Ginzburg, was born in Odessa in 1909 and left Russia as a young man after the Russian Revolution, moving first to Berlin and finally settling in Turin.

Ginzburg's mother, the author, critic and editor, Natalia Ginzburg was born in Palermo, Sicily to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. In 1938, Benito Mussolini's Fascist Regime published The Manifesto of Race, revoking citizenship for Italian Jews and with it stripping them of their professions and any position in the government.

"Although I was raised without religion," says Ginzburg, according to the Italian racial laws, I was born a Jew. And so I was given an identity."

Ginzburg's father was a scholar at Turin University, but his academic career had ended in 1934 when he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the Fascist regime. He went on trial and spent two years in jail.

"When Italy entered the war as an ally of Nazi Germany," says Ginzburg, "my father was sent to a small, isolated village easily controlled by the police. There are police documents reporting the arrival of Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew. My mother joined him there and it is where I spent my early childhood. In 1944, when Mussolini's regime collapsed, my father went to Rome and became the director of an underground anti-Fascist newspaper. He was arrested, tortured, and died in jail in February 1944."

Ginzburg vividly remembers being with his mother and grandmother a few months later in the hills above Florence at the Front Line. The Germans were in retreat toward northern Italy and their retreat included mass slaughter of civilians. "My grandmother told me that if somebody would ask you, 'What is your name?" says Ginzburg. "You are to say, 'My name is Carlo Tanzi,' which I realized later, was her father's name and non-Jewish. She wrote Carlo Tanzi on the front page of a book I was reading. I remember the title, The Happiest Child in the World.

"Retrospectively, I realize that at that very moment I became a Jew. I said this in conversation last summer in Berlin to two Israeli scholars and they were shocked...But I have to explain the implications. There is a rejection of a notion that is widespread and which I actively dislike, the notion of identity. I think that identity has been used and is used as a political weapon to twist boundaries in order to marginalize either groups or individuals. Identity cannot be regarded in an analytic category."

"But," he adds. "I would also suggest a different approach to what an individual is. Let's imagine that an individual has points of intersection between different sets. I belong to the set labeled human species. I belong to other sets as well, meaning gender, a linguistic community, a professional and personal community...For an historian like myself, I think that a different notion of an individual would be in which less generic, highly specific elements interact...this notion of Jewishness doesn't make sense to me. But a changing relationship between all those elements and other elements, which include a changing relationship with being Jewish does make sense.

In thinking about becoming Jewish, one has to ask how does this relationship change? I would say that family is something we take for granted and which we regard as unique. But we learn to see that not withstanding that uniqueness there is also our relationship with other families."

Ginzburg takes a rare pause, and continues. "When I was 13, I was playing soccer in a park in Turin and met another kid my age named Giovanni Levi...We discovered that our families knew each other and that we had multiple connections.

We also realized that our names - our first and middle names - were nearly identical - Giovanni Carlo Nello Levi. Carlo Nello Ginzburg. This was not a coincidence. Carlo and Nello Roselli were murdered in France in 1937 by groups acting under the influence of Mussolini. They were from a Jewish family and both were anti-Fascists. Carlo was a leader in Paris in exile. My father knew Carlo because they were working in the same political group. Nello was an historian. The real target of the ambush was Carlo. Nello was visiting him at the time."

"When you were thirteen," says Holdengräber, "You and Giovanni were thinking of writing something together, inspired by Italian New Realism, although it was a literary project."

"Yes," nods Ginzburg, "Giovanni and I wanted to write about people living together in the same apartment and looking at each other. That kind of forced intimacy. I was quite fascinated about that and spoke to Giovanni about writing what was happening on the spot."

"But," adds Holdengräber, "It was a time when you were discovering movies, certain kinds of movies such as The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio di Sica's1948 film about a poor father searching post-World War II Rome for his stolen bicycle, without which he will lose the job which was to be the salvation of his young family.) and many others. They formed you in some way."

"That is for sure, smiles Ginzburg. "I was under the impulse of movies and also under the impact of a book, which I read at the ridiculously early age of ten. It was Sergei Eisenstein's writings about cinema. I was reading, of course, descriptions of movies, which I hadn't yet seen."

"Move forward to your university years," urges Holdengräber.

"I ran into Giovanni Levi again," says Ginzburg. "We had both become historians...I was twenty and I was in the Library at the Escuale Normal in Pisa where I was studying and I decided at the same moment to: first, become an historian; second, to work on the witchcraft trials; and third, not to focus on persecution as such, but on the victims of persecution, their attitudes and beliefs...Working on the victims was a real paradox because we have documents of those trials, which had been produced and controlled and written by the inquisitors and their notaries. So everything is distorted including the trial itself, implying potentially torture, which was often used and followed by suggestive questions."

"All those documents are unreliable not only from a factual perspective," says Ginzburg. "One would ask what can you learn from them in order to rescue the attitudes of those people? So, the paradox was there. I was on the one hand extremely lucky because after a few years I found an extraordinary archival trove in Friuli, related to a counter-witch's sect. What was crucial about those documents, which were trials from 1570-1670, was the fact that there was a gap between the inquisitors' questions and expectations, and the defendants' answers. I wrote a piece about my reaction to my first encounter with one of those trials...not in Friuli, but in Venice. I was trying to make sense of my reaction to this document. There was a young peasant - a shepherd. And the inquisitors asked him, 'Are you a penendante - a word I had never heard before - a good walker?'

'Yes,' he said, 'I go in spirit four times a year in the meadow of Jehoshaphat and we fight with witches and there's a smell of roses.'

The document went on like this for four pages and I became so excited. I started to walk and I was smoking at the time. I was walking past the buildings with the Titians and Tintorettos and thinking, this is extraordinary."

"Extraordinary," says Holdengräber, "because in some way it was recognition."

"Yes. But what was crucial was the recognition of a gap. The amazement of the inquisitors who were unable to make sense of those tales. They were trying to shape them to replace their questions in order to put the answers into a preexisting narrative, meaning the Witch's Sabbath narrative. This proposition was a later phenomenon. The early beliefs were autonomous peasant beliefs...I was looking at those beliefs reframed in religious context and I started to analyze them."

"Now, focusing on the victims. I felt this emotional connection to them," says Ginzburg. "My book, The Cheese and the Worms was about one of those victims, Domenico Scandello. Some years later, a friend said, 'But after all, it's obvious why you are doing this. You're Jewish and you're working on witches and heretics.' And I was amazed, not by this statement, which seemed to be absolutely obvious, but the fact that I had repressed that continuity.

In the late 80s I wrote a piece, The Inquisitor as Anthropologist, and I realized with some real embarrassment that notwithstanding my emotional continuity with the victims, there was also an intellectual continuity with the inquisitors. And so I tried to make sense of those two continuities including the most disturbing, which was the second. This, paradoxically in my view, is another stage of my becoming Jewish...the emotional identification with victims. Earlier, you quoted to me an essay by my mother which is called in English Universal Compassion, an essay which I read when it first appeared in a collection that was published in 1970, and which I never thought about until this morning."

"Your mother writes, 'To grant any value to our moral judgment is too daunting; to use it feels too shameful. All we have at our disposal today is a vast compassion for ourselves and the world at large. With universal compassion surely we can't go wrong. It is the one feeling we can give ourselves up to without fear of error. Such a flood of pity in ourselves and others may seem bizarre given that our world and its vicissitudes are consummately cruel and pitiless offering not the faintest glimpse of the profound pity that imbues us. Then again, our compassion is informed neither by intelligence nor by any real will to improve the world or ourselves. It is merely the result of fatigue and confusion, like a nervous outburst of tears that leaves us prostrate but unchanged. In any case, tears cannot lead ourselves astray for without a doubt the world we find ourselves in has earned them.'"

"It explains about the identification with the victim," says Ginzburg. "This is certainly part of my education...The really troubling part of the essay is not this paragraph, but the beginning."

"I believe," reads Holdengräber, "'The worst of our present misfortunes is our difficulty, in the face of whatever event, in distinguishing victims from the oppressor. No matter what transpires, whether public or private, our intellectual response is to avidly pursue the root causes and seek out the problem from the probable guilty parties. But before long, we stop short in bewilderment: the causes appear numberless, the realities too torturous and complex for human judgment. We have come to recognize that no event, public or private, can be considered or judged in isolation, for the more deeply we probe, the more we find infinitely ramifying events that preceded it all the way back to its source. In such a subterranean labyrinth, tracking down the guilty and the innocent seems a hopeless quest. The truth darts from place to place slipping and sliding in the dark like a fish or a mouse.'"

"So," nods Ginzburg. "At the end there is a commitment to moral judgment. We have to be on the side of the victim. But the troubling part is at the beginning of the essay when my mother wrote that it's difficult to make a distinction between the victims and the oppressor. There is a word, which I would use in this context. A word my mother never used, meaning ambivalence...We have this juncture: identification with the victims of the Inquisition and the intellectual continuity with the Inquisitors...I realized and I think this was the only idea I had in my life: What we label historic perception is the result of the Christian attitude toward Jews. And this is something, which is shared by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists like myself. ("Atheist Jews like myself," he smiles.) Meaning something can be true according to one context, but in a sense even more true according to another perspective."

"The idea of historical perspective is in fact the outcome of the Christian reading of the Old Testament. I wrote an essay, Distance and Perspective, which was the result of reading two great works. One is (philologist and scholar) Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. The other is historian Amos Funkkenstein's Theology of the Imagination. Erich Auerbach has inspired my work until today. He wrote a memorable essay in 1938 called Figura. The idea of figural reading is at the center of his book Mimesis.

Come, my people, enter into your rooms

And close your doors behind you;

Hide for a little whileuntil indignation runs its course. For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place

To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;

And the earth will reveal her bloodshed

And will no longer cover her slain. Isaiah 26:19-21

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when

all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those

who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil

will rise to be condemned. John 5:28-29

"What is figura really?" says Ginzburg. "This, as analyzed by, in fact, an anatomy of the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, an anatomy of the relationship between the New and Old Testament. But, from an historical point of view, an inversion of the genetic relationship between the passages from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels...So, simply, we have a move again; as in a chess game...Take that notion in the Gospels about the fulfillment of prophecies. The meaning of this is to choose a passage from Isaiah for instance, or the Psalms and turn that passage into a fragment related to the life of Jesus. In that essay, I say that I believe, not as a religious man, I'm not, that Jesus as a character existed. But I also believe and I try to argue and to demonstrate that full sections of the Gospels, concerning Jesus's infancy and Jesus's death are simply reworking of passages from Isaiah, the Psalms and so on. And this can be demonstrated."

"What is interesting," he continues, "is that there has been in my view a sort of self-censorship among scholars about this crucial phenomenon...Christian scholars of different affiliations were obviously shy about this, although there were some scholars who work on this but in a rather cautious way. Jewish scholars were also shy for different reasons. Some of them pointed to the fact that Jesus was rooted in the Jewish traditions. Of course, he was a Jew! But this fact concerning the text and the genetic relationship between the passages from the Old and New Testament, a Christian would say, 'Well this is something that is important.' On the one hand (during my research of the witch trials), I became conscious of this Christian ambivalence toward persecuting the Jews; and at the same time keeping the Hebrew Bible as part of the Christian Holy Book."

"However," says Holdengräber, "What was part of your education, you were read...terrifying tales, Sicilian folktales, including by your mother. They also shaped you."

"A lot. The tales were recorded and rewritten by the 19th century Sicilian writer, Luigi Capuana. There is only one collection comparable to those and they were published by Italo Calvino. I remember something, which looks to me as anticipation of my later research. A young girl comes to a house and there she meets a little man as tall as a thumb with a turban and a long feather. You turn the page and he becomes a werewolf. And the werewolf is about to devour the girl...I got the feeling that the little man was much more scary than the werewolf. So, in a sense there was already ambivalence."

"There are two things I learned very late in life, but are related in some way to my becoming Jewish. One is Christian ambivalence toward Jews; and two, Casuistry, Catholic Casuistry, Jesuit Casuistry, and unfortunately, although it's inaccessible to me in Hebrew, Jewish Casuistry as well. Casuistry is a branch of moral theology especially in the Catholic religion. The Jesuits wrote a lot about casuistry. (Reasoning to resolve moral problems by extracting or extending theoretical rules for particular cases).

For instance, a moral law, such as You Should Not Kill, becomes lessened...Recently, casuistry has emerged in biomedicine and technology. You get confronted with cases and you have bifurcations. Should we invest an enormous amount of money to heal this person, and so on?"

"It's interesting," says Holdengräber, "some of the intellectual figures that have mattered to you so much. You mentioned Erich Auerbach...and I think of Auerbach's great conclusion of Mimeses where he talks bout being able to write this book, which goes from Homer to Virginia Woolf while he is exiled (from Germany) in Istanbul and he thankfully in some strange way doesn't have all of his books. He can write this incredible book because he is writing it from memory.

"The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us--they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels." Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

"This is a book, which had an enormous impact on me as well as innumerable readers," says Ginzburg. "I tried to play a game with this book a few times For instance, I wrote an essay on Stendhal starting from the same passage, which had been commented upon by Auerbach. For me, microhistory was deeply associated with Auerbach. This idea of a close reading of a fragment to make sense of a whole, so I learned a lot from Auerbach. Then there was, I might not say competition, of course. But a kind of a game."

"Well, you might say competition," smiles Holdengräber.

"Okay," agrees Ginzburg, "Let's say competition..."

"Your range of references is tremendous," says Holdengräber. "And you use a way of describing how you begin your research, which to my mind I've totally adapted and nearly made my own...The term you use is 'The Euphoria of Ignorance.' You talk about approaching the work with...this unbridled enthusiasm, not quite knowing where you're going and because of that in some way, you are able to proceed."

"The range of topics I explore is unusually large," muses Ginzburg." It's not a virtue. One can say banal or silly things about a variety of subjects. I'm not proud of that."

"Lets explore this inspiring method," says Holdengräber. "The Euphoria of Ignorance" if one might call it such, a little bit more, a little deeper. The words, "Euphoria," and "Ignorance," produce an interesting effect when combined. Over the years they continue to inspire and influence me in many ways, in the work I do here at The New York Public Library as I prepare for the interviews. I am at once euphoric and ignorant, voracious, filled with appetite, euphoric at the prospect of learning and mostly ignorant as I approach my subjects, my interviewee's, but ready to learn, porous and filled with desire. I always wish for more, an appetite you might say which remains insatiable."

"I love to be taken by surprise," nods Ginzburg. "I want to come across something that is unknown and surprising and learn how to cope with this new fragment of knowledge..."

"I'd like to contrast and compare a quotation from your mother and from you," says Holdengräber. From Natalia Ginzburg in Little Virtues, 'If it seems people are wasting the best of their energies, and skills lying on the sofa reading ridiculous novels or charging around a football pitch, then again we cannot know whether this is really a waste of energy and skill, or whether tomorrow this too will bear fruit in some way that we have yet not suspected.'

And from your Italian edition of Clues in the Historical Message, "I have committed myself to be guided by chance and curiosity not by a conscious strategy but what appear to be distractions, although fascinating ones. At the time now do not seem such."

"I've never thought about that kind of echo."

"But there is an echo."

"Well, at the time my mother saw it. I mean I learned everything from her. That's not strange, I think."

"Not strange, but it's also not explicit at moments," says Holdengräber. "This notion not only of repression but of unawareness, as you call it. I think unawareness is perhaps more of a word that works for you. And certainly one that you use."

"Okay, one could say there is unawareness on both sides. Parents deliver teachings but at the same time there is something they are unaware of. This may be the most important thing in education. It's something, which is not really controlled on the side of the next generation. There is this idea of learning something but being unaware of what is really important. Maybe what is real important becomes explicit after 50 years...

"The same way becoming Jewish is like a continuous burp," chides Holdengräber.

"There is some kind of reworking."

"But," says Holdengräber. "It's certainly not something that Carlo Ginzburg would have spoken about 20 years ago in this way."

"Not in that way," says Ginzburg. "But twenty years ago I was already very aware that my relationship with being Jewish had been profoundly shaped by a famous book I am sure you will remember and have read by Jean-Paul Sartre, "Reflexions sur la Question Juive," translated as "Anti-Semite and the Jew," I have not reread it recently, but certainly there was a lot of bad conscience there: after all Sartre's attitude during the German occupation was problematic. His plays were performed in Paris, and so on. And I think people should read the piece keeping that in mind. However, there's something in the piece that I think is valuable. Meaning the interaction between anti-Semitic attitudes and Jews shaped the ways in which many Jews emerged from the persecution and that's the time that the essay was written in 1946. So it's a reflection...

Twenty years ago I would have said that persecution was crucial in shaping my own relationship with the fact of being Jewish and becoming Jewish. But then other things emerged. What I reject about the notion of identity is the fact it is something fixed."

"That is why the chess game is important," says Holdengräber.

"As a metaphor," smiles Ginzburg, leaving us to hope that Holdengräber will invite him back for another match.

The above text is an abridged version of Carlo Ginzbug's conversation with Paul Holdengräber. To watch the full conversation, click here.

To read Wild River Review's interview with Paul Holdengräber, click here.