Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive

Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive

Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive

Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

1. The Greeks tell us that Theseus received a thread as a gift from Ariadne. With that thread he found his bearings in the labyrinth, located the Minotaur, and slew him. The myth says nothing about the traces that Theseus left as he made his way through the labyrinth.

What holds together the chapters of this book dedicated to some highly heterogeneous topics is the relation between the thread—the thread of narration, which helps us to orient ourselves in the labyrinth of reality—and the traces. I have been a historian for some time: using such traces, I seek to narrate true stories (which at times have falsehoods as their object). Today it seems to me that none of the terms of that definition (narrate, traces, stories, true, false) can be taken for granted. When I began to learn my craft, toward the end of the 1950s, the prevailing attitude in the guild of historians was completely different. Writing narrative history was not considered a matter for serious reflection. I remember one exception to this rule: Arsenio Frugoni, who, as I understood later, returned now and then in his seminars in Pisa to the topic of the subjective nature of the narrative sources, which he had discussed a few years earlier in his Arnaldo da Brescia. Frugoni suggested to me—I was in my second year at the University of Pisa—that I prepare a colloquium on the school of the Annales, so I began to read Marc Bloch. In his Métier d’historien I ran into a page which many years later, though I was not fully aware of it, helped me to reflect on traces of evidence. But in those days historians did not speak of traces and the trail they leave.

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