Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Ernesto De Martino's the End of the World and Its Genesis

Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Ernesto De Martino's the End of the World and Its Genesis

Article excerpt

La fine del mondo (The End of the World), Ernesto de Martino's last, unfinished project, may be regarded as the outcome of different, partially contradictory impulses. I will try to reconstruct some of them, relying upon evidence as well as upon reasonable contextual guesses.


1. The most evident feature of the project on La fine del mondo is its connection with Il mondo magico (roughly translatable as "the world of magic"): de Martino's most original, and most disturbing book. (1) Magic, de Martino argued, powerfully contributed to rescuing the fragile, threatened presence of the individual in the world. In a sense, the world as such, and the presence of the individual within it, have been, de Martino suggested, the historical result of magic. Many years ago, developing a suggestion put forward by Renato Solmi, I pointed out some analogies between de Martino's Il mondo magico and Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, inscribing both of them within a larger category that I labelled "books of the year zero." (2) Today I will focus on a different, albeit not incompatible, perspective. A note published by Giordana Charuty in her fundamental biography, Les vies anterieures d'un anthropologue (The Former Lives of an Anthropologist), shows that de Martino was deeply aware of the personal, emotional roots of the argument he had put forward in Il mondo magico. As a young man he had suffered from epileptic fits. He retrospectively reinterpreted them within the framework of his own concept of "loss of presence":

"The experience of epileptic aura' is the sign that presence is going to weaken.... [After the crisis] presence reemerges from the shipwreck, along with a world which has retrieved its forms, its feelings. It was like sliding down from history, slowly." (3)

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me point out straightaway that I will refrain from interpreting de Martino's work as the product of his illnesses: this would be a naive biographical fallacy. But history and anthropology are located forms of knowledge; through his personal intellectual and emotional experience (which included his illnesses) de Martino worked out arguments that aimed at a general relevance and that must be evaluated on their own grounds. His reflection on the shipwreck of the world for the threatened individual paved the way, twenty years later, to a reflection on the end of the world for the threatened human species. In his last project de Martino went back to his earlier work, developing some of its implications in a completely different context. In both cases, de Martino focused on pathological phenomena as a key to broader, non-pathological configurations. This interpretive step must be examined more closely.

2. At the very start of II mondo magico the reader is confronted with a two-page quotation from a book that has remained a classic reference on shamanism until the present time: Sergei Shirokogoroff's The Psychomental Complex of the Tungus, published in London in 1935. (4) De Martino borrowed a copy of The Psychomental Complex from Raffaele Pettazzoni, the historian of religions, and published a review of it in 1942; however, he was already extensively quoting it in 1940 (EdM, 259, fn. 65). (5) What brought Shirokogoroff's book to de Martino's attention was, I would argue, another book mentioned in Il mondo magico: Wilhelm Muhlmann's Methodik der Volkerkunde (1938) (see MM, 93-94, 159). (6) In his first book,Naturalismo e storicismo neiietnologia, de Martino had already mentioned an essay by Muhlmann, emphatically praising it as "one of the highest theoretical contributions I had ever come across." (7)

A footnote is needed here. Muhlmann, the author of a well-known history of anthropology, went through a long and successful academic career in anthropology and folklore; two bibliographies dedicated to him in 1968 and 1984 duly included his essays and books on Rassenkunde published in the 1930s and 1940s. …

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