Academic journal article Western Folklore

Beyond Belief: Context, Rationality and Participatory Consciousness1

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Beyond Belief: Context, Rationality and Participatory Consciousness1

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2005, I began my most recent fieldwork-based project on Italian vernacular healing and its disposition in the diasporas of North America. The initial phase involved interviewing herbal and spiritual healers in Campania and Emilia-Romagna in collaboration with two Italian colleagues, Augusto Ferraiuolo and Placida Staro. My first contacts with Italian healers came through my colleagues and consisted almost entirely of individuals who had grown up in rural Italy in the 1960s and 70s, but were university-educated, lived in cities, and had middle-class jobs and lives. Nevertheless, they had at some point learned from their mothers or other relatives the charms and spells to remove the malocchio and heal other illnesses, which they now occasionally practiced on friends and family members.

This early fieldwork almost always took place in the context of evening get-togethers that included my colleagues and other friends, and had the cheerful, somewhat chaotic air of celebrations: "Quiet, everyone - Sabina's recording! Is it on?" someone would say as I readied my video camera and recording equipment. My subjects obligingly recounted how and when they learned the techniques and what they healed, and several demonstrated them on willing participants, calling for plates of water, bottles of olive oil, matches, and candles.

I was always careful not to ask about belief, conscious that, as Dégh writes, "The question itself provokes distortion," that "the fluctuating mental states of [performers] and responsive authences can be discerned from the spontaneous performance, without asking embarrassing personal questions impossible to answer" (Dégh 1996:39) .2 Nevertheless, someone else present would always ask, "Ma funziona?" ("But does it work?") or "Ma ci credi?" ("Do you believe in it?"). To diese questions, my collaborators often answered, "Non è vero, ma ci credo" - "It's not true, but I believe in it." When, intrigued by this answer, I questioned them about it, they referred me to the work of Italian ethnologist Ernesto De Martino, with whom all educated Italians of my generation are at least cursorily familiar. "È come dice De Martino; è classico! 'Non è vero ma ci credo'" ("It's like De Martino says; it's classic! It's not true but I believe in it").

This aphorism, which De Martino never actually wrote, embodies concepts articulated in Sud e magia (1987 [1961]) in die context of De Martino's discussion of post-Enlightenment Neapolitan attitudes towards magic and the evil eye. In this work, De Martino traces the influence of the Enlightenment and the emergence of rational positivism on the Neapolitan belief complex surrounding the evil eye, or jettatura. He argues that literary Neapolitan audiors from the late 17th and early 18th centuries neither subscribed to the medieval theory of the evil eye as pertaining to the realm of witchcraft and demonology, nor fully embraced the rationalist concept of the non-existence of such phenomena. Instead, they shrouded their comments in ironic humor, captured in the aphorism "Non è vero, ma ci credo." In the process, De Martino deconstructs the development of our own notions of reality and unreality, rational and irrational belief. "Non è vero, ma ci credo" summarizes the complex relationship between dominant and subordinate Western European constructions of reality: on one hand we see the pre-Enlightenment worldview, which accepts magic as a force of agency and a tactic for the actualization of power in the world, and, on the other, a post-Enlightenment logical positivism which shapes the nature of ethnographic enquiry. Not infrequently, these coexist in the same individual - as they did in De Martino himself, who remained to the end of his life a believer in the possibility of the jettatura.

In this paper, I want to use this contrast as a jumping-off point to critique the ways folklorista and anthropologists have approached the issue of belief, and to suggest a different and, I hope, provocative set of considerations drawn from my work in a variety of cultural contexts. …

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