Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (Verso, 2002)

In these nine reflections on the idea of distance and historical inquiry, Carlo Ginzburg, the noted historian and intellectual makes his way through a variety of fascinating topics from diverse fields with great ease and coolness. The concept of distance is examined from several perspectives. In in the first essay, entitled 'Making It Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device', he opens by discussing Viktor Shklovsky's Theory of Prose and his definition of art as a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant. From here he takes us on a wonderful journey from Proust, Marcus Aurelius, Antonio de Guevara (who?), Montaigne, La Bruyère, Tolstoy and many more as he examines the idea of ostranienie or de-familiarization. This gives some idea of the range that Ginzburg provides in his meditations. This only works when the author has complete control over his argument and over his material, and both happily coincide in this book.

A long chapter on 'Myth: Distance and Deceit' takes us from Plato to the Nazis without time for breath in between; another on 'Representation: The Word, The Idea, The Thing' opens with a fascinating discussion of funerary practices in the late middle ages and the use of effigies of the dead and examines the idea of an oscillation between representation as substitute and as mimetic evocation. One of the most facscinating meditations, Chapter 4, 'Ecce: On the Scriptural Roots of Christian Devoational Imagery' opens with a marvellously stimulating discussion of the role of Old Testament (and prophetic) citations in the Gospels, and wonders if it is useful to use the term testimonia to describe these citation strings. His conclusion is that it is the citations that generate the narrative and not the other way around.

Further chapters are: 'Idols and Likenesses: A Passage in Origen and its Vicissitudes'; 'Style: Inclusion and Exclusion'; 'Distance and Perspective: Two Metaphors'; 'To Kill a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance'; 'Pope Wojtyla's Slip'.

I look forward to keeping this book closeby and returning to it and ruminating further on the many fascinating things Ginzburg has to say. I recommend it.

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