Saturday, March 07, 2009

The letter kills, the spirit gives life

Yesterday it was my privilege to attend, at Columbia University, a special lecture by Carlo Ginzburg, in all likelihood the most profound scholar now working in the field of the history of ideas.

The son of a distinguished antifascist, Leone Ginzburg, and of Natalia, a noted writer, Carlo was born in Turin in 1939. He is one of the founders of the discipline of microhistory, as seen in his ground-breaking book, “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller,” which vividly reconstructed the mentality of a kind of “do-it-yourself” heretic named Menocchio from Montereale Valcellina.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Ginzburg acknowledges that his “approach to microhistory has been largely inspired by the work of Erich Auerbach, the great Jewish scholar who spent his most creative years in Istanbul in exile from Nazi Germany. At the end of his masterpiece, Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the Second World War, Auerbach wrote: ‘Beneath the conflicts, and also through them, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible.’ . . . The ongoing unification of the world, Auerbach wrote in the conclusion of Mimesis, ‘is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random lives of different people.’”

While Ginzburg’s central interest is early modern European history, the Italian scholar has ranged widely both forward and backward. His studies of a sixteenth-century dissident group, the Benandanti, led to a speculative interpretation of the origin of witchcraft in protohistoric shamanic cults. His more recent interests are exemplified by a touchstone essay, a tour de force in which he compares Sigmund Freud, Giovanni Morelli, and Sherlock Holmes (see “Clues, Myths and the Historical Method,” 1989). He has also published an interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica.

Having taught at UCLA from 1988 to 2006, currently Ginzburg is a professor at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa.

Like Ginzburg, I too was influenced by Erich Auerbach, one of the crucial authors of my college years. On several occasions our paths nearly crossed--notably at the Warburg Institute in London--but this was the first time I have encountered Professor Ginzburg in person. Even though I didn’t get to ask a question afterwards, I always find it rewarding actually to see and hear a thinker whose written work has influenced me over the years.

The subject of last night’s lecture was a celebrated passage in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Perhaps because of time constraints, Ginzburg said almost nothing about the context of the passage, and the effect it might have had on the original target audience. St. Paul’s double binary (death/life; letter/spirit) is part of a larger effort to contrast the old covenant (the rigid traditionalism of the Pharisees and other observant Jews of his day) with the vibrant new covenant of Jesus Christ. In the Apostle’s view, followers of the former approach were figuratively killing themselves by their obsessive concern with detail (the letter), ignoring the larger picture (the spirit). In a broader sense, the contrast of letter and spirit joins such Greek philosophical commonplaces as the antinomies of nomos (law) versus physis (nature); and soma (body) versus psyche (soul) or pneuma (spirit).

Moreover, Ginzburg set aside any formal examination of the role the verse has played in authorizing the multilayered Christian hermeneutics of Scripture. The name of Origen of Caesarea, who inaugurated this approach, was notably absent.

Instead the audience was taken on a learned and somewhat wayward trip through the centuries, from Augustine to Nicholas of Lyra, and from Karstadt to Spinoza. I frankly confess that, while the exposition of each passage was clear enough, the purpose of the journey eluded me. The letter was there but the spirit was absent! Or perhaps I should say that I could not readily discern the figure in the carpet.

The upshot only seemed to emerge in the question period, when Mr. Ginzburg, expatiating on a book by the Franco-Bulgarian literary scholar Tsvetan Todorov, said that the advantage of the West in its conflict with other cultures (Aztecs in Todorov’s account) resided in its layered approach to truth and language. This layering, apparently, is the product of centuries of mulling over the kernel of truth in 2 Cor. 3:6.

If this interpretation is the case, the omission of Origen of Caesarea seems all the more puzzling, for he is the founder of the Western tradition of interpreting texts both literally and allegorically. Origen wrote in Greek. Early on in his presentation, Mr. Ginzburg demonstrated that, as a beneficiary of training in an Italian classical liceo, he knew Greek. What then was the fate of the Pauline motif among the Cappadocians, in the grammarians of the Middle Byzantine period, and in late Byzantine theology? And in Russia? The Eastern half of his grand mural was absent.

At all events, like President Obama Ginzburg preferred to look forward rather than backward. This approach became evident in his concluding segment, a somewhat strained interpretation of Franz Kafka’s sadistic parable, “In the Penal Colony.” The locale of this story is some European colony, evidently French or Belgian, in some Third World land. Supposedly Kafka held that b o t h the letter and the spirit kill. This finding did not convince.

To my mind a better ending would be a once-famous footnote of T.S. Eliot, found in his 1928 essay, “Baudelaire in Our Time” (“For Lancelot Andrews,” p. 70). Here Eliot proffered a daring inversion, “And the spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life.”

As an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot was referring to some superficial efforts by Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells to dismiss religious faith. Impatient with the details of religion--the letter--they moved directly to their impression--negative, but vague and uninformed--of its character, or “spirit.” This approach may be likened to the attempts to characterize “the spirit of capitalism.” I have encountered a similar problem in dealing with some respondents from the antireligion camp to my Abrahamic pieces. Despite their good intentions, these folks are impatient with the details; they spurn the hard work of deciphering religious texts, simply issuing their ukases on the spirit of religion. It is BAD, and there is an end to it.

A possible subtext of Eliot’s quip is his approach to modern poetry, his principal endeavor. As a member of a school that included such figures as Ezra Pound and H.D., Eliot believed supremely in the details of words. These poets rejected what Pound termed “emotional slither,” that is, the vague soulfulness of late-romantic verse. The latter might be termed “spirit” in the negative sense of Eliot’s aphorism, while the new poetry offered a salutary precision of detail (the “letter”).



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