The subject on which I have been invited to speak today—witches and shamans—is central to my book Storia notturna. Una decifrazione del sabba,footnote1 which is appearing now, a few years after the Italian edition, in Japanese translation. Instead of summarizing my book in its final form, I prefer to invite my listeners to read it by speaking of the preliminary researches which allowed me to write it. I should like to recount the road—the somewhat tortuous road—which brought me, albeit metaphorically, from north-east Italy where my research into witchcraft had begun, to the steppes of central Asia.
The great French sinologist, Marcel Granet, once said that ‘la méthode, c’est la voie après qu’on l’a parcourue’, method is the road after one has travelled it.footnote2 The word ‘method’ in fact derives from the Greek, even if the etymology proposed by Granet—metà-odòs, after the road—is entirely imaginary. But Granet’s jocular remark had a serious—indeed a polemical—content: in any scientific realm discourse on method has value only if it is a reflection
To tell the story of the itinerary of a piece of research when it has already reached its conclusion (even if it is a case, by definition, of a provisional conclusion) always—as is obvious—carries with it a risk: that of teleology. In retrospect the uncertainties and mistakes disappear or else are transformed into steps of a stair that leads straight to the goal: the historian knows from the beginning what he wants, seeks it and in the end finds it. But in real research things do not go like that at all. The life of a laboratory, as historians like the Frenchman Bruno Latour have described it in recent years using an anthropological model, is much more confused and untidy.
The experience I am about to describe is itself more than a little confused and untidy, even if it refers to an individual—myself—and not to a group. At the begining there is a sudden illumination, the way a subject for research presents itself to a twenty-year-old student at the University of Pisa at the end of the 1950s. Up to the moment before, I was not sure I wanted to be a historian, but when this subject came into my mind I had no more doubts. This was my subject, the subject on which I was ready to work for years (I did not imagine how many).
I have often wondered what the motives were for this unexpected enthusiasm, which in retrospect seems to me to have all the characteristics of falling in love: the lightning suddenness, the enthusiasm, its (at least apparent) lack of awareness. Of the history of witchcraft I knew nothing: my first act (later repeated very often with other subjects of research) was to look up the word ‘witchcraft’ in the Enciclopedia italiana in order to get from it some elementary information. Perhaps for the first time I really felt what I would call ‘the euphoria of ignorance’: the feeling of knowing nothing and of being on the point of learning something. I think that the intense pleasure associated with this moment contributed to preventing me from becoming a specialist, from going in depth into a very limited field of study. The urge to confront periodically subjects and areas of research of which I am completely ignorant has not only endured but has become more marked with the years.
For a student in his second year at university to be totally ignorant about the research subject he chooses is a commonplace. Perhaps less commonplace is the perception that an analogous disproportion between scanty or non-existent preliminary knowledge and the relevance of the object is probably characteristic of all the really important
How much will the fairytales they told me when I was a child have counted in my choice? My mother used to read me the fairytales collected at the end of the nineteenth century by the Sicilian author, Luigi Capuana, peopled by every kind of magic and horror: mother-dragons with their mouths bloody from the flesh of ‘lambs, kids/that looked like babies’, tiny creatures with an innocent look which, when the page was turned, changed into monstrous werewolves with gaping jaws. Crocetta, a girl from the Abruzzi, who lived in the village where my family spent three years, told me and my brother (as I have learned from something my mother, Natalia Ginzburg, wrote entitled Inverno in Abruzzo (Winter in the Abruzzo), stories not greatly different from those collected by Capuana. In one of them a child is killed by its stepmother and served up to its father, then its fleshless bones begin to sing: ‘And my cruel stepmother cooked me in the pot/And my gluttonous father swallowed me down/He made a good meal of me.’footnote3 Through the sinister ambiguity of fairy tales I had begun, as all children do, to decipher reality—in the first instance the mysterious world of adults.