by David Gutherz


See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (1942)

Who remembers the “people without history”? This epithet encapsulates Europe’s ambiguous relation to its own version of modernity. On the one hand, it has long been deployed as an explanation of European superiority and a justification for colonization. At the same time, the words were frequently uttered with a touch of nostalgia, a longing for the simplicity of “happy isles” where Time stood still. As the pace of life in Western Europe seemed to accelerate exponentially and anti-imperialist movements gathered steam, the pressure to resolve this contradiction became evermore intense. Modern anthropology was one response to this pressure. So was Fascism. 1922: Bronisław Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s Primitive Mentality hit the bookshelves and the Blackshirts marched on Rome. 1925: Marcel Mauss published The Gift, a groundbreaking investigation into the meaning of “total social facts.” In March of that same year Giovanni Gentile referred to Fascism as a “total conception of life,” and within a few months Il Duce was speaking of the “totalitarian” State. To sound the absence of serious diachronic analysis in European discourses about “the Other,” we have to learn how to think through these synchronies.

Anyone interested in tracing the threads that bind Malinowski and Mussolini ought to familiarize themselves with the unclassifiable work of Ernesto de Martino. Unlike many current armchair critics of colonialist anthropology, de Martino understood the intellectual allure of what he ultimately rejected. He started studying “primitives” while still involved in Fascist youth organizations. In his earliest writings on the subject there are echoes of some of the “Victorians” criticized in the first selection in this feature, as well as the “hyper-provincialism” of such writers as Curzio Malaparte who celebrated the rebirth of “Barbaric Italy.” Contact with the liberal philosopher Benedetto Croce helped pull him leftwards, however, and sometime around 1936 de Martino began to develop the systematic critique of anthropology, Fascist ideology, and his younger self on display in the pages that follow. Between 1943 and 1945 he was actively involved in a partisan organization associated with the liberal-socialist Action Party and was, therefore, forced to write the bulk of his masterpiece Il mondo magico: Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo while hiding from Hitler’s henchmen in a small cottage near Ravenna. [1]

The core thesis of this profoundly anti-Fascist work owes a great deal to at least one unrepentant Nazi: Martin Heidegger. For years, de Martino argued, European ethnologists had struggled to figure out why “primitives” believed in the existence of magical beings because they had forgotten that Existence had a history. They had forgotten, in other words, that the “Western” concept of “Reality” was itself a historical achievement. Instead of examining this history of Being, ethnologists denied that “savages” were historical beings. In so doing, as Claude Levi-Strauss put it years later, they erected a system that “[invoked] the criterion of historical consciousness to distinguish the ‘primitive’ from the ‘civilized’ but—contrary to its claim—[was] itself ahistorical.” [2] Overcoming the impasse produced by this “lazy historicism” would, de Martino argued, require a double movement: turn the objects of anthropology back into subjects of their own history and use the material gathered by social “naturalists” to probe the history of Western subjectivity.

In this spirit, Il mondo magico proposed that shamanism was a condition for the possibility of the radical skepticism that underlies modern rationalism, but that people didn’t turn to shamans because they doubted the evidence of their senses. Instead, de Martino urged his readers to see magic as a response to a more elemental “crisis of presence,” precipitated by the fear that the Ego itself is on the edge of nonexistence. You may think of this as the difference between imagining that the individuals around you sipping coffee are secretly automatons and feeling as if your own body is a husk, occupied by a being that is not I. These days, if you spend a lot of time worrying about the former, you’ re labeled an “analytic philosopher”; express concerns about the latter and in short order you’ ll find people calling you “sick,” or “superstitious,” or—if you’re really lucky—a “poet.” Through the history of magic, de Martino sought access to societies that didn’t push this “drama of presence” out of the public sphere, but rather treated it as a problem that concerned the whole community. Fascism, he suggested, was able to undermine liberal institutions by offering collective solutions to the pain that “humanists” blinded by individualism couldn’t even see. To counter this pseudoregression, socialist humanists would have to find a more compelling response to “primitive” fears. [3] And to do this, de Martino insisted, they would have to work through the history that ethnology erased.


In what follows, we offer three glimpses of de Martino’s attempt to recover this forgotten history. The first is an excerpt from his essay, “Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterno” (“Towards a History of the Subaltern Popular World”), published in the Communist-aligned journal Società in 1949. [4] The term “subaltern” was borrowed from Antonio Gramsci. In a passage published towards the beginning of the first volume of the Italian selections from the Prison Notebooks, Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce (1948), the Communist martyr speculated that determinism is the opium of the “subaltern” masses:

When one does not have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself is ultimately identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a formidable power of moral resistance…. Real will is disguised as an act of faith…. But when the “subaltern” becomes the leader…there occurs a revision of the whole mode of thinking because there has taken place a change in the social mode of being… . If yesterday the subaltern was irresponsible because he was “resisting” an outside will, today he feels responsible because he is no longer resisting but is an agent. [5]

In “Towards a History of the Subaltern Popular World,” de Martino argued that this revision in social being and social consciousness—the subaltern “irruption” into history, as he put it—was already underway. If Western social science did not yet reflect this change, that was because the so-called scientists remained literary representatives of the imperialist ruling class: they managed to travel all around the world without ever leaving the mental confines of the European bourgeoisie. [6] To correct this “backwardness,” he suggested (in a section of the essay not included here), Westerners might learn a thing or two from Soviet ethnologists. Specifically, de Martino was impressed by the Soviets’ inquiries into “progressive folklore,” that is to say, into oral and literary records of the People’s participation in the struggle for their own emancipation. This is not to say that de Martino simply wanted to transplant Soviet methods into Italian soil. He certainly admired the way Soviet folklorists were challenging the implicit teleologies of bourgeois evolutionary theory by reordering history from the standpoint of the Worker’s State. Yet he dreamed of a subaltern historiography that didn’t simply clarify the preparatory stages that peoples passed through on their way to socialism but actually helped prepare them for revolution:

Imagine [the impact of] a history of folk Catholicism and superstitions in Southern Italy, reconstructed with the help of on-site fieldwork, and conceived explicitly as preparation for a historical consciousness that could facilitate and clarify the meaning of the real insertion of the rural plebes into history.  [7]

When he wrote these lines, de Martino had already had ample opportunity to observe the intermingling of superstition and politics as a Socialist deputy in Puglia. But he had not yet done any official fieldwork. Within a few months of publishing them, however, he was already getting a team together to put his ideas into practice on a trip to “Lucania” (present day Basilicata). [8]

As the second essay in this feature, “Death in the Piazza,” demonstrates, de Martino’s “field guide” to this region was Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), an anthropological treatise disguised as a novel masquerading as a memoir, which quickly became required reading for a generation of leftists in Italy and abroad. This surprise bestseller is structured around a semifictionalized account of the author’s experiences during his “exile” in a small southern village called “Gagliano.” Towards the end of the book, Levi (a doctor by trade) is called to the far edges of the village to attend to a man with a ruptured appendix. Without his modern technology, however, the doctor is powerless. He waits in the house, watching as the man expires and the women around him begin a highly choreographed, heartbreaking lament. De Martino was so fascinated by this mourning ritual that he dedicated an entire monograph to historicizing what, in “Death in the Piazza,” he calls the peasant’s “passion for the suppression of history’s order, a desperate desire to unmake history [disfare la storia] and drive it as far back as possible into the indistinctness of chaos.” [9]

Once you’ve identified this rage for disorder it’s easy to start seeing it everywhere. De Martino certainly did. At the hour of his death, he was busy gathering notes—posthumously published under the title La fine del mondo (The End of the World)—for a sweeping study of apocalypticism that was to include commentaries on ancient mystery cults, Marxism, Alberto Moravia, and the Mau Mau. In so doing, as Carlo Ginzburg shows in his essay “On Ernesto de Martino’s The End of the World and Its Genesis,” published here for the first time in English, de Martino was both responding to widespread anxieties about thermonuclear war and drawing on his own experience of a very different sort of world destruction.

Now that the words “Fascism” and “Armageddon” are once again being used to sell newspapers, it is unfortunately all too easy to make a case for this work’s relevance. And I am convinced that our so-called Resistance could learn a great deal from it. [10] If I hope that my generation will recover de Martino, however, it is not because I wish to see him resurrected. The point is not “to ring the bell backwards” and “summon the specter of a Rose”:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.

And yet it is still true that:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated

Let us, then, take our cue from de Martino and examine this inheritance.


[1] See Ernesto de Martino, Il mondo magico: Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo (Torino: Einaudi, 1948). Trans. by Paul Saye White as The World of Magic (New York: Pyramid Communications, 1972). Readers interested in de Martino’s political evolution ought to consult the timeline assembled by Cesare Bermani in Tra furore e valore: Ernesto de Martino, bulletin 5–6 of the Ernesto de Martino Institute, published in 1996.
[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. George Weidenfeld,
[3] The language of “pseudoregression” comes from Theodor Adorno but captures de Martino’s general attitude towards “Odinic neo-paganism” quite well. For a succinct explanation of the concept, see Peter Gordon, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” boundary 2 44.2 (May 2017): 31–56.
[4] Ernesto de Martino, “Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterno,” Società 5.3 (1949): 411–35. Intorno means “concerning,” or “around,” but we have chosen to render it “towards” to emphasize that the essay was meant to be a manifesto.
[5] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 336. Translation modified. The term “subaltern” appears in quotation marks in the original.
[6] “[One must not] imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.” Karl Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,”
[7] De Martino, “Intorno a una storia,” 432.
[8] The team included the musicologist Diego Carpitella (who went on to assist Alan Lomax on his legendary 1954 expedition across Italy), photographer Franco Pinna (who later applied his skills to Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits [1965]) and de Martino’s wife, the social worker Vittoria de Palma. The Socialist poet and mayor of Tricarico, Rocco Scotellaro, was their host and main “native informant.”
[9] See p. 75 in this issue. This was the first book in de Martino’s trilogy on the “religious history of the South,” Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico: Dal lamento funebre antico al pianto di Maria (Death and Ritual Mourning in the Ancient World: From the Ancient Funeral Lament to the Weeping of Mary) (Torino: Einaudi, 1958). The trilogy also included the later volumes Sud e magia (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1959) and La terra del rimorso: Contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1961). Dorothy Louise Zinn has given us magnificent translations of the later volumes as Magic: A Theory from the South (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015) and The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism (London: Free Association Books, 2005), respectively, but Morte e pianto rituale remains untranslated.
[10] In this context, it may be worth rereading Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1966 interview with Paese Sera, where he attempted to apply de Martino’s insights to the “real collective craziness” of American racism. See Pasolini, “Civil War,” in In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology, ed. Jack Hirschman (San Francisco: City Lights, 2010). This is a powerful and generally precise version, except for the fact that the translators chose to render the phrase paura di perdere la presenza as “fear of losing heritage” instead of “fear of losing one’s own presence,” thereby (in my opinion, wrongly) linking both Pasolini and de Martino with a now common narrative about white working-class identity politics.