In the Hidden Paris Underground

Historians are often self-described as detectives. Perhaps the most probing discussion of their sleuthing is Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on “Clues”—Spie—and their decipherment. Ginzburg speculates that following the path laid out by clues—connecting bits of evidence on the ground—may go back to the way hunters tracked their prey:

Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless pursuits he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks in the mud, broken branches, droppings of excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors. He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle.1

And Ginzburg suggests that this is an idiosyncratic form of knowing that takes narrative form:

This knowledge is characterized by the ability to move from apparently insignificant experiential data to a complex reality that cannot be experienced directly. And the data is always arranged by the observer in such a way as to produce a narrative sequence, which could be expressed most simply as “someone passed this way.” Perhaps the very idea of narrative (as distinct from the incantation, exorcism, or invocation) was born in a hunting society, from the experience of deciphering tracks.

On this account, the historian would not be seeking “laws” of history, or even an “explanation” of how things happened, so much as the set of links that allow one to see the interconnectedness of events. As Dr. Watson admiringly exclaims to Sherlock Holmes at the end of one of their cases: “You reasoned it out beautifully…. It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true.”2 The detective story is one of our tools for making sense of how things fit together in time, and how, in retrospect, we construct the narrative of who or what passed this way.

Robert Darnton cites Ginzburg on clues (as well as R.G. Collingwood’s earlier parallel of historian and detective) in Poetry and the Police, the latest in his impressive probes into the popular culture of ancien régime France, its relation to the business of Enlightening, and, possibly, to the Revolution looming at the end of the century. He has over the years in his many books effectively demonstrated that the subversive writings of eighteenth-century France did not consist simply, maybe not even principally, of the celebrated works of the philosophes but more tellingly included the scabrous underground classics such as the pornographic Thérèse philosophe. At the same time he warned us off the retrospective explanatory vision that sees everything in the century as preparatory to the storming of the Bastille. And in Poetry and the Police, as in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995) and the essays of The Great Cat Massacre (1984), he is interested in popular culture and channels of communication in their own right.

Poetry and the Police stands first of all as the exceptional reward of detective work—comparable to Natalie Zemon Davis’s retrieval …

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  1. 1

    Carlo Ginzburg, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 102. The Italian edition is “Spie: Radici di un paradigma indizario,” in Miti Emblemi Spie (Torino: Einaudi, 1986). I have modified the Tedeschi translation in places in order to give a more literal rendition. 

  2. 2

    Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Red-Headed League,” in The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Other Stories of Sherlock Holmes (Signet, 1965), p. 83.