Carpets and historical reading: Between Ginzburg and other dialogues

Carpet, Ngadju or Ot Danum Peoples (Indonesia), s/d


Understanding the historical method with Ginzburg takes us through the interferences added to the reading

The seam that makes up a story, imagetically, can be constructed in the metaphor used by Carlo Ginzburg, like the threads of a carpet braided together, in which elements together form a plot, the plot, the object of the writer's desire. I always think of the carpet when I read Ginzburg, but I have the ease of dispersion and it doesn't take long for me to follow another narrative, in the representation of the magic carpet, perhaps Aladdin's. Untimely, soon the cover of orientalism, by Edward Said. Without moving, connected stories come together, all because of the rugs, or rather the threads that make them up. Another field blossoms, in dialogue anchored in comparison.

Metaphorical rugs have an impressive capacity for connections – Ginzburg is really spot on, whether through his micro-story or his good handling of words, who would have thought that cheese and worms go together so well to tell the story of a miller?! I confess that it intrigues me too the great cat massacre, in the work of Darnton. But Jean-Léon Gérôme starts from another place and literally paints social emblems. 1879 year indicated for the image that would accompany the referenced book by Said. In “The Snake Charmer” cold tones predominate, striking blue in tiles, and has a centralized foreground, dressed in human nudity holding a snake, the scene on a carpet. Gérôme's work arouses curiosity and is perhaps an emphasis in paint on what Said theorized as Orientalism. The East as an invention of the West, the discursive power that mobilizes representations, the same one that makes carpets imagined and not by chance comes across Aladdin, a popular cartoon image so widespread in the 1990s.

In certain aspects, we could talk about the link between Aladdin and Orientalism, but the carpet takes us to another domain. Gérôme's work is confined to another book cover, Resistance and Revolution in Africa, published in 2019, authored by Felipe Paiva. The critical dialogue with Said follows Paiva's doctoral work, which focuses on two African leaders: Nasser and Nkrumah. While Said's book featured the painting “The Snake Charmer”, Paiva's book uses another image, a painting before the first, “Bashi-Bazouk”. It is interesting to read Paiva's works, whether for their intellectual richness, or to delve into literary references – the rigor in putting into practice the theory of the formative novel, covered by Thomas Mann, for the study of political leaders from Egypt and Ghana is without doubts a writing that shuffles and reorganizes references. 

Africa was also an imagined space, of which Said spoke in Culture and Imperialism, a book published years later, in 1993. More recently, “Bashi-Bazouk” returned to the cover of Brazilian works. In 2022, in hardcover, came the reissue of The shackle and the libambo. Africa and slavery from 1500 to 1700. Alberto da Costa e Silva is one of the great references for African studies in Brazil. When I started this text, I had in mind to start here, from A River Called Atlantic: Africa in Brazil and Brazil in Africa. But, it's unbelievable how one theme unfolds in so many others, or rather, different threads have the ability to weave different plots. The Atlantic becomes a river, which connects two banks, in the past and in memory, in the present and possibly in times to come. Depending on the connection, the margins and problematizations on this topic will still yield the most different conclusions.

The interfaces of Brazil in Africa, and of an Africa also affected by references from Brazil, are of a depth that could be used to stitch together many pieces. Costa e Silva led us well on this journey. His books resumed dynamics that resonate with constancy: we are still struck by the need to discuss, deconstruct and reconstruct the guidelines that guide us around the stories that prevail on the African continent. We are touched by Images of Africa, of relationships and movements, exchanges that are not supported by the imaginative and political potential of created borders – generally, for centuries, people have been more interested in living than contemplating given rules, postmortem, for the writings of their lives.

The two sides of the Atlantic are contemplated in the writing and resonate in the cultural envelope, from faces to gestures. Costa e Silva highlighted the lively aspect of how African elements were present in the construction of Brazil, and from here, they left for there, resuming and expanding the Flow and Refluxes, which Verger also spoke about. We are what we are by virtue of where we come from, and in no way can this be summed up in just one story. We notice the politically announced attempts at erasure, which have left historical decades uncontacted, but the constant presence overwhelms the present. There are many threads brought together, political desires and the unbalanced formation of official narratives. The rewriting is reversed over time, in large steps. To do this, we stick to the past and realize that every place is part of what is built on it, the meaning that is attributed to it. Africa, then, is recreated; there are also other spaces affected by the orientalism.

Ginzburg not only for the carpet, see Fear, reverence, terror, is faithful to the argument that societies and times connect more than they move apart.  Pathosformeln it is the key to the methodological exercise to understand emotions aligned with the field of visuality, overflowing in the dialogues between form and content. It would be the Pathosformeln a useful concept to explain the connection between the images produced by Gérôme and the book covers on which they rest? It is possible that such choices are driven by the emotions caused by contact with such images, which bring part of something persistent through the record. in which the more or less short times of history are intertwined with the very long times.[I]

The metaphor of weaving, building links, so well suited to analyzes of European manifestations, would have its origins elsewhere. It would in fact be the carpet coming from orientalism, with its threads and weaves? If so, we are moving towards another connection, perhaps the imagined place, another reference, a reinforcement of the initial idea argued by the author, using elements that reinforce the contacts, perceived in the story against the grain, or in the evidentiary paradigm.  

Understanding the historical method with Ginzburg makes us go through the interferences added to reading, to compose an internal conversation – whoever reads does this, reads from what we are and what we have, sometimes an arsenal of memories and references, other times a space to be inhabited. The threads of a rug weave, join and add elements. The carpet, Alladin, orientalism and dialogues with book covers, which contain connections that are not always purposeful – Africa is also constructed, felt and lived in narratives that were themes, sometimes unintentional, of so many connections. With them in hand, we revisit elements, approaches and the possibility of composing plots grows. Everything comes back to the mat, the method and Ginzburg, spot on.

* Nubia Aguilar is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of São Paulo (USP).


[I] GINZBURG, Carlo. Fear, reverence, terror: Four essays on political iconography. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2014. p. 11

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles