by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 18, 1987
The celebrated scholar, author of the acclaimed Montaillou, Carnival in Romans and Death, Love and Money in the Pays d'Oc, continues his excavation in the field of French folklore with this socio-psychological dig at Gascon witchcraft, but with rather dry results. At the start, high distinction is in evidence, and the subject, too, is intriguingly unlikely: witchcraft, with its larger implications in the politics of paranoia, touching topics as diverse as the status of the second sex under the ancien rÃ‰gime (women were tried as witches far more often than were men); the persecution of so-called undesirables (""heretics, lepers, Jews""), recalling France's vicious collaboration with Nazi atrocity; and, not least, our own lapse into witch-hunting hysteria in 17th-century Salem (and subsequent relapse during the McCarthy era). The methodology holds also promise. Ladurie is associated with the renowned Annales school of historiography. Emphasizing the socioeconomic influences on everyday life, informed by the structuralist vision of society as a living organism analyzable in terms of its institutional interrelations as reflected in language and literature, this movement is less concerned with mere chronicle than with reconstructing mindscapes of the past--the history of mentalities, the archeology of remembrance. All this, piquantly spiced with that peculiarly Parisian wit and mocking-mandarin tone of the man-about-town academic Ã la Roland Barthes--it should be a fete for the mind, n'est-ce pas? Alas, not so. An ambitious article posing as a book, the work's initial Ã‰clat quickly fades into monographic monotony. The genesis of the book, a 19th. century text by the Jasmin of the title, recounting an actual event handed down through the centuries by means of traditional folklore, seems suspiciously like so much structuralist pre-text, rather than genuine inspiration. At one point, Ladurie asks, rhetorically, whether, although posterity "". . .continues to honour Jasmin. . .does it really take him seriously as a writer and a thinker?"" To which one can only reply, rhetorically, ""Do you?"" Whereas The Return of Martin Guerre, say, remains at once a living reconstruction of the recoverable past and a brilliant essay in structuralist cinema, its bookish coeval, Jasmin's Witch, already seems more like a fossilized artifact of the present.
Pub Date: Aug. 18, 1987
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1987
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