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Department of History

The man who lived at the end of history: Nicolas Guilhot on Ernesto de Martino

In an interview, EUI History Professor Nicolas Guilhot delves into his essay 'The man who lived at the end of history' published in The New Statesman, on Ernesto de Martino's life and work.

07 March 2024 | Research

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As we face multiple, unending global crises, can we still imagine a positive future? EUI History Professor Nicolas Guilhot has taken the recent translation of some of Ernesto de Martino’s work as an opportunity to reflect upon its continued relevance and to probe our capacity to see the future not just as catastrophe, but as renewal and reinvention.

Before we discuss your work on Ernesto de Martino and, notably, your recent essay published in The New Statesman, could you please tell us about yourself and your current research at the EUI Department of History?

I have been at the EUI Department of History for four years. I am currently writing a book on the idea of conspiracy in Western culture, which will be published by Harvard University Press in 2025. I am particularly interested in why we, as a society, have become less concerned with real conspiracies and more with what we call 'conspiracy theories'. In my book, I am trying to understand when this shift happened, why it happened, and why we have come to consider conspiracy theories as a major threat to democracy. I am interested not so much in validating these concerns as in exploring what they tell us about ourselves.

Regarding your essay on The New Statesman titled 'The man who lived at the end of history', could you please tell us more about Ernesto de Martino and why you wrote about this figure?

Ernesto de Martino was probably one of the most important Italian historians and anthropologists of religion in the 20th century. His work focused mostly on religious folklore, shamanism, magic, apocalypticism, and the religious traditions of southern Italy.

As I wrote in my essay, De Martino understood the contemporary world through the prism of religion. He was certainly a terrific scholar, but he approached his subject with a keen eye for its immediate political and cultural relevance. In exploring how ‘subalterns’ in the decolonising world, in the southern regions of Italy, or in the industrial North expressed their struggles and their hopes through religious languages and mythologies, he wanted to understand the connections between these phenomena and contribute to the effectiveness of these struggles. In many ways, De Martino was one of the first theorists of what we now call the 'Global South'.

For too long, Ernesto de Martino has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, where his works have been hardly translated. Last November, the University of Chicago Press published The End of the World, which is his last and unfinished book. I thought it would be a good idea to write for the anglophone public not just a review of the book but a broader essay that would offer a reassessment of Ernesto de Martino's life and work.

What are the key messages of Ernesto de Martino’s book?

The End of the World is a massive compendium of notes and excerpts from material he was interested in. He died before he could write it up, in 1965, but the material his collaborators compiled and edited gives a clear sense of his project. De Martino thought that the role of culture was primarily to help human communities cope with existential crises, with the possibility that a given way of life might come to an end. Traditionally, myth and religion played this role by projecting in the future an idea of redemption or restoration that helped navigate an uncertain or frightening present. With the Enlightenment, as religion lost its previous force, secular ideologies of progress fulfilled that role—until they too went into decline.

De Martino observed that after 1945, Western cultures no longer offered a compass to navigate a cataclysmic present. They featured apocalyptic images of the end of the world without offering any redemptive prospects. This wasn’t just a matter of actual dangers—in the 1960s, those of nuclear war—but the exhaustion of a particular strand of Western culture.

Today, the nuclear threat has not disappeared (on the contrary!) and in addition we have the impact of climate change. And we seem to be just as unprepared to rethink our current political, economic, and social arrangements.

We are locked in a culture that no longer sees crises as opportunities for invention and renewal. On the contrary, we live in a political culture where the business of politics is postponing the apocalypse instead of imagining another form of life beyond the crises. The key question for De Martino was that next to these imaginaries of the apocalypse, we have lost the capacity to imagine a positive aftermath. This is what makes his book so relevant today.

Why are De Martino’s ideas linked to the present times?

De Martino did not propose a solution, but rather the diagnosis of a problem in our culture. I think this diagnosis is still largely valid. If anything, it is more valid today than it was in the 1960s when he was writing about it.

You have to think about redemptive imagination in the same way you would think about grief: in order to move forward and overcome a sense of loss, you have to be able to let go. Today, we seem utterly unable to let go of our current political, social, and economic arrangements, no matter how dysfunctional they have become. Instead, we tell ourselves that these arrangements are ‘the end of history’, the climax of human development, and that there can be nothing else or better. 

The result is that we face catastrophic prospects, unprecedented inequalities, inhumane suffering, and raging wars, and yet we somehow can’t let go. It is an acute form of denial. We can’t contemplate the loss of the historical world we’ve been accustomed to even though it’s collapsing in front of our eyes, and we cling on to it because we can’t imagine anything beyond. I believe that De Martino’s work is a good starting point to think about the future as an opportunity for renewal and reinvention. 

We need to recover a capacity to think positively about a future that is not just a repetition of the present.

De Martino does not convey ‘The End of the World’ as a doomsday scenario, rather a paradigm shift in culture and he conveys a sense of hope in it.

His concern was not the disappearance of the planet or of human life—even though he acknowledged this was a risk. His concern was about the cultural resources that could help us avert such disasters by allowing ourselves to see ‘ends’ not just as crises that have to be postponed, but as opportunities for self-reinvention. Our culture has lost the capacity to imagine that what’s good in the world is not confined to the world we know. To put it very simply, we have lost a sense of hope—a sense that the world contains a good that may still be unclear to us but is something we can look forward to.


Read the full essay by Professor Guilhot, ‘The man who lived at the end of history’, published by The New Statesman.

Last update: 07 March 2024

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