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Summer 2014

The Right Stuff

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Brenda Wineapple

The Allure of the Archives
by Arlette Farge,
translated by Thomas Scott-Railton.
Yale University Press, 2013,
$25.00 cloth.

I have pitched into dusty boxes stuffed with faded green stationery and, when the day ended, I’ve stayed in musty motels overlooking busy highways, waiting anxiously for morning, when I could walk back over to the archives in the summer heat, hoping to discover something big and important and worth my sleepless while. I have wondered if I should untie the ribbon carefully knotted a century ago and read what was not meant for me. And then I have untied that ribbon and unfolded delicate sheets of writing paper. I have deciphered the script in leather-bound diaries whose covers crackle with age, and I have looked at old photographs, wondering who or what stared back.

I considered these research trips peculiar, sometimes productive, and, after I totted up my travel receipts, always expensive. But the reason I undertook them and the satisfactions they afforded seemed a private affair little understood except by weirdos like myself who rather enjoy this odd solitude and with whom I share a peculiar if not grandiose fantasy: that we’re on a mission. We root around in old stuff because we’re rescuing some person, some fact, or some event from the past and bringing them, or it, back to life.

As I say, I thought most of this rather eccentric until I read Arlette Farge’s unique, lyrical paean to historical research, The Allure of the Archives, about the historian’s never-sated passion for archival research, no matter how sepulchral the archive or arcane (and potentially fruitless) the quest. Originally published as Le Goût de l’Archive in France in 1989 and now superbly translated into English, this is the only book I know that in one hundred or so eloquent pages captures the essence of what it means to travel to an archive, to lose oneself in it, and even to argue silently with fellow researchers about how much noise they make or whether they, or you, have the best seat in the chilly room. (Library archives typically keep the temperature down to preserve documents. Even in summer, I bring a sweater.)

Farge begins with a second-person account of the researcher (herself) in the eighteenth-century judicial archives at such places as the French National Archives and Préfecture of Paris, places which include criminal complaints, arrest records, court documents, and trial transcripts tied together “with string like bales of hay.” Awed by the sheer volume of this material, Farge says she feels “immersed in something vast, oceanic,” but soon, buoyed by the illusion that she is not just combing through silent artifacts (“although history remains first and foremost an encounter with death”), she is thrilled to find these forgotten lives, these real people, who without her might go unnoticed.

The kick of research—not self-evident, by any means—is the subject of Farge’s marvelous book. Behind it lies the goal of history, which is “the understanding of a time and a world.” And what better way to open a dialogue between present and past than to find the past bundled together in a packet of old papers? Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and the author of numerous books on eighteenth-century France, Farge explains how and why the historian is tempted to touch—and listen to—those “rags of realities” frequently stored in the repositories we know as archives: a library, a research facility, a local historical society, a hospital, a convent, a church, even a crematorium. (I spent one particularly productive afternoon, years ago, in an office at the Flanner and Buchanan Crematoria in Indianapolis, where I copied out old family recipes for apple crisp.) The archives may contain letters, transcripts, oral histories, photos, passports, paintings, and journals, along with what Farge calls “captured speech,” which, in snatches, allows us to hear what was going on beneath or beyond the official account of an era.

“The judicial archives, in a sense, catch the city red-handed,” she says. “When reading the police records, you can see to what extent resistance, defiance, and even open revolt are social facts.” People have to explain themselves in court. They lie, they plead, they confess, and they stonewall. And of course, we don’t know what to make of what they say. Are they telling the truth? Are their stories verifiable? Or, since we can’t know for sure, perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. Rather, as she points out, we need to try to understand how what is said was articulated in the way it was said. For that is history: not looking for the truth, but looking for what the archives can tell us “of the truth.”

Beyond the antiquarian fascination with old stuff or captured speech, Farge tells us that the archive seduces us because history seduces us, with its “many cunning passages,” as T. S. Eliot writes in “Gerontion.” But though for Gerontion the past is unknowable and unredeemable, for Farge history is not a futile journey though a series of maze-like tunnels crammed with odds and ends. True, if we merely accumulate facts and figures, we are collecting data for an almanac and nothing more. But Farge knows the historian is not an antiquarian, or not just, since all this stuff remains a pile of old junk if she does not bring her imagination to the raggedy objects she finds. (Though Farge does not use the word “imagination” and talks instead about emotion, she cannot respond emotionally to a heap of papers without imagining the men and women who created them.) And so she animates them, knowing that once upon a time the shoe pinched, the pen leaked, the taffeta rustled, and the woman who stole a loaf of bread or evaded the tax collector hid in the woods for a reason. “Emotion is another tool with which to split the rock of the past, of silence,” she says.

To Farge, the judicial archive in particular offers a glimpse into the life of Parisian women, those creatures talked about but who are seldom heard speaking. Except here. Here, in these archives, Parisian women are not cordoned off into a special chapter of a special book about “women’s history,” but instead brawl on the streets or sell vegetables in market stalls; they walk through neighborhoods, defy the police with sticks, or protect their children, whom they leave on barges in the Seine. These women, now visible and complicated, are part of a world of discord and strife. And because these are police records that Farge is poring over, she uncovers a society in conflict: there would be no testimony at all if there was no rift between what one is supposed to do (the law) and what one does. To Farge the conflict is “a space of creation,” she says, because “what comes after it rarely resembles what came before.” The historian is at home in this conflict, which she then uses “as the motor of her reflection, the source of her own narrative.”

This is not sentimentality, though it may at first seem so. Farge isn’t suggesting that if you place on your head a tricorn hat resembling one worn by Marie Antoinette, you can walk in her shoes. But it’s true that Farge is more of a romantic historian who visualizes the past than a positivist who weighs it. The historian needs empathy, she argues, but she also warns against over-identification. The historian must hold her own motives up to the light along with everything else: the purpose behind the stories she reads, the received explanations already given. And here is where she dips into Foucault, who reminds her that when examined, the data in the archive “offer up the stories of their origins and their existence, which were possible only within specific practices of power.”

That brings us to the question of what we do with what we find in an archive. For The Allure of the Archives is more than a reflection, however evocative, on the seductive joys and travails of research; it is a methodological handbook. “History is never the simple repetition of archival content,” Farge writes, “but a pulling away from it, in which we never stop asking how and why these words came to wash ashore on the manuscript page.” How then to pull away from what we find? The archive grants us the illusion that we’re just around the corner from a recoverable past. But Farge is too good a historian and too supple a writer not to know that history does in fact deceive with whispering ambitions. So she replaces her romantic hat with a didactic one and divvies up several chapters with subheadings that read like guidelines for the would-be historian: “Combing through the Archives,” “The Process of Connection and Contrast,” “Gathering,” “Traps and Temptations,” “From the Event to History,” “Meaning and Truth-fulness.”

It is in “Meaning and Truthfulness” that Farge admits what anyone living in the twenty-first century already assumes—that our stories about the past are composed, provisional, subject to error, misconception, and/or the ambition of those writing them. Again, to Farge, this is no reason to suppose the historian is a kind of novelist in disguise. The novelist creates a world out of her imagination, which is fine; but the historian is an ethicist, not a fabulist. The stakes are high. The lives she narrates were the real lives of real people, and “if we are to do right by these many forgotten lives, lives ground by the political and judicial systems, we can only do so through the writing of history.” Otherwise, Farge feels, we betray them by making them heroes who would be “immediately lumped in with so many other heroes, whose defining trait is that they were put in motion and controlled by an author’s hand.”

Of course, this ethical historian is also a prowler looking for loot. But that is not a moral indictment; far from it. The historian learns what to take and what to leave behind, and in writing of these lives, acknowledging there is no such thing as a simple or settled story, she creates “sequences of what was plausible, rather than what was necessarily true.” And the tale she tells has always to remain unfinished. Some other day in some other place, a different historian will build from the remains of these lives a different story.

“‘It is finished’ can never be said of us,” Emily Dickinson said. Ideally the historian’s chronicle is neither one-dimensional nor complete—and, according to Farge, it never assassinates memory. Just the reverse: at the archives, we honor memory, we preserve it. “We cannot bring back to life those whom we find cast ashore in the archives,” Farge admits. “But this is not a reason to make them suffer a second death.” So we untie the ribbons on those packets to tell better tales, responsible tales, tales about “humanity and forgetting, origins and death. About the words each of us uses to enter into the debates that surround us.” That is the allure of the archives.

Brenda Wineapple recently received an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her latest book, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, Compromise, 1848–1877, will be out in paperback this summer.

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