Quaderno poetico #6: Going behind the scenes (II) – Archives

Theodore Ell   University of Sydney

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This is the first of two posts about working in archives, where so many of us spend so much our time, in Italy and elsewhere. My work concentrates on the Florentine poet Piero Bigongiari and I will have more to say about working on his archival materials later, as well as talking about the technical questions involved – transcribing handwriting, handling old paper and  so on. First, though, I have found myself reflecting on archival work in general, the fascination, frustrations, fun and fanaticism that surround it. I’m interested to hear other people’s archival stories and philosophies, particularly if they disagree with mine. Archival work often makes you feel that you’re the only one in the world doing what you’re doing (a chosen one, even!) but of course we’re never alone. The Renaissance scholar Gene Brucker has called himself an ‘archive junkie.’ There must be more out there. Be proud of it.  

The word ‘archive’ conjures up notions of the romantic and the restricted. There is beauty in filologia, in reading the handwriting of authors you admire and in handling papers that were their personal belongings. Your writer might have signed the letter in your hand a moment ago, and that smudge over half the name is where the signing hand rushed and flourished, touching off with panache the wit of the message itself…

But if you work in an archive for any length of time, it is impossible to ignore its mechanical side. They can be predictable places. Visiting hours are timetabled, materials are catalogued, collections are described in minute detail. Indeed, the fact that certain material is in an archive at all means that someone has already found it and deemed it valuable enough to store: recognition does not lie with you. And, above all, there are the rules, the eternal and venerable laws that many archives lay down for researchers: anything you request must be related directly to your project; no browsing, no peripheral interest, no tangents. Usually this is because the archives are following authors’ executors’ instructions, but there can be a sneaking suspicion that the holiness which you sense around the materials, the archives sense too – and they want to have it all for themselves. Many filologi I know, as they have sat down at the reading table on their first day to request the call-number of the first file they wished to see, have confessed to feeling much less pioneering than they did while imagining their research plans. They have only a short time to sift through their chosen files and must then go away and write up whatever they’ve found. Often, if a file is lean and there was no possibility of searching further, that may not be much. Archives may be muses to curiosity but often it goes unrequited.

Neither notion of archival work – romantic or restricted – is a formula for success. In fact, the cause of many of the problems that filologi face lies in having a formula to begin with. The idea of archival research is to look into the background of an author’s published work, and usually you enter an archive already familiar with this. The problems begin when that familiarity leads to assumptions. It is fair to be interested in certain themes and preoccupations in an author’s work, but it isn’t fair to think that the author prepared them in the same way that you are unpacking them. If you look through file after file of letters, diaries, notes and manuscripts without finding a single hint of a certain philosopher’s influence, or a self-criticism that redirects the work at a crucial point, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are looking in the wrong place, or that something has been lost. The chances are that you are blinkering yourself to details that make up the real trends you should be seeking.

Before beginning archival work you should consider as many interpretations of an author’s work as you can, but as soon as you enter an archive, you should forget them all, and let the material show you how any interpretation was made possible. Archival work means letting go of theory and opening yourself to the working habits of the author. Tracing the different versions of a novel or a poem, noting re-writings and deleted passages, reading comments in notes or correspondence, recording strange details in case future findings make sense of them – a picture emerges of creativity in action, the writer’s consciousness at its own spontaneous work. This can never limit itself to themes that you have set down before starting. You have to record what you see and draw conclusions.

All of this will sound obvious, but the temptations of both romance and restriction run deep. Even if you get to know an author’s habits and documents well, there is still danger: you might assume that a certain pattern exists where it doesn’t, or decide not to look into a file of correspondence because the addressee of the letters wasn’t important enough, only to miss a letter that is an astonishing window on your writer’s self-knowledge. Hard as it may be when you’re a groupie sitting at the desk of your literary star, you just have to control yourself, never letting a lead go, but equally being careful where it leads you.

What you do next – restarting your critical interpretation in the light of what you have seen – has its own problems. Now you have reached the point where your preferred themes may become important again, but as well as being convincing you need to be trustworthy. If there’s a certain detail in the manuscripts that doesn’t conform to your interpretation, you need to decide what to do with it. Perhaps it’s an aberration, even a mistake, on the writer’s part; an experiment that didn’t work very well, even a totally unrelated bit of writing that was scribbled down on the same page. Equally, a strange, cryptic, out-of-place phrase may still mean something to someone – to the person who will read your work, as you have read your writer’s. The point archival work is to illuminate the subject, the material, not to transform it. Don’t leave out what you don’t understand. The real beauty of archival research is that you get to see a writer’s work in all its ugliness. Your work should represent that unselectively.

Archival work recalls, as nothing else does, the raw moment of first reading an author, unprepared and unsuspecting; the sense of discovery and identification, even closeness, and above all of endless, volatile possibility. I’ve found some wonderful writing, you think, It could take me anywhere.

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