By Megan Snopik
[An archive is] not only the history and the memory of singular events, of exemplary proper names, languages and filiations, but the deposition in an arkheion (which can be an ark or a temple), the consignation in a place of relative exteriority, whether it has to do with writings, documents, or ritualised [sic] marks on the body proper.Jaques Derrida, Archive Fever
The archive is an English major’s candy shop. Viewing the primary texts of your literary heroes, holding them in your own two hands, and absorbing the sheer importance of the pages can be a breathtaking experience. Archives exist all over the world, in many different shapes and sizes, and while they are not uncontested or completely accessible spaces, they are still key factors in the preservation of literary history (and history-history) for generations to come. Yet, this seemingly innocent idea of the “next generation”, the future, relies on the deposition of the old, a process of becoming historical. Thus, the potential of the archive is haunted by the old, as those that gave their material history away watch their manuscripts and diaries be poured over by aspirational humanities? students. The archive then functions as a sort of creative graveyard—the idea of a future relying on a dead or dying past.
Take UT for example. One can look past the large oak trees across from Calhoun and Parlin and see the gorgeous Harry Ransom Center. The Harry Ransom Center holds collections aimed towards humanities research, boasting collections of famous authors, playwrights, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. They hold Robert De Niro’s archive of scripts, Jack Kerouac’s notebook documenting his writing of On the Road, original works by Frida Kahlo, (including her iconic self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird), Gabriel García Márquez’s works, and one of only 20 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the world. All amazing pieces of history, each deserving all the prestige, and attention they can get. And yet, the history that the walls of the archive contain and display also implies a sort of morbid exchange.
To set the scene for my first trip to the archive, I was an aspiring modernist scholar doing their thesis on Virginia Woolf, and was amazed by the fact that I, after making an account, clicking a few buttons, and filling out a form, could just waltz in, be escorted to a table, and have the marvels of (some of) Woolf’s handwritten letters and manuscript copies placed before me. Seeing, touching, and above all else, fangirling (in an academic sense, of course) over these texts made my amateur English student’s heart sing. For a while.
Of course, after the initial wow-factor subsides, you’re left alone, sitting at your table, buried in correspondence and manuscripts and postcards, thinking, “so now what?” Once your literary giants become real, what then? What are you supposed to do with the fact that the paper you have just put your grimy, inexperienced hands-on was once in the hands of one of your heroes? To me, it felt like a sort of the sword in the stone situation. I knew I just had to pull something—anything—amazing out of this information to make my personal amazement turn into academic paper-type amazement. But again, my hands felt inadequate, I was no aspiring King Arthur. I had touched greatness, and I now had to think of something, some understated, newly discovered, jaw-dropping, epiphany. I needed something groundbreaking, I needed to pick up my shovel (read: my Archive-Approved Pencil) and dig into the dirt (read: write on my Archive-Approved Paper) to exhume some distorted, 6-feet-under, ghost of Woolf. Gross.
Now is the part where I say I don’t really believe in ghosts. I find it a bit fool-hearted to think that dead people, especially the literary greats, care enough to stick around for whatever it is us modern folk get into. I think that if ghosts do exist, they would care deeply about their stuff. All of the letters and paperclips and writing desks and god-knows-what that archivists and historians have decided are essential and must be preserved, would probably turn some heads in the Purgatory of the literary greats. Yet, this desire to hoard and archive all this stuff is something we all do. Maybe with grocery store receipts at the bottom of canvas bags, with the camera roll on your iPhone, or the gum wrappers in the car console. We save things—or maybe we just forget to throw them away before they turn into history.
Why is it then that the archive can feel so magnanimous, so historically relevant and important, if then it is all just a collection of the things our ancestors forgot to throw away? What Woolf says about writing the Modernist impulse can also be applied to this type of archival pursuit:
It is at the ghosts within us that we shudder, and not at the decaying bodies of barons or the subterranean activities of ghouls. Yet the desire to widen our boundaries, to feel excitement without danger, and to escape as far as possible from the facts of life drives us perpetually to trifle with the risky ingredients of the mysterious and the unknown.Woolf 1988
To archive others is to recognize the ghosts present in ourselves. The archive might just represent our present fixation on the future, a Derridian desire to return to the origin to distract from the present. It might just be a mysterious haunted house (the kind with bats, of course) we willingly enter, flickery flashlight in hand, hoping to figure out just What Is Going On as we foray into the “unknown lands” of an archival text.
Thinking about the archive, and all its problems and ghosts, is all well and good, until we return to our seat at the archive, and the table, and the box of materials in front of us, and Oh My God is that a booger mark on that letter? Who has time for ghosts or Derrida when you’re sitting at the HRC, and you need to glean some sort of meaning from looking at random documents from 1925, and it’s almost lunchtime? Maybe this is when we rip the mask off our ghosts, shout “Mr. Jenkins!”, rationalize the last four hours of our life as an “amazing opportunity”, and move on.
I started by comparing the archive to a candy shop, then called it a graveyard, and then talked about digging up Virginia Woolf’s body. So I feel confident I’ve been clear on my position on the archive. But also, maybe the archive’s role is just to preserve these ghosts. To tether us to these decrepit beings that once were. Maybe the rows and rows of boxes (plots) store the answers to all our questions, and we just need to put on our big-girl panties and buy a bigger flashlight and request some more materials at the archive. History in the archive and elsewhere will always be troubled by its creation, preservation, and continual interpretation; yet, boldly pursuing the past reveals just as many ghosts to be conquered in the future.