Aug 19, 2013
The Allure of the Archive, by Arlette Farge and translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, which includes a foreword by Natalie Zemon Davis (PhD U-M History), has been released to rave reviews. Read them here.
Additionally, we have news that an elegant little excerpt from the book is appearing in the September issue of Harper's Magazine and is already available on-line.
More recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran the following review:
At a time when news about archives is focused on budget cuts or digitization projects, Yale University Press has issued the first English translation of Arlette Farge's 1989 book, Le Goût de l'archive, or, as Yale has it, The Allure of the Archives. In our digital age, what is the interest in a book about tasting and smelling old documents? Farge's ode to the joy of researching, of plowing through thousands of pages of hard-to-decipher paperwork, is far from nostalgic. Her description of a personal, physical relationship to archives resonates more than ever as the essence of curiosity, an existentially fulfilling act in which the historian can literally touch the past.
The bicentennial of the French Revolution, in 1989, was a turning point in a rich period of French historical studies known as the Annales School. It had been developed starting half a century earlier by scholars like Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Jacques Le Goff, François Furet, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Mona Ozouf, to name a few.
By then the quest to understand enormous entities over great swaths of time—Braudel wrote a history of the Mediterranean Sea—and faceless, data-driven quantitative history of subjects like voting patterns and rates of disease and mortality had given way to the history of mentalités, social history, and "microhistory," on individuals, specific events, or entities like families and villages. Historians like Farge, director of research in modern history at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientific, in Paris, looked to understand how common and even socially marginal people felt and lived. Along with the philosopher Michel Foucault, she scoured archives for traces of those dismissed by more-formal historians: women, homosexuals, perceived deviants, the poor, criminals, radical thinkers.
In The Allure of the Archives, Farge discusses Foucault's fascination with how archives made ordinary lives leap "across two and a half centuries of silence" with a "resonance" even more powerful than "literature" itself. Old documents, often just fragments or ashes, could generate "emotion," giving life to the silent past of repressed voices, in effect finally "liberating" them.
The significance of Farge's book is not the well-worn lessons of social history, that archives hold rich and unexpected materials for illuminating private life—"housing, dress, nutrition, sexuality and maternity." Rather, what is essential is Farge's message that the historian must create a personal relationship not only with documents, but also with archives, libraries, and archivists themselves.
Alain Resnais's 1956 cinematographic masterpiece, Toute la mémoire du monde, both celebrated and critiqued the National Library of France by showing the dark formality with which all the books published in France were triaged, labeled, and shelved, often behind metal bars. His postwar view described France's library as "the most modern in the world" but questioned the dehumanizing effect of trying to organize and rationalize memory itself.
Where Resnais sees cold metal cutting books off from humanity, Farge sees erotic arousal and discovery; hence the choice to translate goût, or taste, as "allure." For Farge, the research process is both sensual and terrifying. The "oceans" of information are "like a spring tide, an avalanche, or a flood," which humans cannot truly master. However, with the proper guide, she assures us, they can be "explored" with a "dive, a submersion, perhaps even a drowning."
To navigate the fonds of the archives (which in French means both depths and the holdings of the collection), the researcher depends on the archivist, who, Farge writes, "presides over the reading room" like a "baroque queen in heavy jewels and a garish flower-print dress; her perfume is as overpowering as the wind at low tide." A French particularity, librarians and archivists are often distinguished scholars in their own right, trained at the venerable library school, the École Nationale des Chartes. If one knows when not to disturb them, these erudite and sometimes moody gatekeepers can help unlock the riches of the otherwise unfathomable depths of documents.
To those able to conquer the dry archival seas come the spoils. Farge describes receiving a "swollen file" of dusty 18th-century documents, in almost unintelligible handwriting. "Gently," Farge writes, "you begin undoing the cloth ribbon that corsets it around the waist, revealing a pale line where the cloth had rested for so long." The documents reveal run-ins with the police, sexual transgressions, and how forbidden love was navigated 200 years ago.
Stuck between two judicial complaints is a letter on unusually coarse paper from one police superintendent to another about the recipient's wife. Writing openly, even joyously to the cuckolded husband, the libertine officer declares, "a thousand kisses on your wife's cheeks or eyes are not worth half of those you pluck from her lips. God help me, I love those lips, goodbye." Farge notes: "Stolen kisses, a letter without a date, catalogue number Y 13728." She makes her point: There is passion in this paperwork, but to get to it, we must dig by hand to identify what is significant by recognizing anomalies and clues.
In another file, Farge finds an 18th-century letter to the Royal Society of Medicine. It tells the story of a "virtuous young girl" whose "breasts discharge handfuls of seeds each month." In the file is a delicate pouch from which "a few seeds escape and rain down on the yellowed document." These seeds, Farge writes, were meant as "a scientific explanation for menstruation." Here is a moment representative of the sensibilities of Farge and Foucault, in which science, history, and political authority have tried to contain and even repress the inexplicable force and irrationality of sexuality, only to have them spill onto the desk of the excited historian.
In spite of Farge's passion, she says she is vigilant in avoiding the "naïve" illusion that "tear[ing] away the veil" of history "can lay things bare." And yet, she soberly assures the reader, "one cannot dismiss the truth, nor even be scornful of it."
The Allure of the Archives makes one wonder: Will digitization produce its own physical pleasures, or indeed, erotic modes of erudition? Digital archives are useful, but even more than the imprisoned books shown by Resnais, they are captives to the digitizers, who are in some instances unfamiliar with the vast collections they blindly reproduce without nuance. Luckily, we still have the archives. What we need now is someone like Farge, who can write about archives with the passion that excites us to go back into them.
Jacob Soll is a professor of history at the University of Southern California. His book The Reckoning: Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations will be published next year by Basic Books.