ARCHIVE(S).

Iain Higgins‘ contribution to History and Archives: Sextet, a collective editorial in Issue 178 of Canadian Literature (“Iain, who came on board in 1995 as poetry editor, has overseen special issues on ‘Poetry and Poetics‘ and on ‘Nature/Culture.’ He wrote editorials in which the creative and the scholarly were inseparable companions, and he was a proof-reader non-pareil”):

Language, said Heidegger, is the house of being, and he may be right, but whatever the case, it is certainly true to call language a house of memory, which is to say a house of oblivion, a house in which things of every sort can be called to mind or allowed to lapse into nothingness. Language is, in other words, an archive, a word as well as a concept that English borrowed from French, which borrowed it from Latin, which borrowed it from Greek, where it originally referred to the public building that housed records and documents. Words in use never stay still, and in a typical metonymic shift—reinforced by a telling grammatical drift into the plural—the word archive has come to refer also to the building’s contents. Archives, that is, are both the container and the contained; like languages, they are the houses of what we recall and what we forget, and the things themselves. What they do not hold, or cannot, is no less important than what they do or can hold. If possession is nine points of the law, then forgetting is nine points of the archive.
We cannot live except by forgetting, any more than we can sense some stimuli except by ignoring others; just imagine if you could sense every thing in its own thisness all the time, from the smallest flutter in your lungs to every single point of light entering your eyes. History—a word whose journey into English followed the same path as archive, only earlier, and which originally meant inquiry—works like our perceptual apparatus, whose seeing is enabled by our blindnesses, by focussing on one thing or set of things to the exclusion of others. That is why there can be no one history, only histories, and these can never be complete, ever.
Between getting it all in and leaving it all out, the possibilities are endless.

(Via wood s lot.)


“Bone, Beak, and Apples,” a poem by Higgins with a fine rhythmic flow, is online here.

Comments

  1. Hmmm. “Archives” is originally and most standardly only feminine plural in French (source: Petit Robert), and the equivalent typically occurs plurally in Latin, it seems. Cf. English “records” (and indeed “archives”). There appears to be moderately interesting alternation between neuter and feminine gender. (Italian and Spanish are “archivo”.)
    In old Greek you’d say “logoi” or “grammata” for our “archives”; in Classical Latin you’d say “tabulae” or “tabellae”.
    Incidentally, Caveat Lector (see link from this site) has “archiva divisa in categoriis” and “archiva divisa in mensis”. If the first is right, the second ought to be “archiva divisa in mensibus”. But I am inclined to think they should be “divisa in categorias” and “divisa in menses”. Dorothea, of Caveat Lector, has not responded to my query on this. Any grammatical thoughts?

  2. My Latin is extremely rusty; let us hope Dorothea drops by here (as she does from time to time) and responds.

  3. Isn’t Caesar’s Gaul, which every schoolboy used to know well before the end of the first term, weighing in on your side for the accusative?

  4. Yes, MMcM, I had thought Caesar’s “divisa in partes tres” germane, but perhaps not decisive. There may be subtle semantic differences connected with the plurality of “archiva”, and the fact that archiva could be presented divided in various ways for various purposes, while a division of a country might be more final. Anyway, my hypothesis is lent strength by investigation of usages with “in libros” versus “in libris”, and “in articulos”, etc.

  5. J’ai toujours pensé que la mémoire était *la* grande affaire de la langue… et de la vie, en fait.Merci pour cet article.
    I just could not quite understand the following sentence :”If possession is nine points of the law, then forgetting is nine points of the archive.” To be nine points of = to be the major part of ?

  6. juan s. ursic says:

    Latin America,
    Hispanic America,
    Ibero America.
    All three names admit a close association of the southern part of the american continent to Europe. This is fine but,
    What happens to the native americans, aborigens or natives who do not carry european blood? Why call them either Latin, Ibero or Spanish, since the only common denominator they have is (maybe) the spanish, portuguese and or french languages.
    Must consider that there are quechuas, mapuches and other indigenous tribes in Mexico, Central America as well as South America that even today in the XXI century, do not even speak spanish, or if they do is very poor at best.
    Can any one explain why we have to “globalize” all the inhabitants of this part of the world by calling them “latin”, or “spanish”, or at best “ibero”, americans ?
    Thank you
    Juan Ursic

  7. We cannot … live except by forgetting, any more than we can sense some stimuli except by ignoring others; just imagine if you could sense every thing in its own thisness all the time, from the smallest flutter in your lungs to every single point of light entering your eyes.
    This editorial writer sells themself short.

  8. To be nine points of = to be the major part of ?
    Yes, exactly: nine points = 9/10.
    Can any one explain why we have to “globalize” all the inhabitants of this part of the world by calling them “latin”, or “spanish”, or at best “ibero”, americans ?
    Actually, this is an excellent illustration of what Higgins says: “We cannot live except by forgetting, any more than we can sense some stimuli except by ignoring others.” It’s impossible to take into account every single inhabitant of a region when discussing it; if there happens to be a single Mongolian in Chile at the moment, would we have to mention him in describing the people of Chile? If you’re talking specifically about the ethnic makeup of Central and South America, then of course it would be silly as well as insulting to pretend the indigenous communities do not exist, but if you’re simply using shorthand to refer to the inhabitants of that part of the world, it makes sense to use “Hispanic” or “Latino” because the majority language is Spanish and the majority culture is derived from Iberia. This is likely to offend members of the minority groups, but it can’t be helped; it is human nature to generalize. And what would the alternative be?
    (It’s interesting that a common historical pattern is for a minority group that has been complaining about repression within a larger polity, eg Hungarians under the Hapsburgs or Georgians under the Russian/Soviet empire, to immediately begin repressing its own minorities as soon as it gains autonomy or independence.)

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