SEPTEMBER 24, 2013
AN INTRODUCTION TO RESEARCH in the archives sounds like something lugubrious, a tour through silent rooms in which benumbed readers sit with eyes half-closed, choking quietly on drifting clouds of powdery dust. There is a sprinkling of dust in this volume, to be sure, over the length of its elegant, delicately beautiful writing. Indeed, as Arlette Farge explains, judicial records are often found encrusted in a “uniform layer of stiff dust that cannot be blown or brushed off, a scaly hide hardened by the years.” Untying such a bundle of records leaves a pale stripe where the ribbon was tied. Farge wants us to feel and appreciate the entire ecology of the archives, with their binders, ticking clocks, polished tables, solemn archivists, and the reassuring, or annoying, physical presence of other researchers. The bundle of records tied with a ribbon “is precious (infinitely so) and damaged; you handle it cautiously out of fear that a slight tear could become definitive.” Infinitely precious, because the bundle of papers provides an indispensible causeway to the past.
And motes of dust. From the criminal records of long ago arises an unmistakable smell, “a mixture of wax and the light fragrance of faded leather bindings.” The impression made by all these precious physical objects is brought to the fore. Each document is a unique object, sometimes disappointingly so, with “torn corners or margins nibbled away by time,” or when the documents lie in shreds, “written with a scratchy quill on low-quality paper and ravaged by time.”
Farge magnificently documents the arduous, repetitive tasks of research — from understanding the archival records as physical objects to the patient, obscure acts of research that sometimes unexpectedly reveal the presence of the dead. As she explains, the goal is not to make earthshaking discoveries, but to learn that for an alert historian, the archives can provide “a vantage point from which she can bring to light new forms of knowledge.” The task of research is therefore more than a neutral demand for “access” or “information.” Research is a thoroughly human preoccupation. Sitting at a frigid metal table, her stomach grumbling, distracted by whispering colleagues, the historian pulls forward another sheet of notes, written in a fine businesslike hand from the 18th century, when suddenly, jarred by the clarity of a certain detail, she hears the grating sound of jolting wagons, or feels the palpable tension in the narrowed eyes of a policeman as he records a witness statement. On other occasions, she only reads onward, compiling notes and finding little sustenance.
As anyone who has worked in the archives knows, the work frequently takes the form of recopying documents word for word, often without the least conviction that the copy will have any significance. “In the evening, after this strange and banal exercise is finished, you find yourself questioning the value of this industrious and obsessive activity.” Then comes a reflective tone very characteristic of this author: “[t]his task is reminiscent of childhood autumns and primary school, spent surrounded by dead leaves, recopying corrected dictations that the schoolteacher has judged inadequate.” Laborious and repetitive, the act of copying the documents with your own hand “is time-consuming, it cramps your shoulder and stiffens your neck. But it is through this action that meaning is discovered.” The activity compounds one’s connection to the physicality of the documentation, and thus provides a tangible awareness of the past, both good and bad.
Several important judicial archives were at the core of two of Farge’s previous books of history: Fragile Lives and Subversive Words, in which she plumbed the obsessions and miseries of life in 18th-century Paris. The archives have also been at the heart of her archival activities. Here, with an abiding sense of fondness, sympathy, and gratitude, she turns her attention to the records themselves, the physical space where her research has been done, and the methods whereby the records were asked to divulge their secrets. Reading this book in an age of digital media, it is fascinating to have our attention directed to physical documents and to be fervently invited into the archives and to embrace their paper records as actual presences and links to the past. The task is bewildering. “The archive is like a forest without clearings, but by inhabiting it for a long time, your eyes become accustomed to the dark, and you can make out the outlines of the trees.” Like the medieval historian Marc Bloch, Farge is fascinated by the complexity of the human drama of history and delights in hearing the murmur of the (long ago) city. Also like Bloch, she does not espouse a system or method for understanding the past. She is opposed to positivism or simplicity. In explanation of her own work she gestures broadly to the history of mentalités as having opened historical work to the realms of daily life, the use and meaning of dress, sexuality, houses, and private life. The retreat from this type of study in favor of a more familiar history of events caused popular culture to lose some of its cachet. Farge wants to maintain the attention to detail that is called for in archival research, and to draw lines of connection between the events and discord of daily life, as they appear in the judicial archives, to “[a] history of relationships of power.” Her philosophy of history appears here and there like wisps of smoke throughout the book, appearing in suggestive phrases, wreathing around certain objects or ideas, lovely to read but hard to reformulate.
The archive is a world of objects saturated with significance: paper, cloth, and leather. And seeds. A nervous country doctor reported to the Royal Society of Medicine that a young girl of his region, “sincere and virtuous,” was known to discharge seeds from her breasts. Accompanying his note was a cloth bag, containing the evidence. With some hesitation, Farge withdrew the pin securing the gathered cloth, and discovered that the seeds spilling out were just as bright, as golden and mysterious as they had been when they inspired wonder in the 18th century — “a brief burst of sunshine.” Other objects, such as playing cards used to jot down an address, exist in the archives, directly communicating the feeling of reality. “It is as if some material traces had returned from this departed world.”
The goal of historical study is ultimately simple and concrete, to obtain an understanding of past reality. As Farge explains, especially in the case of the lives of the poorest of the poor, the past cries out to us:
What exactly does it mean to make use of these countless sources? How can we rescue from oblivion these lives that were never made note of even when they were alive […]? If we believed that history should be a full-fledged resurrection of the past, the task would be simply impossible. And yet, this clamoring population of the archive seems like a plea. Faced with it, you feel alone.
The nameless and obscure lives of the poor in early 18th-century Paris left their constant faint silhouettes in the records of the municipal police. As if walking in a gray morning fog through an unfamiliar city, we are able to discern the countless nameless figures of the past, but not to recognize them or know where they are going. As Farge beautifully demonstrates, study of the past using archival records, even judicial records, can still be a history of individuals, as they were affected by, or were in conflict with, society.
Archival life takes place in a strange world of quiet rooms amid the quirks and sounds of other people, but there is something lofty and bewildering too: the archive is a space in which contact is made with the lives and doings of the past, equally real and just as disturbing as the present. What kind of place is this? As artificial and humdrum as it seems, the archival space is a magical doorway, through which the determined study of one judicial record after another can open up the reality of the past, “[a]s if, in unfolding [a] document, you gained the privilege of ‘touching the real.'” But these feelings of connection and understanding are evanescent: “The physical pleasure of finding a trace of the past is succeeded by doubt mixed with the powerless feeling of not knowing what to do with it.” These are powerful confessions for any historian to make, constantly striving as we do to produce coherent and convincing accounts of the past. Stories encountered in the archives are exotic and seem to beg for a novelistic treatment. For some, “
fiction is the ideal way to free oneself from the constraints of the discipline and make the archive live again. Readers of popular fiction know this phenomenon very well. But the reality of the historical subject raises an ethical consideration that the novelist will flout.
The novelist’s only goal is to delight his reader, while for those who write history, “the stakes are not fictional”:
When the prisoner in the Bastille […] writes to his wife on a piece of cloth he has torn from his shirt and begs the laundry woman not to ignore this cry of hope, a writer of history cannot turn him into the hero of a novel. It would be a kind of betrayal […]
The strip of cloth preserved in the archives, containing this plea, this trace of a soul in pain, calls for the historian’s attention and concern. The prisoner was “an autonomous subject, not the fruit of someone’s imagination.” Perhaps this is precisely the reason so many readers flee from the historical encounter and look instead for a tale that will flatter and seduce.
In a judicial archive, the aims of the police should never be overlooked — no archive is a merely passive accumulation of records. Every archive has an inner purpose cutting against the grain of the researcher’s own. As Farge reminds us, the police were agents of the Crown, with little respect for the wretched poor of Paris, yet who were desperate to accumulate details about their ideas and grievances: “The creation of these archives in the first place reveals just how preoccupied the monarchy was with the rustling voices of the population.” The ideas of the people were a source of suspicion, and of fascination. While the people were not considered as politically competent, the monarchy listened in secret and made adjustments to policy. Agents — flies on the wall, or mouches — fanned out across Paris, recording conversations, pulling down posters, engaging in all the activities carried on by secret police to this day. No offhand remark in a tavern, no political or unofficial religious expression was deemed unworthy of attention. “The structure of the police organization […] was shaped around the daily need to know and hear everything.” These fragments of recorded speech reveal the “reasonings of people who were not considered to be capable of reason,” which Farge uses to interpret the patterns of politics and social interconnection in a sharply divided world. Police activity resulted in the paradox that “the archive contains what it rejects.”
To my mind, the truest tone of a fine historian is heard as Farge discusses the asceticism required for research. Sitting resolutely in the archive, finding little of interest all day, writing notes without much confidence in the outcome, “[o]ne must always remain vigilant and maintain enough watchful lucidity to safeguard against a lack of distance.” The archival reader must recall that her exchanges with the past always entail an odd mixture of familiarity and distance. The solitary task of research involves confrontation with documents now lively and giving, now utterly opaque. “[Q]uite often the material resists, presenting the reader with a face that is enigmatic, at times even cryptic.” Wrestling with the uncontrollable past takes the historian far beyond the boundaries of easy comprehension. In fact, historical explanation can only begin at this boundary.
The process of study, the lure of archival mysteries, concern for the dead, are here given the prominence they deserve, rather than demands for a well-developed, comfortable outcome. For Farge, attention to the actual historical trace, and the careful reasoning that can bring it to life, outweighs every other concern. Farge’s book may help the reader to see the inherent problems lying behind the claims of some history books to present an appealing story about the past as plump and satisfying as a Thanksgiving dinner. Historians will find confirmation of the importance of research, even in its most difficult forms. The truth about past societies becomes a search for the truth of individuality. The archives call for a “focus on the singular” that requires a “willingness to read […] about the complexity of the paths each person mapped out for herself.” And a battle line is drawn in her claim:
The first illusion that must be cast aside is that of the definitive truthful narrative. A historical narrative is a construction, not a truthful discourse that can be verified on all of its points. This narrative must combine scholarship with arguments that can introduce the criteria of truthfulness and plausibility. The poet creates, the historian argues.
In this elegant and captivating (and admirably translated) account, a book that can fittingly be read alongside Marc Bloch’s classic The Historian’s Craft, we gain an appreciation of historical research as a calling, an obsession, and an insight into how our ideas about the past might be shaped, not by our need for a likely story, but by our pressing desires to study the past and to think about the dead, desires which forces us into a halting and strange conversation with old remnants, old paper, and words captured out of time.