Monday, May 19, 2008

Les Archives

Digging through the archives can be a bit like trying to find your keys in a junkyard. You dig and dig for hours and when you’ve finally found something, you still aren’t sure if you’ve found anything. The dream for most of us is to find a stash of papers that have been totally forgotten and make something out of it. The trick is to make something from the sources and not make something up from the sources, to read the sources and not read into the sources. There have been a number of histories written that were more creative than sound.

Detective work always looks more interesting in the movies than it actually is. What it really involves is cobbling together a handful of scattered facts and trying to establish a pattern with them. It’s as much fictionalizing as it is truth-telling. We have a responsibility to tell the truth, but in those gaps where the truth falls out, we fictionalize in order to maintain the consistencies that make sense to us. This, incidentally, is also how we upright primates maintain our idea of the world around us on a daily basis.

When you get into the archives, it’s actually amazing how dull and unimportant most of the archived items actually are. We tend to think of our lives as much more interesting than they are, and the time we live as being far more momentous than it actually is. For the most part, our record is left in flotsam and jetsam, and most of the crises of our time thankfully amount to very little.

I think some people get depressed by this. I’ve read historians talk about pouring over journals of long-gone people who genuinely believed that the Fourth Lateran Council or the Citizen King Louis-Philippe would change the face of human civilization only to wonder if the things that seem weighty and monumental to them will also be revealed as trivial à la longue. (Answer: Yes) Maybe the end result of historical awareness is a sort of radical nihilism. Nothing is true, everything is historicized.

And yet, I see no reason not to take our dreams for reality. When I study history I am often amazed at the fecundate imaginations of human beings. We seem to have fictionalizing in our blood; we create these vivid and complex realities, all of them a little bit different from every other one. It’s not that any of them is necessarily wrong; it’s just that all of them describe only a small part of the world. When I see something as vast and complex as Catholicism, for instance, I don’t see the “mind forged manacles” that other non-believers tend to see. Instead, I am taken aback by the immense construction of centuries of human dreams.

3 comments:

rufus said...

Ack. I'll remove this crap when I can log on from my computer.

barahconnor said...

I didn't make an extra $800 a month - jeez, what is that all about?

Anyways, I just wanted to say that I totally agree that we fictionalize our lives and make big deals about little things. When I re-read my blogs, somehow they totally amuse me, but I highly doubt they amuse others. I also have re-read emails I've sent and thought, wow, that's so good, but no one ever responds as much as I'd like. Actually, sometimes my sister does but she writes and thinks a lot like me.

Now, re-reading journal entries...BORING. I can't believe how much I just repeat myself over and over and over...just kidding. I just seem to have certain patterns that don't go away. They seem important in the moment, but not in the grand scheme, I guess.

Have you noticed your own patterns, yet? Find them interesting or boring?

Rufus said...

I think it's easier when they change. I've definitely read old posts here that I would now argue with.