Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Archivist of the Ephemeral

The British Library here had a panel discussion and inauguration of an exhibition that's travelling across the country, about South Asians in Britain. Someone from the audience asked the panelists why they did their research only at the V&A, the National Archives of India and all the usual places. Why were they not looking for the more rare manuscripts, archives and material that was surely available in other places, the man wanted to know.

I was thinking of this when I read this article about the digital preservation of film (via The Valve), and about the fire that destroyed so much of the Film Archives at Pune. The whole enterprise of archiving anything seemed impossible, brave and quixotic.

Imagine you are on the threshold of your career and, with the thoughts of material success and respectability dinned into you, you still choose a life that is not just hard to justify as signifying 'success' in the usual way, but is actively futile and Sisyphian.

You become an archivist. You might as well have chosen to be a mortician.

There were children who had been invited to be placeholders yesterday. I don't know who was fooled by the tactic; certainly not the panelists, who took it with fairly good grace. (This is not meant to insult the intelligence of the children; they were clearly brought there with no preparation about the nature of the exhibition, or given a context for the discussion. I doubt they gave a hoot about Krishna Menon's Pelican Series of non-fiction, the first Asian woman to study law at Cambridge or the intricacies of a pre-Independence Indian being an  MP in the UK.)

It occurs to me that anyone interested in the archival is already a specialist with a specialist's peculiar interest in what is being resurrected.Who but someone interested in silent comedy is going to care that a 'not yet found' Harold Lloyd short was buried under the permafrost somewhere in Canada and has now been restored? Perhaps the only way to answer that question is by not putting the actual found film to the test, but to make, say, The Artist.

It's hard enough for a new generation to pay its respects to the one gone by via what is already available and accessible. I say this with a tinge of bitterness, because I'm finding it unexpectedly hard to get the kid to read Wodehouse. Wodehouse! This kind of behaviour is calculated to make me shake my head more in sorrow than in anger and moan about the present (de)generation....but I digress.

It's hard enough to get what someone older goes on about; how hard it is going to be to make anyone care about what is deeply past, unless they already care about it.

And therefore how doubly, triply admirable that so many people dedicate their lives to a monumentally impossible task: keeping the past alive in its primary forms.


In Praise Of Limestone
by W. H. Auden
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us...
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. 'Come!' cried the granite wastes,
"How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,
"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.


km said...

Perhaps the only way to answer that question is by not putting the actual found film to the test, but to make, say, The Artist.

Are you comparing "The Artist" to an unseen, permafrost-buried Harold Lloyd short?

I *have* to ask because Harold Lloyd trumps everything.

Space Bar said...

km: Yes, but see - you're a specialist. (Have to say, though, that I haven't yet seen The Artist. That's this weekend.)

km said...

I predict "The Artist" will give you warm fuzzies followed by a prolonged "so what does it mean?" (But that dog - he's a star.)