of archives

buried deeply within a term that has quickly become much too busy, but took a moment of fresh air to breathe deeply with the incomparable Joan Wallach Scott, who writes the following at the end of her book, The Fantasy of Feminist History:

“The archive that historians work in is not a prison with numbered, locked cells or, for that matter, a cemetery, where rows of tombstones inscribed with names and dates convey a sense of finality and closure. The historian’s archive is not a mournful place, but one where the living continue to find life. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore likened a Cryonics Institute (a place where the dead are frozen, awaiting their ultimate resurrection) to an archive: ‘a place where people deposit their papers – the contents of their heads – when they’re dead, so that someone, some future historian, can find them and bring them back to life.’ The conceit of cheating death is widespread among historians. Or perhaps it is better to say that historians make death a minor episode, something that is transitory rather than final. Metaphors abound: tere are shadows materialized by light; ghosts given embodiment; corpses exhumed for a second life. Whispers are hear from ‘the souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past.’ Jules Michelet, the nineteenth-century French historian consummately lyrical, is wonderful to listen to on this. ‘As I breathed their dust,’ he writes of his contact with the dead in old papers and leather-bound parchments, ‘I saw them rise up. They rose from the sepulchre … as in the Last Judgment of Michelangelo or in the Dance of Death. This frenzied dance … I have tried to reproduce in [my] work.’ It’s tempting here to think of these dancers experiencing la petite mort – the little death – which in French is synonymous with jouissance. The orgiastic frenzy of the dancers evokes the image, as does Michelet’s obvious pleasure in recounting the story.” (144)

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