archival work: like a virgin

Peeking into this blog to write some about my first archival trip to France.

As a student of early music, it doesn’t take long before one is confronted with the mysterious world of archives. It begins by references to them in secondary literature, footnotes full of mysterious document numbers. Then one finds oneself asking questions that only the archive can answer. Learning how to get from that point to actually sitting down in a reading room in Europe is a massive learning curve in and of itself (which I’ve already written about). So I learned how to find French archive inventories, I made a travel plan, got a place to stay, bought a plane ticket, and ended up in a small town in the middle of France. I didn’t know anything. I had one call number of one document and a small <i>Guide des Archives</i> with general inventory information. I spent the better part of two weeks calling dossier after dossier, never quite knowing what I going to get. Sometimes it would be massive sheets of vellum with nearly illegible church fondations. Sometimes it would be scraps of paper from the 17th c with one 15th c document thrown in for good measure. I sat in the reading room of the archive, surrounded by grumpy old, white, male French scholars, or an old couple coming in to look up genealogical information.

Everything about the experience felt like a mystifying rite of passage. While the archivists were very helpful and friendly, sometimes I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few days before I realized how to call up a document; the first day, they just brought me stuff, and then later they explained how to call up things. And then later they explained how I’d have to look at this one series in a separate office. And then my crappy French speaking skills made every interaction all the more fraught. Just getting out the door, to the archive and back, finding meals–all of these, the simply daily things–made every day feel like an Everest. (though, to my credit, my comprehension skills improved dramatically while I was there.) I have traveled some in my college years, but I’m not a highly experienced world traveler.

I didn’t find anything awesome in the archives. I didn’t expect to, but there was a part of me half-hoping that I’d find another document with Ockeghem in it. I enjoyed the actual work of looking through pile after pile of document. When I was in work mode, the rest of the frustrating life was shut out. I was in my own world. I actually listened to some music on headphones, to block out the noisy silence or the French chitchat that would waft over to me, finding myself less capable of tuning out the language sounds I was less accustomed to hearing. Having the music on helped to create a more familiar work space (especially since I have a sort of general “worky” playlist that already felt familiar).

As I neared the end of the list of relevant documents, I realized that there wasn’t going to be anything of major awesomeness to musicologists. It was disappointing a little. I have some good things and interesting things, to be sure. But nothing that will make me famous. This is okay. And probably more realistic. The archive did have a good library, which I made use of, and as I began reading secondary literature, for the first time in weeks, I began to be able to truly see how archival documents undergird historical writing. It is something I’ve known in the abstract for a long time, but never have quite seen until now. It is kind of an emotional experience—of vulnerability, of awe—understanding with new reverence what it means to write history.

the boy blowing bubbles in the moon

When I was away for my recent conference, there were two things that I read while traveling: Rob Wegman’s recent essay “Blowing Bubbles in the Postmodern Era”and the memoir, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand his Extraordinary Son by Ian Brown.*

The first is a meta-musicological meditation on the work of the historian and the inherent constraints we face as individuals in a place and time trying to understand another place and time.

So it is as if we are inhabiting a little bubble: a bubble that’s floating in nothingness, a sealed and self-contained conceptual world called the twenty-first-century West. Trapped within that bubble, we are trying to imagine the one thing we cannot possibly know: what it is like to live in another bubble. (217)

Historians work to collect, sort, interpret the bits of history, placing them in their contexts, constructing identities and nations. Historians look at the cultures from the everyday morsels of life to the ruptures that change those routines. Historians sit at their computer screens in the twenty-first-century writing arguments and citing evidence for historical hunches. (Historical truth is so nineteenth-century.) Historians spend their whole life trying know the unknowable.

It was interesting to me that I was reading this article as I was finishing up The Boy in the Moon, a book by the father of a son who was born with a genetic condition that leaves him so severely disabled physically and intellectually that all the means the father has previously used to get to know another human being are now moot. His son is non-verbal and does not have enough motor control to sign, neither are they sure if he can intellectually ascribe meaning to signs. He can’t express desires. He does laugh and can appear to be either content or discontent. And he can walk.

Not only is Brown trying to understand who his son is, he is also trying to understand what meaning his son’s existence has in present society. If our society values the mind, productivity, economic production, then the boy has no place in that society.

Brown quotes a conversation with a wise geneticist:

The state of non-verbal rapture you describe in your son — who is to say that that is inferior? Who is to say that? We’re arrogant enough to believe that sentience is all that counts. It’s not all that counts. A sequoia is not a sentient being. But they count. There is nothing more magnificent. It doesn’t require me to think about it to be in awe of it…[The difficulty of raising a handicapped child] says something about the place we have reached as a society that doing so creates a serious handicap in these contexts. But it’s just a mistake to think of them as lesser than. There’s no lesser than. There’s just different from. It isn’t just great minds that matter. It’s great spirits, too.

It was a genetic aberration that produced the child and science that keeps him alive. If evolution brings us children like him, then our societies need to evolve with them. An underlying question of the book is, what does disability bring humanity?

Both Wegman and Brown are trying to know an unknowable. Faced with the insurmountable constraints of time-travel and massive genetic overhaul, their tasks leave them with the opportunity to reflect back to themselves. Brown says, “I keep speaking [to him]. Of course it’s not Walker alone who needs to keep hearing me talk; it’s me who needs to keep talking to Walker. I’m afraid of what will happen if I stop.” When faced with the chasms of history, Wegman says, “With great pleasure, I will go on research trips to find watermarks…I will be happy…[and] write about these things in a way that interested readers will find entertaining and enlightening.” In each case, the authors are speaking to their own experience as individuals in the process.

Both authors find the experience of probing the unknowable an occasion to reflect on their own humanity with respect to their tasks. And it is their personhood that gives meaning to otherwise stymieing feats.

The work of history is profound. Raising a severely disabled child is also profound, but in a very different way. I hope I don’t minimize their unique realities by juxtaposing them here. I’m merely reflecting on what was, for me, a fortuitous collision of ideas that seemed to relate on a deeper, human level.

* Ian Brown was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air shortly after the book came out.