Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Glimpse of What Historians Actually Do

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

First published in French in 1989, this book is now available to English readers thanks to what appears to be a very fine translation by Thomas Scott-Railton. As the "Forward" by Natalie Zemon Davis explains, author Arlette Farge is a social historian who has focused on eighteenth-century France. But this book of hers is not another historical monograph. It is, instead, a book about the experience, value, and proper uses of archival research. In other words, in The Allure of the Archives, Farge does not practice her craft so much as she elegantly describes and reflects on it.

The author's approach is to toggle back and forth between descriptive, analytical chapters and brief, autobiographical sections--which tend to reveal how petty and annoying some people in the archives can be, and how one easily distinguishes between veterans and rookies. Along the way, Farge puts in a good word for the necessary task of transcribing old, handwritten documents. Though tedious, she insists that there is something essential and rewarding about such work (15-17).

In a section titled "Her Presence," she notes that if traditional histories often omit women, the archives never do: "In every popular expression of emotion, in groups large and small, women were on the scene and dove in headfirst into the action" (39).

Farge is convinced that the prime way of getting at social history is to focus on conflict: "Why not choose to take a deliberately provocative position on this, and assert that society's character manifests itself through antagonisms and conflicts? It is more important to say this than ever, because today there is a tendency to doubt the centrality of conflict" (43).

In another memorable section, the author describes how it is that some manuscripts are much easier to decipher when they are read out loud: "Nothing looks like anything, unless it is articulated, and the tongue delivers the writing from incomprehensibility" (60). Yet, people in reading rooms are supposed to work silently.

Farge also notes several pitfalls associated with archival research. For example, "you can become absorbed by the archives to the point that you no longer know how to interrogate them" (70). She observes that another common trap is to identify a thesis too early, thereby ensuring that you will "find" exactly and only what you were looking for in the first place.

Nearing the end, the author raises and responds to the question of the relationship between truth and written history. She takes a mediating approach, one that says that, while no historian every produces "the definitive truthful narrative," no historian worthy of the name can ever disregard truth, or fail to care about what is true (95-96). 

Here, I noticed a correspondence between Farge's book and one by Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis titled, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford, 2002). Gaddis notes that, on the one hand, historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means you have learned "that there is no 'correct' interpretation of the past" and that "the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience" (10). On the other hand, he rejects the extreme conclusion that because "we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space" we therefore "can't know anything about what happened within them" (34). Both Farge and Gaddis would agree, I think, that historians can and should identify many things that are true, while at the same time recognizing that one's interpretation of a set of facts is just that, an interpretation.

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