Beckett, manuscript for Watt

Keeping Track

“No, no, it was all too staged.” Lydia said. “Real death scenes are more banal. Or messier. And rarely so poignant.”

She was talking about the exhibition of photographs of abandoned apartments we had just seen. She should know. She’s often called to homes of the deceased to go through their belongings.

“Ironic, don’t you think?” she said. “We spend so much time staging ourselves for the world, but death is the one thing we never pose for.”

Lydia is an archivist. Her days are filled with the artifacts of men and women who were very keenly aware of their public image and who went to considerable length to craft and maintain that image.

“We all do it, of course” she said. “Every time we get dressed, write a letter, buy a gift, I could go on, but they’re all little acts of self-presentation, It’s as if we were continually telling little stories about ourselves, even if we don’t know we’re doing it. Thank God, it’s not always the same story.”

I first thought that was an odd thing for an archivist to say. I would have thought that the more consistent the storyline, the easier it was to weave all these little bits of story into some kind of comprehensible narrative. But Lydia told me it wasn’t her job to make sense out of the material but to determine whether any particular item was worth preserving.

I wondered what it must be like to be to go through the remnants of a life you never shared, a life extinguished and now contained in escritoires and hatboxes and photograph albums, and decide what’s worth preserving and what’s not. I could see Lydia surrounded by towering stacks of paper—letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, bills and receipts—trying to determine what contribution, if any, they made to mapping the personal and intellectual journey of whatever diplomat or poet whose archives she was investigating at the moment.

Lydia loves paper, the actual feel of it in her hands and the sounds it makes as she rubs it gently between her fingers or turns the page. She’s particularly fond of paper that has been written on. She has a thing for handwritten texts. I think it’s her fascination with how art is made and books are written. Handwritten texts, she says, are the quintessential medium for capturing this process. The only way to delete a sentence written in ink is either cross it out or toss the sheet of paper—or, horror, rip it out of the notebook—and begin again. The handwritten text revealed the false starts and second thoughts of the writer, the strikethroughs and marginal notes that are the errata and addenda of the creative process, and even the doodles of a daydreaming mind. She told me about Beckett’s original manuscript of Watt, which he wrote in ink and colored crayons and was filled with hand-drawn sketches of characters and scenes in the work.

But paper was a problem. It could be lost in a fire, damaged in a flood or misplaced in a move. It could be torn to shreds in a fit of mania or tossed in the fireplace in a moment of despair. But perhaps precisely because of its fragility those who kept archives of their correspondence and photographs took care of them, and even more so the archivists who later assumed responsibility for these fragile documents.

Lydia’s greatest concern, however, is not about paper but about the digital media that are slowly supplanting it. She’s worried that new technological advances in storage media will render previous material unusable.

Of course they’ll make sure there’s a way to transfer the material to the new media,” I said, in a customary flash of technological hubris. But then I thought of the trays of slides in my closet that need a projection machine I no longer have and the diskettes that can no longer be read. I remembered the boxes of cassette tapes and VHS cassettes that I threw out over the years. Even worse was the war of attrition waged with my archives; with each move to a new PC, a share of data was always lost, transferred to diskettes or zip drives or burnt to CDs that were then misplaced or rendered unusable. Among the victims were the digital originals of a play, a short story, the first two chapters of a novel and two pornographic tales. Luckily I have printed copies of all the texts except the porn and chapter 2. I should be thankful, I suppose, though the porn was much better than the play.

Archives sounds rather grand, the kind of thing that statesmen and industrialists would have, people with influence or wealth, or scientists and writers and explorers.

But archiving has becoming democratized. Just as we now can curate our own (virtual) collection of paintings and photography, just as we can press our own (digital) albums of music, we can now create our own archives. And what we document and archive is our lives.

We share—and save—in text and image the things and places and events and people who matter to us in some way, or maybe just intrigue or amuse us. Our wall and tweets, our galleries and playlists are what family albums, postcards, home movies and letters used to be, a compendium of artifacts of our social existence. But not only. They are also log books that record the musings of a flâneur, the finds of an explorer and the acquisitions of a collector, links and leads to fractal pancakes, kinetic typography and rare B noir. The address of the Borges Norton lectures. A clip from a film starring James Dean and Ronald Reagan. A data visualization that maps networks using slime mold (more interesting than it sounds). Maybe our postings, after all, are like the scribbles and sketches in a hand-kept journal, notes on a work in its becoming, a work that is nothing other than our own life. What Lydia would call the little acts of self-presentation.

The narrative that emerges depends on the skill and dedication of the diarist. My sister-in-law tweets and blogs and posts about all sorts of things: her kids, of course, and her garden and chickens and horses, and her runs, too. Like the reports filed by a gifted foreign correspondent her postings are both observation and reflection at the same time, an account of fact enriched by context, interpretation and humor. And as she documents her days, she is at the same building an archive, and in a way that preserves the freshness and vividness of the experience more than my father’s home movies did. What a gift to her son and daughter!

The quality of her postings is not coincidental. She’s smart and witty and interested in the world around her. All that helps enormously. But I think she also must be extraordinarily disciplined when she writes. There doesn’t seem to be any dross, which is quite an accomplishment considering that the very immediacy of social media—unarguably one of the very strengths of the form—also allows for a certain degree of impetuousness (judging from my own posts). We’re writing on a wall after all. Who edits that? (Well, maybe Nikolas does. I think he’s biologically incapable of writing anything slipshod). We have no Lydia to assess the evidentiary value of a particular artifact (to use one of her phrases). Everything is saved.

In the end, of course, the intrinsic value of any individual post (in terms of content) matters much less than the fact that it brings its author within the range of your mind’s eye. It is no small thing to be given a window into the daily lives of people you care about.

Archivists customarily organize material along the principles of provenance and original order. Things that originate from one source or body are kept together in the order the creator established. That means that documents from divorce proceedings are not mixed in with letters from your publisher. This convention of respect des fonds, arguably followed intuitively by the keepers of family memory (if only because of the dissimilarity of the artifacts themselves) is breached in Facebook, at least with regard to provenance. Practically everything can, and often does, find its way to the timeline.

And stays there. There are no gaps in our documentary evidence, like the ones left by flood or fire or the technological advances in storage, none, that is, other than those caused by own silence. Unlike the archives for which Lydia is responsible and which she herself must ensure that future generations can read, unlike the stories I have lost, the artifacts we have posted to social media will always be there. Nothing gets lost. Ever. Or so we would like to believe.


Image: Excerpt from Beckett’s original manuscript for Watt (Univ. of Texas)


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