Film still from Marguerite Duras’s Les mains négatives (1979)
MAKE Magazine asked authors Jennifer Scappettone and Nathanaël to share a correspondence on the concept of the archive and its relation to their work across various genres, media, and translative acts. The following epistolary conversation is the result of that correspondence.
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August 9, 2015
I asked you to join this conversation with me because I think of us, however similar in orientation toward the world, as possessing wildly diverging attitudes toward the archive. It isn’t surprising that you were almost instantly able to point me to this citation of yours from an upcoming interview in Bookslut: Derrida writing that “the first catastrophe, is the ignoble archive that rots everything…” You must think of me, with my half-vast attempts at salvaging so many species of history, including the ultrabanal, as being rather morbid! And yet I think I would be able to echo your devastating articulation in that interview that “each book occupies, for me, the place of a memory loss….” and have it resonate as true for me too.
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August 9, 2015
I have been thinking, since you first proposed this conversation, and following the tempest that turned the north beaches of this city into a salvage of deracinated trees and impacted dwellings that each grain of sand contains an archive of silence.
(Nothing that can be accounted for).
It seems impossible to elude the morbidity of the archive, from whatever vantage (including one of resistance), but I do wonder, in light of its ordered etymology of adjudication, what sense this language holds for you, specifically. I tend to think of a less authorised substrata of meaning that calls up obsolescence and contamination, language that arises for you in Killing the Moonlight, and calls up a space of shared geological fixation: the lagoon (la laguna—it seemed important, here, to let the Italian resonate as well). You write of Porto Marghera, post-war, as being seen “to host a discomfiting marriage of its famed stones with the detritus of modernizing campaigns” and I am susceptible to this topos and wanting to ask you more about this problematic, as it threads its way out of deliberated oblivion into contemporary works including your recent (and ongoing?) Leave Loom. Because the lagoon, in this instance, is also (and especially) a city on water.
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August 13, 2015
It’s funny that we should be working at this as I embark on a journey into the Ardèche to walk through a reproduction of the so-called Chauvet Cave (the one “of forgotten dreams,” in Werner Herzog’s drastically romantic description). What’s wonderful (in the literal sense) is how the painters of 36,000 years ago lurch into life—in those hollows lurches the life especially of the bears, bison, mammoths, rhinos, horses, and wild cats they depict, but also their own, via imprints of their hands—without the crutch of an archive. We know next to nothing about the myths or symbolism of these people, the why of their mimicry of the bears’ clawing lines in the bodies of mammals, what or how they believed—and it doesn’t matter. They seem very often to find the animals embedded in the stone ripples of burrows and stalactites, and accentuate their flanks and harboring places with charred wood so as to release them: like the unimprisoned of Michelangelo, but via design. All with an immediacy that my education in history doesn’t help me to decipher, only to wonder at more utterly: the immediacy of prehistory. It helps me to understand Emilio Villa, whom I’ve been working on lately—translator of what he called a “hyperpast” and “hypopresent” (but that’s another story for now).
I remember telling you once about an interview I heard regarding the songs of Nick Drake—how a musicologist made the argument that since Drake’s music wasn’t known in his lifetime, and would never constitute the soundtrack to film footage of Woodstock or a sit-in, it was strangely free to be relevant to any moment, not just its own. We were both struck by this; I was struck because that sort of outcome forms the opposite of how I imagine my own aspirations directed. I want to participate in my time, fell as it is. Yet this claim—which is often made of lyrical poetry—seemed strangely liberating of a sudden. Liberating from historical arcs that tend to classify each moment registered as either worthy of the trajectory, or rubbish of the wayside.
Which is to say: yes: I have been interested in the ways that disorderly, ungovernable spaces—or spaces at least whose governance requires a sort of reciprocity beyond the single-handed imposition of a blueprint or boulevard—may form archives. Three-dimensional counterarchives like those of Benjamin’s arcades, but more unsung than the spaces of a Baudelaire. Urban and natural spaces that do not splay themselves to the gaze—that may even be muddied in the material sense.
So: lest I go on let’s talk about the ecosystem: what ever got us both interested in a lagoon/lacuna? Was it the birds that took you there?
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August 13, 2015
There is an uncanny concordance in our current displacements, though mine, for the moment at least, are limited to projection, while you are engaged in actual traversals.
I have seen neither the Chauvet Cave nor Herzog’s film, but I have been thinking these days, and not just because it is August—though what a month of layerings of torment, historical and otherwise—of the outlines of bodies calcined against the walls of Hiroshima after the bomb blast, and how these mortific negatives are pressing rejoinders to the voice of 30,000 years ago in Duras’s 1979 film Les mains négatives. The text is unpublished in English translation (though I have myself translated it), and was subsequent to the short film made of outtakes from Le Navire Night. The negative hands in question are those painted on the grottoes of Altamira and which Duras was able to see before the caves were closed to the public. There is a curious epilogue to the haunting text, which arises in an interview in which Duras explains an error in understanding that is upheld, and which concerns the manner of painting—whether the hands were smeared with paint or outlined. This (journalistic?) attention to fact or truth is startling, since in some respects it is irrelevant to the work which sets a lone voice against the stone walls of Paris, understandable as the ignorant archive of that cry—its repudiation and its re-perpetuation, since the film, which Duras qualifies as terrible, describes Paris at dawn, before the white-collar workers will enter at daylight erasing the obscure presence of otherwise invisible immigrants tasked with collecting the city’s refuse and polishing its usable surfaces. If the archive attempts to attest to something like the truth, one would have to have some kind of faith in the veracity of an object, or at the very least its ability to testify to a time.
At what point do you think Benjamin’s counter-archives become a failure even of their own demonstration? Walking through them today, one encounters the self-conscious spectacle of something much over-written and clearly over-commercialised. It is hardly possible to read Benjamin anymore for the way his thought is reduced, emulated and applied across disciplines and with reiterative recourse to the same passages. A perhaps inevitability but it reminds me nonetheless of the way thinking about photography has allowed itself to be pre-masticated by a narrow application of Barthes’ verbiage—something he himself anticipates in Le degré zéro de l’écriture.
But to the lagoon! I am discovering that my predilection for marshlands has a very long history, and in literary terms must go back at least to my reading of Paludes in, probably, 1984. It remains, for me, the most compelling of Gide’s works, despite my predilection for Les nourritures terrestres; but also, perhaps, because some things are best kept to oneself. The marsh is an utterly rebarbative ecosystem (exposed, bug-ridden, etc.) that I find permanently fascinating, in part since, without intervention, it is a landscape in constant flux and full of contrariness. If the Camargue region, for example, weren’t under such strict governance to ensure the sustainability of rice paddies, salt cultivation, and human habitat, large portions of the area would be periodically inundated as part of a natural cycle. On the North-American continent the Low Country with its estuarine salt marsh is not only a constant, and fragile, interchange, of salt and fresh waters (not always brackish), but the endangered dwelling of the Gullah language—the actualization of a creolized ecology that owes as much to linguistic as it does to so-called natural ecosystems (including its avian populations) for me is a kind of contagion.
I think I have said plenty here to evoke at least peripherally the lacuna of the lagoon, and now, in turn, I hope that you will tell me whether Venezia for you is separable from la laguna or whether (as I suspect) they arise out of a particular combinatory of desires?
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August 24, 2015
I have taken a terribly long while to get back to you because in the midst of finishing other essays on anachronism and imaginary Pentecosts, and plotting toward the official opening of the Leave Loom installation in Hollywood while settling into that eternally eroding city, Rome, and the whole trajectory has been all too relevant to our mutual queries. And now the strains of it are various enough to burst the seams of any single dialogue.
Perhaps I have told you that when I was just a kid but thought I was grown, at age 22, I was asked to act as the English editor of a book of translations of hibakusha testimonials, or survivors of the atomic bomb residing in the Nagoya area. The aim of this publication was directly political: to prevent this kind of war, this kind of weapon, from happening again. The positive value of these accounts, their awful redundancy, had a branding affect on my consciousness. There was no effort to edit them, to make them more aesthetically digestible. When years later I ended up at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.—drifting in by collective will of a group of friends—and came upon a celebratory exhibit of the Enola Gay, I was incredulous. Here playing was the drone’s-eye view of that crossing, that bridge that arose in every testimony as the place where people were drowning themselves in desperation or where families were divided, too often for eternity. It was the most carnally riveting reduction of persons to collateral damage that I had known at something like first hand. Unfortunately it continues to happen like this, in our museums, textbooks. Even from the “inside”—out of shame. Now, as pacifism fades in an amnesiac and repressive regime, some have worked to become denshosha, volunteers who shadow survivors for a minimum of three years as the designated transmitters of their memories. This must be the most excruciating, crucial kind of translation.
The contemporary resonance of Duras’s film is very subtle; it’s your reading that helps me through apparent primitivism into immediate politics. I’m interested in what draws her to call it “terrible.” Is it self-criticism? But it seems that all we can do is grasp at the few facts we might be able to divine around the contours of such mysterious people as the Aurignacians and Magdalenians, and I somehow relate to the distraction of a debate over technique: at Chauvet, we were told that the negative hands (those I saw were registered in red) were made by taking ochre pigment in the palm, placing some in the mouth, and spitting over one’s hand pressed to the limestone. So that the full, wordless mouth is preserved in negative, as well.
All this—looking up last eve at the central arch of the Pons Cestius over the churning Tiber, whose uneven cuts inspire true marvel at the arrogance of ancient engineering, turning an island into a stone boat—has me interested in a metaphor Ezra Pound uses early on in his upstart 1910 book The Spirit of Romance, wherein he compares an art to a river: “It is perturbed at times by the quality of the river bed, but is in a way independent of that bed. The colour of the water depends upon the substance of the bed and banks immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, but the quality of motion is of the river. The scientist is concerned with all of these things, the artist with that which flows.” Having spent a summer in the trenches of archaeology a very long time ago, I would align myself with the last phrase—“the artist with that which flows” and at the same time insist on the non-independence of artifacture, its being suffused with the transmogrifying qualities of the river bed, the ever-changing, ever-bruised substance of the bed, the banks and embankments, the reflections in it. The toomuchness of all that facture seems an abiding concern for me, one that yet upholds some degree of rebellion against the arch of archaeology and the archive.
Which is to say: the lagoon. It resists archaeology. Which gets to the heart of Andrea Zanzotto’s pun between “laguna” and “lacuna,” and to a question people often pose so as presumably to undermine the thesis that Venice might be different from other historical cities: Rome can be selectively carved into for information, boulevarded by the latest duke in search of specific instrumental histories. In the Venetian archipelago, that information is literally drowned or suffused in the underpinning structures of petrified trees at hand; these substructures need to be either decimated, or salvaged and reused to effect the new, in a dynamic I tend to name reciprocal interference (echoing Ruskin). Only so much can be done to control the flooding and its sucking back. You live with it or, having intervened through landfill and dredging too deeply, are reduced to the folly of dykes, whose foundation stone bears Berlusconi’s name. So for me Venezia is inseparable from its lagoon (except in the pens of would-be-romantics who see it as a fairy city, for whom I have little patience).
All this, and some glacial understanding of ecology that seems to be emerging despite our blinders amidst countless environmental crises, suggests we need models beyond the Paris of Haussmann and can’t keep dredging up Benjamin to apply to the present as if by default and by tweet (though I would be a liar not to name him in homage).
I’d be interested in hearing more about Gide’s Paludes and its importance to you so early on. For one thing, I wonder whether he could have been responding implicitly to Barrès’s Nietzschean variety of paludisme?
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August 26, 2015
I have let a confusion enter into our dialogue and will seek to remedy it at once—while also apologising for my lack of precision. Duras’s terrible is more akin to terror than it is to awfulness; there is something terrorising—to the author—in the unanswered cry cast across time, and the movement between the stone of the cavern and the erected stone of the city, which receives the cry while at the same time perhaps destroying it; or articulating its destruction. Duras spent the first eighteen years of her life in French Indochina; this detail is often overlooked as Duras comes to be a symbol of a (national) French literature, and while it does not dispense her from some tendentious political postures, it denies a traceable itinerary—this is arguably true of the ascription of any national identity, which cannot ever be as coherent as it may claim to be, but it is striking that for an anglophone readership, so much of what is received, I would go so far to say at times revered, as French is in fact foreign even to itself (Cixous was born in Algeria, Irigaray in Belgium, Kristeva Bulgaria, Hyvrard grew up in Martinique, Sarraute was born in Russia…). I am not sure as I write you what specific relationship I wish to draw out here between the archive and origin, and Les mains négatives in particular, but I think it may be indicative of a lure, a perhaps indispensable one, to the misguided gravity ascribed to a truth. If there is a truth, it is not in Benjamin’s Germanity, nor his Judeity. And how limiting were that the case!
There is something truly terrible, to inflect Duras’s use of the term, in the task of the denshosha; perhaps it is in the belatedness of the body assigned to a particular memory. But I would think that one could only fail at attempting to embody an archive through memorisation. Testimony depends upon (often obliterated) experience and memory loss. What fantasy is purveyed through this undertaking, or that, elsewhere, of a Yad Vashem, for example. One cannot hold a memory to itself. And this is precisely what Duras’s cave painter is confronted with, as subsequent populations of humans attempt to contend with these archaeologies by uprooting bones and weighing and measuring them and trying, stupefyingly, to bring them “alive”. I can only see in this attentiveness (but I really want to say: adherence) to materiality, a form of naïveté (I don’t deny at times wanting to call it stupidity).
Among the existing footage of Orson Welles’ It’s All True, filmed principally in Brasil, is a long sequence entitled Four Men on a Raft that follows the perilous trajectory of a group of jangadeiros (fisher people) who navigated small rafts from Bahia to Rio to appeal to Vargas for improved working conditions. During the filming of the re-enactment of this itinerary, the principal jangedeiro, Manoel Olimpio Meira, known as Jacaré, died. His brother replaced him so that the film could be completed. In S-21 Rithy Panh leaves the spaces of the tortured and dead of Tuol Sleng empty.
The archive, by its dispersive nature, may very well be what cannot be held. It is grievous, and grief-stricken. And there is no remedy other than a kind of attentiveness precisely to that lacuna. Is it possible that such a maddening awareness drove Claude Lanzmann to the despotic annihilation of the very idea of an archive? (Impossible, besides. Even Shoah, which claims to be imageless, is made of images.)
I have strayed (…) quite far now from the marsh, though perhaps I might contend that I am only sinking further into it. You ask after Barrès’ paludisme. I have no familiarity with it; my most recent encounter with paludisme was literalised in Michaux’s Écuador, in the palm of a little girl’s hand. Gide’s book opens with the following sentence: “Before I explain my book to others, I am waiting for others to explain it to me. To explain it beforehand would be to restrict its meaning [sens]; for though we may know what we intended to say, we do not know if we were saying only that.” (Tr. George D. Painter, modified).
Is it enough to offer this as a conduit but also a ligne de conduite that I may have adhered to, sometimes unawares, for as long and as far as I know?
NATHANAËL is the (self-) translating author of more than twenty books, including The Middle Notebookes (Nightboat, 2015) and Asclepias: The Milkweeds (Nightboat, 2015). Nathanaël’s translation of Murder by Danielle Collobert was a finalist for a Best Translated Book Award in 2014. Her translation of The Mausoleum of Lovers by Hervé Guibert has been recognized by fellowships from the PEN American Center and the Centre National du Livre de France. Nathanaël lives in Chicago.
JENNIFER SCAPPETTONE is the author of Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice (Columbia UP, 2014), which received Honorable Mention for the Modernist Studies Association’s 2015 book prize, and of the poetry collection From Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009). Exit 43, an archaeology of landfill and opera of pop-up pastorals, is forthcoming from Atelos Press. She edited and translated Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli (University of Chicago Press, 2012), and recently established PennSound Italiana, a new sector of the audiovisual archive devoted to contemporary experimental poetry out of Italy. She is Associate Professor at the University of Chicago.