Thursday, March 05, 2009

A City Without a Memory: Cologne Archives Collapse

by EILEEN JOY

Some time yesterday afternoon, the six-story Cologne Archives, housing documents dating as far back as the tenth century, as well as the private papers of writers such as Karl Marx, Hegel, and Heinrich Böll, and also all of the minutes taken at Cologne town council meetings since 1376, collapsed as if hit by a missile, only there was no missile, but rather, some sort of structural flaw that caused the building to start cracking and tumbling down. Most visitors, plus some construction workers on the roof, were able to get out in time, although two or three persons may be buried underneath the rubble. Ironically, the Archives contained many documents that had been recuperated from library buildings destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and a small nuclear bomb-proof room that had been constructed in the basement to house the most rare materials was, at the time of the building's collapse, only being used to store cleaning materials [you can read more about the story in the UK Times Online here].

Given that medievalists already always work with archives and records that are partial, damaged, and full of contextual aporia [the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, published by Columbia University Press in the early decades of the 20th century, could never be a complete record of the poetry of Anglo-Saxon England--indeed, it is quite spotty--and so many non-poetic documents that could have shed light on the social, cultural, and other circumstances of the writing of this poetry are also lost to us], the sudden disappearance, as it were, of the Cologne Archives only adds to what is already an immense loss. But what, also, of the two or three missing persons, who were likely readers in the archives that day and who lie somewhere, crushed, underneath the fractured concrete and steel and thousands and thousands of pulverized pages? One day, they were in the Archives, concerned with the frail, textual remains of the past, and in an instant, they joined those remains and even disappeared with them.

This question--or rather, this sort of question--has been much on my mind of late as I find myself lodged in a kind of hellish crevice between my struggles to finish two writing projects: one, a review essay on the status of the human for GLQ: A Journal of Gay & Lesbian Studies, in the course of which I have learned that human beings may be nothing more than the dreams and hosts of bacteria and bacterial sex [pace books by Luciani Parisi and Myra J. Hird], and yet, at the same time, if there is any hope for humanism or human rights, it will be through the recognition of shared modes of dispossession occasioned by vulnerability and grief [pace Judith Butler's Precarious Life], and the other, an abstract and detailed outline for my keynote address for Blackwell Compass's Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference in October, "Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny: Pre/modern, Post/human, and the Question of Being-Together," where, just yesterday, I was re-reading portions of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's book about the wars in Chechnya from 1994 through 2000 and their aftermath, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya [Politkovskaya was shot to death in her apartment building's elevator in Moscow in October 2006, likely by killers hired by the Russian government, but no one has or likely will be convicted of her murder]. More specifically, I was thinking of the city of Grozny and how, after several massive air and ground bombing campaigns by the Russians in the mid-1990s and again in 1999, the city just kind of disappeared:

Ever since about 1999, when I first discovered what had been going in Chechnya, I have been kind of obsessed with the city of Grozny and its "disappearance," so to speak, as well as with the ways in which Grozny's destruction has not registered as more than a "blip" on the consciousness of the international media [ask most people, even educated people, if they know what happened in Grozny and they will look at you, like, huh?; show them the photographs, especially the ones in black and white, and ask them to guess where they are, and most answer "Dresden"], and I have returned often to this site as one way of thinking through certain questions that have to do with ruins, traumatic history, and memory. The Russian government purposefully refused to re-build the city for almost a decade as a "lesson" to the Chechen rebels and yet many Chechens [not counting the 500,000 or so displaced by the bombings who chose to migrate elsewhere, such as Georgia] continued living there in pretty much post-apocalyptic living conditions [a perfect breeding ground, too, for the suicide terrorism that soon flourished there]. More recently, Russia has rebuilt the city but at such lightning speed that the whole place looks like one of those towns that spring up overnight near Disney World in Florida:

Whether as belated doppelganger of Dresden or as postmodern manufactured metropolis-out-of-a-box, the problem of historical memory obtains, especially as lodged in all those materials objects [including buildings and sculptures, documents and corpses, human and nonhuman] buried somewhere underneath this glittering faux-topia, which nevertheless, in my mind has impressed upon it the image of its former, smashed buildings and piles of broken concrete. The question is also raised as to whose needs have more pressing precedence in such a scenario: the living, who want to get on with their lives, and in surroundings that do not beg them to mourn continually, but allow them to start over? Or the dead, once huddled together in basements during the winter siege of 1999, who left so suddenly and with no chance to leave behind the papers that would dictate their remembrance? Can human rights ever really be possible as a site of interventionist address for the living [such that, those huddled, freezing, in basements, will not be bombed], or is it only ever a form of philosophy, or history, that always arrives belatedly [much like Butler's writing on 9/11 and its immediate political aftermath], and works in the rubble? And this recalls me as well to these lines of Bruno Schulz:
"Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread. There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul. Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided, allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant? Could it be that time is too narrow for all events?" [Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourlgass]



9 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

"L'oubli, et je dirai même l'erreur historique, sont un facteur essentiel de la création d'une nation….tout citoyen français doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy."(Ernst Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”, 1882)

I just reread that quote as I'm working my way through a paper by Andrea Frisch for a GW MEMSI seminar tomorrow. The paper is -- like Renan -- obsessed by how to forget that which is traumatic. Benedict Anderson pointed out that it is never as straightforward a temporal process as Renan makes it out to be: his formulation assumes that the memory still lives (in fact in a weird way the memory is incited) at the very moments we are commanded to forget. In this case it's a massacre being spoken of ... and above its bloody ruins is supposed to be erected a new French polity. But the event, even in its disavowal, lives on.

Forgetting is an extremely complicated process.

Steve Muhlberger said...

It is not time that is too narrow. A daily look at the site Astronomy Picture of the Day would be a useful reminder of what is narrow and what it is wide and deep.

Eileen Joy said...

Steve--thanks so much for that reminder that time is, of course, not narrow at all [or rather, the universe isn't]; Schulz was mainly talking about narrative time [and more pointedly, his own semi-fictionalized autobiography] and all of the things that never fit neatly into any narrative schema [historical, fictional, or otherwise].

Jeffrey: I think I agree with Renan that forgetting is essential to the creation of a nation [our own obviously included], and also to what might be called the forward time of progress [psychic, cultural, social, political, etc.], but with you I also agree that the events that are "forgotten" still exist somehow in their disavowal, but I always return to the ending of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," too, that at a certain point, the only thing left [in a particular site that may have once served as the location of certain traumatic horrors and later hauntologies] is the weather itself: grass, sky, horizon, a breeze--nothing to trouble anyone.

Eileen Joy said...

Then there is this poem, or fragment, from Milosz that I love, that is also apropos to this conversation:

Alexandria

In my early youth I got somewhere a conviction that "alexandrianism" meant a weakening of creative impulse and a proliferation of commentaries on great works of the past. Today I do not know whether this is true, yet I have lived to the epoch when a word does not refer to a thing, for instance a tree, but to a text on a tree, which text was begotten by a text on a tree, and so on. "Alexandrianism" mean "decadence." Then for a long time concerns about this game were abandoned, but what about an epoch which is unable to forget anything?

Museums, libraries, photographs, reproductions, film archives. And amid that abundance individuals who do not realize that around them an omnipresent memory hovers and besieges, attacks their tiny consciousness.

--from "Road-side Dog"

Nicola Masciandaro said...

An interesting corollary.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

but I always return to the ending of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," too, that at a certain point, the only thing left [in a particular site that may have once served as the location of certain traumatic horrors and later hauntologies] is the weather itself: grass, sky, horizon, a breeze--nothing to trouble anyone.

But compare the ending of Wuthering Heights. On the one hand, you have this assertion:

"But the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two on ’em looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since his death:—and an odd thing happened to me about a month ago. I was going to the Grange one evening—a dark evening, threatening thunder—and, just at the turn of the Heights, I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided.

‘What is the matter, my little man?’ I asked.

‘There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,’ he blubbered, ‘un’ I darnut pass ’em.’"


On the other, you have this actual ending:

"I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: on middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."


Of course the minute that unquiet slumbers are imagined as unimaginable, those unquiet slumbers become all the more possible ... as the restless heath, harebells, wind counter-assert.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for those bits from "Wuthering Heights," Jeffrey. It calls to mind, too, that Morrison also kind of gives her novel two endings: one, which ends with only the weather "and certainly no clamor for a kiss," and the other is the repeated refrain, "this was not a story to be passed on," even though, by writing and reading the story, it is passed on again and again. And since the very last word of the novel is "Beloved," which is a name that isn't really a name, the ghost of Beloved, in a sense, is both put to rest and called back again. But it isn't that ghosts really exist, is it [?[, but rather, that we create them: they are our own psychic bogeymen, the things we can't forget, or the demands we think the dead are making on us.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I do wonder about that: whether we create our own ghosts, or if certain events aren't so in excess of human ability to comprehend, contain, live in the aftermath of that they -- as event and as object and as cataclysm -- aren't the things that are the ghosts, or that threaten to ghost us.

Karl Steel said...

On my way out the door--interestingly enough, given the conversation, to see this--so I can't track this down exactly, but it strikes me that Derrida, Gift of Death, on the impossibility of being a witness, would be quite apt here.