Archiving the opposites


I was thinking about opposites: or no—‘I would meet you upon this honestly’—for some reason, remembering the opening of Easy Rider, which I saw twice soon after its release, once straight and once. . . not, probably recklessly taking advice from a friend of that time (‘You have to see it stoned, man, otherwise you’re just wasting time and money’). The opening sequence has the soundtrack of a Steppenwolf song, its refrain being: ‘God damn the pusher’. I was reminded of it only because of its opposite, not curse but benediction, since I was thinking, after an exchange of emails yesterday and this morning: ‘God bless the archivist.’

That sentiment is common enough among researchers, I know. There is darkness; an archivist fiddles with the solar system and – there’s light. Accept the miracle, send the lavishly grateful email, know your place in an ordered universe. . .But I was thinking about opposites.

‘I reacted violently against him at first on the grounds that he was a militarist. But I soon found that if he was a militarist, he was at the same time the exact opposite.’ This is the Australian painter Stella Bowen writing, not long after his death, of her partner of ten years and father of her child, Ford Madox Ford.[1] When she met him in 1917, he was in uniform, as almost all Stella’s other friends and acquaintances at that time—poets, painters, dancers, musicians, translators—were not. The least likely candidate for an organisation such as the British Army, one might think, yet, when he was given a commission, he wrote to Lucy Masterman, ‘I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal.’[2] Indeed.

(Stella Bowen, ‘Ford Playing Solitaire’)

Opposites are routinely employed or deployed in all manner of writers’ work and are integral to some. F. O. Matthiessen wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘inveterate habit of stating things in opposites’, while Guy Davenport noted of John Ruskin that he ‘quite early began to use the digression as a major device of style, and later saw in his infinitely branching digressions (Fors Clavigera is a long work of nothing but) “Gothic generosity” – the polar opposite of classical restraint.’[3] Of Penelope Fitzgerald, fellow-novelist Julian Barnes wrote: ‘Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life she liberated herself into greatness.’[4] Reflecting on her Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, Fitzgerald remarked: ‘It was a pity that the title was translated into various European languages with words meaning “far away” or “far from the shore,” which meant the exact opposite of what I intended. By “offshore” I meant to suggest the boats at anchor, still in touch with the land, and also the emotional restlessness of my characters, halfway between the need for security and the doubtful attraction of danger. Their indecision is a kind of reflection of the rising and falling tide, which the craft at anchor must, of course, follow.’[5]

(Thomas Rowlandson cartoon , ‘Walking up the High Street’: Messrs Johnson and Boswell in Edinburgh)

The idea of the opposite is indispensable to the firm contradiction of a prevailing trend or assumption, as essential a tool in the biographer’s or historian’s bag as a plunger in a plumber’s. Adam Sisman’s absorbing book on James Boswell observes of the famous trip to the Hebrides that this was, for most Britons, ‘still a wild and exotic region, one of the least explored in Europe. The Grand Tour was very much the fashion in the mid-eighteenth century, but the route directed the sons of the aristocracy to the sites of classical European civilization. Johnson and Boswell, by heading for the barbarian North, were going in the opposite direction.’[6] (The story-board for the animated short, ‘Sam and Jim Go Up Not Down’, is currently in draft form.) The great historian Fernand Braudel was also in a contradictory mood when he stated that, between 1350 and 1550, Europe ‘probably experienced a favourable period as far as individual living standards were concerned.’ Manpower was relatively scarce after the ravages of the Black Death. ‘Real salaries have never been as high as they were then.’ And he adds: ‘The paradox must be emphasized since it is often thought that hardship increases the farther back towards the middle ages one goes In fact the opposite is true of the standard of living of the common people – the majority.’[7] Moving on (chronologically), Alexandra Harris suggested that ‘The Georgian revival was in important ways precisely the opposite of Little Englandism: it was an investigation of England’s cultural relations with Europe and an effort to promote an audaciously international version of Englishness.’[8] If that’s the case, we clearly need another one.

The saying that ‘opposites attract’ will be true enough, no doubt, in many instances; but so too will the assertion that ‘opposites repel’, more so than ever at the current juncture when societies and nations seem to have cracked down the middle or lost their collective minds. Some ideals are being held so fiercely that they are breathlessly expiring; but then, as Robert Musil wrote: ‘Ideals have curious properties, and one of them is that they turn into their opposites when one tries to live up to them.’[9]

Sometimes. Still, God bless the archivist: that statement will brook no opposition.


Notes

[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 62.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 61.

[3] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 3; Guy Davenport, ‘Ruskin According to Proust’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 334.

[4] Julian Barnes, ‘The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald’, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (And One Short Story) (London: Vintage, 2012), 4.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 478.

[6] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 89.

[7] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French; revised by Sîan Reynolds (London: Fontana Books 1985), 193, 194.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, Thames & Hudson 2010), 70.

[9] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (London: Picador, 1997), 247.

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