restricted access At the Aphasiac’s Table: Archive Anxiety.docx
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At the Aphasiac’s Table:
Archive Anxiety.docx

With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect to anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition. A cat is a mammal, a narcissist, a companion, a riddle.

– Martha Cooley, The Archivist, 3

[T]here is nothing more tentative, nothing more empirical (superficially, at least) than the process of establishing an order among things.

– Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, xix

Prologue

I am putting away my term. Yes, I am. A little late, but that’s the kind of term it was: things spill over, the boxes will not hold them. The course files are not yet in their folders, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. The season has turned and the objects on my worktable now stare back reproachfully like jetsam on a beach: pens, pencils, piles of books and papers, a terracotta bowl containing paper clips, a small crescent-moon tin from the 1950s with the image of a football player of the period, a half-finished jigsaw of a seventeenth-century Dutch interior, a toy skunk, a newly bound dissertation, a two-inch tall baobab tree lying on its side, a Venetian glass paperweight, a postcard of the Freud House in London and another of one of J.M. Gandy’s cut-away architectural views, an open wooden box from the Crescent dairy in Montreal containing cards and letters, a split ammonite from Madagascar (late Jurassic), five miniature foreign language dictionaries in a small red leather box, postage stamps from Romania and the Dominican Republic, another paperweight in the form of an iron lizard, a scattering of cigarette cards from the 1920s, and a glazed earthenware bird that whistles when you blow into its tail. And in the middle of all this, en abyme on the desktop of my MacBookPro 2.2, surrounded by graduate student term papers, thesis chapters, articles for review, annual reports, course outlines, program spreadsheets, committee minutes, reference letters, grant applications, downloaded pdfs of doubtful provenance and forgotten purpose – the debris, in other words, of another semester – sits what I’m looking for. I know it’s time to do something with it, to move it to safety, to airlift it out of the post-term ruins of everyday chaos and find it a home somewhere in the rabbit warren prosaically labeled “FILES.” But where does “Archive Anxiety.docx” [End Page 139] belong? A couple of quick decisions and then my sense of purpose falters. I start to second-guess myself. Folders open into folders, which dead-end in files bearing no discernible resemblance to the one I’m trying to place. I retrace my steps and take a different route, wishing I had Senhor José’s Ariadne’s thread, trying to reconstruct the improvised logic that presided over the rhizomorphous growth of my laptop’s filing system. The pauses multiply and lengthen; hesitation seeps into the very foundations, threatening to bring the whole edifice down. To break the paralysis, I reconcile myself to the need to compromise or, if I’m honest, to cheat. I’ll change the rules. After all, isn’t that what sensible people do all the time? A few agonized tweaks to what I laughably call the cross-referencing system, a sudden swerve of atoms, and “Archive Anxiety.docx” has been removed from the clutter, the hurly-burly of life on my desktop {on my desktop}, to find at least a temporary home on the street plan of my mental sprawl. I create a new folder and title it “Archival Imaginary.” With the tough decisions behind me, all that remains now is to write the content.

As if playing a game of patience

A third of the way into W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the narrator is cryptically summoned to Jacques Austerlitz’s home in East London. The spacious house is almost empty, uncarpeted and uncurtained, with walls and floors in various shades of gray. There to serve as listener as the architectural historian takes up once more the story of his early years that he has pieced together little by little from memory fragments...


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