- Constructing the Archive and the Nation in “Italy! world’s Italy!”, “My Last Duchess,” Aurora Leigh, and an Unpublished Manuscript by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2007
- pp. 35-57
- View Citation
- Additional Information
35 Constructing the Archive and the Nation in “Italy! world’s Italy!”,“My Last Duchess,” Aurora Leigh, and an Unpublished Manuscript by Elizabeth Barrett Browning M a rjor ie Ston e • What isn’t an archive these days? . . . In these memoryobsessed times—haunted by the demands of history, overwhelmed by the dizzying possibilities of new technologies —the archive presents itself as the ultimate horizon of experience. Ethically charged, politically saturated, such a horizon would seem to be all the more inescapable for remaining undefined.Where to draw the limits of the archive? How to define its basic terms? . . . — Rebecca Comay, Lost in the Archives The death drive is not a principle. It even threatens every principality, every archonic primary, every archival desire. It is what we will call, later on, le mal d’archive,“archive fever.” — Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever “In its simplest terms, the purpose of the archive, any archive, like the unconscious itself, is to serve as an operating system for remembering and forgetting,” Christopher Faulkner comments in a 2001 essay on the Federal Bureau of Investigation as “a paradigm of all archives” (1). Like Rebecca Comay’s, Faulkner’s approach bears the imprint of Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1996): in particular, Derrida’s introductory excavation of “archive” as a word whose Greek root arkhe names “at once the commencement and the commandment ” (1).1 In Dust:The Archive and Cultural History (2002), Carolyn Steedman explains the extraordinary purchase of Derrida’s brief prolegomenon on the archive by situating it within the “1990s battle between the ancients and the post-moderns—between the old social history and the new cultural history” (2). While traditional “social historians” claimed the archive as “their very victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 36 own place” and took it into“protective custody” (2–3), cultural historians and theorists found in Derrida’s symbolic expansion of“the archive” a“powerful metaphor for the processes of collecting traces of the past, and for the forgetting of them” (Steedman 4). More than a metaphor, in fact,“archive”is an example of what Mieke Bal terms a “travelling concept.” Never “simply descriptive,” travelling concepts move toward “conceptualized, condensed theories.”They have “ramifications, traditions, and histories,” as well as the “foundational capacity” to produce “new emphases, and a new ordering . . . within the complex objects that constitute the cultural field” (Bal 16–17, 21). Shuttling between“archive” in its literal sense and its figurative senses as a migrating, foundational concept, part one of this essay charts some examples of contemporary archive theory, notes its paradoxically low profile within Victorian studies, and argues that a productive terrain for theorizing the archive can be found in the manuscript remains of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (or EBB, as I will henceforth refer to her, in keeping with the signature practices reflected by her own self-archiving).2 Part two presents a transcription of one of EBB’s more substantial unpublished manuscripts—a fragment on Italy of ninety lines or more—using it to explore the mediations connecting archives as repositories of documentary facts to the archive as signifier for cultural memory and forgetting. Part three situates this fragment within the cultural and personal contexts of EBB’s evolving constructions of Italy, addressing the manuscript’s connections with Browning’s“My Last Duchess,” as well as with Casa GuidiWindows,Aurora Leigh, and “Italy and the World,” a seldom discussed work in Poems before Congress. Evidently intended as the opening to a projected long poem, the fragment begins with the exuberantly possessive exclamation “Italy! world’s Italy!” Echoed in the textual palimpsests of EBB’s later representations of Italy, the aborted poem dramatically underscores how she turned away from early constructions of Italy as an anglicized and aestheticized space to representing it as an emerging nation-state.Another unpublished fragment beginning “Italy—Italy—is it but a name” marks the turning point itself, as well as the germ of Casa GuidiWindows. a rchi v e theory, v ictor ia n st u dies, a n d the ch a llenges of the EBB a rchi v es The archival turn of recent decades arises from earlier catalysts than Derrida’s Archive Fever, most notably...