by Gautam Pemmaraju
He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.
The narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:
In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.
In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”
Book components however, Steedman continues, were not seen as the cause of such hazards during these early investigations. Lacking bacteriological insights, these early studies attributed the ‘diseases of literary men’ to the lack of exercise, poor air, ‘passions’, ‘excitement of ambition’, while failing to recognise that glues, leather bindings, paper and parchment, and thereby the book itself, could well be the cause for certain scholarly afflictions. Thackrah mentions ‘the putrid serum of sheep’s blood’, harbouring the bacteria that produces anthrax spores, which, Steedman reveals further, was used in bookbinding, and in describing it so, he “produced the most striking and potent image of the book as the locus of a whole range of industrial diseases”.
It was well over fifty years later in 1892, that Anthrax became a notifiable disease in Britain. The bacillus, however, Steedman continues, was first discovered in 1850 by Pierre Rayner and Casimir Davain, and its life cycle studied by Robert Koch in 1876. As its malevolence came to be commonly understood, archivists, book traders, and historians alike, Steedman writes on, began also to describe ‘red rot’ – a kind of powdery crumbling found in vegetable cured leathers and particularly in East India leather. (See this entry on ‘diseased books’).
These dangers may have been overstated, Gerald S Greenberg writes in Books As Disease Carriers 1880 – 1920, for the ‘evidence is slight’ that books were ever major carriers of epidemics, and:
In 1895 the Library Journal reported the death of one Miss Jessie Allan of tuberculosis widely believed to have been contracted from a contaminated book. Stating only that Miss Allan was associated with a “delicate organization” that did “much good work in a good cause,” LJ sought to assure the library community (many of whom knew Miss Allan) that the real danger in such sad news lies in overestimating actual health risks posed by circulating books.
Writing on the French historian Jules Michelet’s visit to the Archives Nationales in Paris, Steedman invokes his oft quoted words describing the historian’s ‘act of inhalation’ that ‘gives life’ and ‘restores’ the ‘long deserted’ papers and parchments whereupon, “’…as I breathed their dust, I saw them rise up’”. Who or what rises up is ambiguous, Steedman argues, and rightly so, since it must remain indeterminate whether it was the manuscripts or the dead, or both, who were resurrected through the historian’s inhalation but,
…we can be clearer than Michelet could be, about exactly what it was that he breathed in: the dust of the workers who made the papers and parchments; the dust of the animals who provided the skins for their leather bindings. He inhaled the by-product of all the filthy trades that have, by circuitous routes deposited their end-products in the archives. And we are forced to consider whether it was not life that he breathed into the ‘souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past’, but death, that he took into himself, with each lungful of dust.
The general nature of dust can be distinguished in types, American pathologist T Mitchell Prudden writes early on in Dust And Its Dangers (1890): from the ‘swaying’ molecular dust that breaks sunbeams, the water dust of clouds, fogs & steam, and the ‘scriptural dust’, teleologically linked to the ‘origin and endings of mundane existence’. His concerns, however, shall remain practical he writes, more to do with the ‘fine dry particles of earth or other matter’, lest he should “fall foul of either primordial or ecclesiastical or pecuniary dust”.
In Hindu cosmology, from the Bhagavata Purana to the writings of the Theosophists, there are several thoughts linked to origins from dust – multiverses emerging and passing through the corporeal body much like fine dust through pores and cosmically wandering about like dust particles in the sky, not to mention the eschatological incineration of the world(s). Brahma’s inhaling/exhaling and cosmic expansion/contraction, giving birth to multiple realms and dimensions, are popular conceptions as well. The common thread here is that the material world is constituted of and ultimately reduced to dust, only to be then regenerated. Similarly, as worldly human endeavour creates and preserves archives, arbitrating power, access, and ‘social memory’, fragmenting anonymity and oblivion, it immutably archives dust. (Wolfgang Stöcker of Cologne has an organized collection of dust; here’s a review of G Thomas Tanselle’s book on the history of dust jackets; and a photo gallery of ‘biblical’ dust storms).
The ‘incomplete’ archive, at once revealing and excluding, Brian Teanor (see here) argues as he invokes Derrida’s ‘spectral’ structure of the archive, its apparent unity, only understood in a binary juxtaposition to that which is absent from it, is much like Shiva (more precisely, the Trinity or Trimurti), “a site of both preservation and destruction”. But this dyad itself, he further argues, is somewhat illusory, “because, in terms of the archive, preservation is never perfect and destruction is rarely complete”.
The fevered search for the revelatory archival record, consigned to a dark, gloomy and dusty corner, is an enduring popular image. An ‘origin’ is thereby revealed; a mysterious, till then mythic document, hidden amidst languishing records, that the ‘historian’ or the ‘hero’ miraculously extricates, ‘dusting’ it off, thumbing it with growing excitement to eventually stumble upon the secret illuminated by an otherworldly, spectral shaft of light. Much like the secret, the dust which rises up is also revealed by this irradiated shaft of light, allowing then a ‘form of writing’ Steedman argues, which is, “made by the documents themselves; what they forbid you to write, the permissions they offer”.
As Karen Buckley interestingly points out (see “The Truth is in the Red Files”: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture, Archivaria, 2008), the names used to synonymously indicate archives or repositories of some form in popular culture, are often ‘menacing’: the classified ‘Four-Zero Archives’ in Bourne Legacy, the ‘Ministry of Objectionable Materials’ in V for Vendetta, the ‘Information Retrieval’ and ‘Information Adjustment’ departments in Brazil, and the ‘Ministry of Truth’, in Nineteen Eighty Four. Pointing further to how archivists are often represented as ‘less than human’, automatons or fossils, or even robots, as is the guardian of the Worlfram & Hart Records Room in the TV series Angel who replies to a query on her characteristically encyclopedic knowledge with, “I’m Files & Records. That’s my job”, Buckley writes,
The three simple words “It’s my job”, constitute a telling statement: popular culture is very aware of the weight of authority that archivists bring to their role as society’s recordkeepers. Despite the usual stereotype of obstructionist fossils with no life beyond their narrow profession, popular culture has evidently also wholeheartedly embraced “the professional myth of the past century that the archivist is the…keeper of the truth” (citing Cook & Shwartz, Archival Science, 2002).
Students are often warned of ‘the cult of archive’, Steedman writes in the preface to Dust, prevalent amongst “certain historians and those sad creatures who fetishise them”. Warned off the ‘seductions of the archive’ and ‘entrancing stories’, they are instead instructed on the foundational value of documented evidence.
If there has been a democratisation of archives (online institutional records) through digitization, and even a insurrectional subversion of the State’s propensity for secrecy and subterfuge (see this excellent piece on Wikileaks and the ‘conspiratorial state’), there has also arguably been a transduced access between state and individual, allowing in turn, for meta-archival activity. Derrida’s prescient thoughts on these changing modalities, wherein “the institutional passage from the private to the public” is being routinely undermined by the internet, hinted at what we now see as dynamic and complex exchanges of random information, still and moving images, music and sound, public/private records, and multiple blends of data. The nature of the ‘fever’, its traits and tempers, its mobility and malevolence, has now mutated. If ‘bit rot’ (NASA reportedly has lost some early moon mission data; see also this), Facebook fatigue (causing ‘Archive Fever’ here), and the more traditional ill-effects of poor posture, lack of exercise, poor dietary habits and sleep cycles, blurred vision and headaches, not to mention hearing impairment and cell-phone radiation, are but a few of ailments linked to our contemporary lifestyles, we must consider further a reformulated nosology, classifying our physical maladies, our psychological ones, the real, the imaginary, and the ones in between, linked to our quotidian encounters with ever growing archives.
Steedman writes that Roland Barthes considered Michelet’s inhalation of dust at the archives as ‘ingestion’ and, “Michelet actually ate history, and that it was eating it that made him ill”. “This ingested History was also Death”, she writes on, and quoting Barthes here adds, “’Michelet receives History as food and nourishment, but in return, he gives up his life to it: not only his labour and his health, but even his death”.
Last year, wrapping up my work, I gathered up the documents and books (dusty ones at that) to return them to the librarian in the state archives. Finding her missing, I stepped out into the corridor but could spot no one. I waited for a while, hoping she may return soon, from a short break perhaps. I then left all the material on her desk with a note, walked down the long empty corridor leading to the exit. I began to hear a highly modulated, theatrical voice from a room ahead of me. I stopped to investigate. The staff of the archives, including the errant librarian, had all gathered there to watch a magician’s show. I too watched awhile, as the magician performed the “Water of India” trick, ‘restoring’ in some surreal sense perhaps, a languishing memory, and ‘what was lacking’ in my gaze.