Arkheion/Archon: (“Who” or “What”)?

July 17, 2007 § Leave a comment

At the center of every empire is an archive; either in progress or in ruins .

Matilda/Frankenstein: Psychosexual collecting, conserving, collating

Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein, but her short story, Matilda, is in many ways a companion piece to her well-known novel. Both stories are stories of the archive.

Where Frankenstein begins in medias res of the “dead” archive – a series of letters that must be animated in order to animate the voice that will in turn animate the story – Matilda begins with a voice directly from the other side of the archive:

“It is four o’clock; but it is winter and the sun has already set: there are no clouds in the clear frosty sky to reflect its slant beams….I live in a lone cottage on a
solitary wide heath….I am in a strange state of mind. I am alone – quite alone –
in the world – the blight of misfortune has passed over me and withered me; I
know that I am about to die and I feel happy – joyous.”

[“Actually, Archive Fever comes on at night, long after the archive has shut for the day. Typically, the fever—more accurately, the precursor fever, the feverlet—starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. You cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcase. The first sign, then, is an excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibers of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery coverlet. The dust of others, and of other times, fills the room, settles on the carpet, marks out the sticky passage from bed to bathroom.” – Dust, Carolyn Steedman]

We know the story of Frankenstein (Don’t we?). Matilda literally is about incest. The action is set in motion by a beautiful mother who dies when her child is young. The selfish and distraught father/husband withdraws from society in deep mourning (or…actually, he goes to the East and soaks in the “burning rays” and primitive passions of the archive-less).

He returns when Matilda is sixteen to assist her with her education, which as the story would have it, includes “unnatural passion.” The father poisons himself, and Matilda herself goes into seclusion, surrounded only by “books and nature.” However, since she is a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from the leaves of a romance, she has little more to do than wait for the next philosopher-poet (Woodville crossing the heath on horseback; Shelley returning from Scotland; Caliban waiting on Prospero, and so on).

We run into a problem here in the space between the historical and psychosexual archive: Godwin the “radical philosopher of the 1790s” turns into enraged father when presented with a story of father-daughter incest from Mary. He refuses to publish it and denies Mary’s requests that he return the manuscript. A second copy of the story was not published until 1955. Where did he keep the document? Was it slipped between the covers of a rough draft of Caleb Williams? Or, perhaps, filed away with old correspondence on an “An Enquiry on Political Justice”? Perhaps he burned it in violence.

Where Frankenstein can be thought of as the ‘topside’ – the historical/technological skin – of the archive, Matilda is the marginal, repressed and buried arche of archival consciousness (these voices always at the lip of some phallic tomb: Antigone; Ophelia; Woolf and her pockets full of heavy testes, and so on). Victor Frankenstein lurks about the charnel house looking for a head and a hand to suture together; Matilda is always already an archive. After the father’s death, Matilda’s only utterances are recitations of her father’s ecstatic moment: the counting and re-counting of the moment when the father was on the verge of becoming a lover. Nothing is ever consummated. She sits in her cottage dropping hints to Woodville about the father’s transgressions, like a steward dropping old books from the library windows during the Blitz.

The two stories echo one another in illicit and oblique terms. That is, with the exception of the sturdy oak:

Matilda: “A strange idea seized me; a person must have felt all the agonies of doubt concerning life and death of one who is the whole world to them before they can enter into my feelings – for in that state, the mind working unrestrained by the will makes strange and fanciful combinations with outward circumstances and weaves the chances and changes of nature into an immediate connexion with the event they dread. It was with this feeling that I turned to the old Steward who stood pale and trembling beside me; ‘Mark, Gaspar, if the next flash of lightening rend not that oak my father will be alive.”

Frankenstein: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house ; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribands of wood. I never beheld any thing so utterly destroyed.”

For Frankenstein, this scene conjures forth the papers and “shades of Cornelius Agrippa.” For Matilda — well, she just goes on dreaming of the death of the Father.

My first trip to the Folger, 2000: You head out in the morning, arriving at the archive just before 9. Sipping coffee, you wait for the doors to the tomb to crack open. A stone likeness of Puck mocks your bookish seriousness from behind a manicured shrub. You deposit your jacket, your bags, your pens at the closet. You enter holding forth one number 2 pencil with teeth marks. When the librarian greets you, she informs you that PT 1202/1793 has come up from below. You get to work with heavy beeds and light touch….

“You think: I could get to hate these people; and, I can never do these people justice” (Carolyn Steedman)

“Archive Fever” (requires subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education)

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