In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida moves readers through an impressive lexicon to deconstruct the trouble with and attraction of archiving. The image which seems to best capture, or at least repeats in my mind as I struggle through the Freudian Impression, is that of the prodigal son. The intimacy afforded by the psychoanalytic interpretation of the impulse to archive seems to lend itself to this interpretation.
For a well-regarded visual version of the essential biblical allegory, consider Rembrandt’s:
The muse of memory seems, as Derrida explains, to impel one toward an inescapable nostalgia for what came “before, before,” a returning to origins and a paternal guidance and covering, in spite of an intervening impulse to live father-free in the compartmentalization of archive categorization, an act which results in a severing of fruit from its tree (that destructive force referred to in Fever’s first pages), a child from his or her parent. Perhaps this is the “mal d’archive” (Derrida 91) to which Derrida refers, with its requisite driven passion and direction. Its phenomenal qualities, however, resist easy definition as to what makes “outside,” suspending disbelief to a rigorous level. Nevertheless, Derrida’s conclusion to the book offers a somewhat recuperated reverence in careful consideration of what we might continue to preserve as “secret,” in spite of the captured history, chronicled history of deaths, lives.
While strict limits are resisted, they do seem to aid a this-side-of-chaos reading of a body of works. For example, to use the prodigal son as an example, how many “versions” of that story exist? Why is it so popular to return to, even by now established masters of painting? Moving beyond the Freudian principles at work, the archivist can study the yearning of the son to be taken in by the father in myriad ways, in spite of the youth’s desire to deny paternity, responsibility, etc. One might say that muse has its own Harpie-like qualities, but also ones of re-genesis.