Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Silence of the Past

I find it difficult to imagine the past, to give it dimension, texture, and color in my mind. This surprises me in some ways; as an aspiring historian I spend more time than most people trying to imagine the past, and surely practice helps. Yet as much as I read historical texts and historical narratives, my mental images of times gone by often play like silent movies, or appear to me like scattered collages of sepia photos, or in the best case present themselves to my mind like a disjointed dream.

I've been thinking about this over the past few days, ever since I watched Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer's movie, I've been told by my friend the film expert, is in a league of its own in film history, and it's easy to see why. It is incredible to think that this truly visionary movie was shot in 1928 (and even more incredible to learn that the negatives were lost until 1980, when they were discovered under a pile of rags in a janitor's closet at a Norwegian mental hospital). The film--which tells the story of Joan's trial by using dialogue from the actual transcript--is most famous for its use of intense close-ups on the actors' faces, and for its narrow camera angles that disconcert the viewer's sense of spacing and perspective. The movie is also without sound. The quietude of the film, combined with its disquieting facial expressions and framing, makes for an incredibly emotional and intimate viewing experience.

Who knows if this was Dreyer's intent, but the film also made sense to me as a representation of how we usually envision the past. The opening frame shows some hands opening a dusty book meant to be the trial transcript and flipping through the pages, as if to say that what follows is how a reader of the transcript might imagine the events contained within it. The viewer, as the anonymous reader, sees close-ups of the speakers' faces but does not "hear" them speak. Intertitles provide the dialogue.

This is how I often imagine history as I read it. Sitting in a silent archive, leaning over a yellowed letter, I "see" figures in my mind's eye but rarely "hear" them speak. Aside from the occasional interjection in a newspaper's transcript of a speech ("Loud cheers." "Continued applause." "Boos and hisses."), I rarely imagine sound. For that matter, it is difficult to imagine color. Like Dreyer's film, my historical imagination is usually gray and slightly out of focus. When I make the mental leap to translate a text into my imagination, what I see is something like what Dreyer "saw."

This means that an incredible amount is lost in translation--color, ambient sound, a wide-angle view of all the people in a room or on a street. Like Dreyer, I rarely imagine historical speakers in a single mental frame; if I am reading a speech, my mental image is of a speaker, until some reference to the audience ("Hurrahs.") makes me move the "camera" onto the crowd. And I find it difficult to imagine a speaker's voice. As I am reading the words of an oration, it is as if I am reading intertitles. The speaker is speechless in my mind even if he is in motion.

This does not mean that my imagination of the past is not intense; Dreyer's film shows that the silent method can be intensely vivid. Yet Joan of Arc also spotlights the "goneness" of the long ago; it represents for me the real difficulty of resurrecting the past in an act of imagination. This is especially true because so much of our access to the past is textual. Some recent historians, like Mark Smith and Richard Cullen Rath, have been experimenting with "aural history" in an attempt to remind us that the past was not a silent film--it was as "real" and full-bodied as the present. But even in trying to get us to use our historical "ears," the only tool aural historians have are texts--verbal descriptions of sounds that historical actors heard. Even attempts to expand our sensory imagination of the past fall back on the stubborn fact that the past is forever lost to our full faculties. Whereas lived experience is a "buzzing, blooming confusion," as William James put it, historical experience is necessarily attenuated and often mute. Or so it seems to me.

"Our hill has made its submission and the green
Swept on into the north: around me,
From morning to night, flowers duel incessantly
Color against color, in combats

Which they all win, and at any hour from some point else
May come another tribal outcry
Of a new generation of birds who chirp
Not for effect but because chirping

Is the thing to do. More lives than I perceive
Are aware of mine this May morning
As I sit reading a book, sharper senses
Keep watch on an inedible patch

Of unsatisfactory smell, unsafe as
So many areas are: to observation
My book is dead, and by observations they live
In space, as unaware of silence

As Provocative Aphrodite or her twin,
Virago Artemis, the Tall Sisters
Whose subjects they are. That is why, in their Dual Realm,
Banalities can be beautiful,

Why nothing is too big or too small or the wrong
Color, and the roar of an earthquake
Rearranging the whispers of streams a loud sound
Not a din: but we, at haphazard

And unseasonably, are brought face to face
By ones, Clio, with your silence. ..."

W.H. Auden, "Homage to Clio"

Collective Improvisation:

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