Monthly Archives: April 2008

on memoirs and vigilance

with painful slowness, a viable research proposal is being chipped out of the shapeless, obdurate rockface of the past. Much must be planned, budgeted and organized before this September, when I leave England for a year and pick up my source trails in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. I’m beginning to see that a ridiculous percentage of PhD time is unmitigated Monkey Work: photocopying, printing, hunting articles down and lugging books around; also, hours spent machinating and planning just to place oneself in the position of being able to research. All my wild dreams of a PhD being three years of solid, uninterrupted, blissful reading, bolstered from the real world and all logistical tribulations — dashed. Prospective graduates be warned.

with the coalescing of the PhD idea comes a growing clarity about sources. For me, a large part of this will be memoirs; so this is a time when I’m being reminded how fascinating and peculiar a type of source they are. Reading several memoirs that thread through a particular event or time period, for example, is almost like an exercise in omnipotence: it makes very clear, for me, the privilege of the historian’s vantage point, being everywhere and everywhen at once. But memoirs are complex documents: they hover on that already-fraught boundary between memories and self. They make narratives out of vindication. Their very existence testifies, before anything else, to a sense of history, and so the sense that history can be written, and rewritten, by them. They are beset upon by time and temptation — time that erodes memory, and temptation to tamper with it. (Not for nothing is it said that memory crouches in the dark past, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer!) All of these threaten, constantly, to corrupt. And so memoirs seem to demand a particularly vigilant mode of reading: one that is fine-tuned to motives, coupled with an almost kneejerk skepticism of any claim, and a constant urge to corroborate.

(It also requires another sort of vigilance, I think. I read a graduate paper the other day on a particular politician/thinker. How intensely myopic it was: like the student had drunk in so much of the politician’s papers, memoirs and biographies that s/he was anxious to lay out every meticulous detail, at the sad expense of relevance. One needs vigilance against detail, in spite of it).

Curious, then, that such an anxious source can be so rewarding. A single memoir fleshes out a particular past, animates it with an experience of living not so removed from our own. Taken plurally, they make history real. The memoirs I’ve been reading recently have served as my historical vigilantes. They remind me (and sometimes it’s kind of easy to forget — or perhaps this is just me) that the people I am writing about are real people, and not just their policy line or their ideas: people who have sons and daughters, friends, impulses, strange habits. Through them, the past becomes a real place, and not just a place in which cold categories of people — the Elites and Subalterns, the Proletariat, the Patriarchy, the Other — stand like marble chesspieces about the historical landscape, moved by the great condescension of retrospect.

It’s also kind of prurient. I am half-jokingly accused by a certain boy of attempting to fill my thesis with gossip. ah well. more thesis thoughts soon.