MAL D’ARCHIVE -TO MYTOLOGIZE THE PAST
We listened to Vivaldi and danced to “Popcorn”. One morning Ronnie Peterson died in a car crash and outside the entrance to the kindergarten we talked about him as if we had always known who he was. Another morning, we’d seen Jimi Hendrix on TV the night before, he was also dead and someone – I’m ashamed to say it might have been me – repeated our parents’ words about his music being mostly a bunch of noise. A third morning we took the bus into town and went to a museum where the skeleton of a whale was hanging from the ceiling.
For a long time this memory resembled a dream. I grew up, began to study and moved to the center of town, but had no idea of where that museum with the whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling was. On the way home from my studies or from my job as a janitor in the hospital Emergency Ward, I often passed a dark and brooding brick building with stone stairs flanked by square lanterns that at night threw a weak light on heavy doors framed by climbing ivy.
I moved to Stockholm, became unemployed and read Moby Dick. One of Herman Melville’s sources of inspiration was the first mate, Owen Chase’s eye witness account of the wreck of the whaler, Essex, which was sunk in 1820 by an enraged sperm whale. The crew were rescued in three life boats, but for fear of cannibals, they decided to try to reach South America instead of going ashore on one of the populated islands in the Pacific. Ironically, this led to their being forced to eat their dead shipmates. In one of the boats they drew lots to decide who would die into order to become food for the others.
It was first when I revisited my hometown and happened to pass my old neighborhood that I went up and tried the door of the dark brick building. It was open, I entered and found myself in a cloakroom with lockers and ancient children’s drawings. Someone informed me that you could visit the museum for a dollar. I paid, went up the stairs and rediscovered the whale. For nine years, without knowing it, I’d lived on the same street as that museum, underground, in the basement of a house owned by a specialist on mosses, a former researcher at the National Museum of Natural History. Outside my room were bookcases and a filing cabinet full of rare mosses and lichen. I browsed through the bookshelves: Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, by Stanislav Grof; a Frank Heller novel with a pretty art nouveau cover, and an old edition of Alice in Wonderland with John Tenniel’s classic illustrations.
The studies in the humanities that I’d devoted myself to during these years ended in a building whose stairwell was decorated by an inscription in Latin: Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurere vitae – “This is the place where death delights in helping life”. The building, built a century ago in Italian Renaissance style, had previously housed the Institution of Anatomy. The computer room where I studied library and information science was originally a dissecting room, with bodies lined up on stainless steel gurneys. This year the humanists are moving on into another building where death stood in the service of life. Old natural science becomes the history of ideas, the skeletons are moved to a closet and the dark brick building is now called LUX. Aeterna? The theologians are moving in as well. The dead find eternal life/eternal rest in the darkness of the archives.
“Après nous le déluge” Madame de Pompadour is reputed to once have said. The notion that we are approaching the end of time has, paradoxically enough, a long history. Just like the one that says the end has already been here once. In Das Rumoren der Archive (Murmurs from the Archives), Wolfgang Ernst describes an old copperplate depicting Noah’s ark, which, sailing on the waters of the Flood in this illustration most resembles the black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to Ernst, Noah’s ark was an early archive museum, an early collection of objects representing the world.
Specially selected members of different species march to their specially selected places in the archive. Selected and chosen to be depicted, but dead. Photographs freeze time and some of the animals look alive. Perhaps the art of stuffing animals can be compared to a form of archiving – with death as a precondition, the expressions of life are recorded, filed away. Archives both elevate and take life away. Like all archiving, taxidermy is in part based on fiction: a catalogisable segment of reality necessitates interpretation and simplification, and in the efforts to obtain as close a likeness as possible, parts of cadavers – sometimes from different animals – are mounted on an artificial frame. According to Ernst, an archive wavers between being a graveyard of facts and a garden of fiction. Archives consist of selections which both conceal and reveal. The same may be said of photography, which in itself comprises a kind of archive of past moments, more or less constructed. The past is a precondition for the photograph too. A photo also elevates and takes life away, but as with the archive, it possesses, to a degree, the ability to make the past active in the present.
A painting, a sketch, an illustration. A sense impression or a thought that once travelled through a consciousness. A drawing in a newspaper of a king sitting on his throne, doling out commands to his subordinates: “I’m concerned about my legacy – kill the historians.”
A diary. Selected events and thoughts are written down and memories are fixed on paper. Simplification and construction, dramatizing and staging. Notes that conceal and reveal.
At home in the basement: “The sun filters through the roses outside the window, the tea smells of smoke and Coltrane is playing Lazy Bird.”
After a trip abroad:
“Belle-Île, Avalon is the island of apples. We sleep in the open, and here the boundaries between the world of gods and men are sometimes dissolved and transgressed. Tuatha de Danann leaves ‘side’, the invisible palaces of the grave mounds, and wanders openly among the people, while the nameless creatures of the black underworld, the progeny of the Fomoire, attack the royal fortifications. Sometimes ordinary mortals are admitted into the mythical kingdom of the gods, and for one single night they there get to taste the fruits of timeless immortality. In the other world, one minute can be earthly years, and a day but a human minute; upon returning to the terrestrial, the traveler is not seldom transformed into dust. Decades have gone and Belle-Île, Avalon was the island of apples.”
I had no camera, no sketch pad and no notebook with me during my return visit to the museum, but I remember the feeling of being the only one not yet dead in an old building full of former life. Marveling over nature’s great variety of species, but also experiencing a sensuous consciousness of the past. A museum of a museum, an expression of a culture and a worldview. What do we remember of what we’ve seen? What do we remember of what we’ve once read?
From the archives:
Dried fish from the 18th century.
A Garden Warbler’s nest.
Nuclear family, sad and nameless (skeletons). century.
A Common Blue.
A two-headed calf.
Field Mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus, skeleton.
Tierra del Fuego Humming Bird, Sephanoides sephanoides.
Greenland Shark, Somnio´sus microce´phalus. Found in its stomach, among other things, a whole reindeer without horns, a seal, large as an ox, half of the body of a drowned person.
Flying Dragon, Draco volans.
Tasmanian Tiger, also known as the Tasmanian Wolf. The last known example died in Hobarts Zoo in Tasmania in 1936.
Steller’s Sea Cow, now extinct. Last sighted in 1768.
Garefowl (Great Auk), now extinct. On June 3 (possible June 4), 1844, bird catchers on Eldey Island killed what was presumably the last living pair of garefowl and smashed their eggs.
Passenger Pidgeon, now extinct. The last passenger pidgeon, a female called Martha, died in her cage at Cincinatti Zoo a hundred years ago, on 1 September, 1914.
Edgar Allan Poe’s never more croaking raven.
A hair, coarse as horsehair, from Mary Shelley’s misunderstood monster.
Mother Monster. Described in Mare Kandre’s Bestiarium.
Unicorn horn, c 1 meter long, from a unicorn that is said to have been caught in around 1760 with the help of a farm girl from the countryside around the lake Ringsjön in southern Sweden.
Shadow (possibly H.C. Andersen’s).
In one of our childhood homes, one of our fathers compared the wing spread of the albatross with the distance between floor and ceiling. Another one of our fathers got us to read about the mariner, weighed down by guilt, and the wedding guest who didn’t want to listen. I remember that one of us sometimes recited a few lines, with exaggerated rolling r’s and a deliberately artificial, thundering voice:
“I fear thee, Ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.”
I try to find out what kind of whale I saw in the Zoology Museum. Wolfgang Ernst compares contemporary media archives with ships whose main task is not to store but to transfer. To “transform things from an inherited world to a world that remains to be created.” I visit a homepage created by the Friends of the Zoology Museum. Apparently I didn’t see one whale skeleton but several. None of them from a sperm whale, but instead “Lesser Rorqual, cranium”, and “Narwhal, skeleton”.
August 15, 2014. Under the heading “Foreign Guest”, the local press reports the sighting of a whale outside the island Gotska Sandön. It seems to have been a humpback whale.
I read more about whales in a book I happened to find on the shelf for discarded books in the library I work in –The Life and Death of Whales by Yves Cohat. The shimmering green cover shows a Paris that, like Atlantis, Ys and Lyonesse, has sunk to the bottom of the sea. Whales swim over the boulevards at the Arc de Triomphe.
Thanks to I.Fleur.
Translated from Swedish by Jan Teeland