Sunday, January 31, 2010

Update on WWI Letters Project

I have bored my poor classmates enough this past month with details of my WWI letters project, but I think I should blog about my progress so far as it connects to a lot of themes we've talked about in recent classes. Back in November, I had written a post on my intentions to turn the collection into a blog. But following the suggestion of a fellow classmate (the infamous Perpetual Student) I went to talk to Dr. Jonathan Vance about the project. He has kindly agreed to allow me to compile and edit the letters for our Social Memory class and hopefully- funding permitting- there will be something concrete to show for it at the end. Those are the technicalities, but my intention here is to sort through the more abstract intentions of this project.

As of now, the letters are sitting in a box intended for photographs, and are tied in bundles with the string that my great-grandmother wrapped around them nearly a hundred years ago. Still very much the same, folded, musty-smelling letters. I've been transcribing roughly 2 a day and have encountered the frustrations of cursive writing on worn paper- a feeling familiar to most historians I imagine. This is made worse by the fact that half of them were scrawled while the writer in question was either huddled in a field tent, camped out in an attic, or even, near the end, mired in a packed and muddy trench. But the more significant issue that I have encountered is that of perspective. As I've said before, I've had exposure to these letters since I was young and they have strongly influenced my feelings on war and loss. In the last couple of months I have been confronted with the task of approaching them as a student of history rather than a reader drawn in by his words and the sadness that surrounds the story.

I admit that it has taken me a while to realize that I am undergoing an adjustment. During the holidays a family friend asked me what I hoped to achieve from this project. After some hesitation I said that in a way I was doing it for him. He wrote in his letters of wanting to be a writer and produce something someday, and I figured that perhaps I was doing him a postmortem service in exposing the craft of his words. Well, I can admit now that my intentions have changed, and as so they should. History should be written for the present, not for the past. My romantic notions had affected the real purpose for compiling these letters.

I like James Loewen's discussion of eastern and central African societies' terms for the deceased, which include the sasha and zamani. According to Loewen, the sasha are the "recently departed", whereas the deceased become zamani with the death of the last individual who knew him or her in life. In Loewen's words, "as generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered." [1]

I think I have been seduced by this very thing. There is truth in his argument that history can be just as accurate when written in the time of the sasha. My great-grandmother wrote my mom a note when she passed on the letters, and told her that if she felt that they were a burden an Archive might be interested in them. She knew their value to history; I think that's why she kept them afterwards, even though she never visited Gerald's grave back in France.

I, however, never knew the protagonists of this story. My mom was pregnant when Kathleen died so these figures have more of a distance to me, and perhaps are in danger of being romanticized into characters rather than real people with their warts and all. In our Public History class last week we discussed the commemoration of WWI veterans in churches across Canada but in her letter to my mother Kathleen wrote, "so many thousands of young men were lost- for what?" Taking into account this was composed in the 1970s, and her feelings might have shifted over time, I still think it speaks true of Loewen's point that history written in the time of its happening can be just as accurate.

So as I transcribe and compile these letters I hope to take counsel from these historians and attempt to present history so that it may be used and appreciated for the living, and not simply as a commemoration of the dead.

That being said, I am still human, and remain touched. Though there are certainly issues concerning 'dark tourism', there is an important function to be served by commemoration. In this case, it is an act of remembrance, not only in the general sense that such an event should not be forgotten, but also an awareness that moments in time- relationships, feelings, words and thoughts- moments that seemed to have lost their future, still have their place in the web of history and glimmer just as bright.

I do hope one day that my mom and I will make the 'pilgrimage' to Gerald's grave at Pozieres cemetery. And we'll lay the flower of sweet peas on his grave, which were his favourite.

[1] James W. Loewen, Lies Across America: what our historic sites get wrong (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1999), 37.
Photograph: Pozieres Cemetery, France. Taken by Calypso Orchid, Flickr.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Archive of Sound

Over the break I had an interesting conversation with a family friend about history and sound. It was very short, as we were standing in the crowded kitchen at a New Years party and between the sounds of the oven and the kids passing with coats and hors d'oeuvres there was hardly time for an in-depth discussion. But I did manage to catch his remark about the past's relationship to sound. "They went to a concert and listened to a song...and that was it." He said with a comical raise of his eyebrows.

Maybe if you went to see the concert more than once, or a few years later, or were able to play it yourself on a piano or single instrument...but I agree that history's relationship to sound differs much from our own. There are everyday sounds we are used to, like the constant hum of the refrigerator. They tend to blend into the background. I think there are timeless sounds, like a baby crying or waves crashing up against a shoreline. We can imagine that those have changed little throughout history, but would our ability to hear them change the way that history is studied?

As we talked about in class yesterday, there has always been and will continue to be missing evidence, and sound is one of those sensory experiences that has been lost in history. We can listen to a Bach cantata but it isn't necessarily the same; like any ancient text it has been copied and recopied and edited and transposed for modern instruments and ears. There always has to be a creative element to the practice of history, in that the imagination must fill in some of the gaps. Especially in Public History, where sound becomes a crucial part of the public's understanding of history through television, movies, museums and even historical fiction. Just because it is in a text doesn't mean the author cannot and should not attempt to evoke the sounds of the past.

Because our discussion involved sound (specifically the Murmur project in Toronto) I mentioned an interview that I heard on CBC's radio program Spark a few months ago about a BBC project called Save Our Sounds. It is an online project that allows anyone in the world to upload a recorded sound on to an interactive map. When I visited the site I was surprised that there were so few recordings, though some of the selections were really interesting, such as the sound of dial-up internet. Kate Arkless Gray, the leader of the project, remarked that "acoustic ecology is all about preserving these sounds for future generations". This collection will eventually be given over to the British Library to do just that.

So people in the future will be able to listen to the sound of horse's hooves in Kyrgyzstan, or a tug of war competition at the 146th Antigonish Highland Games in Nova Scotia. I think that the most valuable sounds on here will be those that are already beginning to disappear, such as the dial-up recording. Hopefully, horses will not go extinct any time soon. Now that it's easier than ever to record sounds, anywhere and anytime, we are creating a huge digital archive of soundscapes. Will it change the study of history? It might. But perhaps more importantly it will affect our relationship to history in adding another sensory exposure to the past. We could recreate it, as we do with drawings or images in photoshop, but I think that when you know it is the real thing your connection with the past becomes more intimate.

It comes back to the question of what to preserve and what to keep, but I believe that there is value in capturing sounds of activity that may be lost in official records, and will be valued by future generations. The world of pre-twentieth century? Well, I think it's just another case of the missing record, and our own acknowledgment that some history will always remain mysterious; like a song itself, it is never played the same twice as we translate from author to interpreter to listener.