In Praise of Pedantry

Île de St-Pierre, Lake Biel in Switzerland, borrowed from here.

A new essay by W. G. Sebald was published in the Guardian Review (20.04.2013) a few months ago, entitled On the occasion of a visit to the Ile Saint-Pierre (since then it’s been published in A Place in the Country, a new collection of translated essays). It describes Sebald’s visit to the Swiss lake peninsula in 1996 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile and residence in the same place more than 200 years earlier.  As regular readers may have grasped by now, I’m a bit of a fan of Sebald’s writing and particularly enjoy pondering its relevance to how we think about archaeology.

In an introduction to the essay, James Wood comments “Sebald was always asking us to reflect on how we access the past, how we rescue the dead, and how the writer performs that real, but necessarily fictional, reclamation”.  To my ears, this desire to retreive and even re-animate lives long extinguished is also a profound statement of  archaeology’s purpose.

Some of the beauty of Sebald’s writing lies in his fussy descriptive details.  It is these details he seems to regard as the most valuable.  One particularly telling passage in Sebald’s essay is his observations of the lack of attentiveness among fellow visitors to Rousseau’s preserved house:

[N]ot one of them bent down to look at the glass display case to try to decipher Rousseau’s handwriting, nor noticed the way that the bleached deal floorboards, almost two feet wide, are so worn down in the middle of the room, nor that in places the knots in the wood protrude by almost an inch. No one ran a hand over the stone basin worn smooth by age in the antechamber, or noticed the smell of soot which still lingers in the fireplace, nor paused to look out of the window with its view across the orchard and a meadow to the island’s southern shore.

The past comes to life in Sebald’s imagination and the whole experience is sensory: by sight, by touch and by smell.  The past is insuppressable.  It rises up to smother the senses of those who give it their attention.  Much of the emotive nature of Sebald’s experience, however, is down to the detail.  The floorboards are “two feet wide”, the knots in them “almost an inch” high, the boards are worn only in the middle of the room.  It’s in these details – I’d rather call them phenomenal or substantial (in the most literal senses of the terms) than pedantic – that shadows of the past linger.  Without these details, the house is nothing but a shell through which the less observant visitor drifts unaffected, unmoved, unimpressed.

Incidentally, this all reminded me of a wooden floor in a house I grew up in.  The boards were marked by hundreds of tiny, circular dents, in a gradually emanating concentration focused in the centre of the room.  They were caused by the repeated practicing of a cello, whose spike had been driven into the floor (perhaps unwittingly through a carpet?) for years.  Their permanence left a residue of music in the room.   Consequently, that space was always somehow inhabited by those past residents whose presence still lingered, fossilized in those entirely mundane scratches and dips.

The same processes create the archaeological sites we excavate.  Repeated daily actions of past people are made permanent through their material consequences.  But the same is true of individual objects, especially things like jewellery and dress items whose emotive potency lies in their details of wear and repair, use and eventual discard.  Each scratch, each knock, each worn surface tells a story.  A story only visible to inquistive eyes, intent on the detail.

Though his own pedantry is not overtly self-conscious, Sebald proceeds to admire Rousseau’s compulsion, as a strange relief from the burden of his writing labours, to catalogue in exhaustive detail every aspect of every plant on the Isle St-Pierre:

Thus the apparently innocent occupation – the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature – becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices and catalogues…

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me, looking at my shelf with its generous metre of Anglo-Saxon brooch catalogues. I get a similar pleasure from merely cataloguing these items.  Not only does it work towards a greater purpose, but it is enjoyable work in itself.  Observing these items of ancient jewellery in all their beauty and detail is, after all, what attracted me to their study in the first place.

Hence, there is a link, albeit a romanticised one (though there is nothing wrong with that), between Sebald’s valuation of knowledge, Rousseau’s insuppressable pursuit of it, and the interests and methods of archaeologists.  One might say that the link lies simply in scientific thought.  All these things are after all broadly products of the Enlightenment.  But I think there is more to it than that.  There is something more valuable and more emotive about those direct links between the past and present that the smallest details of the mundane material world evoke.  Some of the most emotionally and intellectually profound fragments of the past inhere in the smallest details that only the sharpest, most curious, dedicated and educated eye can reveal. It’s the intimacy with which we ‘rescue’ something of the dead that makes the practice of archaeology so beguiling.


2 Comments on “In Praise of Pedantry”

  1. Wendy Morrison says:

    I really enjoyed this…and the realisation that my colleague may well be a genius! Beautifully written piece.

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