Jackie Onassis Kennedy and the Loss of the Archive

Guernica: You have lived a full and, by any standards, exceptional life.

Gore Vidal: Yes, I have. And I don’t need to live it again. Once is enough. Do you know Jackie Kennedy’s take on this? It was at the time when everyone was saying she should write her memoirs. “I know,” she said, “I know… but first of all, my secretary at the White House mistakenly threw out all my notes. And what can you do when you’ve forgotten everything?” Jackie thought it was surely a fine idea to write her memoirs, but that would also mean having to relive them. And I think that this, for her, would have been awful.

Guernica: But you’ve written your memoirs.

Gore Vidal: Well, I’ve never been to Dallas.

-Lila Azam Zanganeh and  Gore Vidal, The End of Gore Vidal

I wrote earlier on how we constantly produce new nostalgia every day by issuing forth a stream of our documented lives. As we publish these things, we create our own little archives and canons, even if they don’t belong to us. Our archives and canons collect our instant nostalgia, allowing us to curate a little. Still, nostalgia has a lot of interesting properties, but the most interesting is its’ relative toothlessness compared to its’ more dangerous cousin:

But America’s comparative acceptance—embrace, even—of nostalgia makes sense to me. It’s safer than homesickness because it’s neutered; it can’t be realized and won’t get in the way of work; it asks you to long only for something that no longer exists. -Francesca Mari, On Homesickness

Nostalgia is Every American’s Canon: Those thoughts we hold close, the stories we tell and retell when we flip through photo albums and debate with our friends and family over dinner and/or late-night one-too-manys. All of these things hang on the narratives of our lives, and extend to the cores of ourselves. If Teju Cole has taught us anything, it’s that even if we are the hero of our own stories, we can also be the villain  of someone else’s, and that goes to the same core. What stands out is the fact that our stories are narratives that we impose over the relative mess of our archives. They are the proof we give of our reality.

Thus we close the paradoxical circle: narrative structures, elaborated in the crucible of fiction….becomes both sign and proof of reality. Hence it will be understood that the effacement of narration in contemporary historical science, which prefers to speak of structures rather than chronologies, implying much more than a simple change of school: a veritable ideological transformation; historical narration is dying because the sign of History is henceforth not so much the real as the intelligible. -Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, p. 140

Barthes has a loop going, and we’re stuck in it: the reality of the story-proof takes on the face of reality, but the archive, and its’ place as a historical tool can disrupt our story-proofs. This is memory. Flawed in different ways than nostalgia, memory is the archive and library. Their role is not to replace, but challenge and augment:

In the 19th century, the role of archives changed from being depositories of legal titles to places where historians hoped to find the sediments of time itself.  -Sven Spieker, The Big Archive, p. 5-6

The sediments of time are the sediments of human activity and life. Without those sediments, made by people to specifically document things, all we can do is rely on our story-proofs, our nostalgia, to get us through our lives. Francesca Mari is right to say that these things can be safer, and sometimes, those acts of overwriting, of ignoring the historical structure, of forgetting the sediments of life can be powerful and purposeful, to ends good and bad. Jackie O. knew that well.

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