source material – the difference between material from the dead, and from the living

Just spotted on the BBC, this rather lovely article by Adam Gopnik, entitled ‘Points of View: The guilty thrill of reading other people’s emails‘ – and not at all what I thought it would be from the title. Instead, he muses about the difference between reading letters and diaries from people long dead, which he adores, and reading emails from people still living which he regards with a queasy distaste.

Gopnik doesn’t directly address the ethical issues on the difference between them – technically, unless the individual gave permission for them to be published after death – for example, with Alan Clark’s diaries – there should be no difference, although there often is. I, for example, just did a project using the household accounts of Joyce Jefferies of Hereford, and while there is no way to be sure, I suspect she would have been horrified had she known that 450 years later, anyone would be able to examine the intimate details of her life (however, if we were to ban all material that had not been given ethical permission, then much of the study of history would just stop, overnight. This is what I meant yesterday when I said, sometimes, there just are no right answers.).But despite that, Gopnik clearly differentiates between the missives of the dead and the living, exploring the differences between the way each make him feel, touching on the moral (and therefore ethical) imperative behind the two, the uncomfortable queasiness of reading emails from the living, as opposed to the guilty pleasure of reading letters from the dead. As he says: ‘So why does privacy seem essential to living people – and then suddenly seem to vanish as a value when we die, leaving us with an eager appetite for more disclosure?

His answer is to regard this kind of material much like a crop – it does no good nibbling at it, like a goat does grass – and which will effectively destroy the crop in the long run anyway. Instead, you have to back up… allow the crop to grow, to develop the flavours/seeds/fruits/ that you want, to reach the stage of maturity that you want, and then you can swoop in, knowing that there will be a rich source of … whatever it is you grew it for. As with crops, so with source material.¹

But my favorite bit by far, is this:

In order to have private lives to share in the long run, we need to have private lives kept private in the short run. If we did not have diaries and letters to read then history would be dull indeed. But if we make every diary public and publish every letter now, then life will become dull very quickly. All conversations would be whispered in secret, as they are in totalitarian states. In this sense, the destruction of privacy and the rise of tyranny are part of the same package.

‘history would be dull indeed’. In this, I think perhaps Gopnik doesn’t fully understand the mind of the academic historian, the kind that can take delight in the kind of dry, staid and – to most – boring material that would send non-historians into a coma. But at the same time, historians are humans too, and I fully admit, despite all I wrote about ethical issues the day before, that I too get a little thrill when I learn something new, perhaps something a little salacious, about someone who I admire. It removes them from an unrealistic pedestal, makes them fully human, and rationalises them – if they can reach those lofty heights, even with their peccadilloes, then perhaps I, with all my very human foibles, can surely do the same.

¹ ‘Historians & biographers as gardeners of human life’… hmmm. I quite like this analogy. Although, ‘historians and biographers as farmers of human life’? not so nice, is it? And that alone is an interesting thought, although the latter is perhaps more accurate. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the perceived difference between the two – that farmers are simply more ruthless than gardners, in the pursuit of profit and commericialisation. Although, anyone who truly thinks that has never seen a gardner with a pair of secateurs, on a pruning mission! Perhaps too it reflects the overriding view of both. Farmers are about profiting from the land. Gardening is about aesthetics, beauty, and thus appears, somehow to be more acceptable, less crude. The pursuits of beauty being more lofty than coarse money.

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