Language, said Heidegger, is the house of being, and he may be right, but whatever the case, it is certainly true to call language a house of memory, which is to say a house of oblivion, a house in which things of every sort can be called to mind or allowed to lapse into nothingness. Language is, in other words, an archive, a word as well as a concept that English borrowed from French, which borrowed it from Latin, which borrowed it from Greek, where it originally referred to the public building that housed records and documents. Words in use never stay still, and in a typical metonymic shift—reinforced by a telling grammatical drift into the plural—the word archive has come to refer also to the building’s contents. Archives, that is, are both the container and the contained; like languages, they are the houses of what we recall and what we forget, and the things themselves. What they do not hold, or cannot, is no less important than what they do or can hold. If possession is nine points of the law, then forgetting is nine points of the archive.
Between getting it all in and leaving it all out, the possibilities are endless.
We cannot live except by forgetting, any more than we can sense some stimuli except by ignoring others; just imagine if you could sense every thing in its own thisness all the time, from the smallest flutter in your lungs to every single point of light entering your eyes. History—a word whose journey into English followed the same path as archive, only earlier, and which originally meant inquiry—works like our perceptual apparatus, whose seeing is enabled by our blindnesses, by focussing on one thing or set of things to the exclusion of others. That is why there can be no one history, only histories, and these can never be complete, ever.
Written by Iain Higgins for the quarterly Canadian Literature.