Histories of Failure

[Reposted from the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Stanford, where this blog post originally appeared on 14 March 2013]

Shhh. If you stand outside on an early spring day and you’re very, very quiet, and very, very still, you might hear it.

Hiyong hiyong.

You might have to close your eyes. I find that helps.

Hiyong hiyong.

I first heard this sound while sitting in the Rare Books Room of the Harvard-Yenching Library one late February afternoon. I was deep in the process of coming to terms with my own research failure. Months earlier, I had visited the collection to spend some time with the manuscript work of Bujilgen Jakdan, a Qing Manchu translator and poet who had been haunting me. (No doubt more on him in a later blog.) This time, I was back to work with several Manchu-Chinese dictionaries and examination materials. Or so I thought. I realized soon after I arrived that most of the manuscripts I had come to look at were off being digitized. Great news for Manchu studies! Not such great news for me during that particular week.

Respectful of the goddess of randomness that I had created in my mind as a coping mechanism while I stared pleasantly at the very patient and very kind librarian who broke the news, I changed course and settled on the listlover’s equivalent of spinning the globe around and sticking out an index finger: I blew a little kiss to Jakdan (I’d be back for him later), opened a Firefox window for the Hollis library catalog, clicked over to a seemingly pertinent subject category, and submitted requests for a handful of manuscripts whose titles I didn’t recognize. And I waited. Most of them turned out to be unavailable as well. But.

One book came out of the stacks for me. It turned out to be a manuscript copy of sections of a very famous eighteenth-century Manchu-Chinese dictionary that was arranged by topical categories: People. Gods. The Wondrous and Uncanny. Doctors and Shamans. Fireworks and Cloth.

As I paged through the manuscript, I found myself wandering in the onomatopoeic landscape of the category for Sounds and Noises. Here was a bestiary of sounds: birds chirping and singing and calling out to each other, frogs gvwar-gvwaring, horses neighing and galloping, young sheep screaming. There were rooms full of objects breaking or being dropped, stone streets full of the kete-kataing of horses’ hooves, skies rent by the kunggur-kanggaring of thunder and rain, fieldsful of the rustling of animals being driven out of hiding and the per-pars of grasshoppers beating their wings. I heard children a’ing and o’ing as they learned to speak, I listened to men and women vomiting and kow-towing and spitting. Footfalls on snow, rustling pages, sutras being chanted, people shouting. Donkeys braying, horses clearing their noses. Drums and cymbals and flutes.

On the very last page of the collection of sounds, someone had added an entry: hiyong hiyong seme, the sound made by the feathers of a bird flying overhead. I imagined the scribe, whomever he was, pausing over a memory so vibrant that it created new language. I paused with him. Who was he?  Where had he been when he heard these feathers? Did he first look for a word that captured his experience, or was he so moved to inscribe the beating wings of his own skies onto this soundscape that he wrote first, and searched later or not at all? Whom did he love? Was he or she there to hear the feathers with him? Whom did he imagine would read his brushstrokes, or did it not matter to him? These are the moments that remind me why I was excited to start reading in the first place, why I continue, and why I now spend so much of my time translating the past. We often start alone, we readers, before understanding ourselves as part of a community in time and space. For me, this is what it means to be a historian: rendering others’ inscriptions on stone or paper or light, and from these creating past selves that might speak to, or transform, current and future selves. What were my memories of the sounds of feathers? Have I been perceptive enough in my daily life to notice something like that? Have you? What are the distractions that keep us from this kind of silence? From inventing our own sounds, our own language?

As I type, I stop to listen. My anonymous Manchu scribe has given me new sounds, and so I give some back to him. Pwah-pwah seme (The sound of central heating unit in my office.) Izzz-izzz seme. (The sound of the halogen lamps above.) Atch-atch seme. (The sound of someone moving a chair downstairs.) All this, from a failed trip to use early modern manuscripts in a rare books collection. The lesson, for me? Sometimes, the most interesting moments as a historian reveal themselves when we look away from the plan, the perfection, and the polish. Sometimes we can only see the stories when we close our eyes.

Hiyong hiyong.


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