The body wears the archives
3 min read

The body wears the archives

The second season of Russian Doll has a weird relationship with archives, but then so do I. Russian Doll – whose first season followed a woman who keeps dying over and over – started out as a bleakly comic star vehicle for actor Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne is the full-on auteur of season 2, so that the matryoshka doll of the title now has a little writer and director inside.

Sometimes, when an actor is bloody-minded enough, and mentally ill enough, and is a sufficiently advanced double threat (usually an actor who can write, but I wouldn't rule out one who can dance), they go into their mind palace and produce a deranged spiritual autobiography. It happened to Patrick McGoohan, whose The Prisoner both made and broke his critical reputation, and now it's happened to Lyonne. The deranged spiritual autobiography, as a form, incorporates both therapy and dream ballet. If I've made it sound like a spontaneous aesthetic accident, I didn't mean to. Nothing is more controlled than this kind of damage. All art is slightly autobiographical, but takes a masterful hand to write an autobiography of the subconscious, which territory we are by definition walking through blindfolded.

Russian Doll season two abandons the serial-deaths conceit in favor of something more elaborate: protagonist Nadia (big risks, mood swings) and her friend Alan (anxiety and depression) learn that they can visit their families' pasts by riding New York subways to certain stations. When they're in the past, they perceive their bodies to be their own, but actually exist in the bodies of their mothers and grandmothers, whose personalities they also subtly take on.

All of these women are trapped and frightened. We visit Nadia's Jewish grandmother in occupied 1940s Hungary, Alan's Ghanian grandmother in 1960s East Germany, and Nadia's schizophrenic mother in 1980s New York; the latter is pregnant and on the verge of being institutionalized by her family. Nadia and Alan never seem to be in real danger, though, and they always board their trains again at the end of the sequence. It's not a thriller, after all, but a story about inherited trauma – the ways these long-ago histories have influenced how Nadia and Alan were raised, and therefore who they are. Our own families' pasts can't hurt us directly either. We feel their effects by proxy, and often without understanding the cause.

It's a richly archival story. As Nadia and Alan try to make sense of their experiences in the past, they consult archival sources, take research trips, and listen to oral evidence from family members. Even as the characters use archival tools, however, the story dismisses the institution of archives. An archivist at the New York Public Library smarmily tells Nadia that she can't show her a set of historical slides, as her job is to keep them pristine, not to let researchers see them. It's an intentionally ridiculous position, one that makes my profession look as absurd as the Jedi librarian who tells Obi-Wan Kenobi that a planet doesn't exist. Lyonne is too smart to make archives a cheap gag for its own sake, though. Her point, as I take it, is that historical memory doesn't live on paper; it lives in the body and the blood. We are taught history by the instincts instilled in us by the people who raise us. If archives center their collections rather than researchers' search for meaning, they may as well not exist.

I have written a lot about the absence of the body from the archives, and how archives are composed of everything we leave behind except the body. In Russian Doll, the body isn't absent from the archives at all. Rather, the archives are a supplement for the body; the body wears the archives, and there's no air between them. Nadia and Alan don't just learn about the past. They experience its adrenaline and cortisol with their own nervous systems. Sometimes the experience is frightening, sometimes it's sad, and sometimes it's delightful. When Alan goes into the past and experiences his grandmother's life as a young woman, he falls in love with her boyfriend, a charming East German student. Alan has always been grimly uptight, committed to the idea that if he can do things "perfectly," he will be physically and emotionally safe. Loving a man and experiencing being a woman, he becomes loose and joyous. He is embodied for the first time in his life. This joy is a part of his inheritance, too – just as his family gave him their illnesses and traumas, they have also given him his body. Learning intellectually about his grandmother's life, and the utopia she tried and failed to find in the Eastern Bloc and her lover's embrace, can do no more than contextualize the truth that he has learned by feeling.

By locating history in the body, and decentering written history, Russian Doll stakes out a radical archival position. It's not one that could support the weight of a professional philosophy, but that's not what art is for. Art doesn't bear loads; art dynamites walls and lets in air. Nadia and Alan's experience is by turns ecstatic and agonizing, but they both recognize that the full breadth of their experience, as people living in history, is inexpressible. When we acknowledge the truth of that, how can we fully trust the words in the archives?