16 November, 2008

The Place's Name

Dullest of days, most brutally grey and dark and overcast. The rain relents, and then lents again. I take the opportunity for a walk in north London, to Highbury, to find, if I can, or even if not, the home of a childhood friend—long past, say twenty years—the interior of which I remember with apparent exactness, down to the sculpture on the kitchen table, of a carton pouring milk into a bowl: real bowl, real carton, disc and frozen column of milk in plaster. I remembered it to be near a park or green; I remembered the green to be immense, and rather fantastical. But when I arrived in Highbury Fields, I discovered the green to be rather small, though admittedly picturesque in its autumnal finery. The disappointment of age: a tableau.

It was still raining when I found the house, or what might have been, and so I continued my interrogation of the area. Highbury, it seems, is a place of architecture beset by vegetation. A dull block in the private enclave of Aberdeen Park, just to the east, is vandalised by a rather aggressive and brightly-fledged gang of creepers:

A nearby wall, meanwhile, has been shamelessly defaced by some reckless local greenfinger, tired of small canvases:

Just across the street from here is one Baalbec Road, the sudden apparition of whose name is so extraordinary to me that I am compelled to reproduce the signage as documentary evidence:

The street itself is very fine, a series of variations in terracotta and brick, each a slight shade different from the last, nothing supercelestial, but beautifully proportioned. 'Here is a raucous Cockney answer to the Georgian good manners of the [Highbury] Fields,' writes Simon Jenkins: 'an 1880s essay in what a firm chisel could do with red bricks, terracotta and a builder's pattern book. The small houses are covered in carved leaves, swags, dentils, every conceivable stylistic gimmick.' I can enjoy the description of a street as an 'essay': let us literarify our built environment, and let us do it without blue plaques. Jenkins adds, inexplicably: 'This is the London which tourists will want to see in a hundred years' time.'

The terracotta stone in the centre of this wall bears the letters 'AD', to match another bearing the date, 1889. But look at the stone: is its monogram not almost the same as that forming the signature of Albrecht Dürer?

The street is fine, but what of the name? Baalbec? The ancient city of Syria, now Lebanon, was built over centuries under the Roman yoke, and long considered the great ruin of the Near East—so great, in fact, that it was reputed to have been built by Solomon himself. After all, I Kings 9.17-18 tells us, 'Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether, / And Baalath, and Tadmor in the wilderness, in the land'. Tadmor, we know, is Palmyra, which was usually twinned with Baalbek—and the name was, for some, too close to Baalath for chance. (Even as late as 1964 we find the identification accepted, by Ruth Nagle Watkins in an article on Baalbek for Art Journal.) Furthermore, Solomon invoked demons to lift and arrange the cyclopaean stones used in the city's temples. Thus in the 1425 History of Timur by Sharafuddin Ali Yazdi, we read:
This town is very famous, as well for the beauty of the walls, as for the height of its buildings; and it is believed to have been built by Solomon's order, by daemons and genii, over whom he had an absolute command.
This sort of folklore was soon common currency among the explorers of later centuries. When John Ray visited in the late seventeenth century, he described the same huge stones as Sharafuddin, noting one in particular that measured 66 feet long (28 cubits in the History). Daniel Fenning, who, in his New System of Geography (1778), calls Baalbek 'the boldest plan that appears to have been ever attempted in architecture', notes also that 'All the inhabitants of this country, both Christians, Jews, and Mahometans, confidently maintain, that both Balbec and Palmyra were built by Solomon.' A slightly later article in The Britannic Magazine labels the site ruins 'some of the most beautiful and best preserved of any in Asia', and remarks:
By what means could the ancients remove these enormous masses? This is doubtless a problem in mechanics difficult to resolve. The inhabitants of Balbec, however, have a very easy manner of explaining it, by supposing these edifices to have been constructed by djenoun, or genii, who obeyed the orders of King Solomon; adding, that the motives of such immense works was to conceal in subterraneous caverns vast treasures, which still remain there.
In good Enlightenment fashion, the moral is spelled out:
All tradition relative to high antiquity is as false among the Orientals as the Europeans. With them, as with us, facts which happened even 100 years before, when not preserved in writing, are altered, mutilated, or forgotten.
But a more modern use of the name, European rather than Oriental, even though preserved in writing, is shrouded in as great a mystery. It was chosen by Proust to designate an important location in his Recherche, contracted a little for delicate Parisian tastes, as Balbec. Most modern scholars, if not all, identify this with Proust's own beloved Cabourg, on the Normandy coast, although not too far from the resort, just east of Le Havre, is a town called Bolbec. Indeed, in an anonymous English novel of 1796, entitled Elvira; or, the World as it Goes, we find a reference or two to 'Balbec' near Le Havre:
I'm going to leave you in suspense about that head dress. Anyway, Proust's Balbec is just too spicy a comfit for the slavering critics waiting to get their teeth into the myriads of words in the Recherche. Let us listen to some plaintive and poignant voices. Here's David Ellison:
What is this strange split city of Balbec? What happens if we, like the young Marcel, pronounce its syllables and allow them to resonate with associations? Balbec sounds a lot like BAALBEK, the ancient city, now in Lebanon, whose name derives from the god Baal, the Phoenician sun god. The congruence of names is so obvious as to be blinding.
And here's Allan Pasco (truncatedly):
Proust's 'Balbec' comprises several of the interlocking patterns of allusive support. The homonymous Persian city, now in Lebanon, was named after the false god Baal, mentioned in the Bible, and thus joins the two biblical cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, found along the protagonist's way. Brichot, the author's pedantic professor who corrects many of the Curé de Combray's false etymologies, points out that –bec means stream in the Norman dialect. Brichot is not sure about Bal-. He suggests it is a corruption of 'Dalbec'. Proust may have chosen the first syllable of Balbec because of a belief that the Baal of the Persian city Baalbek meant 'sun'. It is also possible that he was aware that Bel- in many French place names derives from the Celtic sun god Belenus. His love of puns attests to an interest in the phonic texture. With this in mind, it is difficult to ignore the associations of the French word bal ('dancing, youth, mating,') and of the ornithological bec ('beak').
The phrasing is remarkable: 'What happens if we pronounce its syllables?', 'it is difficult to ignore the associations of—'. Let's just kick back and muck about with words. After all, Proust did. Is this any different from the practices of mediaevals, who identified Baalbek with Baalath? In a somewhat embarrassed footnote, Pasco winds up ransacking a bunch of dusty German philological lexicons, and tracing bal- to PIE *bhel ('white, shining'), which he can then affix to Albertine, whose name clearly derives from Latin albus, 'white'. (He even quotes the delightful kook Harold Bayley, whose linguistic speculations we last encountered here, also in Islington, and not too far from Baalbec Road.)

Best of all, though, is Marie-Magdeleine Chirol's L'Imaginaire de la Ruine. Nobody can do spiel like the French. After discussing a few references to antiquities in an early description of Balbec from Recherche ('De Balbec surtout, où déjà des hôtels se construisent, superposés au sol antique et charmant qu'ils n'alterènt pas, quel délice d'excursionner à deux pas dans ces régions primitives et si belles!'), she concludes:
One last sign points towards a Norman Balbec that is reminiscent of the ancient Baalbek: the presence 'of hotels' (in the modern sense) which, in an ancient context, may seem displaced, even anachronistic. However, if one should replace hotel with 'Temple-Palais' or with 'palais'—terms which the narrator uses to evoke the Grand-Hotel at Balbec—the desired spatio-temporal link seems to be re-established. The substitution would appear reasonable since, after all, when the narrator talks of the hotel at Balbec, he is surely always referring to the Grand-Hotel.
Here is a voice pleading for acceptance, especially in that last sentence. In all these works is the same exegesis of the world we find among the mediaevals, only made secular, and transferred to a world of words only. The study of literature is, as we have long known, the last refuge of the theologian.


But what about Baalbec Road? Why Baalbec? Perhaps in lieu of asking, 'Why was the road called Baalbec?', we might ask, 'What has it done to deserve the name?' Or even, What do we see in the road, and in its environs, that we should not see if it had a different name? Would it smell as sweet?

Baalbek itself, once magnificent, was taken over by nature, and became a ruin. Highbury, as we have seen, is also under threat from its flora, real, painted or carved in terracotta. The name itself becomes that bit more pregnant. Perhaps that is what Jenkins meant about the tourists of a hundred years hence. Before the creation of the road in 1889, London had a single nod to the Baalbek of antiquity. This was in the Temple of the Sun at Kew Gardens, built in 1761, in a Corinthian style inspired by the ornate columns of the ruinated Syrian city. Eighteenth-century letters and notices are full of proud and admiring references to this elegant structure, which has none of the sublimity of the original, preserving only a few flourishes and proportions. In 1916, a tree fell on the temple and it was demolished, not even leaving a ruin. For shame! Still, we have the ruins of Baalbec Road, Highbury. If they are not ruins yet, they contain all the omens of such. The city is like the mind: it never forgets. My old friend's kitchen, with its ridiculous sculpture, is still with me, perhaps altered and mutilated, but not forgotten. I did not want to mention the splendid effusion of autumn in Highbury Fields.

Update: Language Hat on H. W. Bailey, not to be confused with Harold Bayley.


Robert said...

The ridiculous sculpture is intriguing, one could develop it as a joke; was there a realistic severed hand on it?
Baalbeck reminds me of Germany, though I know not why.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sadly no severed hand.

pedro e. said...

Just to make sure, this isn't the massively erudite Harold W. Bailey, scholar of many a crazy dead language, right? I remember catching a glimpse of ''The Lost Language of etc.'' and not being able to find it out later.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, the very same. I read his Lost Language of London. Erudite but wholly unreliable.

pedro e. said...

''The Lost Language of Symbolism'' just became a priority, then. If you liked to watch the resources of Dame Yates and Holford-Strevens in action, take a look at /this/ zany thing, which made the rounds at cybalist:
I like to brag about my Sanskrit and Chinese, but this is just insane.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Impressive indeed.

languagehat said...

With all due respect to the immense erudition of our gracious and learned host, far from being "the very same," Harold Bayley the kook is in fact an entirely different personage from H. W. Bailey the scholar of many a crazy dead language (and world's leading expert on Khotanese). For one thing, the former published Archaic England in 1920, when H. W. had not yet entered the University of Western Australia, and for another, he published The Tragedy of Sir Francis Bacon in 1902, when H. W. was two years old and had probably not yet begun to consider Sir Francis Bacon with any seriousness.

That aside, a fine post; you had me at "The rain relents, and then lents again."

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh, thanks, and well-spotted. I should have noticed the i/y, but there you go.

Steven Augustine said...

I want this blog as a glossy print magazine. I would pay "good" money for it. It would come (thick and slightly heavy) in the post, in a satisfying brown wrapper, about once every three months, I think. I would take up pipe-smoking to read it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

It's a lovely idea, isn't it? Perhaps it will happen.

Karl Sharro said...

I grew up not far from Baalbeck in Lebanon, and now I live not far from Baalbec Road. I always wondered about the name. This post didn't enlighten me about that but was very enjoyable to read nevertheless. I'm 3 years too late obviously...