29 April, 2008

Armchair history

London pelting but at least bright late. Library at last less choked with facebook-addled undergraduates. I remind myself of Lavengro, one of those Victorian paid-per-word novels that pays no attention to dramatic interest, thank God. George Borrow sojourning in London, 1825 or so. An evening at the house of an Armenian. Rabbi enters, a Sephardi, settles some business; Armenian asks him to stay for a drink. Rabbi says
"He—he—he! señor, you know I do not love wine. I love Noah when he is himself; but, as Janus, I love him not. But you are merry; bueno, you have a right to be so."

"Excuse me," said I; "but does Noah ever appear as Janus?"

"He—he—he!" said the Rabbi, "he only appeared as Janus once—una vez quando estuvo borracho; which means——"

"I understand," said I, "when he was—" and I drew the side of my right hand sharply across my left wrist.

"Are you one of our people?" said the Rabbi.

"No," said I, "I am one of the Goyim; but I am only half enlightened. Why should Noah be Janus, when he was in that state?"

"He—he—he! you must know that in Lasan akhades [Ladino, 'Hebrew language', from Hebrew leshon ha-kodesh (לשון הקודש), literally 'holy language'; compare Yiddish loshn-koydesh] wine is janin."

"In Armenian, kini," said I; "in Welsh, gwin; Latin, vinum. But do you think that Janus and Janin are one?"

"Do I think? Don't the commentators say so? Does not Master Leo Abarbenel say so, in his Dialogues of Divine Love?"

"But," said I, "I always thought that Janus was a god of the ancient Romans, who stood in a temple open in time of war, and shut in time of peace; he was represented with two faces, which—which—"

"He—he—he!" said the Rabbi, rising from his seat; "he had two faces, had he? And what did those two faces typify? You do not know; no, nor did the Romans who carved him with two faces know why they did so; for they were only half enlightened, like you and the rest of the Goyim. Yet they were right in carving him with two faces looking from each other—they were right, though they knew not why; there was a tradition among them that the Janinoso had two faces, but they knew not that one was for the world which was gone and the other for the world before him—for the drowned world and for the present, as Master Leo Abarbenel says in his Dialogues of Divine Love. He—he—he!"
If you look for Master Leo Abarbenel, you won't find your man. Your man, in fact, being Yehuda ben Yitzhak Abravanel, also known as Judah Leon Abrabanel, Isaacus Abravanel, or even simply as Leone Ebreo—Leon the Hebrew. Damn those polyonymous Jews. Leon's Dialoghi d'Amore was first published in Italian in 1535, although he probably composed it around 1501, its original language still disputed. I flicked through it in the Library today. Lots of pronouncements on Truth and Beauty in good Ficinian style. Obligatory quotations from the Symposium. Allegorical exposition of the pagan gods. And so on. No index; had to wade through every bloody page to find the one I wanted. Began with the first half, then tried a different tack and worked back from the last page. Finally found the page right in the very middle. Book 3:
Many declare that they have it on divine authority, not only from Moses, the divine lawgiver, but originally from Adam, from whom the unwritten oral tradition, called in the Hebrew tongue Cabbala, signifying reception, passed to the sage Enoch, and from Enoch to famous Noah; who, after the Flood, on account of his discovery of wine, was called Jajin, because in Hebrew this signifies wine; and he is depicted with two faces reversed, because he witnessed the age before and after the Flood.
Three years before Leon was putatively writing—ie. in 1498—appeared a most strange book that got the whole of Europe talking for a hundred years. This was Annius of Viterbo's Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium. It is, incidentally, online here. Now Annius' big idea was to get lots of fragments from ancient historians—Berosus of Chaldaea, Myrsilos of Methymna, Fabius Pictor, and so on—draw them all up, and weave them into a holistic history of the ancient world. Here, for instance, is a nice bit of Myrsilos, in Gothic type, with Annius' commentary in Roman:

The same basic idea had been done before by writers like Josephus and Eusebius; the only problem with Annius was that all of his fragments had been entirely fabricated, and by him. One of Annius' core theses was that Noah and Janus were the same person, and also the same as Vertumnus, Ogyges and others. Annius gets his Janus lore from the first book of Ovid's Fasti, where the god is presented as a founder of agriculture in Rome. In an early comment to Berosus, Annius claims: 'Noa primus pontifex cum filiis et uxoribus sacrificia et holocausta obtulerit; Sive igitur idem sit Ianus et Noa: ut tempus et Epitheta utriusque convincunt'—Noah, the first pontifex, with his sons and wives, offered a sacrifice and a holocaust; but this means that Janus and Noah are the same: as the period and their epithets both convince us. On the spurious passage of Myrsilos shown above, or rather on the word Enotria, he remarks:
Et tempore Ianii non erat vinum in Etruria et Latio: negat hoc Cato dicens Ianum dictum Enotrium: quia primus invenit vinum et far. . . Unde Fabius pictor ait principio Ianum invenisse vinum et far ad religionem et sacrificia magisque usum et ob id sibi farrata et vinum in omni sacrificio prolibari; Addit autem Berosus quod ipse dictus est a Scythis / linguae eorum Ianus: quia primus in Armenia invenit vinum. Aramea enim et Hebrea lingua Iain vinum dicit, a quo Ianus vinifer derivat.

And in the time of Janus there was no wine in Etruria or Latium: Cato denies it, calling Janus 'Enotrius': because he first discovered wine and grain. . . From which Fabius Pictor has said that in the beginning, Janus discovered wine and grain for religion and sacrifices and greater use, and on account of this, wheaten cakes and wine are offered to him in every sacrifice; however, Berosus adds that he is called 'Janus' by the Scythians in their tongue: because he first found wine in Armenia. For wine is called 'Iain' in the Aramaic and Hebrew language, from which derives 'Janus', the wine-bearer.
Elsewhere: 'Ex his probatur irrevincibiliter a tempore demonstrato a Solino et propriis Epithetis Iani / eundem fuisse Ogygem / Ianum et Noam.' From these things is indisputably proved, from the time noted by Solinus, and by the characteristic epithets of Janus, that Ogyges, Janus and Noah were one and the same. Annius does not demonstrate his thesis quite as much as we would like, and this leads me to suspect that he is not the first to make such a connection. An origin, perhaps, in the Jewish commentaries? I do not know them at all. What I can find, however, is that the Rabbis commonly associated Janus with a more obscure character, Zepho. Noah Rosenbloom traces this to the mediaeval history of the Jews, the Josippon, which states "that Esau's grandson, Zepho, fled from Edom to Italy where he was crowned as king Zepho-Janus". In 1505, Abraham Zacuto writes 'Janus was the first king of Italy. He killed a beast named janus and thus got his name. They say he was Zepho, son of Eliphaz, grandson of Esau.' Zepho himself seems to come from a midrashic Book of Jasher, though I cannot ascertain how far this work predates its 1625 editio princeps.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, 'Ibn Yahya [Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, 1587] says that Noah has been identified by some with Janus, deriving the latter name from the Hebrew "yayin" (wine); Noah, it is said, was so called because he was the first to drink wine.' So the Jews were happily recycling this stuff from Annius and Leon. Meanwhile, Annius's work is abridged into English by Richard Lynche, as An Historical Treatise of the Travels of Noah into Europe (1601):
He [Noah] further taught those people [the Scythians] the use of agriculture and tillage of the ground, and also the finding out of the use of the grape, and the manner to plant vines and other necessaries for their more easie living, wherupon hee was entearmed also Ianus, which in the Scythian tongue, signifies the giver of wine.

The ancients likewise have shaped him forth with two keyes in his hand, to shew thereby that he was the inventor of gates and dores, and also of the locking of them and making them fast, to the end, that the holy temples and sacred places should not bee polluted with the impious abuse of theeves and uncivile persons, and to avoid adulteries and other such like sinnes then raigning: and of his name since have all dores and gates been called Ianuae. In many other sorts and formes have the auncients defigured the image of this Noe Ianus.
Scythian, Hebrew, same difference. (Scythians were pretty exciting to your average scholar of the period. Boxhornius was just about to identify their language as the very first—the so-called 'Scythian hypothesis', ancestor of our Kurgan hypothesis.) Lynche's translation was put out just in time for Sir Walter Ralegh to include, in the first volume of his History of the World (1614), an excoriating riposte to Annius:
And if we may believe Eusebius better than Annius, then all the kings of the Latins (before Æneas) consumed but 150 years; whereas no man hath doubted, but that from Noah to Æneas's arrival into Italy, there passed 1126 (after the least rate of the Hebrew account) and (after Codoman) 1291. For Janus (who was the first of their kings) lived at once with Ruth, who married Booz, in the world's year (as some reckon) 2717, after the flood 1064, and Noah died 350 years after the flood; and so there passed between Janus of Italy, and Noah surnamed Janus, 704 years.
Some were not to be put off their mythophilological flights. One such was Theophilus Gale, whose masterpiece, The Court of the Gentiles, retales, in its first volume, published in 1669, Book 2, chapter 6:
As for the Theogonie of Janus and his Parallel: if we consider him historically, and according to the Mythologie of the Poets, To he [sic] refers to the storie of Noah, or Javan. That which inclines some to make him Parallel with Noah is 1. The cognation of his Name, with the Hebrew יין jain, wine; whereof Noah was the first Inventor, according to Vossius. Again, 2. Janus was pictured with a double forehead; because he saw a double world, that before, and after, the Floud; as Noah. 3. As the beginning, and propagation of mankind, after the Floud, was from Noah; so also they ascribe the beginnings of al things unto Janus: Whence the entrance to an house is called by the Romans, Janua; and the entrance to the year Januaris. Whence some make the name Xisythrus, given by the Assyrians to Noah (as in the storie of the Floud, Book 3, Chap. 6, § 4.) to signifie an entrance or door, from ןין, a post or threshold of a dore, as Vossius. 4. Latium, where Janus's seat was, (whence part of old Rome was called Janicule) was called Oenotria. Now οινωτρια comes from οινος Wine. Thus much for Janus's parallel with Noah.
I was hoping that these references to 'Vossius' denoted one of the chronological treatises of Isaac Vossius. I was hoping for this because I own a 1661 copy of these various works bound together—the very kind gift of a family friend. But I could not find the relevant passage. What I did find was this: 'Quod si omnes istos errasse dixeris, et Noachum et Ogygum eundem fuisse putes, jam absurdior erit error, et necesse erit ut credas Noachum in Graecia regnasse, et regnum illud fuisse antiquius diluvio.' For if you say that all these things are wrong, and you think that Noah and Ogyges were the same, the error will now be more absurd, and you will be forced to believe that Noah reigned in Greece, and that his reign predates the Deluge. Still, fantasists like Godfrey Higgins and Morgan Kavanagh were peddling the same syllabub in the nineteenth century. Kavanagh takes it further, in fact:
Another very plain proof that Jonas, or Jonah, means water, is this, that it cannot differ from Janus, of which the root Jan is allowed to mean wine. . . And as the name Janus cannot mean wine without meaning water also, it follows that he might have had such events told of him as belong to Noah and Jonas; and that his history might have once borne a close resemblance to that of Noah, we can conceive from this fact, that "on his coins are often seen a boat and a dove, with a chaplet of olive leaves, or an olive branch." [The quote is from Gale.]
Thus men dream and dream. . . But our patience is drawn out, and it has finally grown dark. It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. A glass of port?

16 April, 2008


Last week at the Wake reading-group. Turned into a fine bloody spectacle! For who should show up but Ben Watson and Bob "Bob Dobbs" Dean? They were recording for a radio programme. Which one? Forgot to ask.
— Arra irrara hirrara man, weren't they arriving in clansdestinies for the Imbandiment of Ad Regias Agni Dapes, fogabawlers and panhibernskers, after the crack and the lean years, scalpjaggers and houthhunters, like the messicals of the great god. . .
Arra irrara hirrara, said Watson; it's someone clearing their throat, isn't it? Yes, we said. Very important, clearing the throat, said Watson. Started talking about a Frank Zappa song which begins with the sound of someone (Zappa?) clearing his throat. It's a rhetorical gesture, said Watson, it gets the audience's attention. It's very powerful. At this stage I was looking round the room, but no one caught my eye. The point is, added Watson, that he's clearing his throat.

And so it continued. Messicals, said W., presiding. 'Musicals', someone said. 'Messengers', said another. 'Mass', I said. Just throwing it out there. 'Vesicles', said Watson. Alright, said W., and all those things you've said are doubtlessly in there. (Except 'vesicle'.) But all the free-association in the world won't elucidate the text. What you need is a rationale, some way of distinguishing good guesses from bad ones. W.'s preference, for instance, is for looking at drafts, and considering themes on a broader level. Watson found this hierophantical. (Did he use the word?) You just want to impose your reading as the correct one, he said. You've got the draft books in front of you as a key to the meaning, and they've solved the riddle. What's the point? Watson himself knew better. When I read the Wake to the average person, he said—you know, not necessarily intellectual, academic types, but just ordinary people with life experience, they get it immediately.

Watson, it later turns out, said much the same on his website:
Yet everybody to whom you read a sentence of the Wake will provide some information from their own particular walk of life which will illuminate your understanding—of the Wake, of themselves, of the world.
I actually tried this today. I took my trusty Penguin Wake onto the streets of London in search of the vox populi. At first I thought I'd surprise people. Unuchorn! Ungulant! Uvuloid! Uskybeak! I barked at a passing Rastafarian, who gave me such a terrifying look that I decided to stick to gentler passages from then on. I picked out an attractive middle-aged proletess and approached her with Any dog's life you list you may still hear them at it—but she only turned her head and snapped Fack orff!! at me. (For a while I thought she was quoting back Joyce, but sadly I couldn't locate the phrase in the Wake concordance. . .) Finally I took an elderly gentleman aside, with a tie and checked shirt and tweed jacket, and asked his opinion.

— Tugbag is Baggut's, I said, when a crispin sokolist besoops juts kamps or clapperclaws an irvingite offthedocks. A luckchange, I see.

He was still looking blankly at me, so I continued; only I'd lost my place and had to start somewhere else, hoping he wouldn't notice.

— That pekumiary pond is beyawnd my pinnigay pretonsions. I am resting on a pigs of cheesus but I've a big suggestion it was about the pint of porter.

— Ah, he said, his eyes lighting up. Porter! I did use to like a good pint of the stuff. But you can't get it like it used to be. Mass-produced now. It's all them brewing corporations. Run by Yanks. And the Irish. (His eyes darkened again.)

I had to concede that the gentleman had, indeed, managed to tell me something about the world, and about himself; but if he had any pearls about Joyce's experimental masterpiece, I was not astute enough to catch them. However, let us attribute the failure of my experiment to mere chance. Or perhaps I didn't affect a convincing Dublin accent? After all, we are all fond of that persistent story that the Wake is perfectly lucid when read aloud in a good brogue. We can try again next week. As for Watson, he hasn't finished, oh no:
Joyce evaded the British wartime censors. . . by producing a book of "incomprehensible gibberish"—incomprehensible to every "educated" person, that is, who's forgotten that everything written is merely a transcription of something said in lust or anger or accountancy or pure punning fun.
(Mostly pure punning fun, though.)
[Finnegans Wake] has of course has been roundly condemned and squarely rejected as "unreadable" or "difficult" by politicans, academics, journalists and mass-media spokepersons who wish to keep alive the desiccated, non-lived, duped and BORING spectacle of life supplied to us by those who rule. But the Wake has been celebrated and pored-over and disputed and read—read read RED—by all true REVOLUTIONARIES, SURREALISTS, BEATS, POETS, FREE IMPROVISORS, ZAPPA FANS & COCKROACH-FANCIERS as the Bible of Post-Capitalism, our glimpse of a humanist democracy beyond war, exploitation, media manipulation and the money form, where MATERIALIST RECOGNITION OF OUR ACTUAL LIVES (what the Communist Manifesto called "facing with sober senses our real conditions of life and our relations to our kind") becomes the open swinging-bar door on a limitless realm of play, adventure, learning, social contact and sexual bliss.
I can assure the reader that I am not quoting Henry Miller. Nor an eighteen year-old—this is a man in his fifties. But you just have to quote this stuff at length to get a feel for the SHOUTY REPETITIVE BORINGNESS of it. His own position he encapsulates as follows:
Joyce and Zappa explode the boundaries of bourgeois politesse and a rational public order sustained by legal contracts between supposedly equal citizens. They reveal an actuality of lust, greed and lies beneath the bourgeois veneer.
Watson is of course the sort of bloke for whom 'bourgeois' is the worst possible insult, because it can only ever denote a 'veneer'. Lucky for Watson, he can find enough in Joyce to agree with him. He quotes a letter to Stanislaus (conveniently located in Ellman's biography, p. 204):
You have often shown opposition to my socialistic tendencies. But can you not see plainly from facts like these that a deferment of the emancipation of the proletariat, a reaction to clericalism or aristocracy or bourgeoisism would mean a revulsion to tyrannies of all kinds?
All well and good, and more on Joyce's antiburgherism can be found all over the internet. Still, the conflation of Finnegans Wake with soixante-huitard social and artistic ideals is terribly unimaginative. You can find it all in there: drugs, sex, pop music, dreams, satire. But so what? Watson wanted from the group a polyphonic clamour of voices, each member adducing suggestions, each enriching the text with additional meanings, each making it still bigger, more colourful, more like the very world itself. Only for Watson, none of these meanings might become authoritative—because to be authoritative is to limit other possibilities. Watson wants chaos. His friend, Dean, who claimed to have been Marshall McLuhan's archivist, and who seems to have led a rather Munchhausenish life on the internet, babbled about the Wake being a single sentence from start to finish ('No, it isn't', W. drily observed) or a fractal or a technicolor explosion of vortex patterns or a chaotic radio transmission of all history or a space-time singularity of psychedelic laser language or something very grand like that.

Later, W. used the word 'characterisation', and Watson sneered, Oh! I'm just allergic to your way of thinking! You academics, you find a work of art you can't categorise, and you try and reduce it to a bourgeois novel. Characters! This isn't a novel! And so on, like a petulant teenager. We were all a bit nonplussed. The whole room was bristling and eager to see what would happen next. Joyceans gegen killjoyceans. Like I said, it was a fun evening.


I'm interested in this trope—that the academics have it all wrong, and that we have only to open our eyes to see the truth. Of course it stems from a Romantic mindset, that education is really indoctrination, that society and capital (both perpetuated by educators, and especially academics) are denying us our authentic proletariat freedoms. I found the same basic idea in M. J. Harper's The History of Britain Revealed, which I purchased yesterday. (It has also been published in America under the title, The Secret History of the English Language.) Harper's basic thesis is that our picture of language history is all wrong: English doesn't come from Anglo-Saxon—it's obvious how different the two languages are—but has been around since the Ice Age; French and Italian and Spanish don't come from Latin—for they are more similar to each other than to Latin, with which they have only a lexical affinity—but from English, while Latin was invented by Italians as short-hand for trading purposes; and so on and so on. Language Hat noticed the book a while ago:
I didn't have time to read it, but I flipped through it and noted that it purported to be claiming that Middle English never existed and that English was the ancestor of the Romance languages, among other things so silly I assumed it couldn't be serious.
Hat says:
If the book were claiming that Queen Elizabeth was the illegitimate son of Rasputin, or that mixing salt and sugar provides an inexhaustible source of energy that will replace oil and gas, no one would take it seriously; if it were reviewed at all, it would be as an example of how absolutely anything can get published. But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair.
This is pretty sloppy. After all, just look at the responses to Anatoly Fomenko's History: Fiction or Science?, which claims that Christ was born around 1000 AD, and that a thousand years of history have just been invented. (Incidentally, Harper makes similar claims, p. 84: 'Rum things crawl out from the historical record when several hundred years of spurious history have somehow got themselves inserted into the real world', referring to the period 1250-750 BC.) Or to Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, which claims that ancient Indian gurus had mystical foreknowledge of modern quantum physics. Or to Martin Bernal's Black Athena, which claims that the highlights of Western culture came from Egypt, and a black African Egypt at that. (The book was taken seriously enough that a formal refutation was published.) Or look at the respect accorded to Judith Butler, merely for being a feminist lesbian and looking like one too. Patrick "Pyramid Power" Flanagan, let us not forget, was vaunted in Time magazine. And what was that about polywater? The fact is, Mr. Hat, nonsense about every subject under the sun has been reviewed respectfully. There's really no need to despair!

Now Harper, like Watson, hates academics, whose disciplines are 'cosy niches for intellectually unenquiring people'. Sometimes he lets rip:
You should, throughout this book, be asking yourself why the blindingly obvious things outlined here from time to time are so studiously ignored by professional historians and, having come to the conclusion that this is a moderately scandalous situation, you should then apply these thoughts to academics and academia in general. And rise up and kick the rascals out.
For Harper, academics (or 'historians') have been perpetuating 'creation myths' about the origin of the English people and their language, not to mention the other Europeans, from the beginning. They aren't malicious—just foolish and blinkered, which is to be expected, as their training necessitates it. On the idea that English evolved from Anglo-Saxon via 'Middle English':
Of course we mustn't be too harsh on the generations of linguists, philologists and etymologists who produced this stuff. . . Every last one of them was intensively instructed on this matter in their first year as undergraduates (by certified experts), given an examination to see if the information had taken firm root (they all passed), lived their entire professional lives among people who believe it to be self evidently-true. . . and have never given the matter another thought from that to day to this (and, believe me, they're not about to start now).
As Harper observes, universities are intellectually conservative; change is slow, and revolution very rare, unless of course your name is Noam. All institutions, in fact, are conservative. It is in their nature: it is how they remain corporate, and how they are preserved from every passing fancy that might trouble their hulls. Sometimes this is a bad thing—the canonical example might be the dogmatism of the Church regarding Copernican and Galilean science. But often it is good, as demonstrated by all the cranks—and here linguistics is a great field—whose silly contributions made no dent at all on taught wisdom. The problem is that it is very difficult to distinguish the one situation from the other at the present time. The rather worthy Sally Thomason bemoans, more naïvely than Mr. Hat, the positive reviews garnered by Harper on amazon:
In any case, we find again that Harper and his ilk make "so damn much sense", while linguists, contaminated by Establishment connections (like, academic training and jobs relevant to that training), are hide-bound types blinded by meaningless tradition, and therefore sure to be wrong. (One might ask why the public is so ready to believe someone who asserts that "the experts" are deluded on a whole raft of issues but who offers not one single piece of evidence in support of his assertions; but one would be foolish to bother asking.)
It is useless expecting the public to be able to evaluate evidence on technical matters. Either they listen to those who call themselves experts, or they listen to those who give reasons to doubt a priori the authenticity of this expertise. When in 1686 Bernard de Fontenelle wanted to convince the intellectual world that they had been completely wrong on the subject of the pagan oracles, he did two things: first, he showed why earlier historians might have believed what they did, despite being mistaken; and second, he painted an entirely speculative, but nonetheless convincing picture of what really happened at the oracles. Fontenelle has been portrayed for centuries as an intellectual hero, while his contemporary adversaries made much the same point as Thomason:
In this Age one may be sure, a new Opinion, however ill prov'd, will not fail to gain its Followers, provided it favours the inclination Men have to Incredulity. . . Thus those who believe are induc'd to examine the Reasons against believing, to deliver themselves if possible, from this so measly Bondage; and they who do not believe, thinking it a great Happiness to be freed from this troublesome Yoke, do naturally avoid all that might bring them under it; and are much more inclin'd to inform themselves of the Reasons against believing, that they fortify themselves still more in their Incredulity, than of those which might oblige them to believe.
This is why Harper's book is advertised as appealing to 'anyone who has ever thought twice about what they've learned in school'. The rhetoric is that, if you learn at school, you are just swallowing opinions—and that swallowing opinions doesn't produce Newtons or Einsteins, or Fontenelles, or Harpers or Watsons. Bacon thought like this, so did Descartes, so did Voltaire. And indeed there's some truth to it, man. But it is a teenager's truth, or a Romantic truth, which amounts to the same. There is also the truth of the Church and the Academy to compete with it: and that too is a truth. Therein is the problem. Everywhere I turn, I meet it again: do I trust the rhetoric of novelty, or the rhetoric of experience and expertise? Boris or Ken? Obama or Clinton? It is inescapable, and rules for deciding cannot be formulated in advance.

With Harper, it is easier to make a judgement because so many of his individual claims are weak. His book demonstrates another principle: that it is much harder to make small corrections to a big picture than to paint it again from scratch. Harper wants to make one correction—that French doesn't come from Latin—and this forces him to make another correction—that French must come from English—and therefore another—that English is ancient—and another—that English is not from Anglo-Saxon—and by the way the theory of evolution is wrong, and so is the OED, and so on and so on, until (superficially) the linguistic facts have all been saved. It's an enormous juggling act. And it is incredibly easy to see how it might convince an intelligent person, who is seduced first by one proposition, then another, which seems to follow so easily from it. But to suggest, as Thomason does, that linguists are fighting a 'battle with unreason', whether they are losing or not, is grossly complacent. At least Mr. Hat admits that one can take pleasure from the book, spoof or not: 'I'm keeping it around for my own amusement, after all'.

06 April, 2008

Thanum an Dhul

Roth revives! See how he rises!
Roth he rises from the dead,
Says, "Whirl your cava around like blazes"
"Thanum an Dhul, do you thunk I'm dead?"
Rumours of my death have been, well, somewhat exaggerated. I was sleeping is all. Or else off gallivanting with Epistemon amidst among the fallen. And it is has been as busy as a time as ever it will be—moving, disowning, appreciating, divagating, arguing, decorating, slicing and framing, lucubrating, rising early, failing, attending, listening, not hearing, preening, expanding, gorging, sneering, perusing, pontificating, and scribbling, but only sober words, and all without the benefit of this ambivalent sketchpad to console me.

In little Hornsey we manage, just, to replace each drunk bottle with another, gratis, by courtesy of guests, whose magnanimity we carefully gauge and record, by the splendour of the bottle they bring, its age, its size, the grandeur of its name. Now, Mr. Dodson warned me on these very pages that Freixenet would not be suitable for the celebration of my return. Thus, in turn, I admonished our guests not to bring Freixenet, under pain of sanction. For three months gladly have I welcomed visitors bearing various cuvées, a Cristal here, a Dom Pérignon there, and I had saved for some time a particularly fine Pol Roger for this very occasion, when two nights ago a brace of unwanted (though I dare to admit it, invited, albeit by Mrs. Roth) haplodytes descended upon us for dinner, demanding champagne for the birth of their two-bit nipper, and yet bearing with them, the damned cheek of it, not champagne, but only—

Cava? We drank the Pol Roger. The wine was bitter in my mouth. Mrs. Roth abstained piously. I did not talk much at the table, only eyeing my bouteille diminuant with ever-growing pique. Their bottle, on the other hand, remained wrapped on the far counter. My friends, it is all I have left. I'm afraid, Mr. Dodson, that your only consolation is that it is not, after all, a Freixenet.

Le'chayim, then. Bastards.

With each slow stride, so low, the water rises slowly by my side, aswallow. And the flat sidereal rises of the moon looming, illumining, white with weight, tremulous, foaming and shiving in the weight of the vast sea. And from the sea, all ashiver with a vast cold, rising in lines of light, so slow, is the light of bells and spires, a spired city of candles and glasses, so low and so vast, and the colour of treasure, as the skin of my face rises down against the sweep of the skin of the sweep and stave of the sea, and the moon her weight and white eyes are beside me, and her bird is there in my hand to guide me.
I wrote that when I was about seventeen. It was part of a dream-sequence in my starter-novel, The Ark, the drafts of which I occasionally look over with an embarrassed amusement. It wasn't all in this style. But it was parts like these that most interested me at the time. I wanted to write prose aspiring to the condition of poetry—the most flawed of ambitions, and one I now wholly repudiate. Later I wrote a poem, Chalybea, which developed some of the imagery from The Ark, in an entirely different context, and to much better effect. (It has the further advantage of being actually a poem.) I still liked, and indeed still like, underwater cities, and along with them, underwater bells.
Bells. Echoes, from below, from the hollows
of the bowels of the earth, billowing up.
The poem's narrative was punctuated in places by the sound of a 'Flibberty-gibbety bell', wafting over the waves to the action onboard a ship. And towards the end of the story, a precious clock is tossed into the water:
In the end, they dismantled its gears
and threw it back, amid the vitreous chime
of sunlight staggering upon waves.
It is the height of bad manners to discuss one's own work as if it were that of another. I quote these passages simply to illustrate that for whatever reason, I have long associated the sea, and lower regions of the earth, with bells and clocks. Now, when writing both novel and poem, and for a long while after, I had no knowledge of the folklore of underwater bells. The Funk and Wagnall Folklore Dictionary claims that
Bells which have sunk to the bottom of ponds or lakes or have been buried underground (of which every European country traditionally has examples) also ring at solemn times, such as midnight on Christmas Eve. Such bells were generally engulfed as a punishment for some human impiety.
So, for instance, in Gervase of Tilbury's 1215 Otia Imperialia:
In Britain there is a forest, rich in many kinds of game, which looks down on the city of Carlisle. Roughly in the middle of this forest there is a valley surrounded by hills near a public highway. In this valley, I say, every day at seven in the morning a gently-sounding peal of bells [classicum campanarum dulce resonans] is heard; and so the locals have given that lonely place the name of 'Laikibrais' in the Welsh tongue.
I quote the translation of Banks and Binns (2002), though 'Welsh' [Wallico] is a rather tendentious editorial correction of 'French' [Gallico]. R. C. Cox, in his article on Laikibrais (or Laikibrait), mentions, like the Folklore Dictionary, and in very similar language, that 'The tradition of a body of water in which bells are engulfed and yet are heard to peal is a common folklore motif often associated with demonic forces or the punishment of some human impiety.' For Cox, Laikibrait is the 'lake that cries' [Old French lai ki brait], associated with the inundation of church bells at Tarn Wadling, in Inglewood Forest near Carlisle.

This, also, from Georgina Jackson's 1883 book on Shropshire Folk-Lore:
There is a Norfolk legend which brings out the connection between pools, bells, and the Under World very clearly. Tunstall Church in that county having been destroyed by a fire, which yet left the bells uninjured, the parson and churchwardens quarrelled for the possession of them, and meantime the Old Gentleman watched his opportunity and walked off with them. He was, however, found out and pursued by the parson, who began to exercise him in Latin. So in his hurry he made his way through the earth to his own abode taking his booty with him. The spot where he disappeared is now a boggy pool of water called Hell Hole, on the surface of which, in summer-time, bubbles are constantly appearing. These, the folk say, are caused by the continual sinking of the bells through the water on their endless journey to the bottomless pit.
And from Paul Sébillot's 1905 Le Folk-Lore de France, volume 2:
According to the traditions common to many standing bodies of water believed to conceal engulfed towns, the residents hear, at certain times of the year, and almost always on the occasion of great festivals, the sound of bells rising from their depths. It seems that the cities lie beneath the liquid layer, hardly overwhelmed and ruined, but almost in the state they were in at the moment they disappeared. One can even perceive them through the transparency of the waters, as those that the sea has buried; the churches remain at the bottom, and sometimes, just as our bells are singing out to announce Christian rituals, mysterious ringers set in motion the bells of the cursed cities.
At Christmas two bells sound at full volume, under the Mare Rouge at Relans, to announce the midnight hour, and at the same moment can be heard the bells of Radenac (Morbihan) buried in a sort of quagmire, those of the Mare Sonnante at Balaiseaux (Haute-Saône), of the Vieux Bronze, and of the monastery of Fleres, engulfed beneath a lake as a punishment for the monks' impiety: only at this time, occupied with their pious soundings, can the damned obtain some respite from their torments.
Sébillot, like a good philosophe, is happy to provide the rationalist's explanation. He cites the Académicien, Thomas de Saint-Mars, claiming in 1780 that the bells he hears at the waterside are not those of the sunken Herbauge, but rather those of Nantes across the water:
One might add that these carillons are heard above all at two times of the year: between All Saints and Christmas, when the trees, shorn of their leaves, provide no obstacle to the propagation of the sound; and during the calm nights of the summer solstice.
We hear the same themes even in a Joanna Newsom lyric:
In the trough of the waves,
which are pawing like dogs,
pitch we, pale-faced and grave,
as I write in my log.

Then I hear a noise from the hull,
seven days out to sea. . .
and it is that damnable bell.
Newsom has claimed that she found her line about the 'damnable bell', after having penned it, in a fantasy novel (this one?) about the drowned city of Ys, and this accounts also for the title of the record from which this lyric comes: Ys. The story is that the Breton city was flooded and drowned after the king's daughter, Dahut, opened the dam-gates standing as its protection against the sea. Dahut is later transformed into a morverc'h (cf. Irish English merrow) or mermaid. The myth has some similarity, it seems to me, to the Greek legend of Nisus and Scylla. From the 1839 collection of Breton ballads known as the Barzaz Breiz:
Gwelous a ris ar morverc'h venn,
M'hle c'hlevis o kannan zoken
Klemvanus tonn ha kanaouenn.

I saw the wan mermaid,
I recall hearing her song
In the air, the anguish of lament.
The song of Dahut later becomes the peal of bells, lamenting, although the only literary treatment I can find online is a yucky bit of doggerel by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman, 'The Bells of Ys':
Still along that haunted coast men tell us
They can hear at times,
Then the tide is half asleep and musing,
The faint sound of unsubstantial chimes
Ringing through the world's tumultuous day-beat
From enchanted climes.

And they say those peals of fairy music
Are the city's bells,
Drowned long since with all their silver joyance,—
That a deathless rapture in them dwells,
Part forever of the surge of being
As it sinks and swells.
The bells do not have a sound of 'silver joyance' or 'deathless rapture', for the bells are not part of the 'surge of being': the bells of Ys, as of Laikibris, Tunstall, Fleres and Herbauge, are bells of memory and admonition. The chimes are an element left over from an age now lost, kept fast, and warning us not to forget. They remind us that our world is only one world: there is a lower, just as there is a higher. They are a mark of what cannot be assimilated, a Delphic epsilon, or as Freud would have put it, a return of the repressed.


Standing on Alexander Binnie's 1897 Hornsey Lane Bridge, or rather on Suicide Bridge, as it is affectionately known, overlooking the A1 in its incarnation as Archway Road, one has the sense, more than anywhere else in London, Greenwich included, of straddling two worlds. This really is one of the most remarkable locations in the city, and one entirely unknown to me until we moved to nearby Hornsey two months ago.

What happens is this: you begin in Crouch End, with Alexandra Palace just peeking up above the shop roofs, and work your way south, up a gentle slope, and with tall trees hanging overhead, past the large church. You turn right onto Hornsey Lane, with the council flats opposite, and further up the large social housing units and older interwar apartment blocks, also on a sizeable scale. The whole way you ascend almost imperceptibly, all the while nestled comfortably in roads of houses, protected: this is upmarket suburbia. Then at last you come to the bridge, you emerge, and all of a sudden, on both sides, you find this:

My American readers will not be remotely surprised by this: it is the sort of thing you see all over that dark continent. But in London it is most unusual. Ours is essentially a flat city, or at most a city of gradual rises. And so to me, this view represents a genuine shock of vertigo.

When I first trudged up this way, on the first sunday of Lent, on my own, in the blazing sunshine of a morning, I heard the chimes of bells wafting their way up to me from below. And there is a little world down there, too. On the bridge are wrought-iron lamp-posts, dolphins. They are the same as those seen on the banks of the Thames, world-renowned. The dolphin, not a fish, is king of the fish; hence his central place on the arms of the Worshipful Company of Fishermongers. He is king of the river. And the Archway Road is a river, too, the rush of its traffic warm and cold and calling as the currents of the Thames himself. So I descend like the celestial visitors at Clonmacnoise. You can make your way down by a snickleway beside the bridge, but I take another path, down a picturesque alley named Tile Kiln Lane, beside the reservoir to the west. I make my way down, and I begin to forget.


It is easy to forget when you have something to look at. The church at the bottom of Tile Kiln Lane and around the corner, on Archway Road underlooking the bridge, is quite striking.

It is St Augustine of Canterbury, first built in 1888 and variously rebuilt and retooled thereafter. It lies beneath the water, hardly overwhelmed and ruined, but almost in the state it was in at the moment it disappeared. The church is strangely caught out of time, like some sort of Neo-Gothic pagoda, prefigured by this ornament on the roof of the nearby Rokesly School:

As if to emphasize the timelessness of the place, a carved inscription above the entrance commemorates George Ratcliffe Woodward, who passed away, it says, 'Anno Domini MXCXXXIV'. Now Woodward was born in 1848, and did not live to a ripe old age of -724, which he would have done if he had indeed died in AD 1124, unless of course he had invented time-travel, which really would have put his various musical and apiaristical achievements to shame. What the carver really meant to grave was MCMXXXIV, 1934. But so it goes, and we ironise.

Below the Virgin and Child, between the two doors, we find a melancholy presence. It is either the graver scolding himself for a fudged date, or the very spirit of irony itself, worn out, worn down, tired, bored.


The world, she wants you to forget. When you forget, you are hers. And so she offers you cuvées and cigars, television, pop music, and now the internet—that ultimate engine of lotophagose oblivion. But London! London exists to make you remember! I have been trying to remember. M'hle c'hlevis o kannan zoken, klemvanus tonn ha kanaouenn. She leaves everything just lying around for you to stumble upon, like an unexplored attic, all in a mess. This is how provocative she is. This is how she shakes her hair at you, and grins wanly, out of the corner of her eye, all the while lamenting what she has lost: a considerable amount. The city and I are on the same side, against them, whoever they are. Certainly against her scheming servants, the knave and the fool, who would be her masters. Most irrelevant of the irrelevant are they! The only living stone is London herself, and we, of whom her walls are built. I will not listen to her servants, nor to the world with its hideous spectacle. In being hers I will become, I think, myself.


I have been trying to remember, no joke. I have been going to church. What, you thought I'd been wasting these months without you? We went to Easter Mass at St Paul's. Mrs. Roth did not come; but I cannot blame her, for it was so cold, and her back was in agony at the time. The sermon was rather lacklustre, and communion took forever, and the huge modern paintings were inauthentic, but all this was beside the point, because I felt like I was on safari. What was I doing there? I found myself mouthing the words to the hymns because I didn't know the music, and H., whose religiosity is perhaps a little more ambiguous than my own, mouthed along with me, because she didn't know the music either. I shook hands with perfect strangers and said Peace be with you. And where is the irony in that? How do the religious make sense of this beautiful ritual? The next week it was the same. A Dutch friend and I attended Sunday service at Austin Friars, the only Dutch church in the country, and the oldest Dutch-language Protestant church in the world, including Holland. And there the alienation was heightened: I could revel in it. Not only was I the only person in the room not to know the music—I was the only person there who couldn't understand a damned thing that was being said! The sermon went blaach blaach T. S. Eliot blaach blaach blaach The Waste Land blaach blaach Shackleton blaach blaach Emmaus, and although on reflection I could deduce the subject, the vast majority of it remained, well, double dutch. Which is not to say it lacked a fine strange music. Then we stood around the altar in a circle and looked conscientiously at the floor as the prayers were recited. Afterwards they were all terribly friendly and I felt like an ass; but my companion was delighted to be able to speak her own language, and that did please me a great deal.

I force myself into these uncomfortable scenarios not from any turn towards religion, nor out of scorn for those who believe, but because of an uneasy suspicion that I have forgotten something, an art older than irony. It is as if I want the city and her ways to conquer me a little. London exists more in her church services than in her church façades. This I know; but I am trying to understand it, also. In my ears are the bells. I strain myself, for I cannot hear Herbauge—only Nantes.