Ham and Eard: Ideas of Home
Toh Hsien Min goes digging for roots
By Toh Hsien Min
I'm sitting in a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Denver, listening to Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House, mainly because there's nothing else to do. It may sound strange, but it's exactly while I'm squashed up in an economy seat, somewhere in the sky above Nevada, that I think of the crowded house in an archipelago ten time-zones away, and wonder what if anything makes that house a home. To give even more context, this comes after a day in San Francisco that has ranged from the surreal to the semi-comedic. At the airport, we got into a cab whose suspensions gave us the illusion of being in a speedboat out in the bay, but as we slowed into the city, passing PacBell Park and the piers on Embarcadero, the whole surrounding area was so quiet you could hear the individual clatter of a skateboard, sharp as a shard of glass. It didn't seem quite like the super-charged centre of wheel-and-deal that numerous issues of Red Herring had brought me to expect. And then San Francisco threw another curveball. By late afternoon, it had begun to rain, lightly at first. By the time we got off the tram at Powell and I commenced an ill-advised trek to find Farallon and Aqua, it was pouring, we were getting wet in our too-summery clothes, and the wind was coming in off the ocean. "It's worse than London," I said, to none of my companions in particular.
In a recent Business Times survey, a number of young, urban professional Singaporeans were asked what made them stay in Singapore. They were given options ranging from the food to the weather to the opportunities, but a startling 44% of respondents picked the option, nothing, they couldn't wait to catch the first flight out. Another recent survey undertaken by the Economic Review Committee feedback group also found that of 153 overseas students, one in three said they would not return to Singapore upon graduation.. These two surveys touched on what must seem for Singapore like a recurring dream, that for all the government's efforts in chiselling out a national identity, many young Singaporeans do not feel a sense of belonging anymore.
There could be any number of reasons for this. The latter survey suggests that the increasingly cosmopolitan and international perspectives that our younger generations now have access to pushes them to think beyond the bounds of Singapore. (For example, it's during my travels that I ponder such issues of home and belonging.) There may be deeper sociological factors at work. Singapore's population has been historically drawn from the migrant peoples of China, India and the Malay Archipelago; they are fitted with mobile, can-do spirit, willing to go anywhere in pursuit of their dreams, in the past, now and in the future. When our government makes such mobility not only visible but obvious, in policies that encourage foreign talent, for example, it cannot help but awaken the migratory instincts of 44% of BT respondents.
However, aside from the foregrounding of this 747 aspect of modern life, I would contend that the more fundamental reason is not what the hand touches, but the very visibility of the hand. The word 'home' for many people is constituted more in the personal and familial than in the tribal and national, and when a government clearly engages, through posters and television advertisements, in the issue of home and belonging, it complicates the concepts for many.
Curiously enough, we can find a trace of this bias from the earliest roots of the English language. The word 'home' can be tracked back to the Old English 'ham', with the long vowel, which originally meant the place of one's permanent dwelling, where one could centre one's family life. For a while in Old and Middle English it also held the secondary meaning of a collection of dwellings, nothing larger than a village, from which we get the modern day 'hamlet'. But in Old English, larger concepts of home occupied other words.
One such word was 'eard', which meant homeland, domain, dwelling region or similar: something larger than a 'home'. Now I'm not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in Old English, but the most prominent occurrence of 'eard' that I know of is in the Brunanburh, a poem celebrating a battle fought by Aethelstan, the grandson of Alfred, and recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937. The end of the poem celebrates the dominance of the West-Saxons, asserting their power and rule with a nationalism of impressive truculence, rather like the sort we see on the Padang in August.
It's been translated by Tennyson thus:
My eyebrows are raised because Tennyson enjoys a reputation as one of the most nationalistic read English poets, writing in an imperial age, when Singapore was coming to the fore as one of the British Empire's most important outposts in the Far East. Enough has been made of his rewriting of the Arthurian legend, so that to note that this little verse similarly celebrates the origin of Englishness may be seen as to be trivial. Yet, I'm struck by his translation of 'eard begeaton' to the rustic and somewhat biblical 'gat / Hold of the land'.
I would have put it more strongly: "Never was there a greater slaughter of people felled by the edges of swords on this island, of which books, those old and wise ones, tell us, since from the east, Angles and Saxons came here, over the broad sea, seeking Britain; these proud warriors defeated the Welsh, earls brave of old founded a country."
There may be any number of explanations for this. It is tempting to see Tennyson's translation as the nationalistic poet accepting a more settled world order. By 1880, when this translation was published in Ballads and Other Poems, the British Empire was already a global political reality. After the transfer of the governmental functions of the East India Company in 1858, the by then de facto British Empire held sway, directly or indirectly, over vast tracts of land from Africa to India to Singapore and to Australia. At this point there was either less of a need for British-centric emphasis, or more of a need to justify the imperial impulse.
However, the truth could be more prosaic. Tennyson was not expert in Old English either although as a Tab he had a prefabricated excuse and he had to rely on his son's prose translation of the Brunanburh in the Contemporary Review of 1876 to arrive at this poem. His son Hallam had translated the last sentence as such: "When haughty war-smiths overcame the Welshmen, and earls full of the lust of glory gat hold of the land." It's likely that between him and his son, there was no recognition of the word 'eard'. As a word and as a concept, 'eard' had started to disappear during the transition between the Old and Middle English periods. For example, it appeared in the Ormulum, a Middle English poem of the late 12th Century, as 'ęrd'; the Ormulum, interestingly, has a strong sense of place, mostly by dint of its East Midland dialect, and that alone is telling. Rural dialects, as we know, had begun giving way to the capital culture by the time Chaucer came to joke about it.
So for a while I was barking up an odd collection of trees. My immediate hunch, that 'eard' could have become 'earth' was off the mark, as 'earth' apparently comes from 'eorže' (similarly, 'hearth' from 'heorže'). Nor did it become what we now know as 'yard', which is derived from 'geard'. The word 'eard' has no progeny in modern English that we know of. The closest cognate is not any of these, but the verb 'erian', meaning 'to plow', which also fell out of use; 'erian' also appears to be from the same Indo-European root as Latin 'arare', which became modern English 'arable'.
It's also interesting that the protagonists of Brunanburh are named Aethelstan and Edmund Aetheling:
because the other word usually used in Old English for 'homeland' was 'ežel' (also sometimes rendered 'ešel'), from which we get 'ęželu' ('noble descent') and 'ęželing' as above ('prince'). In other words, the notion of rule, aristocracy, royalty and ultimately nation comes, at least initially in English, from the land.
This being the case, the separate histories of these three words for 'home' shows us something of the relative priorities of the English peoples. The only word that survives is the one that refers to the smallest social unit. The two words for 'home' in the larger regional and national spheres die out, and the only vestige of them consists in the soil, which is at least as vital to the individual and family unit as to the state. It's also curious that sometime in the Middle English period, 'ham'/'home' took on a secondary meaning of 'home country' including the national concept in the personal but that this has now passed out of use again. The replacement words that we use nowadays, 'nation' and 'country', come from the Romance languages, which may be directly attributed to the Norman invasion of 1066; the former is additionally noteworthy for being related to the same 'nat-' root as 'natal'.
I don't want to make too much of this archaeological exploration, so I shall switch to an archaeology of a different kind. In his 1975 collection, North, Seamus Heaney speaks of going to Aarhus to see a mummy preserved by the bog:
This meshing of the man and the land in a matrimonial embrace is a minor stroke of genius: the man becomes part of the land, and in return the land preserves him in a symbiotic belonging. But there is something more sinister at work, first hinted at by the use of the word 'country', which, while used here in its agrarian sense, is partly rooted in the Latin 'contra', or 'against'. Into the close relationship, like an irruption (for that is the partitioned structure at work), comes the spectre of violence ("The scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers"), a violence that in the mid-1970s was very real for a Northern Irishman, very ideological and ultimately very political.
And as Heaney segues the present into the past, realising that out here in the Germanic regions where the English language finds its roots, the violence of communities of 'contrary' people, of nascent nations, against each other, has not changed. So his identification with the Tollund Man is both complete and unsatisfactory. He recognises that his own place of belonging is tied in with the national turmoil and as such loses all the positive force of such a place of belonging, to such an extent that:
In other words, Heaney there discovers what the English peoples had already discovered, that ideas of home constituted in politics or nationhood are not tenable. Yet, just a few years earlier, another English person was discovering that ideas of home constituted entirely in the environment of the self are not tenable either.
Part of the mastery in Larkin's poem is how eminently unpoetic it is. The language is bereft of adornment, withering, dull even, and when visual detail comes in it comes already soaked in the prejudice of the preceding lines. Home will always speak of the unfulfilled, predicated as it were on the instability of the self, much as Carl Dennis observes of the God who loves us:
When we see how "the last to go" is even threatening, that's the clincher for many people: Bridget Jones half-eaten by an Alsatian.
So home occupies a middle ground. We don't say, 'I feel at home on 17100 Monte Bello Road', or 'I feel at home in a Conservative government.' We say, 'I feel at home in New York / St John's Wood / Singapore.' There is always a sense of an intermediate environment. I use 'intermediate' advisedly, because of the dynamic relationships we have with our environment. Yet if I can speak of dynamic relationships with the environment, perhaps these relationships themselves should come under scrutiny. The French, who are always examining the relationships between people and ideas, appear to support me in this: the French word for property is "immobilier", which carries enough of its flavour into English, and although the French for home would be properly something like "maison", the other word that may come to mind is "chez", which, strictly speaking, includes the dative. A word that carries these relationships with it! And the relationships are aporectic ones. For example, one cannot conclude relationships of necessity to home (at least, not on any more than an individual level), but equally one cannot postulate its opposite. It's quite like the scene in Das Rheingold where Wotan proclaims how every living being desires to wander and change at the same time as he has Fasfolt and Fafner build his Valhalla for him.
For the youngest generations of Singapore, aporia is becoming the defining theme of our relationships towards our intermediate environment. One reason Tan Hwee Hwee's Mammon Inc. made as much of an impact as it has is because it strikes at a key preoccupation of many of her generation. "It's obvious we'll never fit into Singaporean society, or any society, for that matter," she has one of her characters say. "We're freaks, mutant hybrids of East and West like trans-cultural X-men. So forget fitting in. Why don't we get out of this place and look for other freaks like us?" If our environment is a "construction from spare parts", as one of our more eloquent poets puts it, who bar the insensate and the postmodern ironist will find a home here? If you look around and see throngs of people with whom you feel no spiritual kinship, if you feel the weight and oppressions of nationality without the uplift, if you have two-and-a-half years of your life taken away for a crime you did not commit, if you feel oppressed by a majority even if you cannot define who that majority is, if you have no sense of land, if whatever emotional bond you feel for the place is slowly being wiped out by the URA and the neverending urge for 'progress' where's Taman Serasi, where's Bidadari, where's Rochester Park headed? so that you start wondering what this country has to forget and what it is ashamed of, then you have little chance of finding a home where you look around. You cannot feel that you belong. In other words, Singapore becomes just like any other spot in the world. Nothing more. In which case, why put up with the weather, the humidity, the mould growing on books and CDs, the drought of manners, the high cost of living, the price rises after every election, the patronising government and the narrow-mindedness?
I shall not answer that in any more definite a way knowing how much I am already pressing down on the aporia I argue on the side of than to refer to social historian Theodore Zeldin, who in An Intimate History of Humanity writes that "more and more people are becoming abnormal, and are not fitting neatly into a single civilisation. [The analysis] suggests that normal people should be proud of the civilisation into which they are born, because they need roots and self-esteem. Nevertheless, the dramatic action arises from the disappointment of those who have not personally tasted the full delights of their civilisation, who see no chance of influencing its evolution, whose family, as far back as they know, have been excluded from most of what civilisation offers and who complain that admiring the great figures of their civilisation do not do very much to make them feel fulfilled". If that is the case, then it would be useful to approach the question of necessity in a different way. Although what Zeldin goes on to say, "It is odd to say that humans need roots as to say they need foliage Applied to humans, this means that it is not just where they come from that matters, but where they are going, what kind of curiosity or imagination they have, and how they use it, both by day and by night", might appear to be an argument against the necessity for the idea of home, I would put it instead that Zeldin is contending not only that home is only as necessary as one makes it, but also that it can be what one makes it to be. And this makes the third and final Zeldin statement I shall draw up all the more tragic than it already is. "The world is still full of people who, though they have no recognised slave masters, see themselves as having little freedom, as being at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, or of their circumstances and whose personal ambitions are permanently blunted thereby." It is tragic because of the failure of perception, or the failure of imagination. It is tragic because for such people home has become quite the opposite of what it ideally is. Home is not the place where, in Frost's words, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but the place where you let yourself be taken in, where you receive injustice and oppression, because you feel that there is nowhere else you can go. In this case, Heaney's words become literal rather than figurative: "I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home."
With thanks to Ralph Hanna and Leonard SchwartzQLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002