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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Ham and Eard: Ideas of Home
Page 2

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:

Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.

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:

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

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.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

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:

It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday
Driving home from the office, content with your week –
Three fine houses sold to deserving families –
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.

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 Schwartz

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


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  Other Essays In This Issue

Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
By Gui Wei Hsin.

Uncertainty and Scepticism in Arthur Yap
By Cyril Wong.

Related Links

Business Times
External link.

Old English Pages
External link to Georgetown University.

Old English resources
External link to Voice of the Shuttle.

Tennyson's translation of the Brunanburh
External link to the University of Toronto.

Seamus Heaney's Nobel Lecture
External link to the Swedish Academy.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood reads Philip Larkin's 'Home is so Sad'
External link.

Carl Dennis's 'The God Who Loves You'
External link to Poetry Daily.

Mammon and the Discipline of Writing

Profile of Theodore Zeldin
External link to Findarticles.


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