...And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
- Coleridge, Kubla Khan
I am reading a PhD for examining. Interesting, applying cognitive poetics to post-colonial poetry in the hope of arriving at a deeper understanding of both the poetry and the condition of post-colonialism.
I cannot say anything about the dissertation itself but was stopped for a moment when it talked of indigenous people being forced off ancestral lands. I began to think about ancestral lands. And, inevitably, about colonialism too.
First, I wondered about my own ancestral lands. As a Central European Jew I cannot think of any place that would be mine or ancestral, unless perhaps Israel, though heaven knows when my ancestors last set foot there. I don't know the names or locations of my ancestors more than three generations back. All I know is that they didn't stand still. They drifted about Moravia, Bohemia, Transylvania and Hungary, and heaven knows where else. Now they were here, now there. Ghettos, shtetls and pogroms, I suppose. And so it went on for centuries.
My sense of ancestral lands is what Eliot describes in Gerontion:
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
Very Chagallesque, don't you think, those goats in the field overhead? Lovers float in the sky, there are the soulful eyes of cows and, look, there through the window, rises the Eiffel Tower with a cockerel crowing behind it. I am squatting on the window sill, squatting I suppose, on other people's ancestral lands, with only my lower case j to keep me company, regarding patched and peeled London, thinking of rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron and merds, particularly merds, while the weather continues charming.
How many of us actually have ancestral lands? How far back do you go? Four generations? Five generations? Few people in Europe have had that stability, not since industrialisation. And before that there were other movements, trade movements, war movements, plague movements, pilgrimage movements, a great whirlwind of peoples blowing through fields and streets.
That seems to me one of the ur-patterns of life. Movement and dream and parting and arrival. Millennia of it. Even the Arabs, whose ancestral lands are part of the PhD thesis, are, the thesis tells us, ancient wanderers.
Now I don't know which is better. Long, stable, unchanged communities (shall we say five generations? six? seven?) or stray and windblown. The catalysed or the catalysers? The soil or the pollen?
Being of the pollen I can't always see the fuss about the soil. The making of the English landscape has been well documented. Look, let's build a hill! Let's divert a river! Elsewhere, another time, people were shifting sand and stone, putting up pyramids or cathedrals. Is that Ozymandias in the distance? On this spot I planted a cherry tree. On this spot perished my paternal grandfather. Or was it another spot?
I can't always see the fuss but I understand human distress and how being uprooted after years of stability causes distress. Broken movements, broken dreams.
Colonialism didn't suddenly just happen. It wasn't specifically a European capitalist venture. The human race has moved and made camp, displaced, absorbed, then moved on again. Some camps just last longer.
There was no Eden, no Paradise.
Except in our minds, because we make such places there, and understand the importance of Eden to those who have dwelt there, in some real space, real location, their minds lodged between the material and the imagined. There they lived with each other, protecting each other, talking to each other, singing to each other, every so often swearing at each other and even killing each other, like all tribes do, dividing and uniting, looking on this or that tree thinking: that's part of me, that is. That is part of us, the descendants of the ancestors. And they said and sang this in the ancestral language. And some of them moved on and some of them stayed for a while, and the language modified and absorbed the languages of those they displaced or were displaced by.
Meteors and shooting stars and bits of rock: moss, stonecrop, iron and merds. All things peeled and patched. Meanwhile the mind proposes numbers and sentences and music.
It is dark outside, and cold. I know this small town quite well. I am very fond of it. The desk-light has an intimate glow. This is where I live and where my ancestors lived. Desks, and lights, the intimate glow. And the language of that brief intimacy. C with me, now upstairs, moving a chair about. Son T currently in Ireland, in Cork tonight. H and her husband R preparing to move to Norfolk three days from now. And outside, the Chinese family with the struggling take-away, and the old man with the chewed up face in the betting shop who has been standing in its doorway as long as I can remember.