J is for (Modern Archaeology)

Leo Reynolds

At the Jorvik Viking Centre in 1989, the remains of the thousand-year-old village now submerged in York are displayed for our improvement and delight. A miniature train proceeds through a series of tableaux in which the inhabitants are depicted, played by lumpish, inelegant dolls, smaller than life-size, whose figures exude the strenuous physical circumstances of their real counterparts’ lives. One of the museum’s innovations is that visitors can really smell Viking food and Viking shit, emphasising that the past is unhygienic and malodourous, unlike the shining self-contemporaneity embodied by the summer of 1989. Despite the Vikings’ smell, visitors are encouraged to treat their ancient cultural peculiarities with polite respect, a respect that resembles the clenched and hateful benevolence a grown child might permit herself towards a once feared, now pathetically elderly parent. Even in the provincial museum, the ideology of progress has little room for its dead.

Later, in the gift shop, I steal a key ring to reassert my being against that of the dolls, and to symbolically re-join civilisation, from which I have been separated by my stepfather’s belief that Vikings are educational. What can we learn from these creatures, who live in open huts like farm animals, though they sailed as far as America in their primitive boats, full of zealous savagery? The key ring burns in the pocket of my red coat; it is my freedom, or, more precisely, its small quantity of freedom is an approximation of the freedom I don’t have but would like to. The object itself, however, is disgusting: a grinning little troll hangs off the metal ring, and at seven years old I have no keys of my own to attach to it.

“At JORVIK Viking Centre you are standing on the site of one of the most famous and astounding discoveries of modern archaeology. Between the years 1976-81 archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust revealed the houses, workshops and backyards of the Viking Age city of Jorvik as it stood 1000 years ago. These incredible findings enabled them to build the JORVIK Viking Centre on the very site where the excavations had taken place.”

Jorvik displays and reconstructs a settlement preserved in unexpectedly good condition in “oxygen-free soil”. The dead Vikings return in the form of their personal effects: combs, pots, shoes. Jorvik is a relic, and a reliquary; the life it evokes is the life of the dead. And yet these objects might have recalled human lives, were it not that the exhibit is populated by figurines. An inversion has taken place: the dolls, less convincing than the objects, are dumbly subservient to their tools, and the tools are charged with broken life and mastery. A strain of the present mixes with the pointless purity of the past.

The whole attraction of the Jorvik Viking Centre is concentrated in its name, and the gloomy and bad-smelling arrangements of Viking-style figurines fail to live up to its exotic promise. ‘Jorvik’ was naturalised over time into the modern English ‘York’, but the old name proves that the past remains alien, in the utterly foreign palatal pronunciation of the J and the singular K ungrounded by a polite Anglophone C. ‘York’ is a commonplace; ‘Jorvik’ is a wild and sudden fungus. The strange J has an extra, perverse charge because J is the first letter of the first names of my mother, brother and stepfather, and the first letter of the word ‘J–’, which makes it the miraculous first letter of the unspeakable. At this point I have only a confused grasp of the fragments that my mother also received as a child, and that her mother in her turn experienced as a child, so that it’s through three layers of childhood that I know what I know of what we call, somewhat dysphemistically, ‘the war’. Even now, over 20 years later, these minimal narratives feel so fiercely interpellative, at once seductive and repulsive, that they make me cringe, such as: the moment at which my grandmother and her father were turned back at the border (but which border?) because of the J (not strictly for J–, but for the German, J–) stamped in their passports. My mother hasn’t come with us to the Jorvik Viking Centre today, but she has prepared me for this and every other visit to the so-called past by making sure that I understand axiomatically that her own mother, who died before I was born, was incapable of talking about ‘the war’. By this repeated confession of her mother’s silence, my mother wants to convey to me that she intends, by speaking, to spare me the horror of silence, but, seeing as all her speaking can produce is the silence of her own mother, my mother’s speaking-of-the-unspeakable only reinforces and retransmits the feeling she got from her mother: that language conceals the horror of the unspeakable like a rock conceals its horrible underside, or like news coverage of events conceals actual events. These barely perceptible horrors gleam with the ambivalent glamour of the singular, the untranslatable.

Through maternal repetitions, an ancient settlement is forcibly installed or uncovered in me; must I make of it – a museum? But the remembered fragments, preserved in the oxygen-free soil of my mother’s anxiety, are a collection of banalities. The horror of horror is that its constitutive parts are not horror but quotidian boredom, pain, and humiliation, of the kind that is neither literary nor, properly, really accessible to any current language beyond, at best, that of the joke. Didn’t my great-grandfather understand that J meant no? Couldn’t he read? I don’t know how my mother has extrapolated from her mother’s silence detailed accounts of events such as the passport’s preventative J. The famous silence seems to have been full of narrative. But this is a mode of speech that belongs to the refugee, speech without speech, speech like a Tesco bag of drowned kittens: blank, trite, errant, kitsch, embarrassing, hard to believe. Forced departure from one’s home country is eviction from one’s mother tongue (whether or not you carry on speaking it). The displaced person’s displacement is a displacement in forms of presentation: she appears garlanded in saccharine abstractions like ‘bravery’ and ‘strength’, or she lurches around on the rough terrain of the joke. Nowhere is the displaced person a person; she is displaced from being a person. Until new methods of speaking are discovered, one is condemned to either emptily praise or pity her.

Why is the letter J the punctum of the garbled stories, the gift of shit that my mother is compelled to pass on to me? At the time of this visit to Jorvik I still have the literate child’s intense interest in the alphabet. At seven years old one is still very close in time to those first years of reading and writing in which the alphabet is constantly reiterated, A is for this, B is for that, or the lessons at school in which you sit and actually form the shape of the letters over and over, as if you were drawing, and there’s always the chance that someone will reverse the E so that it shows its teeth, or turn B into a back-to-front obscenity. I lovingly shaped each letter correctly and the only time I turned a letter against itself was when a kid next to me, say a kid I liked, would print, for example, a Q with the tail pointing the wrong way, and I would copy the mistake in a moment of longing to be able to make a mistake. A violent attachment to the alphabet is a perversion or heresy; it partly prevents the congealing of letters into bureaucratic acronyms. For children who learn to read early, there are months or even years of a strange overlap, when the alphabet is constantly repeated, even though the child has already moved on to words and whole sentences (and though in adult life the alphabet will recede almost entirely and become only an organisational method). At this point, language appears as a pixelated image; its form of appearance includes both its totality and its constituent parts.

Back to 1989, a year that drips with significance, rendering it excruciating to mention, though less so for me than 1939, which has the double tone of being both an irreparable fucking disaster and a cliché: oh, the war, oh, the J–… I can’t write it. And understand that this lacuna is not an affectation but a structural necessity. Do you like the scene in Anna Karenina in which Levin, overcome by love, writes his proposal to Kitty as a series of letters, and she, miraculously, understands the code? Notice how difficult it is for lovers, early in their love, when their love is still at stake, to utter the word ‘love’; equally, communists are strangely coy, often, about the word ‘communism’, preferring to speak more circumspectly. (And what does it mean, if it’s true that beloved words are those forbidden, that bourgeois life bans not a single beautiful noun but instead yearns in silence to say ‘nigger’ and ‘whore’?) Of course, not all disallowed words are beautiful: I rarely allow myself H– either, or its kitsch Hebrew counterpart S–. Yet a word too much loved or hated to use can be employed through the protective screen of a circumlocution, as if hired by a proxy company: “that is to say, the war”; “for example, making love”; “for example, Auschwitz-Birkenau, among other less famous sites”. The vocabulary fills up with burned and desolate places, crudely fenced; it becomes hard to say anything at all.

The mispronounced J of Jorvik, the ancient, foreign tongue that spoke it, corresponds with the J in the passport; perhaps the name Jorvik is exciting because it implies that J might stand for yes. That the alphabet might slip, collapse, fail, and with it, the story might fail too, and turn out to have been a mistake. The displacement of the letter J enunciated by the ancient, deformed, inhuman little people who populate the Jorvik tableaux is at the same degree as my own displacement in relation to the letter, because, although my mother’s name and my brother’s name and the old word ‘J–’ begin with J, mine does not; and, more generally, although we are J–, because my mother is J– and because she says so, we are also not J–: not observant of the rites. We are somewhere in between the condition of being a J– and therefore not quite a person, and the condition of not quite being a J– and therefore not quite not quite a person, which doesn’t correct the original slippage but doubles it.

If only it were possible to talk about Vikings! Because it is wrong to talk about the H– when H– Memorial Day and, say, International Cat Week are equally noted on the little branded calendars in the boardrooms of G4S, in between corporate social responsibility presentations and the latest stats on operational errors regarding which all can agree that Arabs, once dead, are less dead than whites, and dead Africans are the least dead of all. It would seem that the degree of death permitted to the dead correlates to the degree of life permitted while alive. The problem of the J­– is that they were never really alive in the first place; they were offered the chance to live, but never took it. How dead are those never born? How dead are the Vikings, especially given the Jorvik Viking Centre’s boast or threat that it will bring the past to life? Not very: though perhaps they did not know a thousand years ago that there was a strict relation between quantity of deadness and quantity of aliveness. Perhaps they had some other, more primitive system of measurement.

This present life, commensurable with death, looks back fondly on a history almost entirely emptied of historical reality. This present bleeds the past dry to shore up its own failing phantasms, and to guard the past against this vampirism you have to disguise it, through disorderly talk and atemporal spasms of pain, as something yet to happen. The figure of the Viking offers a soothing naturalisation of barbarity, as if there were one inexplicably recurring barbarity that might be summed up and dismissed with pointless injunctions either to always remember or to never repeat. But what if there are specifically forged barbarities, not just specific in their practice but in their origin? What if the grandmother’s suffering, passed down in the viral form of the troubling J, is totally specific? How, then, can it still be redeemed, if redemption is always conjoined to its other sense of exchange? It can only, surely, be creatively mispronounced, or torqued in the white heat of a revolution that also remakes or reanimates language, making the very letters shudder. But if bureaucratic savagery is not sufficient to shame history into beginning, then what is?

It’s important that the little Vikings are, firstly, disgusting, and, secondly, foreign. Jorvik is more foreign than York, even though it preceded it; the Vikings are more foreign than the current inhabitants, even though the latter are, at least in part, the former’s descendants. They are necessarily both disgusting and foreign because they show that the native is made up of the alien, like the alphabet is made up of letters, though it lives under the false sign of coherence. The alphabetical list, which is in its whole bureaucratic and belongs to offices and deportations, is at the level of its parts a spectral incantation; letters are a curse on language. York is made up of Jorvik and all other previous or intermediate permutations of the name. And Jorvik, of course, is made of York, though York had yet to exist; the future can’t be foreclosed just like that, it animates each present as a counterweight, a subjunctive. Subterranean and small as children, the Viking dolls intend to make time appear in the full banality of appearance – despite their deep impoverishment, these long ago figures whose narrow means did not, it now seems, even stretch to real flesh, so that their skin was varnish and the rest of them crude plaster.

– Hannah Black

Thanks to Sami Khatib and Sophie Yetton for their comments on earlier drafts of this text.

[ED This essay is the fourth of our installments based on the first WWBA assembly held at Hanbury Hall in London, April 2012. The assembly presented a collection of core samples (art, performances, film, music & talks) taken from our chosen theme, destruction.  For more of Hannah’s writing and information about the next assembly please follow the blog by clicking the ‘build’ button and by singing up to our email bulletin.]


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