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«NATURE IN MODERNITY: CAN IT SIGNIFY? – DAVID JONES AND NATURAL OBJECTS AS SIGNS Keywords: nature, symbol, poetry, utility aesthetics, modernity, ...»

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Martin Potter



Keywords: nature, symbol, poetry, utility aesthetics, modernity, ‘the Break’.

Abstract: Since the Enlightenment nature has often been seen as a resource for exploitation rather

than as an object of wonder. A combination of utilitarian modes of thought, the growth in the

prestige of science and technology, and processes of industrialization, has favoured the tendency to view natural objects as part of a chain of utility, and to disregard other ways of understanding them. Other ways of understanding them would include the symbolic mode of understanding, the mode by which they are often understood when invoked in art works. During the early twentieth century a number of artists and writers, of whom David Jones was one, discussed the concept of ‘the Break’, a cultural break in the way natural objects have been regarded, such that at some point in modernity they have ceased to be understandable as symbols by the prevailing culture, with problematic consequences for the practice of the arts. Similar insights were discussed in the nineteenth century by writers such as Morris and Ruskin. Jones introduced to consideration of the problem a mode of theorising indebted to Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy. In this paper I shall discuss the background to Jones’ preoccupation with the concept of ‘the Break’, how he understood the concept philosophically, and how he attempted to address, in his own artistic activity, and especially in his poetry, the problems he saw as resulting from ‘the Break’ for the practice of the arts.

The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the instrumentality of nature, rather than its wonder, brought about a new attitude to natural objects, an attitude, which, according to a group of writers and artists in early twentieth-century Britain, would obstruct its holder‟s ability to understand natural, as well as simple man-made, objects as symbolic, thus producing a lack of receptivity to the arts. David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet, artist and theorist, was one of this group. They called the change in attitudes they had identified „the Break‟. This paper will explore David Jones‟ understanding of this problem, both his analysis in his essayistic work, and his attempt to overcome the problem in his poetry − concentrating on three prose works, the essays “Art and Sacrament” and “The Utile,” and the Preface to The Anathemata, and two poems, The Anathemata and “The Sleeping Lord.” However, before focusing on these specific works by Jones, I shall introduce the background to the concept of „the Break‟, as well as discussing the kind of philosophical framework which can be used, and is used by Jones, to describe the distinction between pre-„Break‟ and post-„Break‟ attitudes to natural objects.

 University of Bucharest, Romania

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In the “Preface to The Anathemata” Jones talks of how “In the late nineteentwenties and early “thirties among my most immediate friends there used to be discussed something that we christened “The Break‟‟ (“Preface” 113). He specifies that “We did not discover the phenomenon so described; it had been evident in various ways to various people for perhaps a century; it is now, I suppose, apparent to most” (113). Jones was concerned that ordinary people in the modern era were losing the ability to regard natural, and simple man-made, objects as symbolic, and, in the poem “A, a, a, Domine Deus” (Jones, The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments 9), complains that the products of technological civilisation fail to hold symbolic value even for him. A writer of an overlapping period who shared Jones” concern to restore his contemporaries capability both for wonder at nature and for appreciating the symbolism of simple objects was G. K. Chesterton, who, for example, in his essay “What I Found in my Pocket,” part of his collection of stories, Tremendous Trifles (74–8), describes how on a long train journey when he is alone, he is able to entertain himself by contemplating the symbolism of ordinary objects in his pockets, such as a penknife and matches, allowing them to evoke the wonder of important natural phenomena in the human environment, such as fire and metal, as well as to evoke elements of human civilisation. I shall return to examine how Jones analyses the phenomenon of “the Break” in the Preface of The Anathemata below, but the admission that the phenomenon was spotted earlier, at least in the nineteenth century, is supported by Colin Wilcockson, in his article “David Jones and “the Break‟‟.

He points out that William Morris talked of “this break in the continuity in the golden chain,” meaning something similar to Jones” “the Break,” in an essay “The Beauty of Life” (Morris 182), and further notes that Jones is likely to have read this passage, so may have created the term “the Break” based on a memory of it (Wilcockson 130–1). In fact, apart from Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, many nineteenth-century reactions against utilitarianism, such as those of Ruskin,1 Pugin, the Pre-Raphaelites and, later, the Aestheticists, could be seen as recognising, explicitly or implicitly, and attempting to counter, a change in the culture from the symbolic to the exploitative understanding of objects, of the kind described by Jones as “the Break.” Even early Romanticism might be interpreted as containing a protest against the enlightenment objectification of nature.

Jones and many in his circle, however, did not base on a Romantic philosophical schema their reaction against what they saw as the deleterious effects of utilitarian culture on the possibilities for artistic communication, but rather turned to derivations of Aristotelian and medieval philosophy.

Jones, after his second, post-First-World-War period at art school, associated with a number of Catholic artists, such as Eric Gill, who were heavily influenced by the neoThomism of Jacques Maritain.2 The kind of Aristotelian and Thomist distinctions worked with by Maritain, and also Jones himself, have continued to be fruitful in later 1 See Corcoran 3, 6 for the influence of Morris and Ruskin on Jones‟s theoretical writing.

2 For the influence of Maritain on Jones, see Dilworth „David Jones and the Maritain Conversation‟, but for differences in Maritain‟s and Jones‟ approach, see Williams 83.

84 University of Bucharest Review  Vol. XIV (Vol. II – new series)/2012, no. 1 (M)OTHER NATURE? Inscriptions, Locations, Revolutions developments of this philosophical tradition by thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre. The key distinction in order to understand what was meant by “the Break” is that between beings and activities viewed as containing their own internal purpose, and beings and activities (or objects and techniques) viewed as having a purpose only outside themselves.

In his essay “Art and Sacrament” Jones uses the traditional scholastic terminology when he distinguishes between intransitive and transitive activities, intransitive being those which contain their own purpose, and transitive being those only serving a purpose external to them (see Jones, “Art and Sacrament” 149). A given object may have transitive and intransitive aspects at the same time − for example an artistically produced tool. In Aristotle this distinction is behind such categorisations as liberal and non-liberal education (i.e. education for its own sake, and education for the purpose of enabling one to serve someone else and facilitate that person‟s pursuit of liberal education). Also objects for Aristotle may have their own teleology, which gives them a self-contained purpose, while they may also be usable by others. MacIntyre develops his theory of human ethics with the help of Aristotelian-Thomist teleology. For him, an understanding of the human good is dependent on a teleological view of what a human being is.

Different types of human activity can then be understood as practices with their own internal goods, which can nevertheless be subordinated to the human good generally. In MacIntyre‟s scheme, or in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition generally, a being‟s or activity‟s containing its own purpose does not mean that it has no purpose at all, or that it cannot be ordered within a higher framework of purpose. Thus artistic activities are pursued for their own sake, and contain their own goods, but pursuing them can also be part of the human good (see, for example, MacIntyre After Virtue). If this view is transferred to natural objects, the implication is that natural objects, while containing their own internal purposes, are not thereby gloriously purposeless, as a Romantic emphasis might make them, but can still be ordered to a higher purposefulness, such as a story of creation running at a supernatural level. Thus different natural objects, with their internal purposes, also have their places in a larger overall whole, and are capable of being (at least partially) understood, and of symbolising each other, or qualities they contain, or other objects or situations with which they share qualities. They also can also invoke the not wholly understood natural order of which they are part. Another contemporary theorist working at least partly in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, the theologian Catherine Pickstock, stresses the importance of recognising the unknown depths contained in each object, and the extent to which it can be partially but not finally known.

She believes that a post-Enlightenment belief that objects can be finally known robs the person who sees them in this way of his or her ability to understand them liturgically, that is, as inspiring gratitude (see Pickstock, After Writing).

So the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition allows Jones to reject the enlightenmentutilitarian approach to natural objects, which sees them as understandable through being measurable, and to be dealt with, if at all, as means to achieve human ends – he is enabled rather to regard natural objects as containing their own internal raison d’être while at the same time finding their place in a natural and supernatural order. Thus the human 85 University of Bucharest Review  Vol. XIV (Vol. II – new series)/2012, no. 1 (M)OTHER NATURE? Inscriptions, Locations, Revolutions approach to them may be, rather than to use them, to wonder at them, and to strive to understand their natures (partially rather than completely), as well as their place in a larger scheme. Their having a place in a larger scheme enables them to be signs of other beings and situations, with which they objectively share qualities.

Jones‟ essay, “Art and Sacrament,” is an important statement of his theory of art, brought to prominence recently by the extensive discussion of it in Rowan Williams‟ study Grace and Necessity, in which he describes the essay as “one of the most important pieces of writing in the twentieth century on art and the sacred” (88). As mentioned above, Jones introduces the distinction between transitive and intransitive activities early in the essay, identifying art as an intransitive activity, one which contains its own purposes (“Art and Sacrament” 149). He acknowledges an overlap between his position and the aestheticist „art for art‟s sake‟ position, although he cautions that the aestheticist „art for art‟s sake‟ motto is easily interpreted in ways which would lead to false conclusions, such as that excellence in a work of art might justify it in the face of evil consequences caused by it (151). Jones identifies human beings as the only creatures capable of creating works of art, given that they are rational animals with a supernatural end (147) and are capable of activity meant to signify rather than to achieve a practical goal: creations of animals such as nests, honey-combs and spiders webs, involve skill, and are beautiful, but are made for practical external purposes, and not to signify anything, the animals who have made them not being capable of gratuitous signifying acts (149). He goes on, in this essay, to compare works of art to church sacraments, on the basis that they both signify, and make what they signify „really present‟ in a different form (see, for example, Jones, “Art and Sacrament” 173-5). He finishes the essay by mentioning his fear that in modern conditions the potential audience for art works and sacraments is ever less able to interpret symbols, and he quotes a version of his poem “A, a, a, Domine Deus” to indicate how the products of modern industrial civilisation fail to act symbolically. The argument in this essay, though it does not focus on natural objects and how they can be understood as having symbolic value, can easily be extended in this direction: just as works of art have the potential to be understood symbolically, and are signs of something they re-present, objectively present in them, even if their audience is unable to discern their signifying quality, natural objects may have a symbolic potential, being capable of signifying other entities, and this potential of theirs may be used in work of arts and sacraments. However a population, trained in the thought patterns of utilitarian civilisation to see objects for how they can be used for external ends, may be unable to see them in terms of their non-usable, signifying qualities.

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