Monday, December 9, 2013

The Anathemata, David Jones and does it or ought it.


The Anathemata

First thoughts. Which I may well regret later.

In his Preface,  Jones states “for the artist the question is ‘does it’ not ‘ought it’”.  But The Anathemata rides on an “ought’.  And that ‘ought’ is a very dubious way of thinking about words.

The preface is not a logical and concise argument. I’m not sure if what passes as the argument works, but I do know that at its heart is a failure to make an important distinction between literary allusion (what words do in texts) and what individual words can do in the language.

To some readers no allusions are obscure; to others all are. When Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi”, given his readership it is unlikely that he felt a need to explain who they were, or what the three trees on the hill, the white horse, or the men dicing for clothes alluded to. Today the poem needs footnotes, and even in an Anglican school I have given up using it. 

Jones, quoting C.S.Lewis calls this  “unshared background” and implies that his footnotes can “open this up”.  So if you have read the Mabinogion before you start on Jones.  you don’t need to  be told who Branwen is. Her name evokes a situation  and a story. If you haven’t read it, the footnote can tell you who she was and where to find her story. That much is straightforward. The question that goes begging is what is the effect of an allusion which context does not explain,  on someone who didn’t know the story before reading and what happens with that association after they’ve looked it up.  
This problem is universal when writing poetry and hoping your readers know some of the poems you do.  Jones like Pound, had been down some fairly obscure rabbit holes and was unlikely to meet anyone who would know the same combination of obscure texts as he did.

However, Jones takes the argument one step further and here I think ‘ought to’ kicks in. For Jones, the word Wood, carries in it the meaning “wood of the cross” and a whole spiders web of linked associations the word ‘wood’ will evoke.

For this to work Jones has to believe that a word is not just a polysemic sign which is given meanings by current usages, but somehow a fixed object like a weathered stone which contains all its prior meanings and usages, and all their historical connotations, and that personal or contemporary usages are somehow drowned by the cultural and historical. But who associates loaf with Lord, or Music with dream? Cross might well evoke Calvary or Crusaders (or both) for Christian readers, but it might also evoke childhood memories of Mummy being cross or learning how to cross the road, or dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, or Hot cross buns or riding a cock horse and those might be much more present for a reader than the religious or historical.  

The sound represented by the letters CROSS does not automatically explode onto the mind the mental image of Calvary. Nor is it capable of doing so without a great deal of help. (In Eliot’s poem the three trees evoke Calvary because they are at the end of the (then well known story) story that begins with the Birth the Magi have come to witness. In that context three trees is not random nor can they stand for an ancient Celtic fertility cult. Sorry Robert)

But if the idea is problematic with English usage Jones’ desire to apply it to foreign words takes it even further.  His argument is dodgy.

Or to give a concrete instance: whether within its context my use of the Welsh title ‘Gwledlig’ was avoidable and whether the English translation ‘land-ruler’ could have been so conditioned and juxtaposed as to incant what ‘Gwledig’ incants . The ‘grave problems’ referred to a few paragraphs back have mostly arisen over questions of this sort. It must be understood that it is not a question of ‘translation’ or even of ‘finding an equivalent word’, it is something much more complex. ‘Tsar’ will mean one thing and ‘Caesar’ another to the end of time.   

Last things first. Words do change their meanings and they shed old ones. Lord and Dream are good examples.  So there is no way of knowing what a word will mean at the end of time. Ironically Gwledig is also an inconvenient and probably unintentional example. It’s given twice in my Welsh Dictionary.  Jones’s usage is marked as obsolete or archaic.   The modern meaning  is given as ‘rural rustic boorish’.  So the word does not mean one thing til the end of time and a modern Welsh reader might find the whole thing as confusing as non Welsh speakers.

Secondly,  Branwen exists as a character in a story which gives the sign a (reasonably) stable resonance and meaning.  Tsar,  Caesar and Kaiser are words in the language. They may all have the same root but in English we don’t write about Julius Tsar or Kaiser Peter the Great, not do we talk about Caesar Bill.  Unless we’re Monty Python or the Goons.  Whatever their origins in other  languages,  we use them differently in English and meaning is always about context and usage.  

While this might seem to support the argument, English speakers don’t use the word Gwledig. It has no meaning for a modern English Speaker.  Having to explain a specific archaic meaning of a foreign word in a footnote does nothing except question why the foreign word was used in the first place.  I think Jones’ poem, like a lot of the Later Cantos, degenerates into a private language. These words may have had powerful associations for him. Whether or not is it possible to make such eclectic meanings available to anyone else is a question  I don’t know the answer to yet.

So currently I think Jones’ text relies far too heavily on a theorised “ought to” and the real question for the reader if they can side step the usual modernist intimidation is,   “does it?” 

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