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The Anathemata, David Jones

I’ve read only a little of The Anathemata and understood less, even though Jones provides a commentary that explains a good chunk of the allusions in the text. W.H. Auden’s article on it gives an idea of the scope involved. It also quotes Jones’s eloquent rationale for the many languages and references that he uses:

The poet may feel something with regard to Penda the Mercian and nothing with regard to Darius the Mede. In itself that is a limitation, it might be regarded as a disproportion; no matter, there is no help—he must work within the limits of his love. There must be no mugging-up, no “ought to know” or “try to feel”; for only what is actually loved and known can be seen sub specie aeternitati. The nurse herself is adamant about this: she is indifferent to what the poet may wish to feel, she cares only for what he in fact feels.

The words “May they rest in peace” and the words “Whosoever will” might by some feat of artistry, be so juxtaposed within a context as not only to translate the words “Requiescat in pace” and “Quicunque vult,” but to evoke the exact historic over-tones and under-tones of those Latin words. But should some writer find himself unable by whatever ingenuity of formal arrangement or of contextual allusion to achieve this identity of content and identity of evocation, while changing the language, then he would have no alternative but to use the original form…. 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.

The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.

Jones’s self-consciousness here is surprising, given the monk-like description that he usually merits. He seems to presuppose a reasonably objective and specific set of “historic over-tones and under-tones,” then admits that the objectivity is a product of a “static culture.” He wants access to the signs of multiple static cultures of the past, but says, I think, that he is not certain that he can recontextualize them because he does not feel he himself exists in a culture with enough constant (static) signs. It’s debatable whether this dislocation is the product of his own willful alienation from contemporary culture, or whether his aims are fundamentally incompatible because culture is truly losing the reference points that he needs for his work. (I intuitively lean towards the former, but I haven’t read the whole book….)

But if he’s right that his book is not actually “makeable”, if The Anathemata is not only anachronistic but pointless, the result is trivia of the sort that fills the books of Marguerite Young, William Gaddis, and so many modern poets. Very high-quality trivia, but, in Jones’s view, devoid of the required resonance with the static signs, because they don’t exist in the necessary quality and quantity. Trivia of the type satirized by Stanislaw Lem in “Gigamesh”, a fake review of a Joycean monster of a book containing its own commentary twice the length of the novel:

Hostile reviewers say that Hannahan [the author] has produced the largest logogriph in literature, a semantic monster rebus, a truly infernal charade or crossword puzzle. They say that the cramming of those million or billion allusions into a work of belles-lettres, that the flaunting play with etymological, phraseological, and hermeneutic complications, that the piling up of layers of never-ending, perversely antinomial meanings, is not literary creativity, but the composing of brain teasers for peculiarly paranoiac hobbyists, for enthusiasts and collectors fanatically given to bibliographical digging. That this is, in a word, utter perversion, the pathology of a culture and not its healthy development.
Excuse me, gentlemen–but where exactly is one to draw the line between the multiplicity of meaning that marks the integration of a genius, and the sort of enriching of a work with meanings that represents the pure schizophrenia of a culture? I suspect that the anti-Hannahan group of literary experts fears being put out of work.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you bringing the David Jones of The Anathemata and the Stanislaw Lem of A Perfect Vacuum together, I have longed for that juxtaposition.

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