David Jones: Christian modernist? Conference in Oxford Sept 10-13th

Okay, I don’t attend conferences nor do I usually give them any kind of publicity but on this occasion I’m going to do both because it seems that Jones’ work must reach a bigger readership and this conference may give things a push in the right direction.

The details are here and this is the blurb Which I’ll then take some issues with:

‘Modernism’ in literature and the arts is associated with cultural and political rebellion, ‘making it new’ through formal experimentation, and a widespread drive towards a regenerated New Era of human history. For many modernists, Christianity stood for a bygone era to be overcome; the reactionary, dead hand of the past.
Yet David Jones’s art, poetry and cultural theory subvert this neat dichotomy. He was a Catholic convert with a deep appreciation of the Church’s ancient liturgy and tradition; but he also conceived his Catholicism as a mode of cultural ‘sabotage’ and a sign of ‘contradiction’. His art and poetry is palimpsestic and fragmentary, inspecting ruins and traces, endlessly fascinated by dense, half-inaccessible layers of meaning stretching back through past cultures into the pre-history of human sign-making. Yet his theory of human culture as sign-making centres on Christ’s entry into the world of signs, epitomised in the Eucharist. Jones saw himself as living in an epoch in which man’s vocation as artist was being twisted out of shape by a technocratic, capitalist civilization obsessed with utilitarian means and ends. The modern artist therefore was a Boethius, shoring up the surviving fragments of the past to make a bridge into a different, regenerated future; a vision which helped Jones to assimilate a wide range of experimental modernist work which, like his own, looked both backwards and forwards at the same time.
This conference will examine the paradox of Jones the ‘Christian modernist’. Does the very concept of cultural ‘modernism’ perhaps need reassessment when confronted with his example? How is his experimental art, poetry and cultural theory relevant to theology? How does his work relate to the theological controversies of his day, especially the ‘modernist crisis’ within the Catholic church and beyond? How does the influence of other modernist art, theory and literature interact with Christian influences (whether theological or artistic) in his work? What was Jones’s influence upon other thinkers and creative artists, both those who shared his religious views, and those who did not? And is his complex vision of human beings as makers and artists who participate in divine creativity through their sign-making – while also hiding this from themselves – still relevant today? Or should it rather be analysed as a product of its time, an unfortunate idealisation that at one point even led Jones to affirm a limited sympathy for the ‘fascist and Nazi revolutions’?
It is the aim of this conference to confront the paradoxes and pleasures of reading and studying Jones head-on, in order to refine and extend our critical vocabulary to encompass an artist, poet and thinker who continues to challenge our preconceptions. Finally, perspectives that challenge the fruitfulness of the whole idea of Jones as ‘Christian modernist’ are also welcome. Are there reasons for steering clear of both terms? Is Jones’s work perhaps better seen as transcending or collapsing such categories?

I think the longer work needs be read and re-read and that we should perhaps pay a little bit more attention to what Jones said it was about in his prefaces. This might give us an indication of where to start, for me (personally, subjectively, tentatively) Jones is primarily a memorialist of our cultural and historical past. I recognise that because of his use of form he’s been co-opted into the modernist gang and that there is a lot of God in both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata but none of this has much meaning for me. My main concern is whether it’s any good and whether I’ll enjoy reading it. Needless to say, it is and I do.

What both works do for me is challenge and extend my view of friendship, of times spend in terrible circumstance and of my own cultural heritage and the beliefs and personal liturgies that are important to me. I have no idea how other people react but it’s those elements that I’d like a grown-up discussion about.

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