By Judith Fitzgerald
"Art," as British poet Robin Robertson views it, "is difficult and I don't see why we should shy away from it. We live in such a disposable age that anything that needs a second thought is ignored. We are missing out on the real sustenance."
Couldn't agree more, perhaps because he and I share a passion for the work of David Jones (1895-1974) who, in our opinion, knows no equal. Jones's work is extraordinarily difficult; but, if you take your time with it and read it with deserving -- nay, demanding -- care, you incrementally discover worlds so gloriously strange and horrifyingly beautiful your life alters, inevitably for the better. (Trust me on this.)
Most won't (and don't) put in the effort, preferring their poetry transparent, easily understood and, sadly, equally forgettable in this, our terminally sound-bitten age.
Jones didn't simply craft poetry, however; he also painted (mostly watercolours); and, in his spare time, wrote voluminously about living a life infused with the glory of Art. One of his essays, "Use and Sign" (from The Dying Gaul) contains my own credo; and, alongside A Course in Miracles, raises me above worldly concerns when such turn acutely unbearable.
One of Jones's closest friends, Harman Grisewood, and yours truly became pen-pals during the latter years of his mentor's life (before email, thankfully, since seeing Harman's handwriting in the fresh was, in and of itself, an electrifying connection for me). In his last letter to me (in which he included his own lovely final poems), he assured me my work was worthy and worth it. "That is why you must not attach yourself to things of this world. They will pass; you will perish; the work will go on and on. Never forget this."
How could I? It sustains me. Perhaps, once you learn a little of Jones's "philosophy," you will understand why I believe poetry, generally, cannot and shall never cease to exist. It lives all around us, in ways we often take for granted (but, occasionally, in certain luminously transcendent moments, we recall what we thought we'd forgotten, we remember what we always intuitively knew).
Jones passionately believed in drawing a firm line between the idea of "culture" and that of "civilization." The former, felt he, encompasses the use-less or extra-utile while the latter involves the use-ful or pragmatic, so to speak. In this regard, he sythesises distinctions made by the German culture-theorist Oswald Spengler and the English art-theorist Roger Fry. Like Johann Gottfried Herder, who invented the term kultur, Spengler distinguishes between culture and civilization. Fry distinguishes between gratuity and utility.
Combining these distinctions, Jones sees gratuitous values as characterizing culture and utility as characterizing civilization.
Gratuitous acts such as goodnight kisses and gratuitous objects such as birthday cakes are innately symbolic -- and, in these instances, directly express love. Utility or efficiency is the sole value of technology and the technocrat. Utilitarian or pragmatic objects (a circular saw) and acts (fixing the basement stairs) are not innately symbolic; and, in themselves, express nothing. That is why they contribute nothing directly to culture, although they do contribute to civilisation and, so, can provide conditions conducive to culture.
The poet's poet identifies utility and gratuity as fundamental psychological categories. All human values, acts, attitudes, motives and experiences are either gratuitous or utile or a combination of the two.
Utility and gratuity co-exist in tension in every society, in every person and in every situation. However unbalanced this coexistence may be in a person or culture at a specific time, neither gratuity nor utility ever entirely loses motivating force. A psychologically healthy society is one in which gratuitous values are in approximately equal balance with the sole pragmatic value, efficiency.
Postmodern life dehumanizes because utility now far outweighs gratuity, which traditionally has been expressed in domestic rituals, religion and the arts. Today the primary emphasis of nearly all public and professional life is pragmatic, which means that civilization is thriving at the expense of culture.
(There is plenty of pop culture, of course, but that's commercial culture with the chief purpose of making money; thus it primarily comprises an expression of civilization.) Marginalized along with religion and domestic gratuity, art is unimportant in public life. (Naturally, the distinction between commercial art and art which exists primarily to be beautiful rather than to sell comes into play here.)
There exists, of course, beauty in certain modern tools, machines and weapons (such as the Stealth bomber); but, it is usually accidental and almost always non-symbolic, merely a by-product of efficiency.
Or, to conclude, as Marshall McLuhan opined in 1975, "civilization is generally antipathetic to culture, which is a matter of play." Without the gratuitous, evolution would cease to exist and we utter human (or culture-dependent) beings would revert to a barbarous age, one in which the useful is all that matters. Poetry -- praise Him -- ensures this will never happen since, despite the prevailing opinion that it bears no relevance to contemporary existence, for one moment, imagine your life without such sustaining gratuitous acts.
I would not be here preaching the gospel according to Jones; and you, Dear Readers, would not be staring at your screens reflecting upon the true value of that we generally consider "useless":
In the beginning was The Word. Hallelujah!