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World War One (Parenthetically)

January 14, 2015


Odd how the associative process works.  After I was burgled last week I was forced to dig out a very elderly computer whose keyboard has seen better days.   In fact, the keyboard was unable to actually deploy parentheses.  Those keys were stuck – along with the numbers nine and zero.   As a consequence I was unable to express myself parenthetically for an entire week.  This was probably good for me and forced me to be more assertive.  (Incidentally, I have now acquired the loan of a superior machine and I can parenthesise to my heart’s content.)   But the incident got me thinking about parentheses more generally.  (I love this new keyboard, mind,  I can parenthesise 90 times a day if I want.)

I got to thinking about David Jones’ modernist World War One masterpiece In Parentheses.  I read it as an undergraduate student and haven’t read it since.  I remember being vaguely impressed but unmoved by it at the time.  While travelling to Oxford and back (bereft of a parenthetically competent computer) I re-read it and my experience was very different.  This time, I found the book not only logical but profoundly moving.  Whereas as a student it seemed to me like an over-extended exercise in obscurantism, now every word seemed necessary and urgent.

Why the second very belated reading should have been so different I’m not sure.  I know I’m not cleverer or a more sensitive reader now than I was then.  Perhaps the background of constant WWI centennial commemoration has made me more alert to its pathos – though I doubt it.  I suspect that I may just be a little more patient than I was as a younger man – that I’m more inclined to defer judgment.

It’s notable that the big ol’ canonical modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce) etc. were profoundly affected by World War One – but did not fight in it.  Those writers who did fight in it were not modernists (Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owed, Tolkien)  The great exception to this rule is David Jones – a modernist master of historical and cultural synthesis, one who tapped all available mythologies and made them new – and someone who fought in the trenches and made those trenches his theme.

David Jones has a number of handicaps from the point of view of literary celebrity.  Jones wasn’t networked as well as he might have been and he was also younger.  He’s a high modernist in some ways but in others he’s more of a contemporary of Auden’s.  And then there’s his disappointingly dull name.   Having the most common name in Wales doesn’t make for a handy mnemonic and risks confusion with the tiny one out of The Monkees or even with David Bowie’s real name.

In Parentheses is a miracle of description from the little man’s perspective.  At times, it’s almost Chaplinesque.  The long marches closer and closer to the front line are dramatically rendered and the confused fears and physical exhaustion is keenly felt.  Equally evocative is the count down to the doomed attack at the end of the poem, the immensity of the Somme rendered personal and detailed.

And the “obscurity” of the poem – its endless historical, literary and mythological allusions end up being part of the modesty rather than the pomposity of the narrator.  These endless patterns are sketched and broken and reforged because this is a conflict in which nobody knows what’s going on.  Soldier’s know that they are part of something that is unimaginably vast and which may well kill them and they also know that nobody they know seems to have any sense of an organising explanation for what’s happening.

In Parenthesis offers the obscurantism of honest ignorance from an ordinary human being who is at the same time a hopelessly narrative animal.  Celtic mythology kicks in not because the poet, or the soldier (or any admixture of the two) is trying to show off but because in extremis a story-telling animal will reach for any mythological material at hand to try (unsuccessfully) to make sense of their surroundings.

As a younger man, I read Jones and gasped.  Now I reread it and sob.  I need to reread a bunch more stuff.

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