Wednesday, 11 July 2018


Dawson and The White Stones

One of the poems in The White Stones is based on the story of a mediaeval missionary to China printed in a book edited by the historian Christopher Dawson. Dawson was also a friend of David Jones from the 1920s on, and one of the 50 influences cited by him in the introduction to The Anathemata.
The book is The Mongol Missions and it was published in 1955. The translator is an anonymous English nun. I am using a download of the American edition, Mission to Asia. The book includes the narrative of “John of Plano Carpini” (there are other ways of reproducing this place-name) who set out on his mission to the Mongol court in 1240. The poem is 'Frost and Snow, Falling' and has “On the 9th of May, 1247 they began their home journey”, which is a quotation from p. xv of Dawson's introduction to the volume (American edition by Harper Torchbooks). To be exact they reached Batu's camp on 9th May and waited there a month before receiving Imperial permission to travel.
At the first sighting on the horizon, it seems possible that there is an ideological link, and that Dawson's ideas were somehow taken up by Prynne and offer an overlap between two generations of great poetry, Jones and Prynne. Less than a second later, I imagine, this starts to seem utterly unlikely. Dawson was a Catholic historian whose positions were a reaction to Spengler's, but who was mainly a professional historian, not a theorist, and whose abilities as a thinker were modest – inhibited by an English diffidence and dislike of abstractions which was not eased by his loyalty to the Church of Rome (and the very limited scope it allowed to original thought by men not in holy orders). 'Frost and Snow' draws on the original 13th C text of Piano Carpini and not at all on original work by Dawson. So, in doing this piece of research, I am expecting to neutralise the idea that there could be a link between Prynne and Dawson (and indeed Jones, Spengler, and Catholic theorists of the decay of Western civilisation). It seems at first glance that Prynne, writing 'Frost and Snow, Falling', was interested in the high snowfall deep inside the Eurasian land mass, and the causal basis of farming, and culture thriving on its surplus production, in a climate which had less snow and did not freeze the seed of any arable crop in the ground. Peasant economy, and feudalism, and the Catholic Church, therefore had an eastern edge, and Carpini travelled beyond it.

A phrase from Letter to the Ephesians

Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon” is a non-Biblical phrase which appears in Dawson's 1939 book Beyond Politics and again in David Jones' poem The Narrows. Dawson is re-translating this from the Greek: Ephesians 6:12 in the King James version has:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against.
But there is a longer version:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the lords of this age, rulers of this darkness, against spiritual
- as there are two different versions of this text on-line. It is my bad luck to hit on a verse which exists in two different forms. The Greek version I have does not have the extra phrase, but there must be some basis for it. The Douay-Rheims English version is For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” This is the standard Catholic translation and Dawson was probably referring to this longer text (whatever language he used).
The Greek Testament I have says kosmokratoras tou skotou tou. The word aeon is not in this Greek text and the 'darkness' is evidently spiritual darkness. It is credible that the idea of the visible world as being a snare is a Gnostic element picked up by Paul at a moment when Gnosticism was not clearly divided from Christian doctrines. Dawson's injection of the word “aeon”, one of the keywords of Gnostic thought, is a puzzling echo of this. If this world is ruled by the powers of darkness, it is not in the hands of God – and our senses are giving us wrong information. Christ was incarnated into a hostile cosmos. This is Gnostic. The darkness (skotos) can only be the flooding of the senses with deceitful information.
What did Dawson mean? He was certainly thinking of human, secular powers, and these were probably any technocratic and inorganic power, not just the totalitarian States of the 1930s.
It was his luck to provide tiny pieces which were picked up by two great poets.

'The Narrows' was not published during Jones' lifetime but was included in The Roman Quarry, a volume taken from his archive, which did not include the Notes which all the Faber books had. It is a monologue of a Roman soldier and includes that phrase from Dawson's 1939 book and relates to the English Channel as a barrier against invasion – so a composition date of around 1940, with German invasion being actively feared, seems credible. His character foresees wars:

Still more, and internecine too,
when the cosmocrats of the dark aeon
find themselves
wholly at a loss
in the meandered labyrinth of
their own monopolies.


Reading Dawson, it seems likely that Jones' version of the “cosmocrats” was the financial powers which ran the Empire, owned it, kept the profits from it, and that his interpretation of the phrase was anti-capitalist. The critique must include the forces of war – both the technology which makes modern war so cruel, the governments whose policies favour it, the armaments cartels which were so often discussed back then, and the unholy alliance of press interests and public passions which gave militarism its chance.
The most accurate reading of Ephesians 6:12 is as about invisible, spiritual, malign powers. That is a kind of Christian occultism. Paul says they are not of flesh and blood. There is almost no chance that Jones read the verse in this way. He was a 20th century man. However, he was concerned with the spiritual history of mankind and his interest in secular politics, income distribution, legislation, etc. should not be exaggerated.
The triple invocation of Powers is cast in terms sounding like Court ceremonial, and for that reason I suspect that the original is a spell of conjuration (since these were calqued on Court honorifics and means of address), and that the author of Ephesians had heard some of these spells. These are terms of flattery. It is amusing to compare them with the titles of offices at the Welsh Court which Jones picks up in two passages of The Sleeping Lord. There is indeed a Welsh tract which describes the officials of the court and their duties (“the Notitia of degrees and precedences”, he calls it). It is the kind of thing which nationalists stare at while thinking how there were no more Welsh courts after the completed English conquest, so 1282 at latest. The old Welsh poetry was full of flattery and attribution of titles takes up a large part in it. When Jones reels off “penmilwyr, aergwn, aergyfeddau, cymdeithiau yn y ffosydd, cadfridogion, tribuni militum”, he is re-enacting a central function. This whole passage has an occult echo of “powers, principalities, cosmocrats of the dark aeon”.
So much in the new thought of around 1918-1940 derives from Spengler. He more or less invented cultural criticism. But very little of it agrees with him – it was generally a reaction against him.


Christopher Dawson

The key thing in Dawson, for Jones, is the long chronological span – he sees the last two thousand years as one era and definitely regards the high Middle Ages, with the unbroken Catholic orthodoxy and the acknowledged power of the church, as the best time. In fact, his first book, The Age of the Gods, describes the origins of European culture in the 1st millennium BC, again with the realm of the divine as something real and autonomous from which anything to do with art and philosophy derives as a secondary expression. The Dividing of Christendom deals with the modern centuries, less interested in the development of cities, printing, manufacturing, and so on, than in the loss of religious unity, which for him is the supreme descriptor of the whole era. He does not seem interested in the much earlier division of the Eastern Church from the Western. He sticks to the version of historical events accepted by other Western scholars, so that his original thought is not given much space in the books and has to be worked out from the unstated assumptions. Thus Beyond Politics is not a demand for the end of democracy, although he says that there is no point in having more than one party, because they cancel each other out, and that totalitarianism is better than “heresies and sects”, i.e. Protestantism, because it offers spiritual unity. He is completely preoccupied with unity, and this alone would make it hard for him to develop any original ideas without being overcome with guilt.
When he writes about the Mongol Khanate, he singles out certain tribes near Mongolia who were already Christian, and only reluctantly discloses that they are Nestorian and not Catholic. He is unhappy about the differences between Europe and Inner Asia and looks forward to them disappearing as a result of a Catholic mission – this is the theme of the book. The idea of focussing on the differences between Europe and the semi-arid steppe, of tracing features of social organisation back to the economic and climatic base, is quite alien to him. Dawson wants to define societies through their religions, and the effects on art and law of religion, and has no interest in sociology as a possible factor in history.
Dawson is writing in Beyond Politics in response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. He is definitely against it, although too kind a man not to find positive features in it. He is definitely not asking for the abolition of democracy in favour of some kind of Catholic corporatism offering firm leadership from above and the benevolent silencing of secular culture. He talks wistfully about the corporatist state in Austria as a “Catholic experiment”; the Schuschnigg regime (after the assassination of Dollfuss, its founder) is generally classified now as fascist (“Austro-fascist”) but as Dawson does not seem to know any details about it we can pass by this as just a muddled and inchoate lapse. Dollfuss abolished the parliament in March 1933.
His writing on the Middle Ages sees them as a period of unity. If we look at 10th century Europe, we see above all a decentralised region with poor roads, few towns, and an amazing diversity of languages and dialects. Diversity is the most obvious feature. If Dawson sees only unity, it is because he is attentive only to a tiny educated elite, who use a standard Latin and communicate with each other in writing, also bound into a corporation, what we call the Church. His belief in unity seems strikingly wrong. This is a colonial view of Europe, through the eyes of a corporate group with shared assets. He does not regard the other 99.5% of the population, the ones who did not know Latin, as valid interlocutors. He is projecting unity based on the religion he belongs to and on a language which he learnt at school, and is disqualifying at every step anything which speaks any other language or is not part of religious activity. If you scrap the evidence, what is left is homogeneous and must have unity. It looks as if he is exchanging legal fictions, generalised ideals, for real and local experience. The differences between Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse cultures, as recovered from their surviving literatures, suggest profound regional differences even in one part of north-west Europe.
His 1939 book is interpreting 1930s Europe in the same terms, where differences between classes and parties in a country, or between different countries, are disastrous. To sum up, Beyond Politics is a flimsy work, unsystematic, muddled, and without one significant new idea. He gives much space to coronation as the way in which Catholic ethics could seize control of the secular power, but gives no reason to think that this would have any practical effect at all – more, because he is talking about Britain the Catholicism is irrelevant.
The most original idea in the book is about an organization in the intellectual world which would integrate it in the way that the Church organizes spiritual life – as the Press is too influenced by the government and by capitalists. He really wants every book to say the same thing – again, he is dominated by the idea of unity and seems unfamiliar with the idea that innovation, free contest between competing views, speculation, or debate, can possibly produce anything of worth. No, everything was already there in the 12th century. Anything new is division. He doesn't make clear what form this normative and corporate organisation would take. I would like to know more about this, but my guess is that it had no substance and nobody else picked it up. (It was a time when writers were forming associations.) I would suggest that the knowledge economy is protected, not by a bureaucracy separate from the researchers, but by intellectual standards which have been internalised by them. If we skip ahead to the 1950s, civil society is often preoccupied by intellectual method, as highlighted by ideologies, Fascist, Marxist or indeed Catholic, which threaten both the quality of knowledge and civil society. This method actually is an organisation for scholars and journalists. It allows the free competition of ideas. Dawson, though, really seems disturbed by the idea that two books could say different things. We do all have internalised standards (which amount to an “institution”) but one of those is that we all write different books! Dawson's dislike of this is almost a neurological style – the idea of reading more than one historian, of having more than one political party, makes him uncomfortable, it is discord and ill-health. In the 1920s, the disaster of the Great War has discredited authority, and every inherited idea is being challenged. One kind of young person thrives on this, loves the new modernist art. Another kind hates it and wants a return to authority and classicism as quickly as possible.
Dawson basically wants the abolition of political parties, but has strong anglocentric inhibitions which prevent him from reaching a conclusion on this and indeed from writing in a logical way.
The impact of The Making of Europe and The Age of the Gods was partly their sense of the very long chronological scale. This may show up in Jones' poems where history reaches a crisis or turning-point, where a thousand years concentrate in a single moment. But it seems also that this very long perspective was helped by his indifference to change or to local effects: he wasn’t interested in the differences between between different European countries or different centuries and his books prefer not to register them. He did see links between some institution in the 3rd century and some process in the 12th century. This narrative is blank and epic at the same time.


Frost and Snow

The passage of Carpini quoted in the poem is at page 70 of the Mission to Asia book.
The idea is that every sedentary society is the same, and that the alternative, of wandering, is the opposite which makes every feature of sedentarism become apparent – losing inevitability to become a suitable subject for reflexive knowledge. “The wanderer with his thick staff […] he is our only rival.” The nomad is illiterate, no nomad society has ever had much to do with writing, and a scrounger – he cannot store food because he only has what he can carry. The poem belongs with a number of others in The White Stones as reflections on the end of the Ice Age and the differences between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic as phases of British prehistory.

So that when the snow falls again the earth
becomes lighter and lighter. The surface con-
spires with us, we are its first-born. Even
in this modern age, we leave tracks, as we
go. And as we go, walk, stride or climb
out of it, we leave that behind, our own
level contemplation of the world. The monk
Dicuil records that at the summer solstice
in Iceland a man could see right through the
night, as of course he could. That too is a
quality, some generous lightness which we
give to the rival when he comes in. The tracks
are beaten off, all the other things underground.

this is beautiful but also rational. The interest is in the relation between soil regimes and the energy flux from the sun – the description of the monk Dicuil's observations in Iceland, around AD 830, is there because solar light controls climate and only after this does mankind lead what life is possible in that climate. The description of snow as shining with light is singularly beautiful – however, the point is rather the reverse, that the cold is due to the lower insolation, of solar heat, at high latitudes, the thinner vegetation, and the scattered pastoral economy that follows from this. Of course it is also about how you feel, and how the air on your skin and the light beaming into your eyes affect this.
Because Prynne goes back to the Mesolithic, and the end of the last local Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago, it is possible to define a resemblance to Spengler, and to Dawson as someone whose intellectual conception was shaped by opposition to Spengler, in the interest in “the morphology of cultures” and in very long chronological spans. I can't just abolish this. However, Dawson and Prynne disagree on just about everything, and few thinkers could have less bearing on Prynne than Dawson. To be honest, I don’t think Dawson was a great influence on Jones either – he just wasn't original and decisive enough as a thinker. Jones was developing his ideas in the 1920s, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and was fascinated by Spengler, who redefined the West as merely one culture among other subjects of “cultural morphology” in a long chronological perspective. Dawson went through exactly the same experience, and was a companion of Jones rather than his guide. Prynne's historical ideas come from geographers, the flow of “historical geography”; that whole lowland zone of Spengler's hypnotising speculations and the re-Christianising counter-attack passed him by.