Monday, 13 April 2020

David Jones, enemy of democracy

David Jones, enemy of democracy

The turning-point is the close reading of a phrase in Jones’ April 1939 letter about reading Mein Kampf, where he refers to “the currish, leftish,  money thing.” The full sentence is "Anyway, I back him still against all this currish, leftish, money thing, even though I'm a miserable specimen and dependent on it." The "him" is Adolf Hitler. He was saying that he didn’t like Hitler, but didn’t prefer democratic, liberal politicians to him, because after all they contradicted all his values. I read this (in the book of his letters, Dai Great-Coat, p.93) but didn’t understand it, because I couldn't see how the money interest could be interchangeable with the Left when they were political enemies. However, Kevin Nolan has recently made me aware of the real meaning of the phrase.

Kevin directs me to Jewish dogs: an image and its interpreters, by Kenneth Stow. The blurb says 'Jewish Dogs is not a study of "anti-Semitism" or "anti-Judaism." Instead, this book argues that to anchor claims of supersession, Catholics have viewed Jews as metaphoric—and sometimes not so metaphoric—dogs. The dog has for millennia been the focus of impurity, and Catholicism fosters doctrines of physical purity that go hand in hand with those of ritual purity. The purity is that of the "one loaf" spoken of by Paul in Corinthians that is, at once, the Eucharist and the collective Christian Corpus, the body of the faithful. Paul views this "loaf" as physically corruptible, and as John Chrysostom said at the close of the fourth century, the greatest threat to the loaf's purity are the Jews. They are the dogs who wish to steal the bread that belongs exclusively to the children. Eventually, Jews were said to attack the "loaf" through ritual murder and attempts to defile the Host itself; the victim of ritual murder is identified with the Host, as is common in Catholic martyrdom. Pope Pius IX still spoke of Jewish dogs barking throughout the streets of Rome in 1871. Other Catholic clergy were dismayed. This book is thus as much a study of Catholic doctrinal history as it is a study of Jews.’

Stow was professor of Jewish History at the university of Haifa. The ur-passage on dogs is Matthew, 15, 26. Chrysostom means “golden mouth”, an epithet for a great orator. (This can include the ability to persuade people of things which they know aren't true.) The specific source of the obsolete word ‘currish’ is in The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1:

Gratiano: O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog,
And for thy life let justice be accused!
Thou almost makest me waver in my faith
To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam
Infused itself in thee, for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.

Jones’ letter, it turns out, was connected to the work he was doing on an essay about Hitler for The Tablet. This was completed in May 1939 but never published; it “was considered too long for publication in the newspaper” and wasn’t re-located (on friends’ advice) because it was too pro-Hitler. (The Tablet was the main magazine for intellectual Catholics in England.) Jones scholars have turned it up, in his papers in an American archive (Boston College), and it is now in print. So the “currish” is used just after Jones had been reading Mein Kampf, and comes from an anti-Semitic tirade in an anti-Semitic play. The only possible context for saying “leftish money thing” is an anti-Semitic dogma that the Jews were in charge both of international capitalism and international Bolshevism, and both were the product of resentment of “Christian culture”. The idea is a stupid contradiction in terms everywhere except in this context of fear of “subversive Jewish intelligence”. The parts reinforce each other, the writer is explaining his (partial) sympathy for Hitler because of Hitler’s opposition to “the leftish, currish, money power” and we know very well that what Hitler was opposed to was “Jewish intelligence” as personified in big financiers and the Marxist parties of Russia and Germany. Is there any ambiguity left?
Dawson’s book (which I wrote about in an earlier blog, in November 2018) is a significant parallel to Jones’ unpublished essay, and both are accepting of Hitler and related figures because they start out from a complete distaste for liberalism and parliamentary democracy. (This is the analysis of Tom Villis, I have seen one essay of his but not his books on literary Fascism in England and Wales.) So they both regard Hitler’s regime as bad government, but are not passionately against it, because they regard democracy in Western (and central) Europe as bad government too.

I will quote Villis: “As Elizabeth Ward has pointed out, Wales thus provided the same function for Jones as France did for Belloc and ‘Merrie England’ for Chesterton, and even as ‘European culture’ did for Dawson and some of his disciples. This kind of transcendental nationalism can have reactionary implications. For Ward this ‘myth making’ – along with Jones’s connections with Order and Colosseum – mean that his poetry and art can be seen as part of the same ‘rejection of contemporary Western democracy’ which characterised other right-wing Catholic figures and, by implication, European fascism. [...] Jones’s views were not merely idiosyncratic but part of a wider revolt against liberal democracy reflected both in his Catholic contemporaries and wider European culture. Nevertheless, Ward’s characterisation of Jones has produced over the years the familiar over-anxious defence of his reputation from Catholic scholars.”
Up until 1945, there were quite a few European households, including educated ones, where "democracy" was a dirty word, free of underlying approval. This certainly includes some writers, including British poets. The 'war aims' campaign of the Allies sanctioned the word 'democratic' and made it unambiguously positive. Most of Europe had given up democracy before 1939, when Hitler began knocking over the various governments. Countries which had been set up as democracies in 1919 had given it up by 1939. This is the European context in which we can site pro-European writers like Jones and Saunders Lewis.
To reminisce, I did spend time in a university library trying to find sources on Jones’ ideas about politics, which is when I read Dawson, but I came up empty. Villis has got an awful lot further and this whole question probably needs to be re-thought based on his research. He mentions two inter-war Catholic magazines directly linked to the discussion circle which Jones was a member of, and which are likely to have brought up the questions which Jones was trying to answer in The Anathémata and elsewhere. As Villis has read these, we need to consult his work for a deeper understanding of Jones.
Jones was outside the “left-liberal bubble” which British poetry has been comfortably thriving inside since the 1920s. The story makes one even more inclined to sympathise with the literary consensus, and to feel defended by its values! How unattractive, to venture outside that consensus and find people steeping themselves in anti-Semitism and imperialism!

I feel that my body of work is weak on Catholic thought. Certainly I don’t want to write up inherited clichés about all Catholics being on the Right. So many modern British poets have been Catholic that this area needs close attention. I just don’t have that Catholic background. I have a close reading relationship with Heinrich Böll, a Left Catholic intellectual whose resistance to Hitler was integral to his Catholicism. I have great admiration for Böll. But his essay on the Catholic church in politics is devastating, it’s not so far from what the secular Left might say. I would also like to cite Peter Levi’s poem “Monologue spoken by the pet canary of Pius XII” (published 1966 I think), see next post. I would be glad to read a book about left-wing Catholics, like Levi. My scraps of knowledge suggest that Catholicism is incompatible with capitalism and extreme wealth, Catholic poets are surely in line with that.

Discussion of Pius XII (Pacelli) seems to omit his background as Nuncio to Bavaria just after the First World War, where he was close with German Catholic leaders, helped organise the suppression of the Soviet Republic in Munich in 1919, and approved of Hitler (whom he knew) as a figure in a concerted resistance to anti-Catholic elements of the Marxist Left. (He became nuncio to the Berlin government in 1920, when Bavaria was no longer technically a kingdom and a State.) To quote John Cornwell’s revelatory article in Vanity Fair in 1999, >>The German authorities in Rome, both diplomats and military commanders, fearing a backlash of the Italian populace, hoped that an immediate and vigorous papal denunciation might stop the SS in their tracks and prevent further arrests. Pacelli refused. In the end, the German diplomats drafted a letter of protest on the Pope’s behalf and prevailed on a resident German bishop to sign it for Berlin’s benefit. Meanwhile, the deportation of the imprisoned Jews went ahead on October 18. <<
As Cornwell says, John XXIII was a completely different kind of person.

I apologise for writing about this in haste, the day after I received Kevin’s emails, but I didn’t want to delay.

Villis mentions Charles Petrie as one of the participants in the discussion circle, led by Tom Burns, which Jones was part of in the Thirties and late Twenties. He was a historian, and by coincidence, I have read one of his books. It came out in the fifties and is titled The Jacobite Movement. (I read the 1958 edition but there were earlier ones.) I really admired it. I suppose he knew about the material because he had a sympathy for it (and was anti-Hanoverian at some level of his being), but it is unbiased history and doesn’t wander up any blind alleys. In fact, I was impressed by his ability to interpret Jacobite political styles in terms of Catholic devotion. For example, James II’s conduct while in exile was not the product of bigotry and stupidity, or not only of those, but was a performance, for the benefit of the observers whom he knew to be following every hour of his life, of contrition and acceptance of God’s tribulations, evoking a legend of the martyr-king with which his Catholic supporters would have been familiar. He accepted that his life as king was one of uninterrupted ritual, and that he was always re-enacting the life of some king or other. His occupying himself with religious activity was firstly suited to someone who has lost their material wealth, almost a form of realism, and secondly a sign that he had bowed to God’s judgement, although not also to the judgement of the House of Commons and the Protestant interest in Britain. James was imitating the life of Edward the Confessor. Petrie’s account of how this celebrity on-show behaviour, where everything is conspicuous, was a way of influencing Catholic public opinion (in the French Court and the Vatican, as well as as in susceptible parts of the British Isles) is profound. James could reach public opinion, in realms which had a high illiteracy rate and which were untouched by newspapers and modern news sources, by producing events which would fit into simple stories, and stories which people were already familiar with. His publicity followed the rules of folklore. The parties lined up behind the Hanoverian and Stuart interests were just not mirror images of each other. There is more modern work, by Murray Pittock and others, which one is inevitably going to read, but Petrie’s book has not been replaced. The political history of British Catholics, which is so important for Jones, goes back to the Jacobites (if not to the sixteenth century, indeed), and has abidingly been the story of the dynasty out of power and of a cultural vocabulary which differs from the *dominant one, either Protestant or secular.
(*Without collapsing into pedantry, it is quite likely that Jacobite sympathies were dominant in Ireland, Wales, and much of Scotland, at least during the 18th century. They were popular even if excluded from legal political activity and from the world of print.)
The opposition between the Stuart dynasty, first in power and then out of power, and the Westminster Parliament, is the background to Jones’ indifference to electoral politics and rejection of all politicians. It is part of the hereditary attitudes of British Catholics, which would have been available in whatever sources Jones assimilated, as a convert. 

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