Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Recession and Thickness Through": The Debate over Nature and Grace in David Jones's Roman Poetry and Painting

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Recession and Thickness Through": The Debate over Nature and Grace in David Jones's Roman Poetry and Painting

Article excerpt

  "Chaps refer to the 'mystery' or 'subtlety' or 'illusiveness' or   'fragility' or 'waywardness' or 'complexity' or 'fancyfulness'   etc., etc.--well, Christ almighty! what else is there in a bunch   of flowers or a tree or a landscape or a girl or a sky but   these qualities? ... It isn't the artist's 'fancy' or   'imagination' that imposes these qualities on a work ...   [rather] how to 'transubstantiate' these qualities into   whatever medium one is using, whether paint or words or whatever."    Letter to Harman Grisewood, May 22, 1962 (1)    "According to St. Thomas, divine life is not laid over the surface   of our understanding like an external additive; rather it is   infused at the root of our being. Divine life is built up in us   according to the framework of our nature, even as it surpasses   our nature ontologically. We can say that grace is within us   after the fashion of a (super)nature; that is to say, after the   fashion of a principle most interior to ourselves, most our own,   at the same time that it is divine. It is the dynamic force of   grace that makes us capable of living communion with God."    Marie-Dominique Chenu, Aquinas and His Role in Theology (2) 

THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY Anglo-Welsh artist and poet, David Jones, as a convert to Roman Catholicism, was involved in the intellectual and cultural circles of the European Catholic Renaissance. He could not help but be influenced by its theological controversies, including one over the relationship of nature and grace. Jones's essays, paintings, inscriptions, and poetry were all shaped by its questions, in part because the resources of the debate helped him to sort through the possibilities of spirituality in British post-Impressionism. In his own art, he was struck with the particular problem of embodying the thick metaphysical quality of reality. This problem he partially solved by the layering of the persons or places in his paintings with their analogical and allegorical associations. Both this quandary and his method have their parallel in Jones's writing, in which he tries to theorize and to embody the natural and supernatural aspects of humanity. His last published collection, The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments, as well as the posthumously published poems and fragments, The Roman Quarry and Other Sequences, builds its effect on the divine echo of the Gospel in the pre-Christian cultures of Rome and Roman Britain, and in turn upon the vestigial presence of the old Roman order in Christian Wales and in the twentieth-century Mass. In these poems he offers examples of a "natural" orientation to the supernatural. It is the fluid, and yet anchored, nature of this orientation that makes of interest Jones's mixed stance, for he sought both to puzzle out the material and spiritual worlds, and to do so within the Catholic debate over nature and grace.

The Terms of the Debate

Jones was influenced by both sides of the debate. On one side, the reading of Thomas Aquinas exemplified by French philosopher Jacques Maritain shaped Jones's aesthetic, especially through the influence of sculptor Eric Gill, (3) who introduced Jones to Maritain's important volume Art and Scholasticism in Fr. John O'Connor's translation, The Philosophy of Art. (4) Likewise, the counter-movement most pronounced in the theology of Pierre Rousselot and Joseph Marechal also shaped Jones, primarily through the thought of his close friend, the historian Christopher Dawson. (5) One of the debate's most important questions was whether the intellectual, moral, and cultural life of non- and pre-Christian civilizations could be said to be already oriented toward the highest good of union with God, or whether humanity's secondary, natural end was the penultimate goal of human happiness and justice alone. (6)

Modern scholastics such as Maritain generally admitted that there was no actual state of pure nature. The distinction was hypothetical but important in that it helped to distinguish two potential finalities for human beings--a natural one of human happiness and a supernatural one of the beatific vision. …

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