The Mark of a Sacramentalist

Of all the things literature does—creating an opportunity for time to distend and turn inward—is surely one of the most exhilarating. All writing does this to some extent, simply by virtue of narrating events unfolding in time rather than being the thing-in-itself. The description of a car speeding down the highway, like a toy car rolling across the kitchen floor, only models the action. But there are some authors who are drawn to this temporal displacement and even lean into it, making an exploration of the rift between symbol and the banausic world the centerpiece of their art.

Sterne does this most famously in Tristram Shandy. Proust of course comes to mind. In contemporary literature, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream centers around rescuing an intoxicated woman from a lecherous man in a lavatory. In “real time”, the actions would not have taken more than fifteen minutes, but Marias unspools the experience over a few hundred pages into a rumination on time, fate, war, and death. The prime experience becomes an occasion for recalling other associated experiences and thoughts. Sometimes, this sort of unweaving of temporality even returns a strange energy to the prime experience, heightening its vitality and power.

The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector distends time in The Passion According to G.H. in order for a wealthy homeowner to ruminate over the severed body of a cockroach, which she eventually eats, precipitating a full-blown mystical experience. In works such as these, to paraphrase Marias, time is given enough time to be time. What we are given as readers are the tools and the opportunity to imagine attributes of time which we do not always necessarily have access to in our day to day perceptions. Through this modeling of the oddness of time and the peripatetic nature of human thought, eternity is insinuated.

The origins of the distension of time in great literature might have begun unintentionally. In one of the earliest (the earliest?) examples, Homer has a disguised Odysseus returned to Ithaca in Book 19 of the Odyssey. Having ingratiated himself to Penelope, she tells the housekeeper Euryclea to wash the stranger’s feet, a typical welcoming gesture for visitors. Euryclea, having been Odysseus’s nurse since childhood, reaches down into the shadows where Odysseus reclines and feels a familiar scar that she recognizes as belonging to Odysseus.

Shocked, Euryclea drops his foot into the wash basin. But in between the feel of the scar and the splash of the foot in the water, Homer recounts the story of how Odysseus was scarred boar hunting with his father when he was a boy. An entire childhood morning fills the space of the footfall, and memory makes a raid into the onrush of chronological time. Perhaps this is one of the redemptive functions of literature, to return us to the life that slips away and give us a chance to recognize each other’s wounds.

In a 1797 series of letters between Goethe and Schiller, both writers discuss the “retarding” effect of Homer’s discursion into boar hunting while the foot falls, contrasting it with the suspense necessary for tragedy. Perhaps the nature of the epic is discursive and episodic. Erich Auerbach, writing in Mimesis, disagrees, saying that:

It seems to me undemonstrable and improbable that this procedure of Homeric poetry was directed by aesthetic considerations or even by an aesthetic feeling of the sort postulated by Goethe and Schiller. The effect, to be sure, is precisely that which they describe, and is, furthermore, the actual source of the conception of epic which they themselves hold, and with them all writers decisively influenced by classical antiquity. But the true cause of the impression of “retardation” appears to me to lie elsewhere—namely, in the need of the Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalized.

Auerbach is saying then that this temporal bloat is simply a natural side effect of Homer’s cultural compulsion to reveal every surface, but only the surface. Perhaps. But Auerbach underplays how depth requires surface in order to find expression. As José Ortega y Gasset wrote in Meditations on Quixote:

I now have around me as many as two dozen grave oaks and graceful ashes. Is this a forest? Certainly not. What I see here is the trees of the forest. The real forest is composed of the trees I do not see. The forest is invisible nature—hence the halo of mystery its name preserves in all languages . . . The forest flees from one’s eye.

Auerbach seems to imply that the Greeks supposed a subject can be exhausted by its surface expression. I think the fact that generations of storytellers passing along the tale which Homer eventually wrote down took the time to digress into a woman’s memory of another person’s childhood experience itself implies a sophisticated knowledge of the occluded depths which might be required to sustain the surface of things. What is the feel of the scar if not a rudimentary sort of anamnesis? And what is anamnesis if not a recognition of our participation in truth’s incarnation?

David Jones, painter, engraver, and writer, worked with as much self-conscious awareness as any other twentieth century author of how literary distortions of time can act as occasions of anamnesis. His written works, much like his later watercolors, lay various moments in time and space bunched up together along the same coordinates.

A mountain seen through a window and a teacup sitting on the table rub against one another. An English soldier in the trenches is simultaneously a Roman soldier in ancient Wales as well as Jack O’ The Green, wearing twigs and leaves as camouflage. The Battle of Mametz Wood is looked over and commented upon by Merlin. In sacrificing an anodyne perspective, Jones achieves, very much like Eliot, suggestions of a deeper wholeness beyond but nevertheless binding our experience of spatial and temporal order.

Jones’s most popular work, In Parenthesis, runs from beginning to end in a roughly chronological order. Based upon his experiences in the First World War, the book (Is it a novel? A poem? Works like these bend and defy genre) depicts average grunts—that is, average humans—struggling to not only comprehend but retain some shared vision of humanity in a brutal environment. As Kathleen Henderson Staudt writes in At the Turn of a Civilization: David Jones and Modern Poetics, “the war is nearly always a background to the experience of men, but [it] focuses on their efforts to hold onto the things that make them human, especially to those impulses that are for Jones the mark of the ‘sacramentalist.’”

Among the “things that make them human” is the sense of continuity, communion even, with the past. Even beyond Jones the author’s correspondences, digressions, and retardations in prose are the characters themselves, singing old songs, muttering ancient prayers, and longing deeply for re-engagement with a temporal order in which their present state is not an all-consuming reality but only a fragment of a much richer coherence.

Often, that even means finding continuity with martial exploits from the past—weaving together traumatic fragments of combat into a kind of fuller symbolic order. The character Dai Greatcoat is mostly silent, except for one grand speech he gives near the middle of the book, a boast in the Welsh oral tradition and also present Malory:

My fathers were with the Black Prinse of Wales
at the passion of the blind Bohemian king.
They served in these fields,

it is in the histories that you can read it, Corporal—boys
Gower, they were—it is writ down- yes.
Wot about Methuselum, Taffy?
I was with Abel when his brother found him,

under the green tree.
I built a shit-house for Artaxerxes.
I was the spear in Balin’s hand
that made waste King Pellam’s land.

It would be easy to dismiss Greatcoat’s boast as a puffed-up sentimentalizing of war or combat. But that is not what is happening. Instead, working within a long Welsh oral tradition of connecting his own personal identity with historical events relevant to him and his compatriots, vacillating through the entire boast between “I was with” and “I heard,” Greatcoat is engaging in an amnanetic ritual. This performance retards and distends time, amplifies echoes from the past, and projects continuity into the future. It’s also a way of symbolically expressing the eternal underlying the ephemeral, of tracing the contour which gives coherence to the ephemeral.

Greatcoat’s boast is of a piece with Odysseus’s scar. Both are symbolic flotsam in the temporal current which interrupt and change its flow just enough to heighten our awareness of its transit. Both exhibit Goethe’s retarding effect, epically distending time. Kathleen Staudt is worth quoting again here, at length

[The character John Ball’s meditation while on guard duty] is one of a number of digressions or set pieces that break out of the narrative theme and sequence of In Parenthesis, interrupting the temporal flow to elaborate on some small detail of narrative, almost in the way that medieval scribe might illuminate part of a manuscript from the past. These embellishments usually arise organically from the narrative situation—originating in the consciousness of a character or in an event, such as Dai Greatcoat entering a general boasting contest. But they wander far from the original narrative pretext, and they ultimately draw attention to the act of making that is at work whenever people make these associations. These lyric digressions mark In Parenthesis as the work of a sign-maker who as present in the battle and who is now remembering it, in keeping with his nature.

Memory is constituted by symbol. Or said another way, all true symbols create a temporal retarding effect, disturbing chronology and reconnecting the fragmented moment with a larger whole. The word symbol itself, of course, comes from symbolon, to unite or bring together, and this is exactly what occurs in a literary sense as well.

Consider master symbol-maker Coleridge’s “multeity in unity.” Exploring the nature of freedom in his masterly Freedom from Reality, D.C. Schindler elaborates on the functioning of symbols, writing that:

Because of the “double intentionality” of symbols, its reciprocity of manifestation and meaning . . . each realization of freedom, as symbolical, is both a genuine completion in itself, which gathers together what has preceded, and a greater capacity for what is more. Freedom thus has depth and extension; it is not an instantaneous flash that volatizes the moment it becomes real, but instead crystallizes and gives abiding witness to a unity of past, present, and future, a genuine integration of actuality and possibility.

Replace the word “freedom” with “time”, and we have a flawless description of David Jones’s art.

Schindler’s “reciprocity of manifestation and meaning” is essential to understanding the incarnate nature of the anamnetic symbol. Anamnesis is performed, not thought. Its occasion is made. Even in its loosest literary sense, the retardation effect requires the physicality of the word on page or screen, not to mention the bodies of writer and reader both. David Jones, coming primarily from a visual arts background, was acutely aware of sign making as the primary task of the artist in any medium.

And as a Catholic with an appreciation for de la Taille’s Mysterium Fidei, he had a particularly intense understanding of this sign-making as echoing the continuum between the Last Supper, Passion, Mass, and Eucharist. This awareness is most fully present in his work The Anathemata. Staudt again tells us that the text belongs “in a long British literary tradition. As the Crucifixion represents a human act of the Incarnate God who made it significant, so the inscription and the allusions here ask “us” to see this modern poet and artist as a participant in an ongoing tradition of sign making. In this limited sense, the poem, like a sacrament, claims to do what it signifies.”

The plot of The Anathemata is an Odyssean scar-moment par excellence. The prime experience in which it takes place occurs over the span of seven seconds during the course of Mass performed in mid-twentieth century London as the protagonist’s mind momentarily wanders. The text swerves into explorations of prehistoric myth-creation, nautical navigation, the fall of Troy, a monologue by a personified female city of London, a medieval Welsh Christmas Mass, and then finally the Last Supper and Crucifixion.

The content of the work matters, of course, but what is even more significant is what it does. In its sinewy and thick language, The Anathemata itself models the Incarnation and Crucifixion as historical events which make all symbolic relations possible. Its form suggests that every previous and subsequent act of human sign-making is an affirmation of the Incarnation.

The Anathemata is a finely-weaved web rich with associative claims. It is itself anamnesis of an act of anamnesis of an act of anamnesis. The Last Supper is symbolically reenacted within a symbolic creation itself. I have previously written here of the Gruen Effect, in which shopping malls are designed to lull consumers into a false sense of timelessness. At bottom, it’s the illusion of escape from the vagaries of embodiment. But what Jones does in The Anathemata, and to a much weaker degree what other writers who work with the retarding effect are doing, is suggesting the contours of a true eternity by playing on the tension between the sensual fragmentation of the world and the wholeness hiding just under its surface.

We can say for sure that it was not Christ who Homer had in mind when let Odysseus’s foot drop, cleaving time with a digression. But as Jones demonstrates, we might be able to say that the digression anticipates redemption.

Featured Image: Anastasya Markovich, The Past, 2006; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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