Page 10, 2nd December 1960

2nd December 1960
Page 10
Page 10, 2nd December 1960 — NOR FIRE NOR CANDLE LIGHT

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Keywords: Religion / Belief


IN contrast with some

X -beliefs the belief of the Catholic Church commits its adherents, in a most inescapable manner. to the body and the embodied; hence to history, to locality, to epoch and site, to sense-perception, to the contactual, the known, the felt, the seen, the handled, the cared for, the tended, the conserved; to the qualitative and to the intimate.

Al! of which. and more especially the two last, precludes the ersatz, and tends to a certain mistrust of the uncmbodied concept.


IT commits its ad

herents also to the belief that things of all sorts can, are, and should be given special significances, set aside, made other, raised above the utile to the status of signer and revered with corporeal, manual acts. It commits them to the "creaturely".

Now the retention of any such belief must depend upon what sort of creatures we reckon we are. It appears that for tens of millenniums one of our "creaturely" characteristics has been to make signa, that is to make things. artefacts, having an extra-utile intention.

The great cave-paintings of the Palaeolithic epoch are, aesthetically, neither better nor worse than the embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry or a painting by Tintoretto, and all three are equally extra-utile and all are signa in that all ''show forth under other forms" the beliefs, mind, requirements and aspirations of widely separated phases in the chequered story of one order of primates, that is of ourselves.

Jack Smith may be convinced that there is nothing beyond the utile and the functional, he may call poetry "bunk", he may think that religion has been or is being explained away and that the whole concept of sign or sacrament is a delusion.

Nevertheless that conviction will not inhibit Jack from sending by "Interflora" roses to Jill. This he does without a suspicion that such an act, at whatever remove and in however devious a fashion, links him with the Palaeolithic signmakers and also with a signmaking in a supper-room in the Roman procuratorship of Judaea.


WE all of us, seeing that we are of the same civilizational phase as Jack Smith, are subject to like conditionings. We may not share Mr. Smith's convictions, we may hold, with some intensity, quite other views, but we cannot be free of the dichotomy we observe in him: being on the same stove we pots observe how calcined is the kettle.

As a "desire and pursuit of the whole" is native to us nothing is so frustrating to us as unresolved contradictions of whatever sort. In our personal relationships most of our pain comes from a feeling that a pattern is unresolved, that, as we say, "it doesn't make sense", that sign and what we took to be signified appear to be at odds, in short that the signa are invalid.

In the making of things an analogous distress is even more marked and is much more patient of analysis and more to the point here.


THE artist, no matter what his medium, may work with technical ease or he may find the going hard — such differences are of little consequence — what matters to him is whether or no the forms he makes resolve themselves in such a way as to show forth, represent, embody or make corporeal the incorporeal reality envisaged in the eye of his mind. Or, to put in another way, though art "abides on the side of the mind" its products are of the body, are always and inescapably a sort of "word made flesh".

The individual artifex does not judge his works by his intentions but by the resultant forms. Should these not show forth his intention he must, necessarily, suffer distress because he has failed not in some peripheral matter but in a matter which touches his central fuction as home faker: remembering that man is not only man-the-maker but man the maker. user and apprehender of signs.

Here we are confronted with something of very great complexity and something which requires qualifications of all sorts, but by which we seem forced to one conclusion, viz.: That a signmaking element however minimal, obscure and hard to define does adhere to all human artefactures; so, presumably to television contraptions as well as to paintings. to door-mats as well as to crucifixes. to space-ships as well as to velvet frocks.


Aswith the artefactures of individuals (painters and the like), so with the al tefactures of a whole civilisational set-up. Should these appear to be wanting in, for example, the creaturely (hence defective as human signa) we cannot

avoid wondering how this can be.

In spite of our astonishing technological advance and the evident benefits (leaving aside the horrors) which have accrued from this intense application of human intelligence and exploratory genius, a deprivation of some sort must also be noted. Of what sort is it?

We are not "pure intelligences" as our theologians define the angels, nor are we intelligences informing bodies whose sole function is the ordering of those bodies to material ends. We arc mammals of sense and sensibility with apperceptions which (however they may be accounted for) place its in a very peculiar, difficult and, it would seem, unique position.

White quite a large part of our artefacture would appear to be as much ordered to the merely utile as is the artefacture of other creatures of our animalic world (birds' nests and heavers' dams are but two of the innumerable examples), we have from our first recognizable beginnings been con cerned with something I making or a the extra-utile, with have termed a signshowing-forth


SHOULD we chance to be Catholic or of Catholic inclination we know that what is proposed for our acceptance presupposes this sign-making proclivity in man and that without it our religion is not only meaningless but could not have arisen.

Here I am not thinking of our extensive use of ceremonial, for were this cut to the barest minimum (as in some non-Catholic cults) there would remain, owing to the Incarnation, this same explicit commitment to creaturely

si When we put up a candle before an image we first kiss the wax (or whatever substitute now does service for wax) and lighting our candle from the light of another we fix it en to its iron spike or fit it into a socket on the iron hearse and drop a coin into the box to defray the cost. All these manual acts are congruent with our natures. We are accustomed to kiss what we love or what betokens that love, and, in everything, we have to defray a cost.


WE also make fast or position in some way tokens of our regard, that is: we set up, set aside, make over, dedicate or make anathemata of, a diversity of things. It may be anything from a bowl of flowers to an oar which with seven other oars won or lost a race years ago whereby recalling, along with much besides, companions now separated from us, perhaps by death.

In lighting our votive lights from those of others who lighted theirs from others again there is a continuity back to the New Fire of the previous Easter Saturday, thus there is a communal significance — "no man is an island".

I may be inaccurately informed, but I'm told that in some places instead of this sequence of significant manual acts a quite simple, utile substitute has been devised which is indeed far more congruent with our present workaday world but which is less congruent with our natures: A coin is dropt into a slot and for that coin's worth of time, it is, as Belloc wrote:

. . . patent to the meanest sight The carbon filament is very bright.


SUPPOSING such a practice to exist, it can be said that, as it is the intention that matters, all is well. But it is evident that though the intention may be unimpaired there is an impoverishment of the manual signs by which that intention is shown forth.

And there, to quote from that source of so many English quotadons, is the rub.

It is that rub, considered in numberless contexts of every conceivable kind which brought to my mind the words of my "text":

Neither fire-light nor candle-light Can ease my heart's despair.

When that poem was made the poet's mind went instinctively to two, everyday. familiar and necessary utilities, fire-flame and candleflame, as images which ought to offer some consolation, not to the body, but to a heart in despair. That is to say the technics of the then contemporary world and the sense and sensibility of the men of that world were in easy alignment.


IT is as though we, with equal spontaneity and naturalness, were able to say in expressing our griefs something of this sort:

Neither neon light nor radiant heat

Can ease my heart's despair.

In so far as we don't seem able to do this, it looks as though an estrangement must have occurred between our characteristic artefactures and ourselves. A defect of some sort must have accompanied our tremendous and fascinating, if also horrific technological advance. Until that estrangement is somehow or other overcome the dichotomy which I have tried to indicate would seem to me to remain.

A further. and especially seasonable, consideration: the Incarnation and the Eucharist cannot be separated; the one thing being analogous to the other. If one binds us to the animalic the other binds us to artefacture and both bind us to signa, for both are a showing forth of the invisible under visible signs.

The mewling babe in the ox stall, the quasi-artefacts of bread and wine (products of tillage, of the oven, the vat) are to be regarded, so our religion demands, not as signs only but signs which are also the Thing signified, namely the Eternally Begotten Word, the Logos which gave poiesis to the expanding or con. tracting (whichever it should turn out to be) cosmos.


IN Ihe case of the Eucharist the Reformers objected to this Catholic identification on the grounds that it overthrows the nature of a sign. Why did they not extend this objection to cover the Incarnation? For though the two cases are not identical, the nevertheless involve an identic, principle; in that both are crew turely signs and both are what th. signs signify, hence both or neithe. are open to the same objection.

But w,e are here not so mud' concerned with deviations 01 opinion touching a specific sacra ment but rather with the fact that all Christians are explicitly in volved in sign and sacrament and that all men are implicitly so involved owing to their natures.

This in turn has led us to a tentative consideration of the nagging and everpresent awareness (which we all feel in varying degrees) of a difficult-to-express disparity between our technological civilization in which sacrament with a small 's' has been to a large degree occluded, and our religion with its absolute insistance on Sacraments with a capital '5'.


IT is evident that such a religion must confide that the sacramental continues to be man's normal mode of apperception. Indeed were it passible to eliminate from man every vestige of the sacramental then we should have sub-men, no matter what their technological, intellectual, or for that matter, moral or even spiritual achievements.

Jack could still (after a fashion) love Jill but he could not send her roses for that would be a significant or sacramental act and therefore logically impossible in a wholly utile order of society. And what sort of life is it if you can't send roses to your beloved?

Browning made his intrepid bishop say that even "if this life's all. who wins the game?"

That is what I am inclined to say, though with much trepidation and for reasons other than those of Browning's Bloughram.


THESE then are some of the thoughts with which the present writer approaches the Feast of the Nativity. 1960, It is significant that the Roman Church uses the same Preface for the Mass of Corpus Christi as the one She e, es during the Christmas season. In it we are reminded that by the love of a thing seen we may be drawn to love what is unseen.

Thus, in the first and most moving of the Prefaces, the compact and concise words show forth in little space" (as is said elsewhere in a reference to God's Mother) the wide implications of a religion which is explicitly dependent upon small, intimate, enclosed, known and dear creaturely signs.

This article is part of a much longer work which David Jones is preparing.

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