Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

The trouble with trigger warnings is: how would you know when to stop? It isn't just that triggers (the sensory inputs that revive experiences of trauma; the violent siblings of the Proustian Madeleine moment) can be erratic. For some people, a description of the violence that traumatised them will leave them unscathed, but a taste, a smell, a colour or a texture might summon every horror they've known. How can any system of warnings predict the strange and painful networks of memory? But even if you restrict the trigger warning to only the obviously violent, to depictions of sexual aggression and racism, how much is there in the canon of literature that could be considered non-triggering?

The Bible would have to wear the warning, of course: too much begetting without consenting, and a lot of shedding of blood. Shakespeare too. There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape ("Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me") and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother's life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.

The great works of the Restoration, then. Pope's The Rape of the Lock parodies a society incident in which a young rake violated a beautiful woman's hair in retaliation for slighting him. The wit of the poem comes in the bathetic contrast between the epic ornamentation Pope uses and the perceived smallness of the crime – but really, and not to be a massive downer, we are talking about an assault and a more than passingly creepy one. Cutting away a lock of a woman's hair assumes a right to her person that is rooted in the deepest woman-hatred. And then there's Swift, both a great satirist and a great misogynist: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" he cries out, revenging rejection by dragging the desired woman into the humiliations of the grotesque. (At least Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was able to pay Swift back with her imperious and much funnier reply.)

To the romantics. Byron, of course – there's no shortage of triggering moments in Byron for victims of sexual violence. The novel appears about this time, and is reputedly a more female-friendly form, but Fanny Burney's Evelina is riddled with hate for women, especially the unmarriageable ones: in one scene, two elderly ladies are humiliatingly forced to race for gentlemanly entertainment. Jane Austen is surer ground, assuming we see no violence in the marriage market that she delineates with satirical clarity. Our contemporary expectation that women are people and not chattels would call such bargaining "financial abuse", and so Austen must be blazed with content notes too.

We should find safety in the reputed primness of the Victorians. But Browning's Porphyria is erotically strangled, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is raped – in decorous circumlocution, but repeatedly, until she has finally had enough and stabs the source of her abuses (Hardy blames the President of the Immortals for Tess's travails, but I blame the patriarchy) – and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a cavalcade of sexy sluts getting violated right in the vein. Wuthering Heights is an anatomy of familial violence, and a highly disturbing one. Racist too, with the focus on the exoticism of Heathcliff's dark gipsy skin and his bestial affinity with dogs.

As we get past the suffrage movement and into the 20th century, things should be looking up. Actually, not so much. The Waste Land plays on rape as a metaphor – and Eliot has no concern for the inner life of the female character he has fictionally despoiled; he doesn't want sympathy for her, her wants her as a symbol. The Great Gatsby ambushes you with antisemitism. Of Mice and Men, with the tragic, nameless Curley's Wife who exists only to menace men with her sexuality and be killed by an absolutely blameless character, because who could help killing a woman like that? Lolita, of course: how great, how elegant, how jewel-like in its precision, how absolutely stuffed with woman-killing and the sensual pleasures of child rape. Sylvia Plath's Ariel with its savage recreations of male violence – definitely triggering.

Where are we now? Practically contemporary. We could study Margaret Atwood's work, with its anatomical exploration of the marks left by violence against women – The Handmaid's Tale is the obvious classic (TW: rape, sexual assault, extreme patriarchy). Or one of my favourite novels, Alasdair Gray's 1982, Janine – a luminous descent punctuated by wild and lurid fantasies of sadism against female bodies. The problem is that what the trigger warning would highlight is something that is simply endemic in our culture: violence against women is just so much background hum, a cracked neck here, a severed tongue there, an aggressively inserted cock here and here and here.

There is nothing exceptional about this content. Wanting to be warned that it is coming is like wanting to be warned that there may be some exhaust fumes in the air you breathe. Well of course there will be – what do you want to do, live on a Hebridean smallholding in isolated purity, breathing in a clean, cultureless atmosphere? And with so much literature being subject to the trigger warning, if they are introduced to university syllabi (as has been proposed), what's to stop the lazy student from feigning trauma and skiving off two-thirds of the set texts? Not that English literature students need much institutional support for their skiving.

But a trigger warning doesn't have to be a do-not-enter notice. It could be a road sign, simply informing travellers of the kind of place they're about to enter: welcome to our village, twinned with patriarchy since publication date. And for every one of the works I've named above, I could write you an elaborate defence of the misogynistic content, contextualising it, explaining its artistic necessity or the way the author is interrogating patriarchy rather than simply replicating it. In some instances, I'd even believe what I was telling you.

That's not the point, though: the point is that this is what our art is made of, and until we notice that, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence? Trigger warnings are crude. They are patronising. Yes, they suggest that you the reader need to be protected from art. But get over all that and see them instead as beads on an abacus, counting up the many destructions of humanity that have gone into making our white, male canon: tick-tick-tick-tick – until at some point the frame topples over, and we realise that we must make something new and different if we can ever live beyond violence.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
Show Hide image

Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution