David Jones (1895 – 1974) was a British painter, artist, poet, and writer. Born into a Welsh family living in England, he spent many years in Wales. In his mid twenties, he converted to Roman Catholicism. His experiences in the Great War as a soldier with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, religious beliefs, and Welsh heritage helped form his work.
Recently, I read Epoch and Artist, a collection of his earlier writings, collected and republished in 1959. It was tough going. He was an extremely smart, well-educated man, who spent a lot of time thinking about art, life, spirituality, and the relationships among those three things. He frequently wandered into military metaphors, which since I spent time in uniform, I found comforting. I understood them.
In an essay on the dilemma between creating goods that were convenient and useful, but shoddy and without an artistic esthetic, he wrote
“I have no advice to offer except to suggest that the reader should make his own reconnaissances. From his own limited bit of trench he may quite possibly secure identifications which may clarify the situation on other sectors. At least he will know, by direct contact, the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front. Which is more than they know at H. Q. [headquarters] for all of their revised maps.
“The contractual is essential. You have to have been there. Ars [Latin for a female personification of art, skill, and craft] is adamant about one thing: she compels you to do an infantryman’s job. She insists on the tactile. The artist in man is the infantryman in man, so that . . . all men are [by birth, members] of this infantry, though not all serve with this infantry. To pursue the analogy, this continued employment away from the unit [that is, pursuing a life not actively making art] has made habitual and widespread a staff mentality. Today most of us are staff-wallahs of one sort or another. [Staff-wallahs are people who run things for other people, but would never think of doing the activity themselves.]”
That comment, “We have to have been there” goes far beyond the topic he was addressing in the essay. In that one sentence beats the heart of being a creative person. We can read all we want about our chosen art. We can talk about it, and think about it. The absolute essence is that we do it, starting from wherever we are at any given moment.
A couple of years ago I met a man who didn’t go exploring what was in front of him. At a writing class’ first meeting, he said he so wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how to begin. The next week, his first class submission was rough and disjointed, but it had real potential, and class members told him that. The next class, he had nothing to submit. Same thing the third class. He didn’t show up the fourth class, or ever again.
I ran into him a few months later and said how sorry we were that he hadn’t continued. “Oh,” he replied, “I discovered I wasn’t a real writer,” and proceeded to give me all the reasons why he wasn’t. He’d never had the advantages that the rest of us in class had. (To this day, I wonder what he thought those advantages were.) His ideas weren’t any good. (Actually, they were quiet good.) He didn’t have time to devote to writing. (Maybe he didn’t, but he could have found some.) Writing wasn’t really important in the world, anyway. (Talk about not knowing what the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front.) He’d love, just love, to be a writer, but it was obvious after the first class that future was closed to him.
It was so sad, and I knew there was nothing I could do but wish him well in whatever he chose to do in place of writing.
Insist on the tactile. Be a writer.