Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Runes, redemption, signs, sacraments and selfishness

Odd how things sometimes come together. Some recent random reading has included David Jones’ book length poem The Anathemata, a bit of Swedenborg, and John Michell’s Megalithomania. Artists, antiquarians and archaeologists at the old stone monuments (a readable and relatively objective account, unmuddied by Michell’s usual New Age confusions).

In a chapter on “freaks of interpretation” of prehistoric rock inscriptions, Michell tells the story of Professor Finn Magnussen (Finnur Magnússon), who in the 1830’s transcribed and translated what he took to be extensive runic inscriptions in an unknown script, carved on the Runamo rock in Sweden. He revealed them to be a set of five heroic poems celebrating the victory of the Battle of Bråvalla, a lost masterpiece of early Scandinavian literature. This academic triumph was rather tarnished a few years later when geologists proved the “inscriptions” to be entirely natural fissures in the rock surface. Magnusson was mercilessly mocked, but stuck to his guns till his dying day.

This was not his only petroglyphic misinterpretation (a hazardous branch of scholarship, it seems), but it did take the biscuit. The extent of his self-delusion is breath-taking. In his defence, he cited the unanimous judgement of literary scholars that the poem was an absolute masterpiece. If so, that only makes his creative achievement all the more remarkable. It follows that, without the paranoiac process of “translation” on which to construct it, he could never have written something of such quality.

Is creativity, then, rooted in self-delusion? A delusory experience of discovery? If it is, it can be no more than egotistical folly.

Which makes creativity problematic for the Christian. My wife recently met someone, now ordained, who went through a conversion experience (triggered by Jesus walking into his room) while an art student. He made the prayerful decision to abandon art as a career path because he feared that, as an ego-driven pursuit, it would conflict with his new faith – a perfectly understandable point of view. This was maybe rather more than art being a bit of a diversion from what is important; the self-indulgent is, after all, essentially useless.

The notion of “use” brings me to the 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I hadn’t realised that he had started out as an engineer and an anatomist. In The Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom he speaks extensively of the human anatomy as evidence of divine love. Proof of this is the usefulness of every part:

“… all things therein and each smallest individual unit of them are formed in accordance with a use and for that use … This is the Arcanum that results as a conclusion: Man embraces within himself all uses whatever existing in the spiritual and natural worlds … for life from the Lord embraces within itself all uses to infinity …”

Swedenborg, albeit a visionary and a bit of a nutter, correctly insists that his Understanding “is an enlightened rational one”; these are values of the Enlightenment and of the utilitarian Protestantism that shaped it.

No such premium on usefulness for Catholic convert David Jones. (To read Jones you need an open encyclopedia at your elbow, but every now and again, among the obscurantism and the archaic Welsh names, even in the middle of a footnote, prophetic truths leap out.) The “anathemata” of Jones’ title are:

“.. the blessed things that have taken on what is cursed and the profane things that somehow are redeemed … that partake of the extra-utile and the gratuitous; things that are the signs of something other … Things set up, lifted up, or in whatever manner made over to the gods …

… If there is any evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion, because the extra-utile is the mark of man. For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.”

There. For Swedenborg, man embraces within himself all uses whatever, but for Jones, the extra-utile is the mark of man. Jones’ arguments concerning art as sign and sign as sacrament are well known, but are sometimes summarised down to a sort of weedy creation spirituality: in our creative activity we share in the work of the Creator, and so on. But here he seems to be claiming something well beyond this. The useless, better understood as the extra-utile, is the character of the artefact as sign, as sacramental. And it is by the sacramental that we “participate directly in the benefits of the Passion”. If this is so, the same selfishness that was our undoing now provides, if not the means of redemption, then at least a sure approach to it. And therein, it seems to me, is a great Mystery.

Should anatomist Swedenborg have looked for a gratuitously ornamental bit of the human body as the sign of its divine life? And in his self-delusion, did Finn Magnussen uncover a secret far greater than any saga? If so, I hope my wife’s acquaintance still picks up a pencil from time to time.

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One response to “Runes, redemption, signs, sacraments and selfishness

  1. alden May 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Dear Richard,

    would it be possible to send you an image of a sculpture by Lawrence Atkinson which I am researching and I would be grateful for any light you could shed on the piece.

    Thank you

    Alden bennett

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