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Play Among the Ruins: David Jones, Meaning, and Play



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Assaly, Alex Michael 


In “Art in Relation to War,” David Jones makes a terse, but stimulating comment on art and the creative process: “An act of art is essentially a gratuitous act. [...] It is essentially ‘play.’” The aim of this dissertation is to examine Jones’s work in relation to the concept of playfulness. Although it makes the most of play’s various associations (pleasure, joyousness, games, children’s play), this dissertation uses the word to describe an activity that is gratuitous (that serves no end other than itself) and, moreover, that is paradoxically material and immaterial, rule-bound (containing aesthetic, intellectual, and theoretical constraints) and free, at once. By approaching Jones’s poetic and visual work by way of the word play, this dissertation provides a model of interpretation that is new to Jones studies and puts pressure on the serious and statement-driven modes of interpretation often used by his readers. “Play Among the Ruins: David Jones, Meaning, and Play” begins with an Introduction that examines the working sense of play that emerges in Jones’s essays and letters. After defining play as a gratuitous act, this introductory chapter positions Jones’s sense of the word in relation to his Catholic beliefs and, later, to the playful aspects of his subjective life, particularly his child-like behaviour and what Donald Winnicott would describe as his issues around personal attachment and development. Additionally, this chapter provides the reader with a definition and history of play, touching upon various theoretical uses of the word by thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Schiller. Chapter 1 then considers play in the context of aesthetic interpretation. The chapter examines the ways that Jones’s reviewers have applied constricting models of interpretation to his poetic and visual work and culminates in analyses of Paul Fussell and Elizabeth Ward’s unsympathetic studies of Jones. The chapter then ends by defining a mode of interpretation that is essentially playful and creative and, in turn, better suited to Jones’s own sense of his ideal readership. Building off of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 examines the “sacramental scholarship” that has developed around Jones. The chapter puts pressure on theologically strict applications of the words “sacrament” and “signum efficax” to Jones’s art and suggests that there is a crucial fissure between his beliefs and his artistic pursuits. Chapter 3 then turns to his art. The chapter draws attention to his early visual art, finding a connection between theories of children’s art and the styles he developed in the 1920s and 30s. Chapter 4 considers the stylistic play of In Parenthesis, using the amateurish behaviour of the book’s protagonist as a model by which to approach the book’s verbivocovisual experimentations in form. Chapter 5 looks at The Anathemata and, in particular, Jones’s understanding of the playfulness of the creative process. After considering the relationship between the trope of the game and mythopoetic conceptions of time, it turns to Jones’s characterisation of God as “the Master of the Harlequinade” and the ways in which his poem encourages humans to assume an analogical role of playful creator.





Milne, Drew


David Jones, Play, Playfulness, Caritas, Meaning, In Parenthesis, The Anathemata, Dying Gaul, Children's Art, Kettle's Yard


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge