All entries for Tuesday 20 March 2007

March 20, 2007

Literature of Cymraeg – ‘The Present Situation’ by R.M. Jones.


‘Welsh literature today seems to be tackling the contemporary situation at a tangent’ (271). So begins R.M. Jones’ essay on the place of Welsh literature in contemporary society. Jones admits that Welsh literature has been littered with, ‘corpses of undeveloped capacity’, and he notes that still-born acclamations about developing writers need to be approached with caution (271). The efforts of Welsh literature of late have been focussed on ‘a struggle to maintain adulthood’ and there have been some ‘failures’ (271). Jones does not mention any examples here and it leaves one wondering what his criteria are for success and failure.

However, Jones is adamant that there has been some success discovered through a ‘radicalism’ that diverges from ‘the mainstream in more politically powerful European literatures’ (271). This kind of literature apparently uses ‘a consternating Welshness’ (271). For Jones, this is a specific kind of radicalism quote unlike the conventional sort that is ‘usually pretty imitative, the direct contradiction of what radicalism has to be’ (272). This definition is a little vague, but is explained in further depth later on. Jones is also not keen on the avant-garde stating that it, ‘palls pretty well everywhere within and without Wales, and tends to become mannerized’ (272). Jones is not very open to the possibilities of avant-garde experimentation, but rather he desires a literature that experiments not, ‘in the well-worn avant-garde manner [making something of an assumption here], but in a way that gets to grips with the contemporary situation in a definite environment, not simply to submit to it, but to wrestle with it, and utilize in its perception an acquaintance with the best of international literature, particularly the relevant European tradition which may induce maturation in a fully civilized sense both intellectually and emotionally’ (272).

Jones is worried about journalistic claims of Wales’ literary brilliance and he believes that such assertions often manifest ‘the populist oppression within a minority culture, lacking in seriousness, and not really interested in literature at all’ (272). Some Welsh writers do display ‘stubborn artistic talents’ though.

One cause for anxiety according to Jones is that Wales’ preoccupations are much the same as the rest of Europe: ‘In criticism, Derridian disciples together with feminists hold sway; lively novelists attempt new territory in magical realism, the unreliable narrator, aporia and intertextuality; while ‘new’ poets and dramatists often resemble the old ones to a worrying extent’ (272). I am surprised that Jones find the development of Derridian and feminist theory such a threat. Do Derrida and feminist theory really dominate criticism? I also do not agree that such movements (labelled “fashions” by Jones) ‘were curiously inappropriate anyhow in the context of a Welsh nation perpetually in “terminal crisis” ’ (273). I feel particularly strongly in the case of feminism. How can Jones reasonably state that feminism has no relevance to Wales?

Jones writes that it is only ‘susceptible writers’ who respond to such “fashions” as a means of copying ‘a big neighbour’ (273). This then is the so-called conventional radicalism mentioned earlier by Jones which is supposedly ‘more prone to the predictable’ (273). Superior to this, according to Jones, are writers who are ‘more soaked in Welshness, both Welshness of engagement and in native formalism’, a statement that needs questioning (272). What does Jones mean by ‘soaked in Welshness’ and ‘Welshness of engagement’? These seem to be essentialist concepts tied to the shoring up of nationality and this is also suggested by Jones’ feeling that the nation in crisis is threatened by feminism and the theorising of Derrida. On the one hand, I can understand Jones’ anxiety about theory, because feminists have had similar worries about postmodernism for example. Just as a whole feminist subject was being created, postmodernist theory appeared with recommendation for the disintegration of whole identity. I think that Jones feels similarly here, but his anxiety is misled. In fact, it is Welsh writers using both English (e.g. Robert Minhinnick) and Cymraeg (e.g. Gwyneth Lewis, Elin ap Hywel) who are leading the way to understanding the nation’s and individual subject’s internal difference, otherness or strangeness.

Jones suggests that a revival of Cymraeg is occurring in Wales, however tainted that may be by: ‘an annoying revitalization for all things Welsh; ‘the erstwhile inferiority complex’; ‘imperialist tendencies’; and some ‘animosity to the language’ (274). The literature of the revival rejects the narrow trajectory of burning modern issues and turns instead to ‘more profound problems’ (274). Jones suggests that the revival contains three groups:
1. a group in ‘a joyful struggle […] to rejuvenate Welsh vigour’ using Cymraeg to reflect issues relevant in the modern world;
2. a ‘traditional group’ of craft and simplicity which is ‘more defeatist’, involved in a ‘national struggle’, upholding conservative views about the Welsh forms, suffering an inferiority complex (?) and rejecting academic approaches to literature;
3. and imitators (‘a gullible group anxious to be in the swim’of London and the US), a group that is ‘dedicated to irony nihilism and deconstruction’, is ‘neurotic about being trendy’ and is ‘not greatly concerned with working out any individual thought within the thrust of Welsh life’ (272-273).
Jones definitions do not use any examples and he seems to be particularly scathing about the ‘imitators’, a category of writers that seems to emerge from his own anxiety rather than analysis, observation and understanding of literary trends.

Jones now begins to talk about the Welsh tradition of praise poetry which in present moment works as a means of criticising an ironic manner of being in the world (associated by Jones with English dominance) and Jones states that, ‘a servant of praise was also more than a way of being non-English: it was a statement about life’ (275). Praise is then, ‘a realization of the compulsory presence of affirmation in all creativity’ and ‘a celebration of survival’ (275-276).

The contemporary Welsh experience is nothing if it is not international, though not in the big-power sense. We have, up to the present, witnessed the worldwide imperialistic attempt to destroy peoples expeditiously and delete differences. Although the gentler, calmer annihilation of cultural diversity is not as sinister as the sudden physical extermination of a nation, the fact that it is more civilized and more hidden does not make results any the less effective. ‘Extirpate’ is the diverting term used in the Act of Union of England and Wales, and my dictionary explains this unambiguously as liquidate, however restrained and moderate may be its modern execution. The touchstone is the language. And the effective apposition to annihilation still remains praise. (276)

According to Jones, these issues of survival are heightened for a speaker of Cymraeg: ‘To write the language is to bleed’ (276).

Jones shifts now thinking about the content of Welsh literature. He believes that ‘self-conscious sex’ is not a popular topic, yet I wonder about Menna Elfyn, Elin ap Hywel etc. Jones worries that writers are too concerned with the ‘latest’ and that they fail to ‘discriminate’, a result of ‘the oppression of deconstruction’ (277). Again, I don’t agree and I wonder whether these are issues that concern academics rather than writers. Jones is positive about the resurgence of cynghanedd which to him represents ‘wisdom of the past’ (277). He talks a little about the development of Welsh strict forms during the twentieth century and commends Alan Llwyd for his synthesis of Welsh form and diverse reading of other traditions in poetry. Llwyd is also praised for resisting ‘Welsh tendencies to play down to the populace’ and for ‘maintain[ing] Welshness’ (279).

Taking another approach to the content of Welsh literature, Jones notes that Welsh poetry is, more political and socially involved’ when compared with English poetry, which is something of a generalisation (281). However, Jones does qualify his statement with the note that the society which Welsh literature emerges from, ‘has always been in ganger of utter and seemingly irreversible extinction’ (281). Religion has also been a central theme. There is also the tradition of free-verse writing e.g. Gerwyn William’s ‘Hel mwyar duon’.

In a general survey of Welsh literature Jones mentions a number of writers grouping them as follows:
• poets like Menna Elfyn, Dewi Stephen Jones and Einir Jones who have a special mention;
• women poets such as Gwyneth Lewis, Elin Ap Hywel, Nesta Wyn Jones, Einir Jones and Menna Elfyn;
• fiction writers like Marion Eames, Marged Pritchard, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts and Angharad Tomos;
• male fiction writers such as Aled Islwyn, Alun Jones, Bryan Martin Davies, John Emyr, Dafydd Ifans, JohnRowalnds, R. Gerallt Jones and Harri Pritchard Jones;
• a significant quartet of writers made of Robin Llywellyn, William Owen Roberts, Mihangel Morgan and Angharad Tomos.
• and three established novelists made up by John Rowlnds, Eigra Lewis Roberts and Jane Edwards.

In thinking about Welsh criticism, Jones notes that one important strand is feminism, although he makes some rather rude comments about feminists stating, ‘though they [feminists] may be criticized as ridiculous in many of their claims, lacking in humour, immature in their lack of balance, stridently narrow in perspective, and so on, they are just simply right’ (287). This is obviously a disgraceful act of stereotyping. Jones ploughs on though expressing approval that Welsh feminism, ‘has its own character’, as it considers the subjugation of women in ‘the context of Welsh national submission’ (288). Noting that the Cymraeg word for gender is a homonym with the Cymraeg word for nation (cenedl), Jones directs us to Jane Aaron, Ceridwen Llwyd-Morgan, Delyth George, Menna Elfyn, Branwen Jarvis, Marged Haycock, Eli nap Hywel and Menna Baines.

Ultimately though in thinking about criticism in Wales, Jones is concerned that there is less direction in evaluating texts. Yet Wales has its own traditions such as praise poetry, ‘green’ nationalism and Christian affirmation. From an English point of view these traditions might be seen as parochial. On the other hand, from England, Welsh writing has taken a Georgian and neo-Georgian influence that creates a Welsh Romanticism; this is seen as a threat by Jones. However, Jones finds sanctuary in the Cymraeg journals and it is here that Welsh traditions are apparently being maintained. Jones anxieties represent a strong feeling in Welsh scholarship, but I hope to show in my research that a writer in a minor culture like Wales can embrace a fragmented selfhood in a fruitful and generative creative process.

Johnston, Dafydd ed. A Guide to Welsh Literature c. 1900 -1996. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998. 271-294.


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