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  • “Artificial Guts”: Labor and the Body in David Jones’s In Parenthesis

David Jones’s Great War epic In Parenthesis (1937) is deeply concerned with the value of war labor. The poem’s protagonist, John Ball, a semi-autobiographical representation of Jones himself, takes his name from a priest who led the peasants’ rebellion of 1381, indicating that the appropriation, evaluation, and even sanctity of labor are central themes of the poem.1 Many of the complications In Parenthesis brings to modernist poetics and themes have remained obscured by scholars’ ongoing refutation of Paul Fussell’s influential misreading of the poem as valorizing the war in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). More recent criticism has demonstrated that the poem is much more ambiguous and ironic than Fussell and his followers believed, and it has moved the debate beyond an argument about whether or not Jones is an apologist for war.2 In this article, I want to shift the focus away from the poem’s ostensible attitudes toward the nobility or ignominy of the First World War and toward what it reveals about reactions to the new technologies it engendered—poison gas, the tank, increasingly powerful hand-held explosives, and prosthetic reconstructions of the human form—with particular regard to their effects on interwar conceptions of the body as a site of labor. In Parenthesis is arguably more about the quotidian reality of laboring to produce the war than it is either condemnation or redemption. Perhaps more than any other text drawing on personal experience of combat, it shows that trench warfare and attrition meant daily rebuilding what was daily destroyed, merely to stay alive, and if possible, to interrupt the life-sustaining labor of the enemy. The poem presents Jones’s larger concerns about artistic and social unity, their fragmentation in the face of technological [End Page 691] and modern mass culture, and the increasingly tenuous role of homo faber, the artist who works to construct the artificial, “human-made” world. In a foreboding climax that imagines postwar reconstruction and reintegration, modern technologies that have aided in the fragmentation of the world are tasked with reassembling not just the human-made world, but the human body itself.

The name John Ball also indicates that Jones is deeply concerned with the way labor is evaluated and who benefits from the most basic forms of physical labor. The historical John Ball’s best-known sermon was an egalitarian call to reevaluate the way labor was appropriated and rewarded. The rebellion itself, and the sermon, would have been best known to Jones and his immediate audience from William Morris’s 1887 text A Dream of John Ball, which recounts Ball’s involvement in the rebellion. Morris quotes from Ball’s most famous sermon the iconic rhetorical question, “When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the Gentleman[?]”3 While the John Ball of In Parenthesis is more concerned with describing labor than questioning its legitimacy or its beneficiaries, Jones’s preface to the poem makes clear that he is concerned as much with precisely how the war was brought into physical being (contrasting its earlier “attractive amateurishnsess and room for elbow-room” with its later, more mechanized execution) as with the other major themes of language and mythology.4

For this consideration of representations of labor in In Parenthesis, I will be following Hannah Arendt’s definition of the term as one of three modes of human activity. Arendt differentiates between labor, work, and action, positing that labor is the activity that produces the daily means of existence, whereas work builds and perpetuates the artificial human-made world, and action introduces a change, for good or ill, to that artificial construct.5 In Arendt’s definition, labor is ephemeral, producing that which is immediately consumed to sustain life. Of course, the labor of the soldiers during the First World War also produced economic value, as Jones was well aware, for those who benefited from the war. For the “man who was on the field,” however, the physical labor of maintaining the conditions of the war was necessary to sustain an always tenuous existence, and was the...

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