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John Gray’s Park

June 22, 2009

The subject was born about 300 years ago, in some remote community, probably mountainous, for mountains have a peculiar and exhilarating effect on the subject, unknown to the infidels, for it is probably in their territory, where religion and culture have, Deo adiuvante, survived.
What became of John Gray? As a young thing in the 1880s he caught the attention of Oscar Wilde, acting as at least in part as the model for Dorian Gray. He spent the nineties as perfect specimen of the artist in that decade, putting distance between himself and his working class Bethnal Green background and writing short poems in the decadent style for The Yellow Book before committing to Catholicism. He was one of the many posing and practicing somdomites (as the Marquess of Queensbury might have had it), a Uranian poet blessed with exquisite beauty, heaven-bent.

Gray spent a great deal of effort attempting to reconcile his homosexuality with his religion; he became a priest in Edinburgh, and spent the remainder of his life with his partner Marc-Andre Raffalovich. The two men died, within four months of each other, in 1934.

Of course, Gray is not the only artist of this period to have moved towards Catholicism. There were those such as Beardsley and Wilde who were more Catholic at the point of their deaths than they had ever been during life, but what is striking about Gray is that his Decadent mannerisms segue into his later religious temperament with a seamlessness and thoroughness matched only by J.-K. Huysmans. Perhaps every febrile symbolist had spiritual expectations; not all realized them quite so fully.

Gray remained artistically active, composing the bizarre and widely unread novella Park in 1932. Park demonstrates the seamlessness of Gray’s conversion, and is exactly the kind of thing that you would expect to emanate from a mind tuned to the correct pitch by a youth spent dandling symbols and producing powdered, painted poems.

Park, subtitled A fantastic story, concerns a priest named after the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. The real Mungo Park disappeared whilst attempting to find the source of the Niger; Gray’s Mungo Park is shot by a dart while walking in the Cotswolds and wakes up in a utopian community governed by a black African race who conduct all their conversations in immaculate Church Latin. The implication is that we are somewhere in a future world where white people are in decline; Park is thoroughly examined and learns with interest that he is hundreds of years old. Park also comes to realize, with only modest surprise, that he is black – this is a claim that Gray was known to make about himself). Around the same period, Evelyn Waugh wrote a story on a very similar theme called ‘Out of Depth’; perhaps this was a common fancy of the Catholic imagination.

Gray’s enthusiasm for Africa, his piety, his gently alienating use of experimental typography and his reserved interest in modern utopian communities such Eric Gill’s Ditchling project all inform the strange shape of this novella.

Park is a tale about feeling weirdly oriented between a strange future and even stranger pasts. And indeed Gray’s art, like that of the poet-painter David Jones and the sculptor and typographer Gill, is both deeply traditionalist (reaching back to a pre-reformation, catholic tradition in which form isn’t secondary to intellect) and unshowily modernist (in its probably unintentional peculiarity, and it renewal of historical modes of thought.)

As the notes made about Park by his carers / captors have it:

The supposition is that through some great misadventure, whether vicious & excessive indulgence (favoured), bereavement, crime, disgrace, fear of torture, or rash psychic experiment (extremely favoured), he came under the domination of a remote ancestral survival in his consciousness; so thoroughly that he acts, speaks, thinks, and remembers in the person of that ancestor.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Fingal Flahertie permalink
    July 2, 2009 11:16 am

    i confess, i read this post after reading Momus ‘Norman Humperson’ post and i suspected it was hoax. Only after i found a John Gray (poet) wikipedia page, with some difficulty i might add, did i begin to trust that it might actually be genuine. I became reasonably certain after ordering ‘Park’, for a very reasonable eighty english pence.

  2. July 2, 2009 12:42 pm

    I give you nothing but the facts!

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