Thursday, April 24, 2014

known far and wide as Fabulatorius



His characters always have those potential afterlives but the afterlife is not always the same kind of afterlife. The earlier books are the ones in which he's more realistic, if that's the right word, realism, when I think back over his work, now looking like the unexploded seed of the later ghosts and Gods and those books where the importance of a character will be established with “he was a king,” or “she was Persephone,” no longer the unknown dreamy person living in poverty whose importance is established with pages of thought described; all of those poor people being secret kings at heart and all of the kings secretly poor people.

The early Powys character is not actually returning to life but only exerting an unnatural influence over the living as the protagonist Adrian does, for example, in the author's second book, Rodmoor, which ends with a woman dragging Adrian's fresh corpse into the sea because she wants to keep him away from his fiancé, who does not deserve him. “It seemed as though the demon of madness, which had passed from Adrian at the last, and left him free, had entered into her.”

Death is still a dramatic event in the later novels but it is no longer the prime dramatic event and Thomas Hardy has stopped steering the tragic rhythm of the plot. A child has taken over from Hardy and the child barely recognises death, it only knows the linear game of now-what-happens, so that in Real Wraiths Powys starts with a king of ghosts who is – he's something: what is he? He is unhappy. All right, now what does he do? He talks to a pair of iron railings. Then he talks to his ghostly subjects. He has a friend. He trusts his friend. Never mind. The story has veered off with two of the subjects, who are Welsh, and who are lovers or not: “in a sense they had been lovers too” while they were alive, so the matter is up in the air – well, they have exchanged vows, “Tang remembered the day, long before they both died, when he first told her that he loved her,” and then, without explanation they are siblings but apparently not lovers any more although there's a fleeting allusion much later on (“Wang and Tang glanced knowingly at each other as their minds flew back to various incidents in former days”), and the king disappears from the book along with the enormous genocidal plans he's been making (what happened to those? what happened to his fellow plotter and planner, whose name is Mr. Glottenko?), though for a short while it looked as if the story was going to be his story, the king's story, because it is introduced with a sentence that asks you to settle down and prepare for a fairy tale about his problems.

The King of Blaenau-Ffestiniog ghost-world was known far and wide as Fabulatorius; and when he came up on the last day of April from visiting the body of Cockatrice Cuff as that gentleman lay at rest in his coffin, the gossip among the neighbouring ghosts was more disturbing than it had been known in that district for many a long year.


That sentence would love you to care about his troubles but the rest of the sentences don't want it so passionately, they lose their concentration, they are distracted. Shortly they don't care one way or the other and you're let off the hook, you can wander off with the siblings Wang and Tang, the prose giving you its permission, in fact insisting on it, and nobody knows who this Cockatrice Cuff might have been anyway.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

accordingly bred



When Powys mentions different races he will stress the differences between them, and he often pedestalises them too. His Welsh are a supernaturally inward, mythic and recalcitrant group (it is his own description of himself in the Autobiography, exported to other people -- it is also the reason why his version of Owen Glendower doesn't win his war -- he is too Welsh to win --), and his “Red Indians” are spiritual in ways that he doesn't define. There was once a time when young British boys and girls heard so much about Red Indians that they loved them, those cunning noblemen of foliage, who exist literarily and childlikely and not really, in the way that the Orient exists and doesn't exist for Borges when he writes about The Thousand and One Nights. There are no Orientals, he says, no actual human being is an Oriental, and in the same vein I declare that there are no Red Indians, not in the flesh, and they never were in the flesh.

The old play-age love sometimes appeared in the books that these people made as adults, not always of course but sometimes, obvious example, Peter Pan; and when Peake in Gormenghast wants to describe his professors in their common room he refers to them as Red Indians camped out under the smoke of their pipes. Always some fantastic removal in these descriptions, the Red Indians divorced from their assumed North American setting, as they were when the authors were still allowing the imaginary race to possess them in the gardens of their parents' homes. The only real Red Indians were European children. There is a photograph of one of Peake's boys crouched on a lawn with a bow, arrow, and headband, maybe Sebastian, who died last year, the arrow of his trajectory taking him into the profession of a wine merchant, like the father of John Ruskin, who was also a wine merchant. I must have mentioned this before. I know I did. Why did Ruskin not become a wine merchant? His mother wanted him to become an evangelical clergyman.

'Devoting me to God,' meant, as far as my mother knew herself what she meant, that she would try to send me to college, and make a clergyman of me: and I was accordingly bred for 'the Church.' My father, who — rest be to his soul — had the exceedingly bad habit of yielding to my mother in large things and taking his own way in little ones, allowed me, without saying a word, to be thus withdrawn from the sherry trade as an unclean thing.


Why did he not become an evangelical clergyman?

I had Walter Scott's novels and the Iliad, (Pope's translation,) for constant reading when I was a child, on week-days: on Sunday their effect was tempered by Robinson Crusoe and the Pilgrim's Progress; my mother having it deeply in her heart to make an evangelical clergyman of me. Fortunately, I had an aunt more evangelical than my mother; and my aunt gave me cold mutton for Sunday's dinner, which — as I much preferred it hot — greatly diminished the influence of the Pilgrim's Progress, and the end of the matter was, that I got all the noble imaginative teaching of Defoe and Bunyan, and yet — am not an evangelical clergyman.


It seems natural to assume that it must have been a more complicated weaning that is here boiled down to the binary difference between hot and cold mutton. On one side there is a clergyman named John Ruskin, the other side no clergyman but a representational emptiness, the difference, the temperature of a dead sheep. Margaret Ruskin has been thwarted by fire, the element whose effect upon her son happens to map itself over the words of weeping Heraclitus: “All things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things.” So his utter future might be changed in one direction or another direction as if by a switch but the switch is heat: he depicts it as heat, he might have depicted it as something else; the aunt probably had other peccadillos that he could have chosen. He sounds playful and also bullying (bullying is a form of play), because one possible effect of a binary is to make the reader protest, saying, no it's not that simple, it can't be that simple, what are you telling me?

You can't argue fruitfully against a page, and the sentence in Praeterita has obscured the complications of the living movement, oh, says the author, it really was the cold mutton, because I said so. There is the joy of invention, and mysteries, and secrets, which is also Powys' joy, I say to myself, when I remember the satisfaction he gets out of his personal “fetishes,“ the deep, he says, inexplicable wonder of those fetishes and quirks, the right that he abrogates to himself, to disable himself socially so that he can deepen his acquaintance with those fetishes, the stubbornness, the refusals, the way he will tell you that such a thing is so because he says so, no matter what other suggestions present themselves – his strong love of binaries – which may just mean that they were both British people of a certain class.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

with a waving trail



To melt and yet to be rescued, such is his fantasy, to “plunge, dive, sink into the whole great mass of universal matter” and still maintain a personality as your inalienable right. All of his dissimilarities are written in a mode of rescue (I further submit), the rescuement of the human spirit and soul as he sees it, in a battle that is still going on, a battle so important to him that it will appear in places where it is not otherwise necessary; a battle that Geoffrey Hill enters when he tells the audience during his Keble College lecture Legal Fictions and Legal Fiction that he does not condemn the British poet and critic William Empson for being the third son of a squire while he, Hill, was the son of a man who left school at thirteen to get a job sticking labels on large tins of jam, but rather "I am more inclined to rejoice in his ability to have his way with the language of proprietorship as one of several available possibilities in aid of a richly variegated poetic and critical verbal range."

It doesn't take a lot in Powys, it takes nothing more than a word: “no sooner was the word 'devil' uttered than the men thought of the Garden of Eden, and the women, including the General's lady, thought of God,” in All or Nothing. The General prefers Greek to Latin and the General's lady prefers Latin to Greek. A worm-man is named Wug and a slug-woman is named Zug. A sister is named Ting and a brother is named Ring. Those two names are touching but not utterly mingled. It's a shame incest is illegal, sighs another brother and sister in the same book. Then the brother in that couple marries Ting and the sister marries Ring, and one marriage has a daughter and the other marriage has a son and the son's nickname is a contraction of the first part of his name, “Malcolm or Mal,“ and the daughter's nickname is a contraction of the end of hers, “Leonora or Nora.“

One of the grandfathers, Lord Urk Cad, is another Powys character who gets his head smashed in and comes back as an apparition though this is not a significant part of the story. One of the mothers says they should throw the urine of Zug on this undead headless man “with a waving trail of blood-coloured smoke issuing from his neck,“ and the other mother says they should throw the urine of Wug, although both urines will have an identical effect: “they had discovered by experience that both the urine of Wug and the urine of Zug had a very deadly effect upon whatever plant they were squirted upon.“ It is possible to write endless hairsplitting differences about anything.

They found themselves in a large square chamber, with a fire burning in a big hearth; but, save for the fire, everything in the room was black, not so much “black as coal,” but “black as ink,” as “black as night.”

(Now that I am thinking of teasing differences I am going to say that I see it again in “large“ and “big,“ those two words also “touching but not utterly mingled.“)

You could write entire books in this mode, bringing up a leaf or a brick or a cherry in the first sentence and never getting away from it, so that hundreds of pages later you are still wondering if the cherry is as red as a ruby or as red as a fire engine, and how the reds change geographically across the surface as the cherry curves, and then there is the red where it approaches the plug-end of the cherry stalk, and the red where the cherry is bruised. There is no reason to stay with comparisons to objects that are actually red, so the red on the bruise could be as deep as the belch of a toad in an underground cavern, which is a comparison that Powys draws with something in The Brazen Head. I don't have my copy here or I'd look it up.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

we were at any time



Death in the late novellas is restless. Hades, at the end of Real Wraiths, decides to abdicate from his position as king of the Underworld and instead “plunge, dive, sink into the whole great mass of universal matter and become its living soul,” eliminating himself as himself, but the other characters will communicate with him afterwards, they say, in Switzerland, near the Alps, at “a chapel dedicated to William Tell.”

Would it make you feel better about erasing yourself if we promised to contact you? one of them asks. Hades says yes it would.

If we were all to make that, yes! the chapel of William Tell our home you would know where we were at any time and we would be able at any time to communicate with you our Lord and Master now become the Soul of Matter.


It is not only the late books either, come to think of it. Powys' oeuvre as a whole assumes that a dead person might possibly go on speaking and being spoken to, or at least they will be in communication with the rest of society in one way or another (that corpse in Porius), or anyway that death is not always the end of personality, and that the dead can still be treated like the people that they used to be, these late stories not always bothering to introduce the person before they died, instead starting straight off with them dead and ghostly in a kingdom of ghosts. “Before they set off from Florence to Venice they had to be interviewed by the king of the Florentine ghosts. His name was Tarralalanko ...”

I have to say "might possibly go on" because it doesn't always happen. "Lalanika was dead, and all the consciousness she had had was lost forever." (All or Nothing) Lalanika is a star, by the way. Sleeping, she wakes and finds the human character Nezzar Nu staring at her weirdly from the foot of the bed. Then she tears off the nightdress that she has borrowed from Jilly Tewky and explodes.

I wasn't thinking about Powys two posts ago when I wrote the words “and every character would come back as a ghost, not really gone, just feinting, now returning to continue the story in a slightly different way,” but that is what happens in Real Wraiths when Persephone smashes her brains out on a stone. “What was her astonishment when after only a second of total blackness she found herself in an ecstasy of happiness such as she had not known since her childhood, being embraced by the real wraith of her mother!”

They fly away to join the rest of the cast, Wang, Tang, Pop, Sock, the Devil, and King Hades, who have all gone to the planet Venus, which is very soft unless you spit on it, which is Powys' way of introducing the mother/whore dichotomy into the book, using this violent whimsy and then passing on to other ideas, leaving me to wonder why the idea is there. Why the brutality of spitting? By this point in his life he has become a pedestalising feminist who will tell you that there are strong differences between men and women but neither one is inferior to the other, though the extreme female characteristics of some characters are frequently superior to the extreme masculine characteristics of other characters, and he occasionally will bung his female characters together in an undifferentiated clump; and the pedestalising tactic of course has severe problems on bothly sexed sides when you apply it to actual people, one size not fitting all.

I submit that he is a feeler, not a thinker, and that his absolute love of juxtaposition and difference makes that enthusiastic pedestal conclusion a natural one for him, the man having trained himself in a habit of oppositions as I have already noted, amen, so that opposition and juxtaposition were the modes that felt right to him; and similarity felt cold, scientific, and unnatural.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

something in us that watches these outward things



All of this leads me back to John Cowper Powys, who, at the end of his life, wrote at least two novellas with apocalyptic storylines, the earth committing suicide in Up and Out, and the characters deciding to abandon the entire planet so that they can start a commune on the Asteroid Nubilium in Two and Two. The Titan Typhoeus visits the Asteroid Nubilium, and he and Wat Kums, who is the ruler of the commune, become such good friends that they fly away together into even deeper space until universal nature is changing around them.

But in any case and in whatever direction they were going, on and on they went, at a terrific pace, into absolute Nothingness, without Sun or Moon or Stars, without hope or fear; but at least aware that they were friends.

Both of these books are massively peopled. Life ends or life is dismissed but life keeps pouring in, multiple gods and demons arrive, Chinese philosophers ride up on turtles, the stars talk (“And then Aldebaran assumed control of the whole situation”), the newcomers bicker, they explain themselves, and they behave in ways that are humanly rather than godly. God and Satan hold a long discussion after the suicide of the earth and God decides that he will commit suicide too. His motivation is a human motivation. The decisions confronting him are confusing and the confusion has paralysed him. “I am at my wits' end.”

All of the characters eliminate themselves completely, following the example of God. “But who will hear my last words?” asks Gor the narrator. “Oh, I do so, so want somebody to hear them! I want someone, somewhere, to know how deeply I understood the best Greek and Latin poets! Yes! It's to you, somebody, somewhere, that I'm talking now!” […] There must be somebody there, there must, there must, there must, there must be somebody!” The reader knows that there is, because they're it. And then there is the room or lawn around them, a confirmation that the world did not end. In Two and Two the characters decide to leave their bodies and join infinity but it is made clear that this does not mean abandoning their personalities and there is no chance of their bodiless selves drifting into someone else's bodiless self and getting mixed up or combined or adulterated. Their separate consciousness will remain absolutely distinct. In fact their distinct selves are imperishable. “According to this view the self-hood of each of us, which includes in it the shape and attributes of our former body can never vanish away.”

“Gallant Mrs Smith” reiterates that last idea in You and Me.

Why shouldn't this something, Professor, this something in us that watches these outward things and considers the fate of these outward things, the something that has the inherent power to survive when all these outward things including the outside universe, have entirely vanished?”

Powys illustrates Colebrook's point and exacerbates it, the end of the earth (either by disintegration or abandonment) leading to fecundity and the end of the body leading to impenetrable personal boundaries. You do not go into the afterlife alone, and death is not a moment of isolation. You do not go into a silent void. You talk. There is no peace. There is no rest. There is only assertion.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

the supposedly self-maintaining organism



Claire Colebrook's Death is not about Modernism, though I quoted from it a few posts ago and that quote was a quote about Modernism; but she is writing about the extinction of the human race. The arts are not dealing well, she says. One day it will happen but we are not prepared. Artists go up to a point and then they baulk. All of our post-apocalypses have people in them. The end of the world will come and go and we think will still be running around the streets shooting vampires. Summoned into a fresh life of weary heroism. Untrue! This is where prose and its “disintegration” come into her argument. “[I]t is only when writing is liberated from life, when one no longer grounds systems of inscription on the supposedly self-maintaining organism, that one disrupts the normalizing figure of bodily life.” The apocalypse is the moment of incorruptable disruption. The normalizing figure of bodily life will vanish.

Modernism seems optimistically added-on in this book, not conclusive or even decisive – it comes along like a thought that has just occurred to her -- but her central point still stands, and if personal death had always been dealt with as falsely as species death usually is, then literature, I think, would feel like a more dishonest enterprise or maybe a more relentlessly playful one, very sweatily playful, until frivolous might be the word I'm looking for, and every character would come back as a ghost, not really gone, just feinting, now returning to continue the story in a slightly different way, maybe with two heads, the equivalent of the post-apocalypse with the campfire 'mongst the muddy ruins and all the can openers gone missing.

Or else the last person on earth poisons themselves and the book ends there, predicting the moment of disintegration but not venturing in, or it is like John Crowley's Little, Big and the cast has moved on to a different place, the slow crumbling of the old place described by the author but this description is a sweetly sad goodbye from a creator who can't follow them to the next iteration of their existences. They have gone to fairyland, which is beyond description. Their adventures will have to be imagined in some other way. Dead but not dead dead. Equivalent to the inhabitants of an escape pod volunteering for detachment from the mother ship. Compare Gertrude Stein at the end of The Making of Americans, hammering herself spastically into a cul de sac. She tries to summarise everything, she gives up, there's nowhere smaller to go, she has pounded her “history of men and women” into fragments but each set of words, no matter how basic they are, makes her pen hop on to another set of words, nothing final, but nothing more to say that is meaningful either, the story told and told and told but the words keep coming in their ever-tinier permutations, rattling on almost beyond meaning but retaining a trace of it, that indelible serpent of intent.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

balance, poise, and relative gravitation



A word in Hill is always volatile, excluding those nuts and nails like "the" or "of" and could you write a poem that would make no other word volatile except those words? -- so you always knew that cordial meant polite and not drink, even though you never knew if the meant for instead? The word "vivisector" in John Cowper Powys, however, is unwaveringly evil. It is like an "and" for Powys. It always means the same thing. "[W]e soon got an entrance to all the cruellest and wickedest vivisection laboratories in New York City." (Up and Out.) "For the wickedest and most abominable practise made use of in these modern days is vivisection." (Two and Two.) "From the point of view of our mysterious System-of-Things, to be a vivisector at all is to put yourself on the side of evil against good." (Morwyn. The ghost of the Marquis de Sade is speaking.)

Then he couples it with the word "scientist," and if I had the library's copy of The Inmates still with me I could quote one of those paragraphs about the scientific institutions of Britain giving the vivisectionist asylum owner its top awards and honours.

But Powys himself likes to take scientific language and scientific discoveries for his own use, inventing personal “currents” and “rays” and “fields,” and sending one of his people to “electricity school” where she learns to build “a neat little ball of electrified feathers” so that she can fly. Plundering the enemy he is inspired by the enemy; he perverts the hard world of science that he sees, he rewrites it fantastically, he is a parasite upon it, he will resist his parasite status, he whimsies it, he allows the word “astronomy” into Up and Out but immediately he diverts it away from itself.

“You mean,” murmured Rhitha, with just the faintest tinge of mischief in her smile, ”those books about galaxies and nebulae; things of which I never hear mention without wondering why one of them ends with a Latin plural and the other with an English plural! Is that because a Latin plural means they can't ever stop going on, while an English plural means that we just don't know whether they stop or don't stop?”


So he plays. The characters in Morwyn survive the trip to Hell through a vague invocation of mythic-scientific principles. The seriousness here is similar to the seriousness of Carnacki the Ghost Finder  when he discusses his famous electric pentacle, though it is more elaborate in Powys. I am telling you a fantasy as if it is not lies.

The blow carried down the whole block of stone, carried it down to the centre of the earth with ourselves on it, but it was so large that it must have carried with it, if not some of its own atmosphere, at least something of its own balance, poise, and relative gravitation, so that it was really like sinking down with our feet securely planted on a solid segment of our planet and all the while being protected from the whole spatial sensation of "up and down" by some of the deepest laws of the cosmos.


The problem he has with real scientists is that they're not mystic enough. Carnacki would be closer to his ideal. “I came to make the Electric Pentacle, which is a most marvellous 'Defense' against certain manifestations. I used the shape of the defensive star for this protection, because I have, personally no doubt at all but that there is some extraordinary virtue in the old magic figure.” (The Gateway of the Monster.) Every scientist, in Powys' perfect world, would have the Carnackian instinct for magic.