The price of finding answers

Part of my day job is writing about management development for UK business schools. One trend is the complicated relationship between big business and social good. There’s been talk of Corporate Social Responsibility for decades, the alignment of corporate goals with projects to benefit communities, but these too often looked like a weaselly form of PR.

Now it’s different. First of all there’s the realisation that customers and employees have started to take more precise notice of what businesses are doing, what effort they’re making around sustainability, ethical sourcing, diversity etc. The other side is that generations of older business leaders are starting to look around at their empires, and wondering what the hell it was all for, and what’s left for them to do.

A new thing is business school offerings that whisk leaders away from corporate life and give them chance to reflect on what their purpose is, what they should be doing next – can they contribute something more than just profit? Having said that, it’s always clear that profit is still paramount, it’s a case of saving souls while still making a shedload of cash. A renewed sense of purpose and motivation, more connection to social issues, will now mean an even more lucrative proposition. One of the latest programmes involves five days getting closer to nature, spending time in the country at a luxury resort: walking, talking, taking boat trips, sitting out by campfires with like-minded searchers after truth and beauty (and ways to complete an already remarkably successful career). The cost? Around £30,000.

Why does it take 30 or more years of sweating, brow-beating, bullying and hammering the competition to reach the conclusion that most ordinary human beings knew all along – that fulfilment and happiness doesn’t belong to the materially ’successful’. I’d be happy to send any CEO some John Cowper Powys novels for free. And look outside, there’s a whole world to explore – and plenty of time to think about it all – so long as you’re not stuck in the boardroom too long.

Tolstoy vs Powys

Tolstoy was my first obsession. After being made to read Anna Karenina as a student (looking at the great lump of it on my bookshelf with some consternation) I quickly couldn’t get enough. And before the days of Internet book sites the search for books by and about Tolstoy took on the character of a quest, the exertions, dashed hopes and heart-jumping discoveries.

It seems a strange leap to make from Tolstoy to John Cowper Powys. JCP was unimpressed by the much lauded Russian, saying War and Peace was “boring”. Tolstoy’s brand of worthy religiosity and didacticism was a real turn off. And it’s fair to suggest that if Tolstoy had lived long enough to have read any of Powys (he died, however, in 1910), he would have found the novels (and many of the ideas expressed in them) totally repellent: the overheated atmosphere, preoccupations with sex, all the irrationality, the weak-kneed heroes.

But they’re closer to each other than either would ever want to admit. Most obviously in their use of lengthy texts to immerse readers in a created world. Being god-like: in Tolstoy’s case being the All Seeing One, and with Powys, being the Magician. They both make use of fine-grained psychological insights as their primary material. More importantly they’re driven by the need to expose the artificiality and superficiality of conventional lives – whether those of the St Petersburg nobility in their salons or the English upper middle-classes – and the existence of a more honest and inspiring plane of seeing and thinking. They both see and feel a special quality in the most ordinary of things and people (‘God’ or ‘poetry’ is in everything); and have complex personal relationships with religion (Tolstoy was by no means a regular believer, he only committed to his re-written version; morality was always something he struggled with, an ongoing contest where he knew he’d always be the loser). While Powys might be noted for his eccentric use of animism, Tolstoy is not so different, making subtle allusions to the consciousness of trees and the elements – and would regularly speak in his writing from the perspective of dogs and horses.

Powys: Organic Radical?

John Cowper Powys has been included as part of a new selection of thinkers representing the idea of ‘Organic Radicalism’.

By this, they mean: “a political philosophy which stands in direct opposition to industrial capitalism. Like anarchism it combines a fundamental critique of contemporary society with an alternative basis on which society could, and preferably should, be organised. As the term ‘radicalism’ implies, it also embraces the need for pro-active engagement in the world in order to try to bring about the far-reaching social changes which it prescribes…Its vision of human society is based not on money, greed, property and authority but on mutual aid, co-operation, freedom and community; a way of living which would restore humankind’s well-being and its harmony with the rest of nature.”

Some of the organic radicals listed were Powys’s friends, like Henry Miller and Emma Goldman (pictured); but there are thinkers old and new (ranging from Paracelsus and peasant activist John Ball to Richard Jefferies, Henry Thoreau and Hermann Hesse).

The entry argues that Powys “called on humans to reconnect with nature in the face of the machine-world of industrial capitalism. A convert to anarchism, he strongly supported the anarchist side in the Spanish Revolution and corresponded with Emma Goldman, whom he referred to as his “chief Political Philosopher”…He wrote: “There is no escape from machinery and modern inventions; no escape from city-vulgarity and money-power, no escape from the dictatorship of the uncultured. Money and machines between them dominate the civilised world. Between them, the power of money and the power of the machine have distracted the minds of our western nations from those eternal aspects of life and nature the contemplation of which engenders all noble and subtle thoughts”.

Comparisons are made with John Ruskin, William Morris, Herbert Read in terms of attitudes to the crudity of consumer culture, “vulgar sensationalism”and “commercialized opinion”.

“Like Otto Gross, Powys thought that simply adapting to the society around us, accepting its morals and standards, amounted to existential failure,” the entry says.

“It was the poetry of the real and the living, ‘the whole turbid stream of Nature, in its wild oceanic ensemble’ that was the authentic source of our spiritual well-being and which had always informed what Powys termed ‘Natural religion’.

He explained: “By Natural religion I mean that spiritual legacy of pantheistic feelings which runs like an underground river – every now and then spouting forth in an up-welling spring. 

“Powys referred to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view “that the meaning of culture is nothing less than to restore, by means of our imaginative reason, that secret harmony with Nature which beasts and birds possess, but which our civilisation has done so much to eradicate from human feeling”.

There’s more at the Organic Radicals site here.

Gate of Corpus

Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, alma mater of the Powys family, retains some timeless qualities. Entering via the darkness of a medieval gatehouse, you come to the worn paving stones of the courtyard, stone walls softened with age, the stump of an ancient wisteria and some new green shoots promising a summer festoon. It was all strikingly sunlit for the Powys Society’s 50th anniversary meeting at the weekend.

JCP wrote only in passing about the details of his time at Corpus in the early 1890s, some about the characters he met, much more about the continued shaping of his very individual psychological character (twisted and bent like a bonsai tree). Being at Corpus made me think more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels (1990). A short novel set in 1912 (so some 20 years after Powys) and a fictional Cambridge college of St Angelicus, Fitzgerald evokes beautifully that insular, redolently male world of academe, the damp chambers and smoky fires – and, most importantly, the intellectual dramas of older faiths versus a noisily assertive science. Can all things really be explained so simply?

Fitzgerald shows her hand as being on the side of those who feel there might be more going on than physics. Through all of her novels she displays all kinds of sympathies with a Powysian outlook, her interest in outsiders, how people live on the edges of conventional society, in the value of kindness, a muddle of faith and humour. There’s a particular idea expressed in her novel about the German Romantic Novalis, The Blue Flower (1995), that could have been written by JCP:

Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.

Yet, despite her wide reading and long career teaching English literature, there’s no sign of her having read Powys. I hope she hadn’t dismissed him too quickly.

The Society meeting was fascinating, as ever, in telling the story of its early days, the stories and people involved – all heightened by the evocative Corpus surroundings. There’s nothing dry or staid about the Society either, as demonstrated by some of the anecdotes. Vice-chairman and founder member David Goodway described how one of the many early special guests to a conference was Laurence Pollinger, an eminent literary agent of the time. G Wilson Knight, giving one of his typically frank and eccentric talks, was making repeated references to Powys and masturbation. Pollinger had also brought along his wife to this literary event, and her face, it was said, “was a picture”.

Latin Teachers of the World Unite

A fellow reader and blogger who has wonderful taste in books was reading Wolf Solent and sent me this quote from the book: “But when I think of the misery that human beings cause one another in this world, I am thankful that I can teach Latin and let it all go.”

I am a Latin teacher in New England and was just so excited to see this wonderful, apt quote that I also shared it with my husband, who is also a Latin teacher.  The following week a copy of Wolf Solent showed up in the mail because my husband ordered it immediately after seeing the quote.  I love British literature especially from the 19th and 20th but my husband has never been a fan.  We rarely, if ever, read the same books for pleasure.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was that we would both read a book together in one of my favorite genres.  We both enjoyed Wolf Solent and plan to also read Powys ‘s biography together.

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back.

When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

Happy 50th

The Powys Society marks its 50th year with an open event at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, on Saturday 30th March

Coming together in the late 1960s, in the full sun of counter-cultural times, there’s something cheering and reassuring about the Society’s survival through the growing chill of a cynical age.

Anyone with more than a casual interest in JCP owes a debt to the Society and all of its committee members and contributors over the years. It’s meant an ongoing stream of new material, new perspectives. The pot of enthusiasm is kept bubbling.

And best of all, for me, is that while other literary societies might confine themselves to enjoying the College’s venerable chambers where JCP and other family members were students (wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was still possible to see the wooden beam at Corpus where one of his peers had carved the words “Pray for the Soul of John Cowper Powys”?) – the Society will be heading for the meadows: to Coe Fen and the old wall running along the back of the Fitzwiiliam Museum. It’s one of those ‘little places’ that played a large part in making Powys write the kind of fiction he did, and why there is a Society at all.

More Little Places

Robert Macfarlane suggests his own list of nameless places, more resonant and luminous to him than a range of mountains.

“There would be the ‘Dumble’, the steep-sided ditch way in Nottinghamshire, in which I played with my brother when we were young. There would be the little birch grove near Langdale in Cumbria, whose trees I had climbed and swung between. There would be the narrow strip of broadleaf woodland at the base of the Okement valley in Devon, where I saw a blue-backed falcon slip from an oak and glide off out of sight – a merlin! Such a good guardian for such a magical place.”

It made me think about what would be in my list. I could say nights on the Venice lagoon or views from the Monsal Dale viaduct near Bakewell, but it just wouldn’t be true. Most potent for me would be:

– Sandy Market Square’s bus stop, looking out over the rooftops to the sand hills

– A flight of crumbling old steps near Hitchin town centre

– The promenade at Bognor Regis and its streetlights

– The woods above Woburn Sands, looking down over the town

What a gift it is that such humdrum places can become supercharged with poetic meaning. 

The Little Places

In The Wild Places (2007), Robert MacFarlane ponders the importance of our encounters with place. Those often unromantic but intensely meaningful places we all hold a store of.

“Most of these places, however, were not marked as special on any map. But they became special by personal acquaintance. A bend in the river, a junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along – these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, and twirling in mid-air like a magic trick…

“Little is said publicly about these encounters. This is partly because it is hard to put language  to such experiences. And partly, I guessed, because those who experience them feel no strong need to broadcast their feelings…They would return to people as memories, recalled while standing on a station platform packed tightly as a football crowd, or lying in bed in a city, unable to sleep, while the headlights of cars pan round the room.

“It seemed to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander, wild lands that for so many years had gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless existed in the experience of countless people.” 

It’s a passing consideration for MacFarlane, a small part of his efforts to make sense of what constitutes the ‘wild’ in modern Britain, what it’s value might be. For JCP, of course, these issues are an obsession. Our relationships with places, and the moments of heightened consciousness they evoke, are full of secrets, and secrets that are fundamental to everything that is most affecting, even somehow magical, in human culture.

But as MacFarlane points out, experiences of the little places aren’t talked about. Best not. It’s all too vague and odd-sounding, particularly when it comes to attributing actual significance to attitudes and how lives are lived.

The celandine time

Celandines remind me more of John Cowper Powys than the coming of spring: the combination of vivid colour and our northern chill, the surprises from damp, earth-smelling grass. It’s the kind of mood that dominates much of Wolf Solent – which always feels like a springtime book (Glastonbury for summer, Porius for autumn?).

Celandines work for Powys something like TS Eliot’s April lilac, mixing memory with desire.

 

        After all

        There are moments,

        Even for the most unhappy,

        When, out of some tiny crevice,

        Some small overlooked chink in the great Wine-Vat,

        The good liquor spurts forth

        Into our mouth.

 

        And we remember

        How long ago the rain-wet celandines

        Pierced us with memories,

        With memories of things deeper than sleep or death

        And older than all the orbits of the planets.

        Over the tossing poplars,

        Over the misty plough-lands,

        Over the dreamy meadows,

        Those memories came;

        Nor did they melt to nothing

        Even when, from the witch-girl’s window,

        The lamp-light streamed across the night.

 

        And we remember

        How from a long straight road –

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        While at our feet silver-weed and dandelion

        Laughed out of the hot dust,

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        We heard it; we knew it;

        The Sea! The Sea! The Sea!

 

JCP, ‘Compensation’ (a poem which resonated with Iris Murdoch, who used the last line for the title of her 1978 novel).

Hedgehogs?

One of my favourite articles from The Powys Journal in recent years must be Timothy Hyman’s recollections of the theatrical literary critic G Wilson Knight – best known for his scintillating works on Shakespeare. 

The current chairman of the Society remembers first meeting Wilson Knight at the inaugural Society conference in 1972, held to mark the centenary of John Cowper Powys’s birth, and getting to know a charming man who “radiated a kind of benign simplicity”; “I wanted to be to Wilson Knight what Porius was to Merlin/Cronos.”

It’s a piece full of insights into one of the most celebrated and rousing of Powys commentators, as well as glimpses of an appealingly eccentric character. Like the Powys conference in 1984 when Wilson Knight treated attendees to a performance of speeches by Timon of Athens wearing a reddish wig, when he finished up his recital by stripping naked (he was very proud of his muscular torso). And this memory of a visit to Wilson Knight’s home:

“So we were in this small kitchen together, he doddery and I clumsy, and every time I made a wrong move he would emit a strange loud sound, a sort of juddering shriek, which made me break out in giggles. At the end of the meal, which I’m afraid I left mostly uneaten, he just heaved the contents of my plate out of the kitchen window and into the thick tangle of bushes. He saw my surprise: ‘Well, there’s never anything left in the morning.’ / ‘So what do you think eats it?’ He replied, in a sweet sing-song, ‘I —don’t — know — hedgehogs?’” 

(The Powys Journal 2015, XXV)