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”.