Academic journal article Nebula

A Modern outside Modernism: J. C. Powys

Academic journal article Nebula

A Modern outside Modernism: J. C. Powys

Article excerpt

How long Do works last? (...) As long as they continue to cause us trouble They do not decay. (Brecht) (1)

I. The Edge of Madness

The wildness of John Cowper Powys' writing may drive one to distraction and despair once one has yielded to initial fascination. To make the criticism that he did not reread or edit or polish, that he lacked Latinity, the sense of the work as object independent of his own untamed imagination, appears almost irrelevant before one's astonishment at his sheer brazen candor. He is able to write out stirrings or impulses so far below any control by the ego that one feels cowardly beside him. Near the end of Wolf Solent, as the hero confronts the loss of his "life-illusion" or "mythology," he meets up with one of the book's minor, sinister Gothic figures of lower-class village misery, tending the grave of his own (Solent's) predecessor.

   He must have been at the cellar-floor of misery when he licked with
   his mental tongue the filthy toenails of Mr Monk. (2)

Complete abjection; the undoing of art. The disgust evoked here would link Powys rather with Bataille or Jelinek. How could this be contained in any finished form? Not that of Breton's Nadja, with which Solent was roughly contemporary. Comparisons to Continental modernism would be easy: the beginning of Solent closely resembles that of Gottfried Benn's Ronne Novellas of 1916: a man in a train, aged circa thirty, beginning a new segment of his life. If Ronne comes eventually to fail in his profession, incapable of maintaining his public role, Solent has already done so at the beginning of his novel, having "danced his 'malice-dance'--that is how he himself expressed it" (14) in the middle of teaching. At the end of the novel, it is as if Solent were being replaced in the narrative by Lord Carfax, who will repeat all of Solent's actions with which the book began (611); so too, Benn's Ronne "sat one morning at his breakfast table and was moved; he felt so deeply that the head doctor would leave, a replacement would come, get out of bed at this hour and take his breakfast roll" (3)--namely he himself, suspended in the subjunctive, conditional tense, in what Musil would call "sense for possibility" (Moglichkeitssinn). Individuality is, in both cases, subsumed under a mythic, conditional role playable by anyone.

Powys may appear in some sense less radical than Continental modernists like Breton, Benn, or Proust; the difference lies in his obstinate empiricism: "No system at all! Only to dissolve into thin, fluctuating vapour ..." (374). Like Jean Paul, Powys suspects Idealist systems, and his mysticism cohabits with an odd loyalty to particular sensation; he will not construct, will not creer un poncif (Baudelaire). The course of Solent is thus not Proust's triumph over Time, or Dedalus' invocation of the "old artificer" as patron saint, but the destruction of Solent's "life-illusion" or "mythology," also the fons et origo of art. The narrative is therefore not one of the work's triumph over the world, but the reverse: how to survive defeat, to live, in part, after art has lost its claims to totality. This is precisely what gives Powys his acuteness today, after the apparent end of all isms. Because Solent's main character is enclosed in a primitive, childish abundance of imagination and meaning, nothing can happen to him except comical incongruity and Quixotic mishap, which he must nonetheless see as necessary, as inseparable from his infinite interiority. (The constant fear one has lost one's integrity, one's wholeness of experience, which runs throughout the book, is characteristically adolescent.) Solent is as hopelessly stuck in childishness, as dependent on women, as the heroes of early Wenders (Philip Winter in Alice in the Cities, Wilhelm in Wrong Move, or Friedrich Munro in The State of Things, for whom no stories can ever end except in death.) This state is figured in the texture of the novel's writing. …

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