Saturday, December 10, 2016
"The freedom to be left alone"
Reminded by my friend who found a typically endless rant by this addled pantheist during research at the Huntington, I pulled my copy of Porius: A Novel of the Dark Ages off my shelf and picked up somewhere near the two-hundred page mark I'd left off a while back. For this meandering narrative takes eight days in late October, the year 499, and stretches it into a reading experience demanding weeks, at least. John Cowper Powys remains as Morine Krissdottir's Descents of Memory (2008, reviewed by me) attests a difficult, elusive figure to grasp and not always an appealing one to like.
I suppose I was one of the few who checked that bio out of the library never having read the subject. I'd see at the old Bodhi Tree used bookstore on Melrose a big paperback of his earlier A Glastonbury Romance but the silly names within (a deal-breaker for me with Dickens as well as nearly all fantasy save that of the one linguist who knew of what he invented, J.R.R. Tolkien) discouraged me from it. (I have since learned that JCP changed names to protect himself against lawsuits by real Glastonburians.) The Grail and the Arthurian corpus never excited me in grad school, although I did like Excalibur. John Boorman considered filming this novel, fittingly. And, come to think of it, I did not mind Malory's realms at all. But I atavistically favor the Celt and the pagan, the resisters to Saxon rule and Catholic imposition, more than I do magic-kal conjuring, dodgy cant, fiery horses or swords.
At least in my fiction. But finding two years ago David Goodway's Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006; reviewed by me) revealed what Krissdottir's study had not: the promise of Portius as a hold-all for a lot of my own pet pursuits. Anti-statist/ anti-capitalist libertarianism, Celtic lore, British origins, Welsh resistance, and Joycean immersion. Goodway had I think found some key connections. He compared what Kevin Birmingham has more recently credited as Joyce's "philosophical anarchism" to Powys' retreat from any political fray (which caused differences with his friend Emma Goldman). He assumed that inevitably that freer outlook would prevail--but not for a very long time.
And as for liberation, so far in my return to the 1951 tome, the restoration of a new Golden Age surfaced. The freedom to be left alone, Myrddin Wyllt surmises, is to be desired. No priests, no emperors, no governors, no druids even. This "pagan" yearning, as with Powys and so now, may be quixotic. Where would I be without a dentist (even if my plan fails to cover my teeth; don't get me started on my "vision plan;" Cal Grants and scholarships to cover college, or the ability to stay afloat post-"recession" if not for some nanny state)? Few of us grew up in the comfort afforded the gentrified class of Powys, a vicar's son and a Cantabrigian. Most of us coddled in this world, 1616 years after Merlin, need help to live, not in the glade, but in a toxic megapolis that consumes our soul.
Still, this odd fictional volume, standing by the voluminous epics of Glastonbury and its less-heralded successor Owen Glendower which I've ordered and half keep asking myself why, poses a nagging question that left-libertarians, cranks such as JCP, and misfits like me keep pursuing. Why are some of us born discontented by the system we labor for and live under? Given many of this contingent are soft intellectuals like me rather than hardy folk of the soil like I presume my drizzly Connacht kin, what realistic chance do we have of proclaiming any self-sufficiency when surrounded as JCP was not, of his privileged choosing, once he claimed to inherit his Welsh corner and make himself its returned ruler? I suppose this "lordship" was not entirely in jest. We all bear our own inconsistencies.
Therefore, I will press on. After all, Powys' notion however unverifiable of an "ichthyosaurus-brain" recoverable by concentration as a proto-Jungian mind-memory, a collective guide and individual vision, appeals to me in a VR-sort of literary way (not sure about a real one). Lawrence Millman in The Atlantic admits: "One doesn't read Powys so much as enlist in him." Of Porius (and he wrote in 2000): "it is, I think, Powys's masterpiece. It calls to mind novels as diverse as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland. At times it reads like an extended study of what Powys called 'the three incomprehensibles': sex, religion, and nature. At other times it reads like a magical mystery extravaganza." That promise will keep me plodding along, as Millman in his Arctic.
P.S. Amber Paulen blogged back in '08 about this novel: "It gives me great pleasure not to be finished yet." I wonder how long it took her? Andrea Thompson, in for her a mercifully allotted "briefly noted" slot in The New Yorker, reminds us that over five hundred pages were cut from the original, restored in this 2007 edition. (He preferred little editing, and less as he aged, which can bedevil the most patient of his cult following.) Margaret Drabble (whose surname JCP could have used) begins her review in The Guardian: "The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous. The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched, and never reach its end. There is always another book to discover, another work to reread. Like Tolkien, Powys has invented another country, densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien's, but it is as compelling, and it has more air." In an undated online entry of what I assume is the original text, Kirkus Reviews sums it up: "Among those who enjoyed the author's previous novels in this historical sequence, there may be some who will find themselves at home in the midst of the tangled beliefs and superstitions of the Persians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Druids with which these early Welshmen spiced their Christianity. But others will find the obscurities of both diction and dogma almost impenetrable." For the willing bold few, seek ye here .