British writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) has been one of my heroes since I discovered his books thirty years ago. The eldest of eleven children, Powys was the son of a Victorian clergyman and counted the poets John Donne and William Cowper among his ancestors. During the course of his long and successful life, Powys produced several volumes of poetry, an impressive number of philosophical tracts, some interesting literary criticism, and a string of gargantuan novels, some of which are over 1,000 pages long. He also had great success as a speaker and spent thirty years on the lecture circuit in the United States (1904-1934). Rumor has it that his lectures were sometimes so powerful that people in the audience would faint as they listened to him. And he didn't even have a rock band playing in the background. A recent (if somewhat condescending) article on Powys by Margaret Drabble is available here.
There are two very remarkable things about Powys: first, he possessed as original a mind as you could ever hope to encounter. The man himself is absolutely unclassifiable: he stands alone as a supreme example of a human being who followed nothing but his own vision. If you ever want to read a novel filled with the most incredible characters and situations, take a look sometime at Wolf Solent (1929) or Maiden Castle (1936). These books give us all kinds of astonishing eccentrics, from a crazy poet, a boy who kisses trees, a girl who can whistle like a blackbird, a pornographer, a circus performer, an artist who paints nothing but clouds, an incestuous daddy, and heroes with names like Dud, Wolf, and Jobber. Powys' novels are not for everyone, and you really have to be dedicated to make your way through their interminable pages. And they all seem to have the same plot (middle aged intellectual falls for much younger cutie). But since Powys possessed one of the deepest and richest personalities you can ever hope to encounter, everything he wrote is original, insightful, and fascinating.
The other remarkable thing about Powys is that he worked out a viable spiritual system which was not based on any kind of traditional religious dogma but upon what he could learn from natural forces and forms. He seems to have spent his entire life focusing his consciousness on the mysteries of nature and the meaning they could provide. Sample quotation from Wolf Solent:
A chilly wind had arisen, covering the western sky, into which they were driving, with a thick bank of clouds. The result of this complete extinction of the sunset was that the world became a world in which every green thing upon its surface received a fivefold addition to its greenness. It was as if an enormous green tidal wave, composed of a substance more translucent than water, had flowed over the whole earth; or rather as if some diaphanous essence of all the greenness created by long days of rain had evaporated during this one noon, only to fall down, with the approach of twilight, in a cold, dark, emerald-coloured dew.
Any human being who can perceive this kind of glorious wonder in what must have been a very ordinary landscape, and who can then convey it with such vividness and spiritual intensity, has a gift for poetic perception and imaginative vision that we can all do well to emulate.
Another of my favorite Powys quotations comes in his 1930 book In Defense of Sensuality:
Give yourself up to ... the particular kind of cosmic ecstasy that you have cultivated as your "purpose of life."
Well, imagine that. Cultivate cosmic ecstasy as your purpose in life? What an idea! Can he possibly mean forgetting about money, travel, creature comforts, entertainment, status, plastics, shopping, trophy houses, and all the other crap to be found in our self-indulgent culture? Instead dedicate all your energies to nothing less than a constant experience of--well, what? Earthly transcendence? Star rapture? Astronomical revelation? Astral clairvoyance? Who's going to manage something like that in this day and age?
Someone like John Cowper Powys, that's who. One message that comes through loud and clear in all his books is that when he talked about cosmic ecstasy he knew whereof he spoke. Apparently not a single day in his life went by without him experiencing the kind of rapture that can come from interaction with natural forms and forces. In American literature only Walt Whitman seemed to have had this kind of transcendental knack.
But there is a difference between Whitman and Powys. Whitman had numerous ecstatic experience all throughout his life, but he never really tells you how to do it yourself. Powys, on the other hand, is brimful of ideas about helping the rest of us acquire the knack. Unlike Marcel Proust, who thought that moments of transcendence were accidental, Powys felt that they could be created by an act of will, and all his books offer pointers about the accomplishment of same.
And what were these secrets? Far be it from me so summarize all of Powys insights--you need read him yourself. Start off with The Complex Vision (and look for more of his public domain texts to be available at this site). But in the meantime here are some typical Powys quotations which can get you started:
From The Meaning of Culture (1929):
Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing water-falls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentous signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades upon a little flat stone, or by a single dock-leaf growing under the railings of some city-square.
In fact, when this subtle Nature-cult, wherewith this chapter is concerned, is made a secret source of pride in the depths of a person's life-illusion, such pride should take but one form alone. It should take the form of being able to derive thrilling ecstasy from the most common, ordinary, and familiar natural objects; objects that it is not necessary even to leave one's doorstep to encounter; objects like earth-mould, tree-tops, grass-blades, flower-pots, privet-hedges, walls and chimneys against the sky, and always the sun and the moon and the heavenly bodies, in their irreversible order!
From In Defense of Sensuality (1930):
Exulting in our loneliness, we have discovered the power of giving expression to the deeper loneliness--whereof we are a part--of the whole weight and mass of inorganic, primal "matter," erecting its vast world's-snake head, sullenly, from its orbic sleep, and turning its slant ambiguous eye upon the primal cause of its life! In this mood, and in the power of this experience, our lonely ego arrives at a very peculiar ecstasy of loneliness, for it draws into itself the loneliness of the vast ethereal gulfs between the heavenly bodies, and, as though it were itself their spirit, it hovers in mid-space, liberated from all the vexations and humiliations of its terrestrial life.
It is a hot, fussy, feverish set of human ideals, answering to the hot, fussy, over-loving, over-mixing human gregariousness in us, that has succeeded in spoiling our happiness. Imagine, for instance, a man or a woman walking alone down one of the New York side-streets, where the pavements are less crowded. On the pavement-flags the yellow sunlight lies warm. There are pleasant three-story brick houses there, with patches of earth in front of them, and old-fashioned steps. The sun himself--for it is a morning in March--rests, dazzling and tremulous, between a particular chimney and a particular water-butt. My man or my woman is suddenly seized with the ecstasy of life. The woman's steps break into a skipping motion: the man strides exultantly, swinging his stick. Now, this is the moment when, according to my philosophy, the very highest peak of life's happiness can be reached.
This person gives himself up to a thrilling animal-vegetable rapture. He strides along, feeling exquisitely proud of being able to walk at all, exquisitely conscious of the simple physical delight of moving his legs and planting his feet on that sunlit pavement. He looks up at that blazing orb mounting above the roof and feels as great as it is, and as full of life as it is. He flings his soul towards it, drawing life from it and even plunging into its fiery circle the stream of his own magnetic force, as if he were dominating it. No real lover of sun or moon or ocean or earth but has the power of feeling both masculine and feminine toward each of these objects, and, on the other hand, of finding both the feminine and the masculine in each of these things. He alone is the true ichthyosaurus-ego who can break loose from the human tradition that the sun must always be masculine and the moon always feminine.
And then my lonely person, skipping or striding along in ecstasy, feels the wind on his face; and the taste of the wind and the peculiar coolness of the wind carry his thoughts over moor and forest, over pebbly shores and over reedy marshes, and he suddenly feels that nothing in the world that could happen could bring as much delight as this moment has brought.
When men and women (any man or any woman), on the way back to their home from their job, on a spring evening, forget everything else in the world in the thrill of drinking up, with their whole being, that supernatural dark-blue light that fills the sky, they are ravishing Life at its source.
What the individual soul, out of the depths of its magical wizardry and sorcery, can reach, in the direction of godlike loneliness, knows no limit. The moment any lonely human spirit isolates itself from all the traditions of its race, and assimilates its consciousness to that of animal-life and vegetable-life, lying back upon the magnetic, planetary pulses and giving itself up to the calm, reiterated movements of the elements, there slowly steals over it a faint, dim sense of godlike possibilities such as contain hints of an ecstasy beyond anything our mystics have yet described.
From A Philosophy of Solitude (1933):
If a boy or girl, who has had little or no education, came to me and said: "You keep talking of some new uplift of the human spirit in these confused and unhappy days; and you seem to make it consist in some mental attitude that is hard for me to follow. What exactly have you in your mind that I should do?" how should I answer such a question?
I should reply to such an one: "Sink into your soul. Say to yourself: 'Here am I, a living, conscious self, surrounded by walls, streets, pavements, houses and roofs. Above me is the boundless sky, beneath me the solid earth. All around me are people of my own kind with their fixed ideas and their fixed habits. Out of my loneliness I stretch forth my spirit towards these inanimate things which the others are passing carelessly by, and taking casually for granted, towards these stones, towards this dust, towards this brick-work and iron-work and woodwork, on which the sun or the moon is shining, upon which the rain is falling, or the clouds rolling, or the mist sinking down. I am in a hospital, in a prison, in a mad-house and it is the same thing! I stretch out my spirit to these walls, to that window, to that square of blueness, of yellowness, of greyness, of blackness, which is the window of this place. These inanimate substances, this inanimate space, this air, this light, this darkness is my universe, the world into which I--this living self--have been flung by an inscrutable destiny. It is in my power to gather up my forces and embrace this universe, represented by these material elements about me. It is in my power to assert my nature, my inmost being, against these things, upon these things. It is in my power to satisfy my senses upon them and to feel, as I stretch out my spirit towards them, that I am embracing, and yet defying, the whole material world! As I do this, it matters nothing how ignorant I am of the great religions, the great philosophies, the great prophets and sages of my race. Here am I--the "I am I" within this weak, feeble, wretched, discomforted body-- stretching out my spirit to the great mystery of the universe as represented by these queer objects, these stones, this wood-work, this dark night, these gusts of rainy wind.'"
Propitiate! Yield! Submit! Bow down your head! Let the foolish egoism of paltry self-assertion dissolve in an egoism that goes far deeper. You must learn to use something more subtle and far less malicious than ironical submission. Then will your inmost being, far from feeling itself reduced, humiliated, conquered, rise up like a dark inviolable fire through the crannies and crevices of your apparent defeat, mount up and up and up; and finally gather itself together in that cold, high, translunar, psychic ether, wherein the powers of the air commune with the powers of the air. In the cosmos there is so much earth, so much water, so much rock, so much air, so much sand, that unless destiny has hemmed us in in the worst kind of city-slum--and even there if we are strong and crafty enough there are loop-holes of freedom--we can find some air-space, or sky-space, or earth-space, despite our mechanical civilization, in which we may plunge our spirit and feel alone and free. Under our feet the earth, above our heads the sky; while the murmur of the generations, "not harsh nor grating" as it reaches us while we thrust back the intrusive present, mingles with that deeper sound, audible only to ears purged by solitude, whereby the mystery of the Inanimate whispers to itself below the noises of the world.
What could you do best, O youth, O maid, for the human race today? Simplify your individual life, until it becomes a microcosmic epitome of that far-off Golden Age! Simplify your desires till you enjoy with sacramental ecstasy every single physical sensation you have. Simplify your exactions from other personalities till you enjoy your loves without making all these self-pitying, whimpering, scolding, aggravating claims upon them. It is not only your own happiness that will come to you from this solitary, stoical, detached attitude to the alien lives linked so closely with your own.
What is the purpose of life? A certain particular kind of happiness; the kind of happiness that arises from life like a refreshing dew, when you have fought long enough for it. Everyone who feels it communicates it like an invisible aura. It is the blessedness of the saints; it is the rapture of the mystics; it is the ecstasy of newly-impassioned lovers.
But above all it is that thrilling, dissolving and melting joy that trembles through the veins of the humblest and least intelligent among us, when, even for a few minutes, we give up competition and ambition and reputation! This feeling, this rapture, this blessedness, is its own entire self-justification. Whenever it flows through us we know that merely for such a feeling as this to exist in the world is more important than the victories of Caesar.
So what are you waiting for? Fling your soul into the cosmos!