John Cowper Powys


Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius


The art of self-culture is the art of acquiring, and then of widening and deepening a certain attitude toward life. This attitude, just because of its flexibility and malleability, is hard to define. And its external expression will be found to vary in different epochs and localities. But in spite of all this there is, throughout human history, a sufficient similarity of type and identity of tradition to make it possible to indicate this mysterious "open secret"; and to analyze, though within fluctuating and wavering margins, its nature and its quality.

What the Chinese classics call "a superior man" is a human being possessed of an attitude toward life which can even now (though in vague terms) be outlined, and this would also apply to the "wise man" of Plato and Aristotle, and with a certain difference to the man of "virtu," the "virtuoso," of the Renaissance.

Such an adept in the art of self-culture would doubtless in India be more metaphysical, in Japan more "artistic," in Germany more learned, in England more aristocratic, in France more critical, in Russia more impassioned, in America more unprejudiced and eclectic; but behind such a person, whatever his local bias might be, there will always be found the accumulated weight of a great secret tradition, carried down through all the ages and through all the countries, which remains intrinsically human and universal.

This open, secret of the art of self-culture must of necessity overlap—indeed exploit and be exploited by—many other high and rare human values. It will have its own peculiar relation to human goodness to human science, to human happiness; its own peculiar relation to religion, to the obligations of economic necessity. But while its orientation overlaps, these fields and gathers material from them it remains in its own essential nature detached and uncommitted.

Self-culture can, in other words, be given nobler and finer edges by its commerce with goodness, tougher and stronger roots by the pressure upon it of practical necessities; but even as it thickens or rarities itself by appropriating these things it instinctively protects itself against them when they seek to weaken and submerge it.

Any self-culture whose attitude to simple-human goodness, is cynical, whose escape from economic necessity is ignorant and contemptuous, becomes by degrees a self-culture divorced from those deep natural well-springs of life which are the given material of all philosophy and all art and without which all subjective impressions tend to run thin and, wayward and morbid.

The master-current in all true self-culture is, and always has been, the poetic view of things; and one has only to recall how large a measure of the poetry of Homer, of Dante, or Shakespeare, of Goethe, is concerned with good and evil, with earth-bound economic necessity, to recognize that any esthetic cult which remains contemptuously aloof from these recurrent issues is a cult that has lost touch with the true poetic attitude of mind.

Self-culture is completely justified in holding aloof from the popular catchwords and popular manias, of the hour, but it cannot hold aloof from the difference between good and evil, between intelligence and stupidity, between justice and injustice, without losing contact with those dramatic elements of poetic contrast which give to all the subtler intimations of life their poignancy and distinction.

Thus true self-culture although frequently languid and impassive in questions of topical propaganda is never really "antinomian"; that is to say, it is never oblivious to the difference between good and evil, between sensitiveness and insensitiveness, between nobility and ignobility.

Nor is it an attitude dependent upon the felicity of any privileged or leisured advantage. Some of the most clairvoyant of its visions of the magical beauty of life have originated in the intervals of monotonous labor. Thus we see Charles Lamb copying East Indian cotton ledgers, Joseph Conrad holding the rudders of ships, Spinoza polishing lenses, Matthew Arnold visiting schools, Cervantes playing soldier. And though we must admit that leisure to feel, to experience, to contemplate, to discriminate, is something that culture must, by hook or by crook, steal from life, it is certain that the more culture a person has the more cunning does he become in stealing unscrupulously—from employer, from business, from family, from friends—the few precious moments of independence from which he knows well enough how to squeeze the most exquisite drops, of immortal nectar!

The supercilious contempt for their burden of mechanical work which laborers of all sorts are sometimes aware of in the attitude of cultivated persons is so far from being a sign of real culture as to be a sign of its extreme opposite—vulgar superficiality.

The deeper a person's real culture sinks the more does he become aware of the tragic poetry of common humanity, staggering forward, baffled, blinded, thwarted, yet undefeated, under the burden of its diurnal toil.

But what lends so often a semblance of justification to that sense of something precious, finicking, affected, unnatural, which plain people so often feel in the presence of cultivated people, is the fact that such persons' culture remains external to their real life. It is in fact the final and supreme test of culture, this bringing it into touch with the brutal pressure of reality.

Nor is such a mental adjustment at all an easy achievement.

A man leaves his books, plunges into the turbulent stream of the world, and behold! life is altogether a different thing. It prods him and scrapes him and harrows him with a raw harshness, a rank flippancy, a crude purposelessness, such as seems to have no counterpart at all in that mellow air and gracious order which reign in his world of books. The fact is that with most educated and intelligent people there is a vast gulf between their life in the world and their life in culture. They do not differ very much in this from the simple uneducated people who turn frankly to a literature that is not literature, just as they do to the movies or to the radio, solely in order to escape from the tedium of their real existence.

Such an escape is most excellent wisdom and a thrilling comfort; but if culture can do no more than delicately refine upon such drugs as these it remains only skin-deep. What real culture does, culture that has got into a person's blood and bones, is materially to change his whole attitude toward the pressure of this raw reality. Frequently this change takes the unpleasant form of making him loathe such reality—loathe it with a loathing indescribably more desperate than that simple sense of tedium and weariness with which the uneducated turns away to his various melodramatic nepenthes.

Self-culture in the true sense does not by any means necessarily make for pleasure or comfort. Sometimes it makes for suicidal misery. In this it resembles love, religion, and all the great gestures of the human race. For the truth is that what we call self-culture is simply a heightening of the life-consciousness in us. Under its influence we grow more, sensitive and more imaginative. Our happiness gathers subtlety and volume. So also does our misery.

Self-culture is not a pursuit of goodness; nor is it a pursuit of truth. It is our human response to that mysterious aspect of the universe which we call beauty. And this beauty—this magical essence which rises like an exhalation, like a fragrant smoke, from all the processes of life—is in itself an Absolute.

This implies that our response to it, however wavering and fluctuating and however dependent upon our wayward moods, has also something about it which partakes of the nature of an absolute. By an "absolute" I mean something the value of which is beyond all utilitarian or practical criteria, something which might be useless, purposeless, and even fatal; and yet something which carries with it its own complete justification.

Self-culture is the heightening, and deepening of our human sense of this "absolute," whatever it is, that the universe reveals.

Thus, though our sense of the beauty of things, when intensely cultivated, so often enhances our sense of the brutality and hideousness of things, an obstinate and inveterate instinct in us hinders us from wishing to be otherwise, hinders us from pining for those simpler levels of sentiency which we have left behind.

The art of self-culture, therefore, since its aim is to make us more sensitive, and more imaginative in the presence of the universe, is obviously defeated if as soon as we leave our books to encounter the raw pell-mell of existence we drop the whole pretense and just bustle and blunder on, taking the bull by its horns saluting life at its face-value, accepting the world at the world's own estimate.

The traditional apparatus of culture—poetry, music, sculpture, painting, history, philosophy—has according to my view, failed entirely to achieve its end, if, when in presence of the huge chance-driven spectacle of life, raw, littered and disordered, we simply convert ourselves into patient beasts of burden till the tyranny of the day is over.

The art of self-culture is the art of gathering up in the deaths of our being some sort of sagacious cunning or secretive energy by means of which all this raw chaotic debris shall be forced to yield certain "aperçus" of lovely, magic shall be forced to reveal certain fleeting intimations of this hidden "absolute."

Beauty of some kind is there. No mechanical readjustments of the elements of the earth, no herding and standardizing of humanity, can prevent this eternal mystery from rising up, strange and lovely, from off the surface of the most shocking repulsiveness.

But to deal with the raw facts of life in this selective way is a most difficult thing. A person has to sink deep for the power and the cunning to achieve it. Indeed, anything less like the luxurious affectations of the "esthete" of popular fancy than the type of human character thus evoked could hardly be imagined.

The procession of the seasons as it changes the countenance of the simplest rural landscape or the tamest city square, the actual living substances of trees, plants, clouds, leaves and water, are enough in themselves for a mind that has made the great poets its companions, without there being necessary any recourse to scenes of exceptional or startling sublimity.

The true adept in the art of capturing the magic of the elements can find his "faery-lands forlorn" upon any suburban wayside, by any patch of town greenery. Nothing short of some insane human cruelty can prevent the sun and the air from visiting every child of man out of their free sky, or stop the progress across his heaven of the moon and the stars in their appointed visitations.

To regard men and women, as you stumble casually upon them in ordinary encounters, from a viewpoint that disentangles the tragic fatality of their brief and troubled lives from the details of their cluttered surroundings, is to have arrived at a degree of self-culture beyond what any reading of Plato can bring, as long as there is an unbridged gulf between our emotions as we read and our emotions as we walk the pavement. But to ponder the thoughts of Plato until they mould one's actual nervous reactions in the great hurly-burly of the world—this is to read philosophy to good purpose.

It is absurd to call that person "cultivated" who becomes mean, vulgar, blunt and brutal the moment he leaves his introverted dreamings over the books be loves. But right here we must not allow ourselves any illusion. The cultivated person has to earn his living; and he were a fool, if he allowed his culture to interfere with his natural shrewdness in dealing with men and things. What he should aim at is an innocent Machiavellianism in these matters. Let him defend his secret thoughts—why not?—by the most wily genuflexions as he bows down in the House of Rimmon. He is earning his leisure to be a man by his cunning adaptability in the art of being a contented slave. If there is sin in this let it be on the head of Society. The individual's business is to save himself at all costs.

The whole problem of culture lies in the sphere of the immediate reality which presses upon us. If culture does not assist us to wrestle with this reality it is just a pleasant by-play and of slight importance for the baffled spirit of man. A waiter, a stenographer, a department-store assistant, a factory-worker, an office-hand, is much more in need of a penetrating and delicate philosophy, of a subtle and distinctive taste, than a person of leisure who can hunt foxes and fish for trout.

Self-culture is of little account if it cannot take the place of religion, of morality, of courage, of humor, and even of love itself. Consider the case of a man with a soul-withering job, a scolding wife, noisy and aggressive children, and a home in some city basement! What is the use, a cynic might say, of culture to such a man as this? Well! this is just the test. According to the only view of culture I can understand, a man in this position surreptitiously reading King Lear or Faust or the Inferno or Charles Lamb in hurried snatches on a hard chair between stove and window, struggling to summon up the right kind of ironic submission, the right-kind of crafty evasion, the right kind of drastic formidableness, for dealing with the situation in hand, without having recourse either to suicide or desertion, will be a man whose culture, whether it succeeds or fails, will be of the genuine and authentic quality, will, in other words, be an assault on the raw, crude, brute-facts of life so as so draw out of them, willy-nilly, the nectar of the immortals.

Self-culture is man's retort to the hard realities of the universe. True self-culture has as much iron and cunning and sagacity in it as is possessed by the most unscrupulous worldly ambition. Only it is used for a different purpose. It is used to squeeze out of this difficult and tough universe such celestial-tasting drops of the magic of beauty as may redeem all our miseries.

Every temperament will instinctively select its own intellectual weapons. I would say to a young man or a young woman anxious to use t culture as a key to the secrets of life: "Read the great sagacious humanists who are at once profoundly reverential and profoundly skeptical; for they, alone will indicate to you the nature of irony and the nature of poetry, which of all mortal qualities are the ones that enable us to deal most powerfully with the evasive mystery of life."

And if such a young man or young woman asked me to name these humanists—from whom can be learned the secret of poetry and the secret of irony—I would mention the names of Homer, Euripides, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Charles Lamb, Dostoievsky, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, Joseph Conrad, and Marcel Proust. And I would give such a young person my sacred word of honor as a responsible student of life that it they read nothing else but the writers mentioned above—not even bothering to read them in anything but translations—for the space of three years, they will by that time be in a position to take hold of these "hard facts of life," as people call them, so as to treat them ironically and poetically. They will probably be less successful in their worldly ambitions as a result of this method of mastering reality, but they will not worry about that, as long as they have enough money to keep their peace of mind reasonably intact.

The truth is, people have got a completely wrong idea of the nature of culture. They regard it as the luxury of the leisured; whereas it is as much of a necessity for everyone as is love. As a matter of fact, every human being is compelled by the pressure of the life-urge itself to acquire some degree of culture. Culture is simply the name we give to a premeditated and calculated response to the mystery of life when such a response is directed toward life as a whole rather than toward any practical end.

We can narrow our definition yet further by saying that the aspect of life toward which culture directs itself is that aspect which may indiscriminately be called beauty or mystery-or magic or even "truth"; for the first rudiments of the culture will be found to give us a shrewd hint that these so-called "hard facts" of life are a good deal less solid and less substantial than they appear to the unsophisticated eye.

The most uneducated peasant or factory-hand, if he has developed an original and sensitive response to life, is in reality more cultivated in the truest sense of that term than many a college-bred professor. And the more deeply cultivated a person is the fewer will be the books he will read. For he will gather the great select spirits of the ages about him and meddle very little with contemporary fashions. He will carry the Sonnets of Shakespeare in his pocket as he goes to his office. Secreted in his desk in his office itself will be found Bayard Taylor's translation of Faust, or Lang, Butcher and Leaf's translation of Homer; and, who knows, if on his way home he will not debouch down some side-street to a second-hand book-shop and purchase there some stray volume of Matthew Arnold's poetry.

I am inclined to think that one definite result of such a person's concentration upon the great humanists of the world will be the development in him of a certain philosophical skepticism which will be turned just as frequently upon the latest dogmas of science as upon the oldest dogmas of religion! I am inclined to think that although he will love to skim over the gnomic pages of the great metaphysicians he will treat each particular thinker rather as an artist than as a discoverer of pure truth. I think he will visualize his "hard facts" for a month or so, shall we say, according to the vision of Hegel, and then, for another month, transform them according to the vision of Spinoza or of Schopenhauer!

One of his very greatest dangers, when a youth sets out to become cultivated, is the danger of allowing his reason to run riot at the expense of all other human faculties. Logic is an invaluable method of capturing the secret of life, but it is not the only one. Undiluted by instinct, reason can become a ferocious wild beast whose savage delight it is to rend and tear at its own vitals. What a deeper culture seems to suggest is that there is a certain equilibrium, a certain balance of his faculties possible to man—call it perhaps his "imaginative reason"—by which he can follow the evasive fluidity of Nature, of that Nature who herself cherishes certain basic illusions, and by throwing the force of his mind outward toward the flow of the world save himself from this Rational Beast bred in his vitals and feeding upon his heart's blood.

Soon enough, when our youth has acquired the trick of this mellower, gentler more gracious philosophy, will that terrible job of his, that scolding wife—or to put it the other way round, her selfish husband, her cantankerous children—grow mellow, transparent, insubstantial, like things seen far off, seen through some lovely flowing vapor, as such an individual surveys them through the quivering luminosity of the thoughts of Plato or the subtle humor of the genius of Charles Lamb.

In particular cases a person will find that it is from the art of painting or the art of music rather than from literature that he will draw his power to deal with life, but I cannot help feeling that there are certain advantages possessed by literature which renders that art more potent than the others in the general stream of things.

A man might be made more whimsically indulgent to his employer's banalities if the contours of the fellow's complacent visage set him thinking of Rembrandt or Picasso. A woman might endure her husband's exhausting trivialities with better grace if all the while he was chattering she allowed her memory to dally with some great musical phrase of Beethoven or Stravinsky. But it would be some sardonic half-line out of Hamlet, some mellow life-searching quip out of the Essays of Elia, that would work in these cases the real miracle and reduce the actual thing itself—the sanctimonious employer, the fatuous husband—into something that could be contemplated in its very essence with the large and overflowing contemplation of poetry and irony.

It is because literature uses words as its medium rather than any other material, that culture, facing like Moses the adamantine rock of the visible world, finds in this great art the magic rod that can draw forth the living water.

For as Mr. Eliot, of St. Louis, suggests to us in his queer poem called "Waste Land," there are certain terrible contrasts in life that words alone, with their power of evoking the beauty of the centuries side by side with the vulgarity of the hour, are able to bring forth and eternalize.

One almost infallible test as to whether any young person possesses real esthetic taste or not is to note how far he displays a tendency to intellectual braggadocio. Any tendency to become a "Smart Alec" damns a person completely, as far as the hall-mark of true-culture is concerned. For the strange thing is that any contact with the great imaginative writers evokes a mysterious mingling of pride and humility which makes it as impossible for a lover of these books to assume impertinent airs as for a really saintly person to be sanctimonious.

To read great books does not mean that one becomes "bookish"; it means that something of the terrible insight of Dostoievsky, of the richly-charged imagination of Shakespeare, of the luminous wisdom of Goethe, actually passes into the personality of the reader; so that in contact with the chaos of ordinary life certain free and flowing outlines emerge, like the forms of some classic picture, endowing both people and things with a grandeur beyond what is visible to the superficial glance.

Nor is this distinction merely superimposed upon these objects from without. It is reached by penetrating below their disordered surfaces into those aspects of their essential being wherein, this high quality really and truly exists.

Genuine self-culture defends itself from the intrusion of the vulgar by all manner of crafty devices, but In the presence of the simple and the natural it instinctively conceals its subtlety and grows naive, direct, artless, childlike.

For culture has this in common with the famous Pauline definition of "charity," that it effaces "itself without the fluidity of water of vapor when its betrayal would imply the least shadow of conscious superiority.

Culture does not exhaust itself in attempts to become learned. It quickly grows aware that there are qualities of style in the foreign languages utterly beyond the reach of the cleverest translator. Thus it prefers the baldest prose version of Homer or Horace or Dante to the most eloquent poetic paraphrase; and where it can it meditates over the words of the original, as one might smell a flower, with the hope of getting at least something of the untranslatable magic of those oracular syllables.

To think that one can escape from the limitations of one's temperamental fatality and acquire a catholic and comprehensive appreciation of all the great authors is an ill-advised conceit. The beginning of culture, and perhaps the end of it as well, is the discovery and subsequent banking-up of one's inherent taste. But into the formation of this taste many diverse traditions, many contradictory dreams, may well flow; and the cultivated man becomes by his birthright a child of all the ages; he is able to hold the clamorous present at a seemly distance, selecting from it, discriminating drastically amid its profusion, and frequently rejecting it altogether.

What culture alms at is not just an escape from me or an unintelligent plunge into agreeable sensations. It aims at a certain thrilling happiness, at once sensuous and intellectual, which alone can be reached by a contemplation of this mysterious "absolute" repealed in Nature which we call the magic of life or the beauty of life.

That this evasive beauty extends its margins far beyond the realms of the charming and the picturesque is realized as soon as the first steps of culture are taken. Those wild whirligig words of Hamlet, those mad cries of Lear, those maledictions of Prometheus, seem to touch some vibrant chord in the human heart which corresponds to something in Nature which is anything but soothing and serene. And yet out of these things there emerges a demonic grandeur not to be refuted; just as out of many a tragic death there exhales an indescribable peace, stern and beautiful, which passes all the platitudes of consolation.

Culture, I repeat, is nothing till some measure of the mind of the great spirits of our race has passed into the soul of the reader, into his bones and blood and nerves. "Then, and only then, and till then," will he have the secret strength to endure the scorn of the mob, "the proud man's contumely, the pangs, of despised love," the iron and adamant of fate and the raw crude litter of wind-blown chance.

Each single day that dawns becomes to the cultivated man or woman the unrolling of a mighty wave of mystery, heavy with incredible wonders. Shadows upon leaves, whispers, upon, the air, movements of clouds, the coming and going of human footsteps, all the thousand and one little things that compose the ritual of our common hours, fall into significant focus when the senses that receive them have been attuned by the receptivity of Wordsworth, the concentration of Goethe, the glamorous lethargies of Keats.

What matter though the man thus armored, thus weaponed to assassinate the commonplace is compelled to drink evilly-brewed coffee and rush off to a vile-smelling place of work? What matter if he is fooled as an unbelievable "nut" by his tough companions? He has on his side an innumerable company of invisible spirits and it is hard to believe that these immortal ones have left behind no psychic power wherewith to support him in his tribulations.

What matter though the woman or young girl thus immersed in the imagination of Blake and Dostoievsky, of Conrad and Proust, feels herself isolated, stranded, overpowered, helpless, in the presence of gross sounds hideous voices, places devoid of all graciousness? She has on her side an absolute power, older than all the centuries. She has eaten and drunk of the body and blood of the great gods themselves. She has sought from "the hard facts of life" not ease or success, but a glimpse of the loveliness of the unutterable; and before that hard day is over she will have had her reward.

The purpose of this essay will have been fulfilled if my readers have come to agree with me that what we call the art of self-culture is not a luxury nor a learned plaything, far less an asset in the road of worldly success. It will have attained its purpose if I have been able to convince them that such self-culture can actually take the place of love, of religion, of ambition, of excitement and adventure. And it can do this because the material of its working is the simple, obvious sensuous awareness of just being alive upon the earth, of this awareness as it is heightened and made subtle by the spirits of poetry, irony, and imagination.

But though to the best of my ability I have indicated what I feel to be the ideal of self-culture, these violent definitions of mine are only so many; fierce-flowing winds driving away some of the mists through which, we are compelled to wander.

One can render his interpretations amiable, tentative, cautious, sympathetic, so as to make allowance for the infinite variety of our faltering human approaches to this high plateau; or one can hurl forth a great thundering manifesto, or "bulletin from the front," such as shall bit the needs of a few desperate combatant's against, mediocrity while it tends to leave the majority, of "the armies of light" discouraged and disheartened.

The danger of adopting the first method, that of sympathetic casuistry and gentle discrimination, is that it leaves the main issue blurred and the "war-aims" of our assault on the citadel confused and vague.

The danger of the second method, which, all the same, I have chosen in these pages; that of holding the standard-clear and high, is that it suggests a sort of "all or nothing" campaign, in which everything is black or white and the infinite gradations or the real human situation are arrogantly set aside.

This seems to me, however, the only satisfactory course to take; for without a clear issue and an exalted ideal the whole question is apt to slip into vague half-humorous meandering. While with a clear, and even austere, issue before us, the great natural instincts of compromise, which all men possess, will soon be found to soften these stern outlines and mould these rigid forms into compliance with that inevitable human weakness which, after all, may sometimes be wiser than any doctrine.

In these modern days we are flooded by books and the degrees of our human culture are as infinitely various as are the types of human temperament. All we can do is to make clear to ourselves what is the main direction to the high difficult peaks; and then wander forward as best we can.

How often as we read some modern criticism of a great classic there comes, as Thoreau says, like a green bough across a dusty path, one single quotation of such inconceivable beauty that it is possible to meditate upon it for days! These modern critics who deal with the great masters are like vintagers' carts descending into the level country. And the drift of my whole argument is this, that a single bunch of grapes brought down from the vines of those mountains is better than goblets of foaming wine drained from the wine-barrel of the valley!