Janina Nordius: "I Am Myself Alone" - Solitude and Transcendence in John Cowper Powys. Goteburg, Sweden: Acta Universitats Gotheburgensis, 1997.
John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) was an eccentric British writer of novels, essays, and popularizations who, as Nordius notes in her dissertation, "remains an outsider to the English literary canon." Powys was an outsider for several reasons: 1) the fiction he began writing in his late fifties is decidedly Victorian in style, 2) he spent many years as an itinerant lecturer in the United States, and 3) he blithely ignored literary trends (modernism in the 1920s and1930s) when he wrote most of the novels. While Powys's book A Philosophy of Solitude has a nonfiction niche, the novels are both less known and less well-received. Nordius examines six novels to disclose Powys's evolved views on solitude, which dominate the characters and plots of these works: Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), Owen Glendower 1940), and Porius (1951). The exploration of solitude through successive works of fiction is both unique and a critical risk. Here is a summary of Powys's ideas on solitude followed by a brief summary of each novel.
Powys's Victorian style is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy and conveys characters and plots seemingly contrived for the purpose of exploring expressions of solitude and its gradations in various personalities and temperaments. At the same time, Powys's emphasis on physical and sensual aspects of his characters and settings, derived from his In Defence of Sensuality (1930), links him to D. H. Lawrence. Another influence, as will be seen, is the philosopher Nietzsche.
In Defence of Sensuality corresponds to the explorations of solitude in Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance. Powys extends the term "sensuality" to an epicurean appreciation of nature and sense reality. A Philosophy of Solitude (1933) corresponds to ideas of solitude explored in Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle. The later books are extensions of Powys's changing views on solitude.
A Philosophy of Solitude is drawn from elements of Stoicism, Taoism, Romanticism, and Nietzsche, with occasional references to German idealism and pessimism. Powys's view of solitude as a necessary aspect of existence highlights a consciousness of self and that which is non-self, the latter an "undefined external Cosmos," as Powys puts it. The relationship must become for each person a source of happiness and an object of contemplation, receptivity, even embrace and epiphany, though always distinct and isolated.
In his In Defence of Sensuality, Powys coins the phrase "enjoy-defy-forget." The formula is ambiguous, but Powys intends the phrase to describe the sequence of enjoyment of Nature defying gregariousness and sociability, then moving on to the next contemplation. He allows for friendships, even love, these being solitudes forming identifications with the mental images of others, thus reflecting one another.
But Powys always returns to the solitary contemplation of the inanimate, the non-self, which opens the possibility of recognizing not the limiting animal remnants in consciousness but links to subhuman and therefore more universal layers of consciousness. This potential depth of solitude redefines reality as what William James called a multiverse, a pluralistic universe. Our subjectivity is so profound that we define not so much objective reality as our ability )or necessity) to be both socially and mentally independent of the "attitude of other minds towards this world. Thus reality is decentralised and multiple phenomenon," notes Nordius (emphasis hers). The increasingly lost public reality, source of increasing social fragmentation and individual alienation, is less Powys's focus; he rather focuses on the potentials of human consciousness to transcend the common public reality.
Although Powys did not rigorously categorize different types of solitude, Nordius charts them in both the essays and -- in the rest of her work -- the major novels. These are physical and mental solitude, quotidian and transcendental solitude, and subjective and non-subjective solitude. A chart shows their overlap:
The categories are not equal. The physical is actually smaller than the mental, the quotidian equivalent to the transcendental, and the subjective larger than the non-subjective. Additionally, another set of categories is visible and invisible solitude.
The tension between these expressions of solitude and what Powys concludes -- that solitary contemplation is ultimately "becoming nothing" in an "erotic embrace" of non-self, a "mystic-sensuousness" -- is why Powys sought the presentation of these states through fictional narratives. How successfully this was accomplished is the question comprising the bulk of Nordius's book.
1. Wolf Solent
Here Powys begins articulating his philosophy of solitude, formulated in the conflict between what the novel calls "the philosophy of the saint" versus "the philosophy of the ichthyosaurus." To Wolf (i.e., Powys), the former is a life lived in suffering that is lived on behalf of external and objective social circumstances, the ethics integral to the cultural heritage of society. The latter -- as is suggested, a "fish-like" existence Wolf calls his "mythology" to emphasize its unaffective naturalness -- is a life "mingling in our 'I am I' of the sub-human elements."
The philosophy of the saint is a life renounced of personal desires in order to identify with others and their suffering, a view not necessarily religious but implicitly guilty, shared, and therefore subordinating solitude to a continual consciousness of dualism. The ichthyosaurus identifies with the flow of life, with the environment of life, forgetting sorrows and sufferings. For Wolf, the inviolability of the ichthyosaurus is itself an ideal but at the same time a myth, a striving to escape from "real reality" to "true reality," the latter a subjective solitude Wolf tries to construct and secure psychologically and physically. In the novel, the conflict is presented in the love triangle of Wolf, Gerda (saint) and Christie (ichthyosaurus). The novel ends with Wolf rediscovering his original solitude but now including self and nature as integral parts of a continuum. He rejects the duplicity of his former dualistic mythology by identifying a spectrum that incorporates quotidian and transcendental solitude.
2. A Glastonbury Romance
While the conflict over saint versus ichthyosaurus transpired only in the mind of the protagonist in Wolf Solent, the conflict is presented in multiple characters in A Glastonbury Romance. The plot revolves around the local political struggles of a factory owner against a fervent vicar, while the narrator scrutinizes other characters who glimpse a transcendent solution to life in versions of solitude. Powys's protagonist John (the factory owner) fosters his misanthropy in dismissively Nietzschean terms, celebrating his own will to power as a natural miracle or marvel of solitude. Nordius describes the character's grasping exploitation of nature and his indifference to other people as "deep selfishness" and negative solitude. But his antagonist, also named John, finds true solitude in renouncing possessions, ambition, authority, thus breaking through to see the "mysterious essence" of nature and natural things in his "positive solitude," which unconsciously becomes behavior of the saint. Another character, Sam, still clings to the belief that habits lead to dichotomous ethics, resolved only in the vision of the Grail.
3. Weymouth Sands
The number of characters grows in Weymouth Sands, all of them intrinsically solitary. Nordius points out the differences between this and the previous novel:
Selfishness is no longer a big issue, there is no competition between the philosophy of solitude and a "solitary" alternative, and, above all, the representation of solitude itself is radically different. ... The influence of such positive counter-instances has been considerably reduced, and as a result, the drawbacks of solitude and loneliness become more prominent. ... A line of division [exists] between on the one hand non-subjective (or "self-abandoned") solitude -- the favoured notion here -- and, on the other, subjective solitude, which in most cases is treated with suspicion.
The "non-subjective" solitude is a feminine or sublime realism that detects a continuity in all beings, that does not require conscious or contrived solitude. Powys here promotes a self-abandoned transcendental solitude prompted by reflection on natural settings and objects, what he calls "the sense of mysterious becoming." Unlike the previous novels, this sense of solitude has no ecstatic or even positive energy; it is acutely aware of alienation and sorrow. This disconnectedness governs relations between the characters.
4. Maiden Castle
The 1936 edition of Maiden Castle was severely edited by its publisher, only restored in 1960. Here Powys criticizes the transcendental solitude of previous novels. Notes Nordius: "The most severe accusations of selfishness are delivered by the women in the novel, ... and concern the effects of selfish behaviour on an interpersonal rather than an existential level in general." But non-subjective solitude is here approached by the male protagonist "by means of intensifying his subjective solitude." This paradoxical approach reflects Powys's comments in the book The Art of Happiness:
Metaphysicians tend to speak of this higher level of our identity as something impersonal; but they are just as likely to be wrong, as to be right in this misanthropic assertion. It may be, on the contrary, that this "higher" or "deeper" or more "comprehensive" aspect of our ego is the most intensely personal thing about us!
Powys intensifies these perceptions in the thought and action of the male protagonist, especially as a tension between his freedom and his sense of self-control, a clash between solitude and reality. His love relationship splits these inner conflicts to such a degree that the female protagonist resolves them on her own: from original dependence and indebtedness to freedom by escaping to her old career in a new land. This long and ultimately failed relationship Powys follows carefully as the novel's core predicament. Peripheral characters criticize the male protagonist's egoism and scornfully anticipate his ruin. The contrast made is between solitude as egoism versus solitude as loneliness resulting from neglect from a loved one.
The lonely male protagonist "is made to experience the dreary, unwished- for solitude in the world." He tries to deliberately enjoy his existential loneliness, not escape it or justify it but transform it. In contrast, the female protagonist never has a philosophy of solitude. Her life is anchored in relationships, her desire for stability and security being her reasons for staying with the male protagonist. But her growing consciousness about her enforced solitude with him leads her to accept both solitude and quotidian reality. Eventually she makes the leap to freedom by the very faculty of imagination and vision that the male protagonist thought to achieve for himself. In the end, the novel does not satisfactorily resolve the issue of solitude anymore than its characters do.
After Maiden Castle, writes Nordius, Powys was "finished with justifying his philosophy and the right to solitude," but Nordius pursues two more novels in search of elements of solitude in Powys later thinking.
5. Owen Glendower
With this novel, Powys ventures into historical fiction, shifting the setting from England to Wales, from contemporary to 15th century. The novel is often violent, with allusions to solitude crude to befit the characters. Protagonist Owen is said by the narrator to experience "curious psychic withdrawals" and "premeditated escapes of consciousness," and resorts to a "trick of exteriorizing his soul," as Nordius puts it.The visible solitude is Owen's status as self-proclaimed prince; invisible solitude is his hidden life as outlaw. But fate, not autonomy, governs the characters, magic and enchantment overshadow will and possibilities, leaving an "impersonal solitude" as the protagonists's "mythology of escape." It is a magical land where, to quote Powys, the "soul is forever making a double flight. It flees into a circuitous Inward. It retreats into a circuitous Outward [emphasis Powys]."
Powys's setting for Porius, what Nordius calls his "most sustained attempt at creating a fiction multiverse," is 499 AD, with multiple peoples in an ordered Romanized setting about to be invaded by Saxons. In this plot Powys alludes to his own Dark Ages Europe of the 1940s; the evil forces include a priest and a necrophile, versus the princely protagonist and his friend a Pelagian priest-tutor. The style of the novel mixes reality and fantasy, magic, time-travel, teleportation, dreams, and mythology. The elements of solitude are indistinct, indiscriminant, and gratuitous. Mature Powys has found what he wants and is simply writing a novel.
Nordius observes that in Powys's fiction where solitude is not the theme, the works "run out of steam." But even in the novels where solitude is a focus, the effort is stilted, often contrived, the structures and presentations interminable lengthy. The fiction attempts to popularize the essays, themselves popularizations. The novels are unique crystallizations of themes and observations on solitude not comparable in other 20th-century English literature.