Thursday, April 21, 2011

Enjoyment of Literature, by John Cowper Powys

In one of Boston's last good used bookstores, there is a copy of Enjoyment of Literature in a glass cabinet. Powys has inscribed it to his brother and sister, dedicating the essay on Shakespeare to one and Proust to the other, and sketched Janus -- one of the many mythological figures he associated himself with -- on the title page. Somehow, the book passed through the hands of the Powys family to the poet Geoffrey Hill, whose name is also inside, before finally settling beneath the glass case.

I have only read one Powys novel, Wolf Solent, but felt a mysterious attraction to this volume, along with a completely unmysterious lack of $350, which is what it costs.

I might have been remembering Robertson Davies's introduction to Wolf Solent, where he describes Powys's twenty-five year career as an extension lecturer in America. I have always wondered, from Davies's description, what it would have been like to be in one of Powys's audiences.
As a lecturer he was what it is now fashionable to call charismatic; the tall, gaunt, eagle-like man, clad in his Cambridge gown, never spoke from notes; he thought in front of his audience, shouting, wooing, accusing and wowing 'em in a rhapsodic flow that might go on for an hour and a half, reaching to the highest shelves of his extraordinary literary range for allusions and examples from Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Dickens, Balzac and all the great of Western culture that would illumine his theme ... Powys was never the darling of the great American universities; they found him "un-scholarly" and did not care that Powys did what scholars rarely do; he brought a sense of the greatness and splendor of literature as an enrichment of life to people who wanted precisely that.
Powys, almost always broke, used his knowledge to dash off a few pamphlets like "One Hundred Greatest Books" for money, but Enjoyment of Literature (or The Pleasures of Literature, as it is called in England) is the mature fruit of all of those years of lecturing, composed only after he settled down to write seriously.

It is tough to write ordinary criticism -- to drape oneself over the edge of a sofa and declare "Oh how very fine" and then occasionally sigh, "Alas, that was not quite so fine" -- without feeling a little frivolous. Powys doesn't approach his task in this way. He treats books as ways to "support, deepen, and thicken out our profoundest life illusion," scattering exclamation points on every page and asserting that he cannot rest until he has connected "the most intimate peculiarities of a writer's style with the very centre of his soul's circumference and the widest parabola of its circling flight."

Is some of this too much? Undoubtedly, and there is plenty of hot air in this book, but no one can turn its pages and feel the same sense of dreary inconsequentiality that today's book review sections produce. Powys simply gets too much out of his reading -- he needs these books, he writes, in the "actual struggle of day-to-day life" -- and what he says about them is in a different world from the tedious grumbling of, say, Harold Bloom, whose enthusiasm for literature is far exceeded by his desire to scold and classify.

Powys writes about many of the authors you would expect -- Homer, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dickens -- and a few that you would not -- like Rabelais and Matthew Arnold -- but he never pretends that his choice is somehow eternally objective. "Among books," he writes, "as among people and events, our character is our fate. We can extend the boundaries of ourselves, we can enrich our native roots; but it is a waste of time to struggle to enjoy what we are not destined to enjoy!"

He continues: "Thus the choice of books becomes, like the choice of a mate, or of a life-friend, a series of cross-roads of appalling significance." Isn't that last phrase wonderful? Floating on the occasional currents of fustian, there are touches like this that make even the weaker essays worthwhile.

Powys is not much of a critic if you haven't read the books already. He doesn't give plot summary or do much close analysis of passages. He is a critic of essences and -- I know this is unfashionable -- self-help. He acknowledges that these authors have been discussed to death, but what has often been ignored, he says, is what "in unsophisticated circles is called a writer's 'message.'" He knows that such a statement is calculated to give "a scholarly student no slight shock," and it certainly made me suspicious, but the message that Powys teases out is never reductive. In his best essays, he points out what most readers have dimly felt, and attempts to lift our intimations a little further into consciousness before they sink back beneath the waves. Here is a long passage, for example, from his essay on Homer (Powys only works in long sections):

"In all the greatest poems of the world as they tell us this tale of fate, this struggle and this acceptance, there come moments, often near the end of it all, that convey an indescribable sense of peace. At such moments there rises from the very simplicity of the words a magic and a healing that totally evades definition. Under the touch of this magic a great quiet descends upon our spirit and we grow ashamed of our turbulence, our hurry, our ignoble self-pity, our insatiable discontent. It is not -- as with the Christians -- that we turn from defeat in this world to triumph in another. It is rather as though we heard the voice of our personal wrongs and private miseries caught or sinking down into the orchestral utterance of all the generations, into the tune of the ancient sorrow of the earth herself."

Powys then gives a short quote from a prose translation of the Odyssey:
So he spoke ... and they poured libations to the blessed gods, who hold broad heaven, from where they sat. But goodly Odysseus arose and placed in the hand of Arete the two-handled cup, and spoke and addressed her with winged words:

"Fare thee well, O queen, throughout all the years, till old age and death come which are the lot of mortals. As for me, I go my way, but do thou in this house have joy of thy children and thy people and Alcinous the king."

So the goodly Odysseus spake and passed over the threshold.
"Now I am not unaware," Powys writes, "that to many among my readers these simple lines will convey no particular significance; but, as Plato might say in his tentative manner, 'does it not seem' as if a certain magical end-of-the-day evocation, full of tender assuagement and an almost religious solemnity, gathers upon us as we read, not so much like the rich, harsh, mystic note from some Gothic bell-tower, as like the very sound of the river of life itself, deep and full-brimming, infinitely sad and yet infinitely healing?"

Along with the "thoughtless cruelties" in these epics, Powys writes, there is also "a grand primeval natural democracy ... wherein to be a man under the sun, or a woman under the sun, is a thing in itself of magical awe and reverence."

This is not an original remark, many people have felt it, but it takes an enchanter to carry both the thought and the feeling along in the prose. It also takes a certain courage to be obvious (this is precisely the courage, by the way, that is missing in most second-rate writers.) Here is what Powys writes in his essay on Proust -- I think he is making a related point:
The pleasures of reading are not confined to the immediate excitement of reading. There are also after-thoughts; and when an exciting book leaves no after-thoughts we know well what has been wrong. The author has been afraid of being dull.
As anyone who has picked up one of Powys's doorstop novels knows, he is absolutely fearless in this respect. I read Wolf Solent many years ago -- it is, in fact, only occasionally dull, but it is quite frequently unfathomable: I often had no idea what Powys was driving at. But I am going to return to his novels now: Owen Glendower or A Glastonbury Romance next, and then maybe Porius. Certain books give you the confidence to tackle a difficult writer, and Enjoyment of Literature is one of them. I can't seem to finish The Rainbow, for example, but I'll keep trying, because Lawrence's essays make it clear that he has something important to say to me. William Gaddis's essays, meanwhile, along with Charles Olson's interviews, both come off as so incoherent that I wonder whether it's worth making the effort to navigate their labyrinths.

Enjoyment of Literature was published in 1938 and has never been reissued. Luckily, it is not too hard to find used on the Internet. Some courageous publisher -- maybe the Overlook Press, which publishes Powys's mature novels -- might want to bring it back in print. Since his novels are so immense, the essays are probably the best introduction to his work, and also the closest we will get to hearing his lecturing, which one friend describes as "an art on its own such as, one feels, the world will never see again."

No comments: