Monday, May 30, 2005

Powys: Wolf Solent

John Cowper Powys's Wolf Solent (1929) is as if a cross-breed of The Return of the Native and The Mill on the Floss, matching the intensities of neither, for it lacks their sense of apocalypse, and substitutes for it a too discursive inner self (meaning Wolf). Clym's undoing is more than an error of his own will, and Eustacia is her own character as Gerda Torp and Christie Malakite are not. (The only willful characters besides Wolf are Selena Gault and Mother Solent.) Nor can Maggie Tulliver reconcile herself remotely to herself, buffeted in her triple love by Society as Wolf is merely by his own proprieties, or perhaps rather by his Romantic aesthetic. She ends in a river deluge, he ends resigned to a cup of tea. That ending ("Well, I shall have a cup of tea") recalls Candide, though in Wolf's case it bespeaks a moral courage to endure, instead of, as he contemplates, to escape.

Haplessly in love, but with no one more so than himself and his own inner romance, he is a sympathetic character. Nature here is his self: "'Am I inhuman in some appallingly incurable manner?' he thought. 'Is the affection I have for human beings less important to me than the shadows of leaves and the flowing of waters?'" Reading this, which is good despite my comments now, one sees why free indirect discourse has such a hold on modern fiction: it is implausible that he would think this in such explicit terms. That formalism gives the writing an eighteenth-century antiquity.

Solent lives in his father's footsteps, his father who died almost abandoned in a poorhouse, just as he lives in the shadow of the suicide James Redfern, who scrivened before him for Squire Urquhart. Reminders of death, Powys notes well, do make our troubles and hesitations ridiculous, a truth to which Hamlet in the face of the ghost was somehow immune: "And the thought came over him how ridiculous these dignified withdrawings of his would appear to that grinning skull in the cemetery." Later when he loves Christie platonically, he flays himself for not taking her in his arms as would have his casanova father.

Wolf has his "mythology," a "secret spiritual vice" that is the possession he keeps closest, never revealing it even to his soul-confidant, Christie. She appreciates the old philosophers less for their logic than for their "atmosphere," which is acutely observed; Wolf is comical and sympathetic at once when he says: "You've got Hegel there, too, I notice. I've always been rather attracted to him--though just why, I'd be puzzled to tell you." Her "atmosphere" is allied to his "mythology" dramatically in a way that makes them apt companions of the mind. It is almost a new nature, her heterocosmic lands: "I regard each philosophy, not as the 'truth,' but just as a particular country, in which I can go about--countries with their own peculiar light, their Gothic buildings, their pointed roofs..."

Gerda's dual creative-destructive simplicity is well limned. For instance: "In the very act of doing this [brushing her back of burrs] he had determined to kiss her; but something about the extraordinary loveliness of her face, when she did confront him, deterred him...later, analyzing it, he came to the conclusion that although beauty, up to a certain point, is provocative of lust, beyond a certain point it is destructive of lust; and it is this, whether the possessor of such beauty be in a chaste mood or not." Wolf is analytical to a fault: he means well for others, if hypocritically, and reflects to the end of time, but for himself. If at times his considerations serve no purpose dramatically, it may be because he too much resembles Powys. Some good if vestigial observations are clearly from the life: "He had often noticed that when his blood had been quickened by rapid walking, he had a tendency to exaggerate his natural bonhomie to a degree that was almost fatuous." Note: "He had often noticed..."

Powys is also good on the disconnect of love, the mental disunion even in the physical act. Consider his moment of derealization, and her presence: "A queer feeling came over him as if she and he were acting a part in some fantastic dream-world, and that he had only to make one enormous effort, to find he had destroyed for both of them the whole shadow-scenery of their life. But Gerda, knowing nothing of what was passing in his mind, turned round in her chair and pushed him away with all the strength of her young arm. 'Don't be so annoying, Wolf!' she cried. 'There! I'm hungry, I tell you...'" She so earthly, he so ethereal. At other times, it is different. With his half-sister Mattie Smith, for instance. She tells him that her foster-father is ruined and she therefore also bankrupt: his thoughts: "'She's got a fine figure,' thought Wolf. 'What a shame that her nose is so large!'" Granted, this could be construed as to her marriage prospects.

To Christie: "The odd thing is that when I'm away from you I can hardly call up your face...Mother's face and Gerda's face I know like two books; but it's as if I carried your identity so close to me that I couldn't see a single expression of it." Compare my own poem "Grenadier."

Wolf's "mythology" is important dramatically because his attitude to it changes and that change reveals his own change. Trouble is, although his sense of his mythology evaporates, his faith in it, his trust in its illusion as necessary to his life, does not. So his change is in a way shallowly conveyed by it. Urquhart is insufficiently evil, even given a banal idea of evil, to motivate this too quixotic passage: "Did not his 'mythology' depend upon his inmost life-illusion--upon his taking the side of Good against Evil in the great occult struggle?" Powys's hero is in a full-flight romance because (as in Cervantes) he sees himself as such. At times the "mythology" appears kin to the quasi-gnosis of Joyce's epiphanies, or Woolf's moments of being (both from the same period, roughly). But then we learn about "the inner nature of each person's secret life-illusion--that peculiar consciousness people build up as to their dominant 'entelechy' or ultimate life-flowering. Thus it seemed to him now, that while his own life-illusion was his 'mythology,' Christie's must be those 'Platonic essences' about which she was always pondering, Weevil's the mystic beauty of girl's legs, and Urquhart's the idea of his shameless book [a history of local petticoats]." Powys's hero, to rephrase, is Wolf's "mythology" itself, and the drama of the novel is the revelation in successive turns that his myth is a romantic hypocrisy, that nature when loved falsifies love as such: love between man and woman. One could almost claim that the book is one (of many perhaps) moral terminus of Romanticism.

Mother Solent is the first to point harshly at this hypocrisy. "Why do you always try and make out that your motives are good, Wolf? They're often abominable! Just as mine are. There's only one thing required of us in this world, and that's not to be a burden..." As his father became. A powerful speech. She warns that his opponent Weevil "keeps his thoughts to himself," and names this a virtue.

Love is one of Wolf's goods, and so he often persuades himself that his work he works for love. Wolf's liberality with his own belief that he is in love is revealed to him and, because so eloquently, anew to us, by Selena Gault, who is perhaps jealous of his amours: "The truth is, boy, that you don't know yourself, or what you really need, any more than that stick of yours does! You're making yourself ill with remorse, when neither of those little Blacksod hussies cares a fig about your feelings...or about your faithfulness either. Why, they've been brought up to be as indiscriminate as flies! You don't know our Dorsetshire lower classes, boy. They haven't the same feelings, they're not human in the same way as we are...And what's more, Wolf, let me tell you're not really in love with either of them! If you were, you'd choose between them. You're one of those men like Jason Otter, like Mr. Urquhart, who in their hearts hate women..." That is Powys's greatest intensity in the book. Why, is because its overstatement (while resembling dispassionate acuity) pulls Selena up and out of her role as a benign caretaker, a second mother to Wolf, her role within the book. Among other things, for instance, it hints that the lover in her is alive yet.

Wolf never digests this, really, and the book trails onward to the end, with him lamenting that he has died interred with his mythology, and him battling with the illusion-less Jason, a poet whose career and ambition he has furthered, and who serves as a moral anchor in his duel with Urquhart (which is therefore a duel more with Jason, as Wolf himself realizes). Christie has a redeeming rage: "Damn you! You talking fool! You great, stupid, talking fool! What do you know of me or my father? What do you know of my real life?"--her father had raped her and she mothered an incestuous child. That stresses what is Wolf's cardinal sin, namely, his substitution of his ideas of his loves for his loves themselves: Christie is the hyperbolic mirror of his own soul, a bottomless cup for his own thought; Gerda is nothing more than a body fitted out in revealing and concealing clothes.

The book ends: "Death and Love! In those two alone lay the ultimate dignity of life. Those were the sacraments, those were the assuagements. Death was the great altar where the candles were never extinguished for such as loathed the commonplace." After which follows an invective against technology for destroying these, by destroying nature, and therefore his mythology, which was his premodern Romantic self.


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