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Some of us are drawn to the Powyses through their works and some through personal encounter. I came to the Powyses via JCP’s works, first encountered in Jeff Kwintner’s inspirational Village Bookshop. Then, I met an actual Powys, Theodore’s son Francis and his wife Sally. They were transcribing JCP’s diaries. Francis told me that “of course” the greatest of the writing Powyses was his father, Theodore. Up till then I had only read TFP’s Mr Weston’s Good Wine and found it a powerful allegory of Christian faith in a superbly evocative, dark Dorset setting. After Francis’s remark I decided to read more TFP and the next I read, by chance, was 'The Only Penitent'. This story tells of an evangelical vicar, Mr Hayhoe, who decides to revive the Catholic sacrament of Penance. However his ‘only penitent’ is an old tinker called Jar. In his confession to Mr Hayhoe it becomes clear that Jar is God himself confessing his sins against humanity – “I have crucified my son”. It is one of these scalp-tingling moments in literature and I realised that Theodore (appropriately enough, considering his name) was also a theologian of unique power and vision in which God indeed walks among men and is a suffering being.
The Soliloquies of a Hermit (or Soliloquy as it was titled in America) published at the beginning of his career, was a kind of manifesto of this unique blend of literature and theology. “I am a priest” he says in it, and indeed he is, not as a romantic exalting art but humbly placing the word at the service of The Word, without in the slightest adhering to any evangelical fanaticism. He does not thump the Bible but finds it open before him in everyday existence.
One can place the three writing brothers according to their reaction to their father’s evangelical religion, from Llewellyn’s rejection, JCP’s mystical neo-paganism and in Theodore’s case apparent agreement but in reality, as the reversal in 'The Only Penitent' shows, complete subversion. The unique feature of Theodore amidst all the theological currents of the time is its rejection of the Hellenic and Latin Platonic current of Christianity. As he says in Soliloquies, ‘I know no Latin’. His religion is based exclusively on a personal reading of the Bible with a bit of help from the Mystery Plays, Bunyan and Wesley – whom he cites in Soliloquies. While Theodore is described as an allegorist, he seems to me to have gone beyond allegory to a more concrete religion in which gods actually “walk in the cool of the garden” and as Ezra Pound says in an essay in Passions and Divisions, prior to moralising abstraction, there was concrete experience of an encounter with divine beings which is only turned into a fable when its truth is questioned. It is the level of consciousness described by Julian Jaynes in his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which men actually heard and were possessed by divine voices and had no proper self-consciousness but just a readiness to obey the divine voices – a sacred audition rather than vision.
Theodore in Soliloquies calls himself a priest and one who listens, like Mr Hayhoe, to the voice of God in nature. His god is a god of stories and story-telling who appears in his own tales. Theodore is a priest because he tells these stories, which are real events because told by God. In the Soliloquies, Theodore talks of the moods of God, and they are not very different from the moods of Theodore who attends to them. This emphasis on moods might seem to give the book a rambling kind of air, like the extended walks Theodore was fond of, but actually there is a three-part structure here. The pivotal point in the middle of the work is announced by Theodore with another inversion – looking at himself as a 'Mr Thomas', from the point of view of one of the ‘immortals’ who have no care for the moods of God and think they will never die, as he digs his garden and mends – or fails to mend – his fence. This projection and objectification of self is precisely the kind of mind-projection Jayne’s bicameral mind is capable of, rather than the anguished ‘agenbite of inwit’ of the modern self-consciousness. Sequestered in his remote Dorset hideout Theodore attains to a pre-modern consciousness of unique power and resonance for us, overburdened with conscience.
After this externalised portrait, in the third part of Soliloquies Theodore turns to Jesus and the meaning of his love, which he interprets in a deeply personal way as a living in the Now. This is compared by some to Zen or even the Tibetan lightning bolt of enlightenment, but we do not know how much of eastern religion Theodore knew. His style is forged by the Bible and the ‘mad German’, Nietzsche – also a son of the manse – and we should allow him his uniqueness. His is not a Platonic religion of abstract ideas clothed in allegory but a concrete encounter with living presences whom he encounters in quotidian life. Theodore makes nothing of any distinction of body and spirit. Spirit and flesh are a single substance that lives in persons who can be actually encountered. Flesh is quite as holy as spirit. His is not an ascetical or negative theology so much as a deeply inverted one, where certain concepts, such as immortality, function in the opposite way to the normal religious usage, and thus create a shock of radical encounter as if for the first time. His Jesus is a defence against the moods of God that dominated in the first part of Soliloquies, Jesus 'stood alone in all the earth to face and destroy the moods.' In this way, ‘The New Heaven and the New Earth’, as the last section-heading puts it, will be opened without anger or guilt, those sins of excessive ego-consciousness.
To return to Francis’s question about the greatest writer — Theodore is perhaps not the greatest, but certainly the most unique and original. His brother John said of him that he had reached levels of moral pain that he, John, had never plumbed. Certainly Theodore’s presentation of evil, not the banality of evil but the evil of banality, has a unique power. For example, in ‘The White Paternoster’, he describes the cold-blooded planned rape of an innocent girl – targeted precisely to destroy that innocence -- by two lechers over a beer, in a way that chills the blood far more than any actual description of a rape would do.
Towards the end of his life Theodore seems to have found a kindred spirit: Simone Weil’s Waiting on God is in Theodore’s library, heavily annotated. He belongs with her and a handful of religious thinkers who explored the very boundaries of the Christian message. Theodore’s God was the author of tales, who appeared in his own dramas and suffered in the world to realise his love for it.