George Steiner (1929–2020)

The Difficulties of Reading John Cowper Powys

George Steiner My role tonight is a slightly ambiguous one. I’m trying to be of use to the Society by speaking as it were from the margin, or a little bit from the outside. Let me just try and initiate some thoughts on the difficult, yet obvious subject of why we should be meeting at all, which I don't think should be taken for granted. I think the fact that we're meeting reflects a rather complicated situation.

What are some of the difficulties about reading John Cowper Powys? I want to start with a humble one: the texts are not available. There are very few single editions of paperbacks. There was an important Penguin misadventure, which many of you may know about — others will fill in the details. A number of us fought extremely hard to get Penguin to include Powys in the Twentieth Century Classics, to announce a whole group of Powys’s books. This would have been the breakthrough. After very difficult negotiations and considerable reluctance, Wolf Solent was launched, and one waited, and there was a shattering review in the New Statesman which said that this was not only silly and bad, but that it had behind it a cabal, and that one must stop this kind of nonsense, which was merely a special interest trying to thrust its face upon the general public, and so on (I have a file of correspondence), after which Penguin abandoned plans which had called for Glastonbury and the Autobiography. There’s absolutely no doubt that if there had been a breakthrough with Penguin the situation would have been profoundly different throughout the reading community.

There is no general biography. This is very important. There is no life, no generally acceptable, straightforward biography. The result is a very curious and dangerous one in my opinion, a mosaic of rumour, a mosaic of private gossip and in-group knowledge to which the outsider has no real access. He feels kept out, because the cognoscenti know a great deal, can understand references and place vital elements in the work. There is no general biography available of the kind that is an invaluable help for many other great writers. Not only is there no biography, there is the problem of the Autobiography, a book magical in its genius but compounded of silences, compounded of extremely subtle obliquities, indirections; no simple guide, God knows, for anyone trying to find out the history of that life or what it was all about or who was involved. So we really have a double problem, not only the lack of a biography, but the presence of that very disturbing, very difficult work which in some ways makes the biographer's task hopeless to begin with, because how dare he compare his own inadequate means to that very great book?

We have no general critical introduction. I say this with all due respect to the presence here tonight of those who have written about him. The literature is growing but I think you would agree that there is no single introduction to the whole of his work - a general critical introduction placing it, guiding one, discussing various works in sequence, and attempting a general first judgement. In a moment I’ll give examples of what I have in mind. On the contrary, we have a number of epochal critical dismissals which have enormous authority, and Cambridge is the place to speak of them. Dr. Leavis's dismissal is certainly one of the lasting historical turning-points; it has had enormous influence. Not only is it a dismissal which has been made over and over again in lectures (as, when asked by students, that “it is an utter waste of time to try and read John Cowper”) but which follows up this dismissal by rapidly saying, “Yes, but — the other brother. Yes, but Mr Weston's Good Wine, though not in the Great Tradition, not entirely of the Alpha double minus or whatever, is kind of, of the Beta query double plus class, and this is the one, if at all. you will want to look at.” And Mr Weston's Good Wine is one of the books which a Cambridge undergraduate professes to have acquaintance with, and Dr Leavis has always said that to look at Glastonbury Romance or Weymouth Sands or Wolf Solent is almost a mark of misguidedness, a mark of mental confusion. Had Dr Leavis judged otherwise, we would today have the biography, we would have the general critical work, and I believe we would have the paperbacks. And I think one can show that, because in a number of cases it has been the one or two great academic critical voices who have launched authors, who have made them generally and widely available in the syllabus.

There is the absence of Powys’s name from surveys of modern English literature — the name simply doesn’t appear in the index. There is no transcendental, absolute mystery here. There are a lot of contingent accidents, a lot of bits of bad luck, a lot of questions of personality clashes, a lot of near-misses, which all of us I think can document in the career of John Cowper Powys’s reputation.

But let’s ask why, in a more fundamental sense. Surely our first impression after seeing this should be of deep bewilderment. There is the eros in Wolf Solent, in A Glastonbury Romance, in Weymouth Sands, which goes far beyond anything in Lawrence, in its exploratory frankness, in its genius, in its candour, in its sheer courage to explore almost every ramification of human sexuality. So the argument might go: why hasn't John Cowper Powys profited enormously from what is called the new liberation?

Let me just try to answer this question in a simple-minded way. If we argue that we are rediscovering a lot of literature in the name of a new and untramelled interest in sex: why, read the second chapter of A Glastonbury Romance; there is nothing like it in Lawrence, nothing to touch its sheer violent intensity and truth. If we are told there is today a passionate interest in sadism at every level, in psychological sadism, in sex as cruelty, in sex as domination, as exploitation: where else but in these magnificent novels do we find a treatment as powerful, as overwhelming in terms of truth? Compared to this, the tactical cleverness of Lady Chatterley, the enormous manoeuvres of evasion in the successive versions, and finally the silence, the much debated silence, on what seems to be the central sexual experience of the protagonist, compared to Powys, these are not inspiring examples of great courage, of great public emancipation. So, one would say, people would have rediscovered John Cowper; “Yes. here is a great pioneer of the interests and problems that now beset us”.

But there’s a second issue. Many aspects in his art are in the very best sense, cinematic. An eye, an eye for motion, an eye for the great scene, for figure in landscape, an eye for action. So one could say, until one saw this on film or on television, one couldn't realize how marvellously palpable this material is. I'm thinking how Hardy has profited from the camera, of the way in which much of Hardy has been taken up again in a sense in which we don’t perhaps all agree with, but which makes it intensely visual and vital. One could have said. “What are they waiting for?” The people who tell us they're hunting for good books to serialise on television, who tell us there is a constant need for scripts from the past — the kind of novel a great director wants to deal with. You say to them. “Have you read Wolf Solent or parts of Glastonbury or many parts of Powys which are crying out for this kind [of] treatment which is now possible. Why don't you turn to it?” This at a time when, on latest count, eleven of Henry James’s novels have been televised or filmed. Think of the contrast — the most etiolated, the most guarded, the most, in some respects, non- or anti-visual genius has been ransacked by film and television often with brilliant success, saying “Look, we have found here something intensely pictorial, why didn't anyone tell us this earlier?”

There is in Powys a critique of technological mass consumer society, prophetic in every respect. Long before current notions of pollution, current notions of man's destruction of the animal world, of the landscape, long before it became almost the overwhelming cause of political passion, he was saying all this with a kind of power and detail which no-one has matched since. Here is a man who grew up in what I suppose we all look back to as Utopia - open country; who still knew an England which today is entirely gone except in certain artificial remote corners, and who gave clear warning, “If you don’t keep the land open, if you don't keep this a place where one can breathe and look about one, it will be a nightmare”. He saw it all, he was completely a prophet of what was to come: the cruelty of the machine, of the inhuman, insensate domination of the world by man in it. You say, “Right, the young people all over the earth who are finding Thoreau and Emerson again, or in the United States, the young who are looking back to all the writers who felt this and who gave this warning, and who are going back to Herman Hesse at every point, saying, ‘There is a man who told us we must withdraw, that we can't take part in this rat-race,’ they would discover these books and say, . ‘There it is, there is someone helping us’ ”. He saw much more clearly than anyone else what the current battle for having a liveable world is going to be about. Only once more it hasn’t happened.

The Conspiracy theory is very tempting. At certain moments, in the Byzantine condition of literature today, where critics matter more than writers, where quarrels matter much more than imagination, a handful of people can decide a great deal. But it’s not a helpful line to take. We have to look a little deeper. I would like to be as honest as I can tonight, and at some danger of very mild disagreement with the Society, I would like to try and put the other case. With your indulgence, suppose we look at it from outside, suppose I’m asking to be convinced. I’m a hostile witness. What might some of my fundamental difficulties be?

The first is almost puerile to say — the books are very very long, and very taxing to read. I think Powys’s committed, passionate lovers, as almost everyone here is tonight, sometimes forget this.

There is no ease of access. Each great novel of John Cowper Powys is a world of its own. It has to be reconquered, reunderstood almost from the start But this difficulty has not stopped the proliferation of power in the world of very difficult authors who write huge books. A writer as difficult as Musil The Man Without Qualities sells half a million copies in paperback — a four-volume, immensely difficult and demanding work.

But there is inwoven with the most accessible of John Cowper Powys’s novels certain obsessions and convictions of an extremely special sort, which, depending on one’s point of view, are sublime or merely cranky. In almost every great writer, as in almost any significant human being, there are very strange threads, thank God, complications, areas of shadow. In this man, they all of the time lie near the centre of the work. You can’t just say, “Pay no attention to these things. Get on with the story”. This gigantic human being seems to have been able to orchestrate at every moment such a vast range of convictions, of insights, of beliefs, that they come in like chords, like great musical chords, so that it’s almost impossible to say. “Please pluck one, two and three out and listen to the rest”.

And these are very difficult chords. There are his convictions about spiritualism. A conviction so terribly literal, and often so dogmatic.

There is the Faddist. There is a man who does not only hate vivisection but who links it to a theory of cosmic evil and retribution. We pass from what would be a private passion, a nuance of feeling, into a very central statement, which demands with full integrity that we understand it, and that we make up our minds whether it is a rational proposition, worth taking seriously.

There is the Celtic Nationalism. The involvement with that world, the passionate, the deep inspired vision of that world, onto a level of expert magic, makes the reading of Porius, of Owen Glendower, exceedingly difficult without a great deal of help. The publisher puts in this little thin cast of characters — it’s no help whatsoever — it’s almost a sign of despair on the publisher's part. it’s like in very bad editions of Russian novels where you get: ‘Vassilevich Nikolayevich is a third cousin of Ippolovich Ivanovich’ and good luck to you! With John Cowper Powys there’s that majestic impatience, that transcendental, titanic impatience with our lack of background, and I think this has put off a great many readers.

These are lesser points. A bigger one perhaps is that here is a writer so complexly out of his time. In many respects, surely, his art reaches back to the oral epic. No modern artist is more magnificently spoken, or sung; his technique and sense of time, his distribution of narrative mass, is more like Homer than almost any other modern artist. He goes back to the picaresque novel, which derives from the spoken epic. In him the link with the origins of the novel is brilliantly clear and important. The whole history of the novel is almost recapitulated in this body of work. In style of narrative and direct address, in his lyric word-paintings, in his circumstantial scenery, this contemporary of Kafka and Joyce reaches back to Scott, to Dickens, to the Brontës, to Thomas Hardy. What I’m trying to say is, he eludes ‘placing’, and that puts him together with that other great neglected giant in modern English literature, David Jones; these two figures just escape historical location.

There is the seeming absence in him of certain social and political central awareness in relation to his age. There is the blatant naïveté of his relatively rare pronouncements on what was happening in much of the twentieth century. One can say, of course, he saw very deeply, and I have tried to suggest how deeply he saw what we call today the Crisis of the Environment, how much he knew about the rising genius of cruelty in our time. There are in Glastonbury amazing aperçus about the social crisis, about the crisis in industrial labour, about the whole problem of power relation between owner and proletariat. But there are also immense absences. It is as though much of the history of our lives had not happened, and as if it had been of no concern to him. And that is why one can say that even Lawrence’s awful errors, the black muddle of The Race and Charismatic leadership, even Yeats’s senile exultation over the politics of Ireland, are more immediate to our response than the vague rhetoric of Powys’s rare comments on his time.

There is an enormous emptiness there, and I think many of us pick up a novel of classic stature with at least some expectation that it will have been in the imaginative grip of the events around it.

There is, finally, the exceedingly delicate problem of the sexuality of this work — its ocular sadism, its furious genius for masturbation, of its giggly quality, which grows absolutely sillier than words towards the latter part of his life. (I'm thinking of the disastrous recent publication of some of the letters.) His candour on these matters is in fact totally opaque, as we know. There's a kind of fearful childishness, of histrionic disguise, which runs through the heart of some of his great works. He’s often silly in a way in which only the very greatest of artists can afford to be, and even those only briefly. In Rabelais and Tolstoy it just works, because it is held in place, as it were, by very strong clamps of common-sense, of sudden gusts of almost luminous simplicity and self-correction, so that the other thing holds. Only a few Titans have been able to incorporate that kind of strangeness and not have the form of the work crack under that challenging weight.

In one sense it is supreme good luck for a writer to be loved and studied by a group of human beings who share a delight in his genius, who feel that the different aspects of that genius, just because they’re so different, are almost made for them. So that for almost everyone in this room there is something in Powys so important that he says, “Look, he wrote that just for me,” or “He knew my life without ever having met me”.

But it is also a danger; when that coterie is at several crucial points isolated from the general stream of feeling. With regard to John Cowper’s reputation, with regard to his being read, by people who don't regard this as a special exercise or as a strange esoteric hobby: the chance for that depends in part on a meeting like this, but it’s also in part endangered by it. This is the fascination of our adventure here; it is an ambivalent adventure. In one sense it’s marvellous that there should be a celebration, for his birthday of one hundred, in another sense there shouldn't be. It should be an obvious fact, in the history of literature, in the sense that small groups don't gather to mark the birthday of Conrad or James or Lawrence — that is just part of the accepted curriculum of our civilisation.

I want in selfish delight to end by looking at two passages in which John Cowper Powys’s genius is such, and of so immediate a quality that one would want to read them from the rooftops: the kind of passages where everything I've said fades into total insignificance, and one is just left with the desperate question, “why does anybody need convincing?”

[Here was a reading of the long paragraph in the chapter “Consummation", in A Glastonbury Romance (London. 1933, p.317) which begins' “This was the moment, as she felt herself pulled across the room by her wrist, that she knew her first real spasm of fear of her man”. and ends. “The extremity of her sensation that sensation which Teiresias (to his own disaster!) had placed above the man's implied a vivid consciousness that she, Nell, was being possessed by him, Sam.”]

The Tiresias reference seems to me so much deeper here than in Eliot because we have felt the whole of Tiresias in that passage. John Cowper, as perhaps Leonardo before him, or as Goethe in certain very key passages, is both man and woman, and has this breath-taking equity of judgement, this unbelievable impartiality of judging sensation.

One always looks in English literature, doesn’t one. for “Is there anything left by Shakespeare for us to do? Is there any corner where his mastery does not touch?” I find Shakespeare on animals utterly intoterable.

I’m thinking of the chapter “The Stranger” in Porius. when the as yet unidentified Merlin comes over the river. This is a passage, I believe, unlike any other in world literature, where suddenly the air is alive, the words are alive, every thing is electric, and it is electricity from a magician passing through animals, so that man comes very late and stupidly down the perceiving organs. Everything else has got it right, long before man, with his gross cartilages, gets anywhere near feeling it.

Porius certainly needed every mental power he possessed to keep, mentally speaking, even a boat’s length behind the rush of sensations He was vividly aware of that special kind of shock that comes when a phenomenon that in itself is perfectly natural presses so hard against the sequence of things with which we’re familiar that it discredits the very witness of the senses themselves. Emerging from the cave, he felt at once that the twilight was agitated by much more than the screams of a flock of seagulls. He thought he heard the bark of a fox. He was sure he saw the grey unshapely form of a badger; and the air seemed as ruffled by excited stirrings and flutterings as the earth seemed ransacked by wild scamperings and drummings.

All the animals know it’s Merlin, the whole emanating power of his presence is in the animals.

He paused and gazed round him.. That yellow vapour was here again! Yes. that same stubble-coloured mist like a conscious presence. whose motion across the sky he had followed from the Gaer-gate ... His mind struggled to catch and clarify the confused ideas that came swimming into his consciousness.

Watch as his own consciousness — that’s his great good fortune at this moment — becomes organic. There is that Lawrentian, hoped-for, that organic, penetration of consciousness.

As he listened to these scufflings in the undergrowth and cries in the air, and the more desperately he tried to get his sensations under control, the more this unnatural mist thickened about him. It could no longer be called stubble-coloured. Twilight had darkened too far. But the effect on Porius was the same as if it could be so-called, since there was something about it that differentiated it completely from the darkness that cradled it and carried it.

The darkness is cradled within the darkness. The noise of the animals is cradled within the river-noise.

Thicker and thicker it gathered round him; till he began to wonder if he was destined to reach Brother John at all that night.

And then — I can’t go on, it’s too late already — remember he hears the dog, by the ferry ...

... uttering... quick excited barks: but the tone of these barks struck him as utterly different. They were barks of contentment, barks of satisfaction, infinite relief.

The dog has seen Merlin; this is the beginning of that amazing emergence from the river.

1 think there is nothing like this in any other writer, this power, which Shakespeare singularly lacked, to penetrate far beyond speech into the quick of animal and stone. In one sense John Cowper Powys is surely our greatest Platonist, and like Plato he seizes at the merest edge of transcendence in material things; but unlike Plato he never despises the husk, the quiddity of matter.

And perhaps, after all. it is right that he should be so difficult to read, because when we read him, it is we who are honoured by the labour.


Glen Cavaliero   In reference to the point you made about the “silliness”, I wonder whether this is partly involved in the fact that he’s a novelist who is supremely interested in the yearning child within the man, the aspect of people that never grows up, the child that is not left behind but remains the core of the personality? Because one finds it again and again in his men of power, in Philip Crow for instance; Philip is often portrayed as a little boy. This can lead to a foolishness, a silliness, but it is indeed one of his strengths, one of his unique qualities this particular aspect of human character. I can’t think of any other writer, except perhaps Dickens, who reveals it.

George Steiner   I meant more in his pronouncements, in his recently published volumes of letters. I wish we were working from the centre, and then the specialized student would say, “Shall I read the Letter to Ross?” and  so on. I think we’re at the monvent in a very curious esoteric situation of the wrong end of the stick.

Angus Wilson   It seems to me this is a very parallel situation to the first letters Virginia Woolf that came out, to Lytton Strachey. They created a very, very bad effect indeed, nearly disastrous. I think it’s to do with the world in which people lived between about 1900 and 192S. Their approach to sex among themselves was inevitably what we must think a bit “giggly’’, because one of only ways of being free of the burden of Victorian attitudes to sex among themselves, as a sort of private club, was to adopt this particular sort of epicene version of the men’s club smutty story. But this is the kind of jokinesss people went in for, as a way of relieving themselves of that terrible period of their childhood where nothing could be said.

George Steiner    The Autobiography presents a tremedous fascinating problem. The auto-eroticist, the self-exciting passion, which seems to be central to Powys, you could read it and get wrong. What is it all about, in the most central sense?

G.Wilson Knight    Surely it depends on the state of mind in the western world altering. If our present consciousness persists, it’s likely that the authors you named as being famous should get what I think is probably undue acclaim and that Powys should not have his due. But when and if the wider consciousness alters — Powys may perhaps even help to alter it, or it may perhaps alter our appreciation of Powys — that is the kind of way you want to look at the problem, I think. When we have a consciousness which is aware of the imponderables all around us instead of the consciousness which is dependent on the scientifically factual, then there may be a change.

Bill Lander   Let’s assume that we’ve got a Penguin edition of John's work, any one of them, don’t you think it’d bring John down? Now I happen to come from Lady Chatterley's country, and when that was published, all the general readers wanted it. just for those swear-words. And after that he hasn't got, I should say out of half-a-million people, I bet he hasn't got a thousand genuine readers.

Colin Wilson   There's a question that hasn't been mentioned though, that some of the later books are so extremely difficult — I'm thinking of Up and Out that they’re a positive embarrassment to a critic. If someone settles down to write a really big book about Powys, they’re faced with live problem of how do we deal with these.

G.Wilson Knight   But I think they can be dealt with, as enormous fairy-stories, humorous, in a very serious way though.

Diane Fernandez But what would the  biography say about the Welsh years? What can one say about thirty years in North Wales?

[After an interval, this discussion continued for another hour.]