Sunday 30 January 2011

A struggle for Life, by Llewelyn Powys

Selected essays of an Epicurean

Reactions to the written word can be extraordinarily diverse and startling. I have been taken aback by replies to e-mails I have sent, for instance. Critical evaluations of literature often tell you more about the critic than the text. Judgements about irony, sarcasm, sentimentality and so forth are quite subjective. I find that one’s reactions to a piece can alter, according to time, place and mood, or, even more intriguing, one can hold two different feelings about a writer simultaneously.

I was interested to note in Anthony Head’s excellent introduction that the poet John Wain judged one of L. Powys’s books to be the ‘corniest’ book he had ever read. I can empathise with that reaction, and had a streak of that judgement as I read some of the essays collected in the book. L. Powys tries hard to tug the heart strings, and waxes eloquent in a florid, almost Euphuistic style at times. One could easily parody and satirise his writing.

However, more strongly, I felt a personal closeness to the experiences of the author and the views he expresses. For one, he lived in Africa for five years, somewhat paralleling my own decade or so living in Zambia in my childhood. He also has an abiding love of the culture and nature of the English countryside, which I share, though bowing to his much greater knowledge and experience. His reverse Pilgrim’s progress away from what he sees as the syrupy delusions of conventional Christianity, has many points of contact with my own philosophical journey. The debilitating and serious disease he suffered from finds a kinship in my heart, given my own medical problems. Lastly, his love of Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ and of the beauty of the stars are big recommendations for me too.

Head has made a judicious selection, covering many topics and the broad sweep of his life, in Dorset, the USA, East Africa and Switzerland; only one of which I have read before – ‘Bat’s Head’. The first essay ‘A struggle for life’ introduces us to the central tragedy of his life, his contraction of pulmonary tuberculosis, diagnosed when he was only 25 years old. This damaged the rest of his life, eventually killing him, but did not hold him back from enjoying his time on earth to the full. This essay is written in an unsentimental and un-self-pitying way, that is admirable.

The four essays on aspects of his life in Africa are vivid, but reveal a colonial callousness. He shoots leopard and hippo without any compunction, all the more surprising given his otherwise tender nature, and the later essays ‘Christian Fingers’ and ‘Barbarians’, in which he criticises hunting and cruelty to animals.

His time in America seemed to have sparked little creative writing, though he mentions a striking image of him sleeping on the roof of buildings in New York, looking up at the night sky, and waking covered with light snow.

The philosophical essays appealed particularly, though I find his attitude to religion inconsistent and unstable. He often refers to God, admires aspects of Christian culture and expresses sentiments close to conventional religious opinions, yet he professes himself an atheist at other points. In the essay ‘The Epicurean Vision’, he declares his adherence to a joyful, sturdy enjoyment of the simple physical pleasures of life. He criticises ‘Christians at prayer’ as ‘obsequious’, ‘sycophantic’ and ‘craven, unhealthy, neurotic’. Strong words! He dislikes the creed of the church in trying to discredit life upon earth, with all its talk of absurd Trinities, fables about ascensions, dead men rising from the grave and a focus on a mythical heaven. Powys follows the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, wanting us to look at the world we live in now, to make the best of it, with unfaltering loyalty to our senses. He urges us to “enjoy our hour of sunshine”.

Powys’s philosophy of life is expressed even more eloquently in ‘The Aebi Wood’. He stared at this green wood for many hours from the balcony of his sanatorium in Switzerland, and is came to symbolise the immediacy of the physical life and world we inhabit. He writes “Make no doubt of it, it is matter that matters. In all else there is mirage, man himself, for all his vaunts, being but a cheap and accidental phantom of cleaver clay. There may well be other dimensions, but in so far as we allow the suspicion of their existence to dim our worship of what is, we suffer ourselves to be entangled in a cloud-net of folly. Our paradise, our hells, are here and now, we shall see no other.”

His most powerful chapter is ‘Reflections of a Dying Man’. Somebody suffering from worsening Tuberculosis, with no cure in sight, has a right to record such reflections, I don’t find this passage ‘corny’. It is unblinking and objective, rejecting easy solutions, recognising mankind is blessed with self-knowledge “on a rainbow planet that is tumbling through a physical universe of inconceivable dimensions”. He preaches joy in what we have, and an admirable stoicism: “It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature? Surely to look at the sunlight for the last time should rather be an occasion for the trembling of our marrow bones with gratitude.”


Neil Lee said...

John, A slight correction; Llewelyn's death was NOT due to Tuberculosis; he died from an internal haemorrhage, probably exacerbated by a burst stomach ulcer. Neil Lee

Deloney said...

Thanks for reviewing this. I've been familiar with L.P.'s work for a long time, and I think he's unfairly neglected. At his very best he still astonishes me.