Sunday, April 20, 2014

accordingly bred

When Powys mentions different races he will stress the differences between them, and he often pedestalises them too. His Welsh are a supernaturally inward, mythic and recalcitrant group (it is his own description of himself in the Autobiography, exported to other people -- it is also the reason why his version of Owen Glendower doesn't win his war -- he is too Welsh to win --), and his “Red Indians” are spiritual in ways that he doesn't define. There was once a time when young British boys and girls heard so much about Red Indians that they loved them, those cunning noblemen of foliage, who exist literarily and childlikely and not really, in the way that the Orient exists and doesn't exist for Borges when he writes about The Thousand and One Nights. There are no Orientals, he says, no actual human being is an Oriental, and in the same vein I declare that there are no Red Indians, not in the flesh, and they never were in the flesh.

The old play-age love sometimes appeared in the books that these people made as adults, not always of course but sometimes, obvious example, Peter Pan; and when Peake in Gormenghast wants to describe his professors in their common room he refers to them as Red Indians camped out under the smoke of their pipes. Always some fantastic removal in these descriptions, the Red Indians divorced from their assumed North American setting, as they were when the authors were still allowing the imaginary race to possess them in the gardens of their parents' homes. The only real Red Indians were European children. There is a photograph of one of Peake's boys crouched on a lawn with a bow, arrow, and headband, maybe Sebastian, who died last year, the arrow of his trajectory taking him into the profession of a wine merchant, like the father of John Ruskin, who was also a wine merchant. I must have mentioned this before. I know I did. Why did Ruskin not become a wine merchant? His mother wanted him to become an evangelical clergyman.

'Devoting me to God,' meant, as far as my mother knew herself what she meant, that she would try to send me to college, and make a clergyman of me: and I was accordingly bred for 'the Church.' My father, who — rest be to his soul — had the exceedingly bad habit of yielding to my mother in large things and taking his own way in little ones, allowed me, without saying a word, to be thus withdrawn from the sherry trade as an unclean thing.

Why did he not become an evangelical clergyman?

I had Walter Scott's novels and the Iliad, (Pope's translation,) for constant reading when I was a child, on week-days: on Sunday their effect was tempered by Robinson Crusoe and the Pilgrim's Progress; my mother having it deeply in her heart to make an evangelical clergyman of me. Fortunately, I had an aunt more evangelical than my mother; and my aunt gave me cold mutton for Sunday's dinner, which — as I much preferred it hot — greatly diminished the influence of the Pilgrim's Progress, and the end of the matter was, that I got all the noble imaginative teaching of Defoe and Bunyan, and yet — am not an evangelical clergyman.

It seems natural to assume that it must have been a more complicated weaning that is here boiled down to the binary difference between hot and cold mutton. On one side there is a clergyman named John Ruskin, the other side no clergyman but a representational emptiness, the difference, the temperature of a dead sheep. Margaret Ruskin has been thwarted by fire, the element whose effect upon her son happens to map itself over the words of weeping Heraclitus: “All things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things.” So his utter future might be changed in one direction or another direction as if by a switch but the switch is heat: he depicts it as heat, he might have depicted it as something else; the aunt probably had other peccadillos that he could have chosen. He sounds playful and also bullying (bullying is a form of play), because one possible effect of a binary is to make the reader protest, saying, no it's not that simple, it can't be that simple, what are you telling me?

You can't argue fruitfully against a page, and the sentence in Praeterita has obscured the complications of the living movement, oh, says the author, it really was the cold mutton, because I said so. There is the joy of invention, and mysteries, and secrets, which is also Powys' joy, I say to myself, when I remember the satisfaction he gets out of his personal “fetishes,“ the deep, he says, inexplicable wonder of those fetishes and quirks, the right that he abrogates to himself, to disable himself socially so that he can deepen his acquaintance with those fetishes, the stubbornness, the refusals, the way he will tell you that such a thing is so because he says so, no matter what other suggestions present themselves – his strong love of binaries – which may just mean that they were both British people of a certain class.


  1. I had no idea Ruskin was from the merchant class. I'll have to get to Praeterita sooner rather than later; that mutton anecdote is great stuff. Do you think he really means the mutton as just mutton, and not as a metaphor for his aunt's personality or pedagogical methods in re Bunyan and Defoe?

    Nice point, that one cannot win an argument against a work of prose; the prose is sealed shut, deaf. Yet we still argue.

  2. Successful merchant class. "Here kid, go buy yourself a Turner" merchant class.

    1. There must have been times when his Dad wished he'd never introduced him to Mr Telford and his copy of Roger's Italy "and determined the main tenor of my life." A clergyman, a martyr, a hermit in sackcloth and ashes telling people to abide by the Lord and not ask for more creamy milk in the breakfast porridge, all right, but an art critic? Oh son.

  3. I hadn't thought of it like that. I think his aunt here is representing strong evangelicals as a whole, more than she's representing herself, and if the cold mutton is a metaphor for any kind of personality then it's the personality of evangelicalism. Evangelical Bunyan is cold-mutton Bunyan.