Thursday, April 3, 2014

balance, poise, and relative gravitation

A word in Hill is always volatile, excluding those nuts and nails like "the" or "of" and could you write a poem that would make no other word volatile except those words? -- so you always knew that cordial meant polite and not drink, even though you never knew if the meant for instead? The word "vivisector" in John Cowper Powys, however, is unwaveringly evil. It is like an "and" for Powys. It always means the same thing. "[W]e soon got an entrance to all the cruellest and wickedest vivisection laboratories in New York City." (Up and Out.) "For the wickedest and most abominable practise made use of in these modern days is vivisection." (Two and Two.) "From the point of view of our mysterious System-of-Things, to be a vivisector at all is to put yourself on the side of evil against good." (Morwyn. The ghost of the Marquis de Sade is speaking.)

Then he couples it with the word "scientist," and if I had the library's copy of The Inmates still with me I could quote one of those paragraphs about the scientific institutions of Britain giving the vivisectionist asylum owner its top awards and honours.

But Powys himself likes to take scientific language and scientific discoveries for his own use, inventing personal “currents” and “rays” and “fields,” and sending one of his people to “electricity school” where she learns to build “a neat little ball of electrified feathers” so that she can fly. Plundering the enemy he is inspired by the enemy; he perverts the hard world of science that he sees, he rewrites it fantastically, he is a parasite upon it, he will resist his parasite status, he whimsies it, he allows the word “astronomy” into Up and Out but immediately he diverts it away from itself.

“You mean,” murmured Rhitha, with just the faintest tinge of mischief in her smile, ”those books about galaxies and nebulae; things of which I never hear mention without wondering why one of them ends with a Latin plural and the other with an English plural! Is that because a Latin plural means they can't ever stop going on, while an English plural means that we just don't know whether they stop or don't stop?”

So he plays. The characters in Morwyn survive the trip to Hell through a vague invocation of mythic-scientific principles. The seriousness here is similar to the seriousness of Carnacki the Ghost Finder  when he discusses his famous electric pentacle, though it is more elaborate in Powys. I am telling you a fantasy as if it is not lies.

The blow carried down the whole block of stone, carried it down to the centre of the earth with ourselves on it, but it was so large that it must have carried with it, if not some of its own atmosphere, at least something of its own balance, poise, and relative gravitation, so that it was really like sinking down with our feet securely planted on a solid segment of our planet and all the while being protected from the whole spatial sensation of "up and down" by some of the deepest laws of the cosmos.

The problem he has with real scientists is that they're not mystic enough. Carnacki would be closer to his ideal. “I came to make the Electric Pentacle, which is a most marvellous 'Defense' against certain manifestations. I used the shape of the defensive star for this protection, because I have, personally no doubt at all but that there is some extraordinary virtue in the old magic figure.” (The Gateway of the Monster.) Every scientist, in Powys' perfect world, would have the Carnackian instinct for magic.

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