Thursday, April 10, 2014

something in us that watches these outward things

All of this leads me back to John Cowper Powys, who, at the end of his life, wrote at least two novellas with apocalyptic storylines, the earth committing suicide in Up and Out, and the characters deciding to abandon the entire planet so that they can start a commune on the Asteroid Nubilium in Two and Two. The Titan Typhoeus visits the Asteroid Nubilium, and he and Wat Kums, who is the ruler of the commune, become such good friends that they fly away together into even deeper space until universal nature is changing around them.

But in any case and in whatever direction they were going, on and on they went, at a terrific pace, into absolute Nothingness, without Sun or Moon or Stars, without hope or fear; but at least aware that they were friends.

Both of these books are massively peopled. Life ends or life is dismissed but life keeps pouring in, multiple gods and demons arrive, Chinese philosophers ride up on turtles, the stars talk (“And then Aldebaran assumed control of the whole situation”), the newcomers bicker, they explain themselves, and they behave in ways that are humanly rather than godly. God and Satan hold a long discussion after the suicide of the earth and God decides that he will commit suicide too. His motivation is a human motivation. The decisions confronting him are confusing and the confusion has paralysed him. “I am at my wits' end.”

All of the characters eliminate themselves completely, following the example of God. “But who will hear my last words?” asks Gor the narrator. “Oh, I do so, so want somebody to hear them! I want someone, somewhere, to know how deeply I understood the best Greek and Latin poets! Yes! It's to you, somebody, somewhere, that I'm talking now!” […] There must be somebody there, there must, there must, there must, there must be somebody!” The reader knows that there is, because they're it. And then there is the room or lawn around them, a confirmation that the world did not end. In Two and Two the characters decide to leave their bodies and join infinity but it is made clear that this does not mean abandoning their personalities and there is no chance of their bodiless selves drifting into someone else's bodiless self and getting mixed up or combined or adulterated. Their separate consciousness will remain absolutely distinct. In fact their distinct selves are imperishable. “According to this view the self-hood of each of us, which includes in it the shape and attributes of our former body can never vanish away.”

“Gallant Mrs Smith” reiterates that last idea in You and Me.

Why shouldn't this something, Professor, this something in us that watches these outward things and considers the fate of these outward things, the something that has the inherent power to survive when all these outward things including the outside universe, have entirely vanished?”

Powys illustrates Colebrook's point and exacerbates it, the end of the earth (either by disintegration or abandonment) leading to fecundity and the end of the body leading to impenetrable personal boundaries. You do not go into the afterlife alone, and death is not a moment of isolation. You do not go into a silent void. You talk. There is no peace. There is no rest. There is only assertion.


  1. I think one of the most frightening things about death is that it appears to be a moment of utter isolation - not that life itself isn't actually fairly isolated but most of us live in the illusion that we are not alone (and we're not going to die - or not immediately at least). The process of dying must strip away the illusion that we are in this together - as well, of course, as the illusion that we aren't going to die. V scary.

    1. This is what's interesting me about late Powys. He spends so much time arguing against that idea of death-isolation. Over and over again. Mrs Smith is the clearest example so far. She's replying to a scientist named Professor Porpustle, who says that everybody should be thinking about the material disintegration of the entire world. No, says Mrs Smith, we should believe that we all have personalities that will endure forever, no matter whether they have bodies or not. So he lays out the two sides of the argument very clearly and comes down on Mrs Smith's side. She is "gallant" and the narrator cheers her on, and Professor Porpustle is dumbfounded.

      Why should we believe it? he asks. Because it is a belief that belongs to our "silly wavering hearts" and not to rational, scornful science, he replies. The factual rightness or wrongness of the two points of view seems to matter to him much less than the rightness or wrongness of the feeling.

  2. Great to find fellow Powys readers who are interested in his last writings. I should be very interested to know how you interpret the last chapters of "Two and Two"; indeed the travellers are said to lose their bodies and to let their minds join the infinite universe, but it only takes a couple of pages before they are described again in terms of physical bodies (Kums crouching under Typhoeus's ear, etc.). I'm still struggling to determine whether this a sort of plot-hole (as Powys usually cared little for the plausibility of the action) or if there's something I missed. The characters are said to keep the memory of their bodies' feelings, so I'm wondering if that is why they still have bodies even after they've lost their bodies? Very strange...

  3. I haven't got a copy of Two And Two at the moment, so I can't give a very precise answer, but it always felt to me as if the I-can principle was playing a large role in the novellas; this idea that the author should claim the freedom to write whatever seemed most true at the time when they were writing it. If the mysticism of the story told you that the characters had to be inside or outside bodies at such and such a moment then you had the right to agree with it, without having to elaborate the figleaf of a logical explanation.