Friday, July 29, 2011

'Porius' John Cowper Powys

Given the great cultural differences in the world today, just as in the world's past, it seems to me unreasonable to think that the features and emphases of consciousness would be everywhere the same.

Julian Jaynes
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Their confused modern times produced a completely new type of human being...

North Wales AD 499, the third week of October. The last of the Roman legions has long left Britain, leaving the country in a chaos of competing tribes and interests. The House of Cunedda, an ancient and noble Romanised Brython family, is trying to hang on to the hegemony given to them by the Romans over this small corner of the British Isles. Threatening them are, on the one hand, the aboriginal Welsh, the subjugated forest people, under the leadership of their Druid and their three ancient Princesses; and on the other, an alliance of the Ffichtiaid (the Picts) and the Gwyddelaid (the Scots). To make things worse, a Saxon horde under the leadership of Colgrim is advancing to put everyone to the sword. King Arthur and his court, with Merlin, and his cavalry, the only possessors of horses in this horseless land, arrive to help the House of Cunedda in return for their assistance in trying to unify Britain and fight off the growing number of Saxon invaders. Against this historical background of violent transition between the Roman and Saxon eras of British history the story of Porius, the heir of the House of Cunedda, unfolds.

The novel is huge, in every sense of the word. At over 2800 pages in manuscript, and almost 800 pages (of very small type) in this latest and most complete edition, it teems with life and incident and characters, historical, mythical and fictional. The various machinations and alliances between the political interests, the marriage of Porius and his cousin Morfydd, who is in love with his best friend Rhun, who in turn is in love with Merlin's sister Gwendydd; the secret plot of Arthur's nephew and heir Medrawd to usurp Arthur's throne; the secret alliance on the part of the three Princesses and the Druid of the forest people with Colgrim's Saxons, are just some of the narrative incidents described. The novel also describes a clash of ideologies, with Christian thinking competing with Mithraic ritual and ancient Druidic practice and Merlin's mystical Earth worship for ideological dominance over the coming age, with Christianity itself rent asunder by the Pelagian heresy.

The text bristles with references to the ancient Welsh mythology contained in the Mabinogion, The Tale of Taliesin and Y Gododdin, Boethius, the letters of Sidonius and Cassiodorus, the Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes, Eschenbach and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Pelagian texts and Aristophanic comedies, Greek, Welsh and Persian phrases, and underpinning it all, in the way that The Odyssey underpins Ulysses, is an Alchemical initiation rite.

The discourse is characterised by an extreme precision of observation and description, and by an extreme slowness of pace. John Cowper Powys can spend two paragraphs describing a rotting ash branch, the colour of a mist, or the sound of a reed bed in the wind. Action is suspended while the character's emotional states and thoughts are minutely described in a fashion that owes much to Henry James or Proust. The interaction of memory, psychology and intention with the wider cosmic forces in the universe are given as much space in the narrative as descriptions of food, clothes, dwellings and weapons, mountains and forest. Horses, dogs, water rats, owls and trees play as prominent a part in the plot as human characters. John Cowper Powys was one the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century. The prose is richly gorgeous, sinuous, evocative, and capable of describing the most fleeting psychological and natural states. The book demands and receives the most intense absorption on the part of the reader.

However, early readers of the novel found it overwritten; it was rejected in its original form and first published in a heavily excised and shortened version. The fact is that Powys achieved something so original and so unusual, so difficult and so tenuous with this novel, that it is not surprising that it has languished in obscurity since it was completed. For Porius may be read as an extended examination of the nature of consciousness within the genre of historical fiction.

Part I: Historical fiction and the Anachronism of Consciousness

Historical fiction is always based on an underlying anachronistic assumption, and that is that the personages of the past had a consciousness which is to all intents and purposes the same as ours. Modern readers are encouraged to empathise with or understand historical personages by the way the fiction underlines the similarity of consciousness between the figures of the past and ourselves - or at any rate, by the way the fiction does not emphasise differences in consciousness. Very good historical fiction (Yourcenar's or Broch's for example) shows greater awareness of this difference in consciousness even if it doesn't foreground it, while very bad historical fiction (Ken Follet's or Tracy Chevalier's for example) merely describes modern people in costume, participants in a fancy dress ball or a historical reconstruction (there's always a Rolex showing somewhere, or someone will sneak off behind the scenery for a quick fag and a facebook update).

In historical fiction set in the not too remote past, this underlying anachronism is not really apparent and not really important; but in historical fiction set in the very remote past, this assumption of an identically similar consciousness between historical character and modern reader becomes a form of imaginative blindness which effectively undermines the psychological realism of historical fiction. (This might account for the relative lowliness of the genre in the Academy.)

What John Cowper Powys achieved in Porius, is twofold. First, he imaginatively recreates for his fifth century characters a pre-modern consciousness quite different from the modern consciousness of his readers, doing this in such a way that a modern reader, imprisoned in a modern consciousness, can, for the duration of the novel, step outside himself, as it were, and experience a differently constituted consciousness. And second, he describes the evolution of consciousness in one character - Porius- showing how modern consciousness evolved out of pre-modern consciousness.

John Cowper Powys and Modern Consciousness

In an essay My Philosophy published in the collection Obstinate Cymric in 1947, four years before the publication of Porius, John Cowper Powys described modern consciousness. His description has much in common with contemporary scientific and psychological descriptions of consciousness, and is entirely uncontroversial. It consists of the following elements:
  • the imagination has more power than the will
  • consciousness can be visualised as something amorphous, something cloud-like, a mist
  • it can be projected into other objects, it can be directed anywhere at will
  • when consciousness imagines itself as elsewhere from the here and now, it takes with it its bodily attributes, that is, it imagines itself as still possessing the senses it has when it is inside the body
  • the Self is self-conscious: it can say 'I am I', and it resides in the soul
  • the soul and the Self are not the same, the former is a kind of envelope for the latter because the 'I am I' experiences itself as different from the soul
  • the Self feels itself independent of the body, although lodged in it, and also, in a different degree, independent from other forms of matter
  • the Self cannot escape from its necessity to feel itself located somewhere -anywhere -in Space and Time
  • it has a dark side, like the moon, from which it draws its power, a dynamic
  • the Self constantly confronts the Not-Self, and in seeking to come to terms with it, uses the senses of the body
  • the Self is conscious from time to time of an immense solitude
  • the Self may actively change its relationship to the world by determining to enjoy things rather than just endure them

    Now, a few things are important here, and they need stressing.

    First, consciousness is a state of psychic self awareness.

    Second, it is not to be confused with mind, or the active ideas produced by the mind. The mind is only one part of consciousness, as can be seen by the fact that one is conscious of one's mind and its operations during those operations. Consciousness involves an awareness of the constituent parts of consciousness: the imagination, the soul, the mind, the conscience, the will, the 'I am I', the 'I am you' and so on, but it is also something extra, standing outside these constituent parts.

    Third, consciousness exists in relation to a material body from which it imagines itself to be more or less independent.

    Fourth, there is a clear division between the Self and the Not-Self. This division may be undergoing a constant state of readjustment (as in Dostoevsky's psychology), but nonetheless, there is a clear division.

    Fifth, it uses sense data to confront the Not-Self; in other words, it is conscious of a gap between itself and sense data, or in still other words, it does not imagine itself to be the sum total of sense data, but as something extra.

    Sixth, the Self may direct the mind, in full consciousness of doing so.

    And lastly, there is a vital role played by what modern psychology calls the Unconscious, and what John Cowper Powys calls 'the dark side'.

    John Cowper Powys imagines consciousness as a stark and stripped recognition of myself as a self-conscious entity in Space and Time confronting the whole visible world. So far so good, so far so uncontroversial. I think we can recognise this as a broadly accurate description, give or take some of the idiosyncrasies of John Cowper Powys's vision and way of expressing it, of our own, modern consciousness.

    However, this is not the consciousness described in Porius, which differs from the above model in several important but subtle ways, which I want to look at now in more detail. First I want to suggest how consciousness in Porius differs from modern consciousness, glancing at the means employed by the discourse to depict this pre-modern consciousness, and then show how modern consciousness develops out of pre-modern consciousness in the novel.

    Part II: Porius and Pre-Modern Consciousness

    Again, it must be stressed at this point, that what we are involved with here is not the mind or the ideas produced by the mind, but the psychic landscape or climate which gives a home to the mind; the inner theatre in which the mind operates. Characters in Porius are capable of ratiocination: His mind began weighing the effect of a presumably accomplished fact before the process necessary to accomplish it had been set in motion. Characters produce thoughts which are recognisably modern in that they argue, for example, about issues of doctrine. They are not the primitive Neanderthals of Golding's Inheritors, but nonetheless, their self-awareness is demonstrably different from the self-awareness of modern people.

    This difference manifests itself in two important ways. First, there is less awareness of the constituent parts of the Self, and second, the boundary between Self and Not-Self is highly porous.

    The Wholeness of Self

    The characters seem to have no awareness of the origin of their thoughts, that their thoughts come from their mind, and no awareness that their minds are a constituent of something larger and deeper, a constituent among others. Characters seem to be at the mercy of their thoughts, which suddenly arrive from nowhere: It swept like a darting seagull's wing across Porius's consciousness...Suddenly into his own fantastic and morbid mind the unpleasant idea entered: "What if..." ...And then it was that her consciousness was suddenly submerged by the thought of Porius.... Meanwhile in Nesta's head,...a totally different landscape took shape...

    Part of the evolution of consciousness which Porius goes through in the novel, as we shall see, is that he suddenly starts to be aware of a separate part of his inner being which issues thoughts, and which he can observe and to a certain extent control. He began to feel puzzled at the queer directions his thoughts were taking. But were they his thoughts? Weren't they rather fragments of himself, or more likely -for how could a fragment think? - mightn't they be a drifting swarm of selves, like so any gnats or midgets? This implies that previous to this new awareness of a Self composed of various elements - a swarm of selves-, his normal state was an unawareness of the various elements which make up the Self; an abiding, if you like, within an organic wholeness of Self.

    The Self and the Not-Self

    The blurring of the boundary between Self and Not-Self manifests itself in three ways. First, the thoughts which so mysteriously arise are usually attached to some outward stimulation which is described as just an important part of the thought as the thought itself. Inner and outer are thus curiously attached to each other. Here are two examples: All his thoughts just then seemed to take shapes that were prompted by the flow of the water before him...All these presences, including certain wavering wisps of smoke under the arches, seemed to become only too willing bodies for his unregulated thoughts. The gap between sense data and the perception of sense data, which, as we have seen, is an element of modern consciousness, is lacking here.

    Second, there is a merging of characters' selves. The Not-Self includes of course the Selves of others as well as the material world - a psychic Not-Self and a material Not-Self. The line between Self and the Not-Self of someone else's Self is constantly blurred. Characters appear to be able to read each other's minds. Morfydd is aware that the pageboy Neb is reading her mind: Neb's gaze gave her the feeling that he was reading not only her unexpressed thoughts but her inexpressible thoughts. The wording here implies that she regards it as normal that he can read her unexpressed thoughts, and what surprises her only is that she suddenly has a glimmering that he might have the power to read her inexpressible thoughts as well. When Porius embraces Myrddin Wyllt, he is able to perceive the contents of the counsellor's mind. Porius is aware when the sorceress Minue is 'cavoseniargising'. Characters are able to influence other characters subverbally, by entering into their consciousnesses: she had in fact begun to do with this young man what her Gwyddeles mother used to do with people and things, that is to say, float over them and and under them and into them till she could, so to say, lead them "by the lining of their souls". In several places in the novel, the thought of Rhun enters Porius's consciousness in advance of Rhun himself entering the scene; and Porius is aware that he and Rhun can send each other mind waves when they need each other.

    In terms of the discourse, it is Porius's growing awareness of this blurring between the Self and the Self of another which implies that this blurring is the normal, pre-modern state of consciousness for those characters who do not undergo an evolution into modern consciousness: this devious wisdom he was dimly tracking down had to do with the inmost self within himself, had to do with the thought, as obscure as it was startling, that it was possible to enlarge a person's identity till it embraced other identities, till it could escape at will into others, till it could even discover that all the while beneath the obstinate opacity of itself, it was on the verge of becoming these others.


    The third manifestation of the blurring of Self and Not-Self is of course in the role played by nature - the material Not-Self - in the novel. This is the most easily discernable difference between the pre-modern consciousness imagined by John Cowper Powys and its modern counterpart. Throughout the novel, nature impinges itself radically on the consciousness of the characters -and on the consciousness of the reader. This is done by means of the constant appearance of the made up word 'cavoseniargizing' which is a word invented by Porius to describe his ability to penetrate nature: normal consciousness to him always meant, if he was to enjoy himself, the particular plunge into Nature, or the particular taking Nature into himself, which he called 'cavoseniargizing'... Significant here is that Porius calls this his 'normal consciousness'. Porius experiences his normal, customary consciousness as a blurring of the boundary between Self and material Not-Self, an experience associated with intense enjoyment: he was too absorbed in 'cavoseniargizing' to notice anything, hear anything, or be aware of anything beyond the magical ecstasy of mingling his whole being with the elements! This blurring of Self and material Not- Self is by no means restricted to Porius alone. But only he has a word for it.

    One of the effects of this detailed focus on nature by the discourse, and one of the great achievements of John Cowper Powys in this novel, is that it recreates a kind of 'cavoseniargising' in the mind of the reader during the reading of it. One becomes acutely aware of nature while reading this book, and this is accompanied by a feeling of delight.

    Moreover, information - mental phenomena- conveyed by one character to another and essential for the unfolding of the events of the story, are constantly mixed with descriptions of nature - natural phenomena, both in the mind of the characters, and in the discourse as experienced by the reader. There seems to be little distinction between the two kinds of phenomena in terms of the character's relation to them: it was through a confused enough mass of material impressions that the full impact of this news had to force its way...all these impressions contributed to the entangled screen that imposed itself between his intelligence and this astonishing news.

    Thus we have seen that the pre-modern consciousness depicted in the novel differs from the modern consciousness in its lack of awareness of the discreet parts of consciousness, and in a persistent blurring between the Self and the psychic and material Not-Self.

    Part III: Porius and the Evolution of Modern Consciousness

    It would be an oversimplification to say that Porius starts with a pre-modern consciousness and ends with a modern one, and that he is the only character who undergoes this process. In fact, the process of the character's evolution has already started when the novel opens, and is by no means complete when the novel ends. The novel depicts an ongoing evolutionary process, in which Porius alternately experiences two types of consciousness, taking two steps forward into the modern and then one step back into the pre-modern, as it were. Nor are we to assume that Porius is the only character who undergoes this process. It's just that he is the only character for whom this process is foregrounded consistently by the discourse.

    Let's look at how this is done. Porius intermittently experiences a recognisably modern consciousness (according to our model) in many places in the novel, but here we limit our discussion to three significant narrative incidents only: the death of the Cewri, and two places in the final chapter. Before we look at these in detail, however, let's look at how the narrative prepares this evolution of consciousness.

    We are told that from early childhood the basic conditions for the emergence of a modern consciousness are present in Porius. He experiences from an early age a great gap between his inner life and his body: Porius's awareness of what was happening to his body was divided by a peculiar chasm or gulf from what was going on in his mind. and his consciousness is described as abnormally active and one assumes this means 'abnormally' in relation to the pre-modern, unaware consciousnesses of his peers. He is able to bridge this gulf only with active effort.

    The discourse constantly reminds us of the contrast between Porius's Herculean body, lethargic, somewhat earth-bound, and the rapid, evanescent nature of his thoughts: It may have been something in the curious disharmony between his sluggish body with its Herculean muscles and the almost unnatural rapidity of his conscious thoughts...

    Moreover, he is also dimly aware that his consciousness is not an organic whole: The present chronicler of this same consciousness has already recorded how... Porius had learnt the trick at a very early age of separating the docile and obedient routine of his outward actions by a considerable gulf, both from his secret physical sensations and from his mental secret commentaries... but consists of an awareness of secret physical sensations (awareness of sense data) and mental secret commentaries (the mind's comments on sense data). This, as we have noted, is one of the features of a modern consciousness, and here, the ground is prepared for its emergence.

    The narrator tells us that this awareness started in Porius when as an infant he arranged alphabet blocks to spell his name. This experience caused to arise in him an inexpressible delight in the idea that, small though he was, there was something in him, different from everybody else in the world... The preconditions for an experience of a confrontation with the Self and the Not-Self are present.

    Incident 1: The Cewri

    One incident in which Porius takes a major step into modern consciousness is the rape and murder of the Cewri, an aboriginal, semi-mythical race of cave dwelling giants. The fact that Porius acts as a catalyst in the extinction of this race (but doesn't actually kill them) is in itself symbolic of the difference between a pre-modern consciousness, in which giants and other mythical beings have their reality, and a modern one, in which they do not. As he watches the last of the two giants fleeing from him, he has a mental experience which the narrative voice describes as a moral crisis: but it was much more than that. It could also have been called an aesthetic, or even perhaps a metaphysical crisis. But really it was more than any of these things. It concerned his whole life as a living organism. The narrative voice goes on: it had so increased the division between his mind and body that his mind had suddenly felt powerful enough to put an end once for all to the disconcerting equality between these two antagonists, powerful enough to assert itself once for all as the living dominant partner. In other words, instead of the customary equality between mind and body of Porius's pre-modern consciousness there comes an awareness that the mind is the more powerful of the two, that there is thoroughly modern confrontation between Self and Not-Self.

    The discourse constantly emphasises the newness of this experience. Here is one example: He became conscious of his mind as a living entity, using his body but distinct from his body. His mind felt as if it had become a new creature, strung up in itself, flexible and porous in itself, compact and resilient from centre to circumference, and able as it had never been able before, to choose between opposite possibilities of action...

    Later, when reflecting on this incident and going over it in his memory, the discourse remarks: the shock of his rape of the cawres, and her death so quickly after, had roused forces within him which he felt were enlarging if not altering the whole nature of his consciousness. One of these forces seemed to be the power...of including in the sweep of his 'cavoseniargizing' both the idea of death as the end of all, and the whole array of those secret nervous afflictions. Here, his 'cavoseniargizing' seems to go beyond the mere bridging of the gulf between Self and Not-Self to something more abstract, something approaching the disciplined, mindful, martialling of concepts for a purpose, an awareness of which is a feature of the modern consciousness outlined in our model.

    Incident 2: Above the tree line

    Another key narrative incident where Porius experiences - and where the narrative voice deliberately foregrounds - a recognisably modern consciousness is in the last chapter. Porius is alone on the mountainside, resting in his pursuit of Ninue and the wizard Myrddin Wyllt. He is suddenly aware of a whole rush of clear essential decisions preceded by a kind of gathering itself together of his whole soul with a sudden convulsive movement which begins to heave itself up, clumsily, awkwardly, inarticulately, but resolutely and with a single-hearted purpose in view. The narrative voice remarks: There was never a moment when some interior entity, or self, or rational consciousness within him, such as the Athenians called nous or reasonable intelligence, made up its mind to issue orders to his body...Body, mind, soul, spirit, will, desire, consciousness and intention all seemed to be heaving up together in once confused inchoate movement. In other words, the newly emergent constituent parts of modern consciousness suddenly conceive of themselves as part of a larger whole.

    Porius is thinking about the argument between Pelagius and Augustine, about whether Space or Time have primacy. He self consciously attempts to martial his thoughts: "I must think this out," he said to himself." ...He determined to start at the very beginning, or in other words, at the very bottom of the inescapable process used by his own mind and for that reason necessarily observable and describable by his own mind.

    Then comes the most unambiguously, clearly articulated description of modern consciousness in the novel, which I quote in full: "The thing in me that says 'I am I' can divide itself into two and yet be the same. It can say 'you' to itself when there's nothing but itself there... That's the first step....and the second step is to note that the 'I' who can say 'you' to itself can imagine itself and very often does imagine itself moving through Space quite independently of its body, that is to say, if it is the 'I-you' who usually inhabits Porius's body, it can imagine itself leaving Porius's body and taking an airy journey...but though it can imagine itself outside its body it cannot imagine itself escaping from space. Wherever it imagines itself flying it cannot imagine itself ridding itself of the idea that it is still somewhere, space. And the third step is to note that although it is easy to imagine this 'I am I' as leaving its body and moving from one spot in Space to another, it is impossible to imagine this 'I am I' as totally devoid of any point of localization; though this point need be no more than a moving speck."

    There are a few things to note here.

    First, it is given to us in directly quoted thought, surrounded by speech marks, without mediation by a narrative voice

    Second, there is a fully articulated awareness of the constituent parts of consciousness.

    Third, pre-modern 'cavoseniargizing' has given way to a recognisably modern awareness of abstract, conceptual, ratiocination, in which an awareness of abstract concepts is matched by an awareness of their relationship to each other, and by a self-conscious effort of will to place them in a relation to each other.

    Fourth, Porius's thoughts on Time and Space reproduce the awareness of location in time and space that is a feature of modern consciousness in the model we looked at earlier.

    Incident 3: The Life Illusion

    In his sojourn on the mountainside, Porius suddenly thinks of Rhun. And not only did the thought of Rhun dominate his mind, and an "idea" it certainly was rather than a presence, and this fact saved him from the least suspicion that any accident might have befallen his foster brother, but this "idea" was entirely independent of the tremendous vision that lay stretched out before him. But now his thought of Rhun is not the blurring of his and Rhun's consciousness which is a feature of the pre-modern mind - Porius knows this is not a telepathic communication from his friend- but an idea arising out of a modern consciousness detached from nature. Again, this is not a steady process, but works intermittently. Earlier, Porius was aware of the ability of telepathy leaving him: "How strange", he thought, "That I can caress with my eyes this rugged profile so like my own, and yet not be able to catch a single one of the thoughts that are even now racing through that corrugated head."

    This loss of an ability to blur his Self with the Self of his friend is related to his earlier awareness of what John Cowper Powys calls 'the life illusion'. The life illusion is a sort of diffused conceit of yourself... a sort of feeling that to be what you are, and to feel as you feel makes you a person in some peculiar way superior to the people you meet. In reality, or course, it only makes you different. And since every creature is different from every other creature, and since there's experimentation in values going on all the time, a person who wants to be wise must analyse and criticise, even while he obeys, the values he's received from the past.

    We can say that the pre-modern ability to blur with the psychic Not-Self of the Other gives way, finally, to the theory of mind of modern consciousness. Porius says to Medrawd in the last chapter: "Everything that exists is a private experience - shared only very superficially and casually by others - of a particular consciousness with its own particular powers of awareness." Communion with the Other has given way to the isolated modern Self, a Self which can hypothesise that the Other has a similarly constructed consciousness, but nonetheless, a Self which ultimately dwells in eternal solitude.


    Knowledgeable sceptics may be muttering at this point that this foregrounded consciousness is a feature of all John Cowper Powys's works, and that there is nothing special about his use of it here. However, the foregrounded consciousness which is so characteristic of Powys's method here finds itself in a perfect marriage with subject matter and setting. In Porius, Powys's mystical realism is put to use to enliven and deepen not only the genre of historical fiction, but also our understanding of the evolution of consciousness.

    And he became aware of an unfathomable power within him, a power that was at once divine and human, animal and elemental, a power that could be drawn upon at will, not to create or destroy, but simply to 'enjoy to the end'.


    But when the self speaks to the self, who is speaking?

    Virginia Woolf

    dglen said...

    Thanks so much! I have long been keen to see connections between Jaynes & contemporary writing, but this of course reaches back before, and is entirely appropriate. Now for a second, slower read . . .

    Makifat said...

    Another remarkably perceptive essay on John Cowper Powys. You have really provided some useful keys to a highly idiosyncratic (and somewhat overlooked) author. Your latest effort provides a much to chew over. Wonderfully done!

    Anonymous said...

    Much to chew on, thanks for posting on LT and linking here. I've added Porius to my TBR pile, and as dglen notes: I'm intrigued by the apparent link to Julian Jaynes's bicameral mind thesis. Great stuff.

    Anonymous said...

    Much to chew on, thanks for posting on LT and linking here. I've added Porius to my TBR pile, and as dglen notes: I'm intrigued by the apparent link to Julian Jaynes's bicameral mind thesis. Great stuff.

    elenchus (LT)