Wolf Solent: The Novel
Arbiter of Competing Ideologies
I begin by presenting for consideration the representation of two almost identical situations of bullying and of an uninvolved outsider’s response, the first featuring John Cowper Powys’s mythologizing hero, Wolf Solent, and the second Kate Atkinson’s dislocated private detective, Jackson.
On hearing a child’s scream, which he thinks is elicited by bullying, a retreat into his mythology of psychic power is for Wolf an adequate response. He mutters a “deadly curse” – ‘You brute! you brute! – Never, till you die, shall you dare do that again!’ His attention then shifts, the problem, for him, having been dealt with, and his heroism vindicated.
Jackson observes a man in a park kicking a dog, held half-strangled by a rope around its neck:
‘He stepped forward, tapped Colin on the shoulder, said, “Excuse me.” When Testosterone Man turned round, he said, “On guard.” “What the fuck are you talking about?” Colin said, and he said, “I’m being ironic,” and delivered a vicious and satisfying uppercut to Colin’s diaphragm …’ As Colin lay gasping on the ground, ‘he squatted down next to him and said, “Do that to anyone or anything again – man, woman, child, dog … and you’re dead. And you’ll never know whether or not I’m watching you.” ’
Jackson also believes he has taken effective action and promptly turns his attention elsewhere.
I should declare here, at the beginning, that in a choice between these two expressions of “life illusions” in action, mine is definitely for Jackson’s, even though I know that I would not be entirely capable of living up to it in practice.
John Cowper Powys’s Introduction to the 1960 Penguin edition of Wolf Solent identifies two themes in the novel. Philosophically, he says, it is about the necessity for opposites – life and death, pain and pleasure, and so on; and sentimentally it is a book of nostalgia for the places of his youth, written in a foreign land. In writing of Wolf Solent, I should like to take advantage of D.H.Lawrence’s adage, “Never trust the artist, Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
A number of references in his writing and in the archival record attest that, at the time of writing Wolf Solent, John Cowper’s life illusion – his construction of identity drawn from Greek and Pagan myth, Theosophy, French Symbolism and other occult cults of the period – was under some degree of attack from within the radical, anarchist, libertarian milieu of his closest friendships, not least from his favourite brother Llewellyn.
As I read it, Wolf Solent is primarily a response to this personal threat which he felt most cruelly, and is a work of truly admirable honesty in its novelistic testing of what was, for him, a crisis of conflicting beliefs, for he does not, in the event, permit his preferred option to emerge victorious. It is a review, competitively, of the world views or ideologies of the three literary Powys brothers – John, Theodore and Llewellyn – to the satisfaction, in a relative sense, of its author, but it achieves a more than parochial and familial significance in that the three brothers’ very different moral and political commitments in varying combinations are early representatives of three major invading ideologies of the 20th century – environmentalism, dogmatic atheism, and bohemian socialism.
Betwixt the three brothers, these ideologies vied with each other, but on the broader socio-political canvas they competed with their paired predecessors – socialism with market capitalism, environmentalism also with capitalism as the engine of the rape of nature, bohemianism with Christian social and sexual morality, and both a mythologized nature worship and science-fuelled atheism with Christianity itself. Confined to an educated elite at the beginning of the century, in the post-World War II period all three became political forces for the realignment of Western culture.
Bohemian socialism reappeared, after World War II as the New Left, sexual liberation, and progressive values, in what became an almost hegemonic social, as well as a political, movement. Nineteenth Century Romantic and Georgian Christian nature worship re-formed as Environmentalism and the Animal Rights movement; and the pagan cults flirted with before and between the World Wars were largely replaced by aggressively anti-Christian atheism and New Age “spiritualities”.
The new paganism of the turn of the 19th century, in association with nature worship, is given an idiosyncratic realization in the novel’s eponymous hero’s “mythology”, in whom it has elements of the various cults listed above, which had in common a belief in or search for a reality behind reality, and endowed select human beings with supernatural powers replacing those of the abandoned Christian God. Aleister Crowley’s cult of the magician, prominent at the time, has, for example, its parallel in Wolf Solent in that Wolf imagines himself a conductor of mythic power. Incomprehensibly to us today, these cults had quite a respectable intellectual following between the Wars (e.g. Yeats, Conan Doyle, Rosamond Lehman). They pretty much disappeared in the immediately post World War II decades, then re-emerged in more low-brow forms in the 1970s as the various New Age beliefs and practices.
Wolf’s mythology is initially bound to his nature worship, which functions as an important route to its rapture by allaying competing or confuting impulses. The sensations and emotions he draws from contemplation of nature function to occlude reality and release his treasured illusions of supernatural power and efficacy.
Although the novel’s setting is temporally that of the Georgian poets whose response to nature was so imbued with Christian worship, Wolf’s nature worship is more like that of the early 19th century Romantic poets, and thus closer to today’s Environmentalism, with its similar roots, as it emerged in the earlier decades of the post-World War II period. Allied with an eclipsed Communism in the century’s last decades via a shared anti-capitalism, Environmentalism had became a powerful political movement by the century’s end..
The realisation of bohemian left-wing sexual morals in the novel is less idiosyncratic than Wolf’s mythology, if perhaps exaggerated. John Cowper spent much of his time in the United States in the milieu of bohemian anarchism congenial to Llewellyn, without apparent ideological quarrel, perhaps lulled by the latter’s sharing of his love of nature (without the mysticism). It can be conjectured that this harmony persisted until his life illusion came under attack for its political and social detachment – its irrelevance to the lot of suffering humankind. Powys’ attempted answer to this accusation is to examine its effectiveness as alleviation on a different plane, the psychic, as opposed to the material.
Atheistic socialism was influentially at war with Christianity through much of the 20th century, seeking to supplant it as the supreme moral force in Western civilization, but was still, at the time of the writing of Wolf Solent, a relatively weak challengers. In the brotherly contest, Theodore represents Christianity negatively, in revulsion against it but as critique rather than total rejection. His style of harsh anti-clericalism and non-conformity was pleasing to its enemies on the bohemian left, but also cleared the ground for supernatural pagan alternatives. His antagonism, together with Llewellyn’s total rejection, meant that Powys could not simply ignore or dismiss Christianity as irrelevant: its faults and futilities, and its power for good, had to be assessed against its obvious challengers, as well as against Wolf’s life illusion..
One can read Wolf Solent as a novel in which the claims of these three 20th century ideologies, in their early manifestations, are tested in a rich and variegated human community: in which their capacities for good and evil, for redemption and damnation, fight it out in the “real world”, not just as theoretical arguments. The results are not what any of the brothers, in the abstract, would have claimed for them.
The Ethical Contenders
Wolf arrives in Ramsgard (Sherborne) fully complaisant in his personal mythology and confident of the impregnability of the bohemian and radical moral and political values he has internalized as his own. He has, however, been disturbed by a vision of incurable distress he encountered at the outset of his journey, “The Face” on the steps at the entrance to Waterloo Station, which sets up a challenge that, he uncomfortably finds, his personal recipes for human well-being are unable to meet. This sets the tone for the whole course of the novel as an investigation of the ethics of the human condition.
The primary importance of his mythology to Wolf, and to the novel’s trajectory, is declared with its detailed exposition in the very first chapter, while Wolf is in the train on his way to Ramsgard – a “sinking into his soul” through the medium of intense contemplation of individual organisms of the biological world; the building of his self-esteem, his life illusion, on the sensations of calm, ecstasy and power this contemplation produces; his imagined heroic battles, drawing on this source, with technology (particularly aeroplanes), and with cruelty to animals (particularly vivisection); and the contrivance of forgetting, to cope with events that this entirely contemplative approach to existence cannot redeem.
Despite his dislike of science, Wolf’s mythological musing borrows its terms and terminology naively, pseudo-scientifically, in a manner that falls between metaphor and denotation, as did other cults of the period: “magnetism”, “planetary”, “translunar”, “elemental”, “astral”, “icthyosaurian”, “oxygen-hydrogen” (for water). They litter his text, particularly when Wolf’s mythology is invoked, as if to prove its validity by a scientific association.
Wolf is the only character in the book who personifies the transcendental nature worship that is a close adjunct to his mythology; or at least, he is the only one into whose subjective consciousness we are admitted in this regard. He is not, however, the only one for whom communing with nature is an important source of joy or peace. His young wife Gerda’s delight in nature is both robust and contemplative. While Wolf lies ‘upon that rank, drenched grass’ and draws ‘a deep sigh of obliterating release’ (p.207), Gerda climbs trees and paddles in the stream; but she is also happy to spend evenings alone in quiet contemplation of the night world from their bedroom window. Her imitation of the blackbird’s call identifies her with the mystery of nature, and her playful unquestioning delight in nature constitutes a challenge to Wolf’s rapturous intensity. Wolf’s mother Ann, too, in that she indulges in night walks, has a communion with nature that is not explored for our benefit, and the troubled clergyman, Tilly Valley’s habit of lying down in the road at night bespeaks nature as a source of calm.
Although Wolf acquiesces in bohemian sexual amorality, believing firmly in the harmfulness of Christianity’s “sex suppression”, it is an array of other characters whom he encounters in Ramsgard that represent its realization. On arrival, he finds that he has entered a community rife with incest, illegitimacy, and homosexuality, but he takes it so non-judgmentally that the reader is disarmed. Indeed, he maintains a moralistic bohemianism of attitude to the extent that he will condemn anyone who disapproves.
Casting a long shadow from the past is Wolf’s father, an unrepentant philanderer, but already dead, and buried in Ramsgard, where he and Wolf’s mother (and Wolf) lived during their marriage. Wolf’s move to Ramsgard from London, where as a teacher he has lived with his mother till the age of 35, is partly motivated by the desire to exonerate his father from his mother’s criticisms. Then there is the homosexual Squire Urquhardt, who has provided the means for his move by employing him to ghost author a history of aberrant sexuality in Dorset. At this stage, Wolf feels no disquiet at this prospect, neither at his exposure to Mr Urquhardt’s research, nor towards a project whose outcome will be to advertise “gross moral turpitude”.
Other players in this league are Mr Malakite, a bookseller who stocks pornographic books, and has committed incest with his elder daughter, who has disappeared from the scene, leaving behind the product of their union, the child Olwen; and Jason Otter, a disenchanted homosexual drug-addicted poet, he is elder brother to Darnley, who becomes Wolf’s best male friend. Not of the party, but harbouring its miscegenated offspring, is Mr Smith, whose deceased wife Lorna was Wolf’s father’s mistress. He faces the world as the father of Lorna’s illegitimate daughter, Maggie, half-sister to Wolf, and of Olwen.
Bohemianism in the first half of the 20th century generally went hand in hand with left-wing politics (e.g. Bertrand Russell, Alex Comfort, and of course, Llewellyn), but none of the convention-free characters above has this political alignment or associated social conscience. Initially it seems that the actor for this concern in the novel may be The Face, whom one tends to imagine as a beggar on the steps, or at least destitute, thus representing the social conditions and misfortunes socialism was meant to rectify. Discordantly, it is not a socialist but a capitalist who combines a politico-economic role with the bohemian life-style – Lord Carfax, Wolf’s mother’s cousin, who, like Wolf’s father and unlike the other bohemians, is a straight-forward heterosexual philanderer. In their youth he had been deeply in love with Wolf’s mother, but she had kept him at bay, remaining faithful to her faithless husband.
In the Christian party of traditional moral allegiances, are three very different characters – Tilly Valley, the weak clergyman, Selena Gault, the ugly old maid, and Wolf’s mother, Ann, who follows him to Ramsgard (but not to live with him). Tilly Valley is a fairly vague figure, kindly and eschewing the firm ethical positions that arouse Wolf’s hostility, which latter is directed primarily at the two women: at Miss Gault because of her disapproval of Mr Malakite and later, her plans for Olwen to be put into Christian care, and at his mother because of her generally conventional views of sexual propriety and her condemnation of his father. From the beginning, however, his opposition to Miss Gault is mitigated by her intense opposition to vivisection and to killing animals in general – “You’ll get no meat in this house, boy” – and also because she cared for his father in his dying days and remains loyal to him. She is an Animal Rights vegetarian.
Christie, the second major character, ahead of Gerda, is Mr Malakite’s second daughter, and must be put in the anarchist bohemian camp because, although she has not indulged in perverted practices herself, she admits no disapproval of them, to the end. While Gerda, the beautiful, natural village girl is Wolf’s physical love, Christie, he rather misplacedly believes, is his spiritual one. Her waiflike asexual face and physique he interprets as akin to his mythological world of immaterial “reality”. But Christie, unlike Gerda, has no affinity with Wolf’s nature worship, despite the obsessive significance he places on a grey feather she has used as a bookmark. It may be that she, like Wolf, likes to walk in the lanes alone, but she presents as an indoor person, always seen in her upstairs room, and there is no indication that the natural world is of any great importance to her. She prefers to wander in the world of formal philosophy. Yet Wolf is convinced that she alone understands the mythological essence of his being, and identifies his response to her with his response to nature. In fact, she harbours, and eventually expresses, irritation at him as a “great stupid talking fool” (p.606), but this intrusion of reality, true to character, makes no dent in his conviction.
For a little over half the book, the allegiances primarily expressed by Wolf, despite the early comprehensive introduction of his mythology, are those of left-wing bohemianism. Thereafter a shift occurs as Wolf observes the effects on and within his “community” of the living enactment of its sexual principles, and develops doubts as to their long-term prognostications for human happiness. His doubts prompt his own descent into woe, whereupon he finds that his habitual resource, the retreat into his mythology, is failing him, and realizes, too, that his imagined psychic battles with the forces of evil are observably ineffectual in helping others.
The Reality Challenge I: The Mythology, Bohemian Sexual Ethics and Christianity
Before moving to Dorset, Wolf lived in a restricted social environment that made no conflictual moral demands on him. He lived with his mother and taught for his living, but without personal commitment. In these circumstances, his mythology served him well. He knew it was idiosyncratic, but he had no doubts about its worth and power. His arrival in Ramsgard, and his marriage and subsequent second amorous attachment, and a social network in which the manner of his father’s life has bequeathed him odd, yet telling, familial responsibilities, place him in a novel condition.
In Dorset, young women enter his life apparently for the first time. His marriage to Gerda, an uneducated but dignified Blacksod girl of great natural and sexual beauty, daughter of a tradesman, occurs quite soon after his arrival. Their setting up house together is a force drawing Wolf into the everyday, material world, away from his mythology. No sooner is this accomplished than he finds a retreat by forming an attachment to Christie, Mr Malakite’s daughter, also a Blacksod girl, but from a more educated strand of society. Thus Gerda and Christie represent, indeed embody, the conflict between being in and of the living, reproducing human world, with its realities of duty and passion, and maintaining a secret inner (or other) life which one claims as one’s primary form of existence.
To begin with, Wolf’s mythology and his bohemian non-judgmental attitude to infidelity allow him to maintain his self-approval in this two-timing enterprise, his mythology even rescuing him when he is consumed with jealousy by the suspicion that Gerda is serving him similarly with a local youth, Bob Weevil. The first real dent in his complacent bohemian self-alignment comes on the death of Mr Smith who has acted as father and provider for Maggie and Olwen, both children of other men, when he reads in his face the misery of having lived a lie, and realizes also that Maggie and Olwen will now be destitute. His first response is anger that the current provisions of society will not rescue them as he would wish; but then comes the realization that his mythology can do no better, and the suspicion that it and his bohemian values are not in fact superior, but something less than human: ‘A villainously evil thought assailed him as he walked along. Were all his better actions only so many Pharisaic sops thrown one by one into the mouth of a Cerberus of selfishness, monstrous and insane? Was his “mythology” itself only a projection of such selfishness?’ (p.291)
But at this early stage he can still demolish his self-doubt “heroically”: ‘He laid hold of his will as if it had been a lightening conductor, and, shaking it clear of his body, thrust it forth into space …’(p.292). He is rewarded with “liberating peace”, and later assures himself that his planetary interlocutions are his “real self”, not his fears and actions, or non-action, in the social world.
In an obscure way, the absent young man, Redfern, whom Wolf never meets because he is already dead on his arrival in Dorset, and of whom he only slowly gathers knowledge, is the central and crucial character in the book’s moral unfolding and the undermining of Wolf’s self-confidence. Redfern preceded Wolf as Mr Urquhardt’s assistant for his book of deviant sexuality. Initially Wolf forms the impression that Redfern died by suicide, drowning himself in Lenty Pond, a pool beside the road between the Otter residence and Urquhardt’s great house. Lenty Pond has a sinister character for Wolf from the beginning, arising from his association of it with the also sinister Jason Otter, who has in his possession an object that exteriorizes for Wolf his disturbing aura – the carved wooden head of a Hindu rain god, named Mukalog.
Redfern, “that quiet lad” as disinterested locals call him, is glimpsed as a beautiful and innocent youth, much to older homosexual taste, and there is a mystery surrounding his death, at least so far as Wolf is concerned, in that villagers who should know what happened are not telling. What is slowly hinted at is that Redfern became a sexual obsession for Urquhardt, and also for Jason Otter, and that their importunities were responsible, through their effect on his sensibilities, for his death.
A cluster of chapters a little more than halfway through the book, from “A Game of Bowls” to “Vine”, are the fulchrum on which Wolf’s revulsion from and fear of bohemian sexual amorality are turned, not as a dispassionate judgment, but because, without his mind’s connivance, its embodiment in the people around him is distressing him at a deep irrational level that threatens the equanimity of his mythology.
The gathering at the bowling green at King’s Barton marks the beginning of his serious descent into confusion and disintegration. Wolf is made aware of hidden distress and disorder surrounding the death of Redfern and of the active presence of perverse sexuality in Mr Malakite, and is warned by a local to return to London to escape Redfern’s fate. He now sees Mr Malakite’s sexual proclivities written on his face as an apparition of evil. He reads in it a look of “monomaniacal intensity”, de-humanized, which he finds “horrible, but … not contemptible”, an expression of “concentrated erotic insanity directed towards universal matter” (p.345). To top it off, Mr Malakite implies that he and Wolf’s father shared certain abstruse sexual practices.
The disturbing background to the gathering is the distressed moaning of Mr Round, keeper of another inn, repeating “Jesus, Jesus” in an upper room in an orgy of unexplained repentance. Mr Malakite’s comment that to worry about such people is “to share their disease” (p.341) is an assertion that the sin repented of is innocuous, and that the real evil is a religion that makes it one.
On the road home, when he is alone again, Wolf suffers an emotional and spiritual collapse, and acknowledges for the first time that normal human intercourse can be a resource to the troubled soul: ‘I’ve learnt one thing tonight … I’ve learnt that one can’t always get help by sinking into one’s own soul. It’s sometimes necessary to escape from oneself altogether.’ (p.372) This insight was achieved through the realization that his suffering is not unique, and that sympathy for the suffering of others can bring relief to one’s own. It is a first admission of breakdown in his previously impervious self-containment.
Despite the recovery of a moment of exhilaration following his disturbance by the sexual uncertainties he has observed at “The School Treat”, the next chapter, “Vine”, confirms this incipient loss of control: ‘The three autumn months following the school treat became for Wolf … like a slowly rising tide that, drawing its mass of waters from distances and gulfs beyond his reach, threatened to leave scant space unsubmerged of the rugged rock which hitherto he had turned upon the world.’ (p.409)
He makes two gestures to stem this rising tide. Beginning to fear that Urquhardt’s book has the potential to cause real harm, he abandons the project. Thus, realistically, he attempts to separate himself from the sexual preoccupations he has come to abhor. And, symbolically, he acquires Jason’s evil carved head, Mukalog, hoping to cleanse that sinister consortium, but perversely he introduces it into his own home.
Thus, well before the end of the book, this one of the three major contenders for the soul of the 20th century has foundered: sexual anarchism is not morally neutral, but has the power to undermine the philosophy closest to Powys’s heart, his mythology founded in nature mysticism. But things are to get even worse, when the suspicion of active necrophilia enters. Necrophilia was another of the sexual transgressions flirted with by left-wing bohemians in the first half of the 20th century (see Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time), and to Wolf it is the final horror – the suspicion that Mr Urquhardt has had Redfern’s body disinterred for this purpose. Mr Round’s torment becomes not a simple case of unwarranted sex suppression, but justified. Wolf’s mythology fails him, and only physical fastidiousness saves him from Lenty Pond.
Wolf feels that he is, to himself, “dead”, but also at that end point when things have become so unendurably bad that, oddly, one can begin again. And again, it is not his mythology that steadies him, but human friendship: ‘The sight of his friend’s (Darnley’s) yellow beard against the lamp on the hall table completed his restoration to normal intelligence.’ But Wolf’s mythology is hardy and he does not in fact begin again where it is concerned, although his rejection of bohemian culture is profound. He has experienced the painful jealousy aroused by sexual infidelity, and he moves from allegiance to his father to greater appreciation of his mother.
Wolf also weakly acknowledges the power of consolation that Tilly Valley, representative of Christianity, can give. He is said to have helped Redfern in his worst distress, saving him from suicide, although not from death through illness, and he helps Wolf himself when he suggests that part of his distress may be at the prospective loss of his friend Darnley, when he marries Maggie.
Although the suspicion of necrophilia turns out to be unfounded – the intent was to bury Redfern deeper, not exhume him – Wolf’s judicious toleration of bohemian sexual practices, which implied condemnation of the church’s conservatism, is gone. This has implications for his relationship with Christie. Although Christie rather than Wolf breaks off their relationship, his physical fidelity to Gerda and disapproval of Christie’s rape by her father have thinned feelings on both sides.
Thus left-wing bohemianism is killed in the course of the novel, partly because it is demonstrated to cause suffering and distress quite apart from any sense of sin imposed by the church; but even more so because its reality elicits an instinctive loathing, independently of any formal pre-existing moral values, that threatens Wolf’s mythology. He must escape its presence if his mythology is to survive. Given left-wing bohemianism’s antagonism, and even self-definition in opposition to the church, its rejection is to a limited extent an exoneration of and vote for Christianity as a locus of good rather than evil in the world. Along with bohemian ethics, Mukalog, icon of the life-hating Jason and of a non-Christian religion, and always regarded uneasily by Wolf, is dispatched – though perhaps not far enough – into a neighbouring pigsty. Tilly Valley, representing a Christianity that has lost faith in itself and no longer thunders for an all-powerful God, cannot provide solutions or cures, but he alone is able to give comfort along the way, even if only in small measure, to those in spiritual trouble – to Redfern, Monk, Wolf himself, and even Urquhardt.
Wolf does not analytically reject sexual libertarianism, although he increasingly resiles from its manifestations. Its final irrefutable rejection comes from his subconscious. His ideological allegiances have remained in place at the conscious level, while emotionally and perceptively he is increasingly confused, then distressed. Despite his failure to conceptualize the changes that his response to bohemianism in the real world mean for his prior convictions, he is finally shown that they are breaking down by the intervention of The Face.
A materialization of The Face is axiomatic in preventing his consummation of sex with Christie – warning him that he is about to set a course of misery in train, and probably not just for Gerda. Powys saw then, against his circle’s certainties, what has become abundantly clear after 40 years of sexual liberation, that it does not make for greater human happiness, but rather the reverse – fatherless children, suiciding men, domestic violence and child abuse.. (Note that in the filmed debate with Bertrand Russell, Powys was for marriage, Russell, the arch-sexual liberationist, against.)
The Reality Challenge II: Capitalism, Socialism and Nature Worship
Although Wolf’s mythology is intimately interwoven with his nature worship, the damaging impact of bohemian sexual anarchism is primarily confined to his mythology in its heroic manifestation – his mental opposition to the malign in the creative force and his belief that he can fix things up by his mind’s projections. It does not seriously disturb his nature worship, his contemplative ecstasies, which continue as the resource sustaining the weakened remains of his mythology – for example, the vision of the field of buttercups at the book’s ending that returns him to a level of security in his shattered world.
The enemy of Wolf’s nature worship, already fixed on even before his arrival in Dorset, is capitalism, and in this he draws near to the Environmentalism that became resoundingly political in the last decades of the 20th century, but was just a whisper at the time of writing. Wolf’s antagonism to capitalism is not to capitalism as the scourge of the working classes and creator of economic misery, but as the sponsor of science (vivisection) and technology (aeroplanes that invade the skies where his heroism prances – for he has no objection to trains). Thus his anti-capitalism has nothing in common with the anti-capitalism of bohemian ideology, and he posits the view, via the Face, that the worst in human misery is not to be slated home to economic and material deprivation.
Powys directly counters Socialism’s claim to best benefit the poor in the figure of the arch-capitalist, “the great man”, Lord Carfax, whose deeds and successes Wolf explicitly contrasts with the failures of his mythology on the same canvas. His wealth allows him to help Jason to recognition as a poet and to put Stalbridge, the destitute ex-waiter, back into work. He provides for Christie and Olwen, not by charity but by buying the Malakite books. His robust pragmatism ejects Wolf from his state of paralysis over the moral significance of having served as Urquhardt’s assistant, and he restores Gerda’s gift of blackbird song by simple admiration and good nature. These are all tasks in which Wolf’s mythology of combating evils by mental power alone had signally failed. Significantly, in three of these five instances Carfax has achieved through the benevolent use of accumulated capital the sorts of tasks for which socialist bohemians claimed moral superiority on behalf of their political and economic ideologies.
Universal Malice and The Face
The thriving waiter who falls into destitution and is rescued by Carfax should not be seen as a palimpsest presence in Wolf’s Dorset community of The Face of human misery. Wolf, in his first ruminations following his encounter with The Face on the Waterloo steps, is adamant that no amount of repairing of material circumstances could wipe out that woe. Both benevolent capitalism and radical socialism are irrelevant to the humanitarian problem it poses. Powys has side-lined the Christian God as the author of evil in the creation, replacing Him with an abstract First Cause in order to talk about this evil flaw at the heart of things. The Face’s symbolic role is as an indictment of the very nature of the created universe, The First Cause, whose malice Wolf initially believes his mythology is best fitted to combat.
Having failed abysmally where “real” life is concerned, Wolf’s mythology can no longer be trusted to offer a sure solution to the misery for which there is no material recompense. The malice in the First Cause (we might less histrionically call it a flaw in human nature) remains unaddressed and unappeased, though eschewal of bohemian sexual anarchism might help – and Powys did settle into a stable companionship with a woman and abandon his version of sexual promiscuity at this point in his life.
Wolf’s accusation of ineradicable suffering as personified in The Face is weighty and effective, but is rather undermined when one recalls its identical expression by Rook in Ducdame in relation to himself. Now Rook is in no sort of destitution or deprivation, his past hides no skeletons of personal suffering, and we are not directed to find significance in the philandering of his father and grandfather. He has position, wealth and interested women a-plenty, of whom he could rid himself if he wished. The sentiment accuses neither material deprivation nor catastrophic personal experiences, but purely subjective inner conflict. In all external aspects of what assails Rook, there is nothing to prevent him exercising his own free will.
This sheds light on Wolf’s railing against the Origin of Life. He, like Rook, simply cannot accept it as anything but a personal injury that he cannot have all the things, or rather all the women, he wants in peace of mind and equanimity. The cruelty of the universe is that life is not a smorgasbord to pick and choose from at will, but a choice of á la carte menus where choosing one excludes the others. I am reminded of a student song of my youth:
Baby you can’t have one, baby you can’t have one
You can’t have one and still have fun.
Baby you can’t have one.
Baby you can’t have two, baby you can’t have two,
You can’t have two and still be true etc etc
Wolf, like Rook, in effect wants to have two and have fun, but also still be true. A creation in which there is no such thing as trueness to disturb having fun would not solve his discontent, he wants trueness too.
In this context, too, it is proper that The Face appears, to prevent Wolf’s love-making with Christie. In the event, trueness is more important than fun, and the universe is cruel.
Life Illusions and Nature Worship
As the book moves into its final phases, Wolf is re-ordering his attitudes to the persons representing the various disparate ideologies, but he finds that he is limited in how far he can move from positions that have become part of his essential being. The best that he can hope to achieve, now that he has accepted responsibilities in the real world, most notably for marriage and his bread-winner role, is a partial peace and happiness, in contrast to his beatitude when he emotionally dwelt entirely within the abstractions of a mental universe.
Living on without the heroic illusion that is essential to his self-satisfied happiness, Wolf is occasionally surprised by vignettes of observation that force upon him the realization that there are people who live contentedly in this world as it is, without engaging with, without even the thought of, supernatural forces of good and evil. Their world is benign. One such vision is of an elderly couple and their cat enjoying the sun’s warmth, without having to make their enjoyment into a mystical experience; another the schoolboy, Barge, to whom forgiveness is easy because he has no conception of evil intent; another the woman reading alone at night by the light of two candles, content in a story of human romance.
Wolf toys with the idea that he should emulate them, that this is how to live without a mythology. But he realizes that he cannot by any effort of the will turn the drudgery of the life before him into a placid contentment. He has one resource left to him: his escapes into nature worship are a pleasure and a release and maintain his self-esteem as an exceptional person, even if they help no one but himself. With their aid perhaps some of the placid pleasures, like cups of tea, will do as well.
Wolf’s illusions of his soul’s translunar and astral travels seem to be referencing the classical cosmology of Aristotle and the Hellenes for whom the soul comes from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars and after death returns there, but to the ordinary reader it presents as fantastic, idiosyncratic metaphor, and therefore cannot function as a plausible ideology, a method of ordering and controlling human lives, on a par with capitalism and socialism, or even established religions. As Manfred Clauss says in his The Roman Cult of Mithras:
We are nowadays inclined to translate images into abstract ideas. We tend to understand mythological and religious images primarily as allegorical guises for conceptional claims. (p. 11)
Wolf (and Powys?) initially does not, but as experience invalidates his mythology he is forced, reluctantly, to acknowledge its incapacity as anything more than allegory.
Wolf’s life illusion strikes a chord with some aspects of today’s environmentalism. The apparent belief of environmentalists that sacrificial gestures of atonement can avert the natural processes of evolution and geological change has something of the character of Wolf’s belief that his invocations of occult forces can combat the evils in technology, human nature and the universe. The novel’s final position is, however, that communion with nature, even when lifted to mystical status, does not give interventionist power, but only solace and delight. One must make do with a. simple acceptance of nature’s spiritualizing bounty.
Despite the apparent decisiveness of his discrediting of mythological powers in the person of Wolf, Powys could not leave the occult alone. He went on to rebuild the role of magician, first as Johnny Geard within Christianity in A Glastonbury Romance; then as Sylvanus Cobbold in Weymouth Sands, where he introduces the external threat of a hostile normal world that would treat him as mad; and then in Maiden Castle as Enoch/Uryen Quirm, who inhabits a full-blown mythology/life illusion of a resurrected pre-Celtic paganism, and he too is destroyed by the normal world, but this time through his own action of revealing his “truth” to its discrediting insolence. Acting on the lesson of his “empirical” conclusions, Powys himself then retreated out of harm’s way to Wales, pursuing his precious, essential illusion for the rest of his life. There the doomed magician of the Wessex novels flowers untrammeled – unchallenged, like Wolf before Dorset, by the reality of community.
The Final Balance
Likewise, Wolf Solent did not end Powys’s explorations of the comparative validity, both in their own lights and for human happiness in general, of this cluster of emerging 20th century ideologies. In his next novel, A Glastonbury Romance, there is further testing with a focus on religion in a variety of Christian manifestations, and on the left-wing political ideologies absent in Wolf Solent. The First Cause again has a role, though not in any character’s consciousness, and this time capitalist and technocrat get their come-uppance at the hands of nature’s overpowering might.
Weymouth Sands gives us the life-illusionless decent human couple of whom we had glimpses in Wolf Solent and the capitalist stars again for his energy and ability to take action to achieve and save. These three are surrounded by a cast of characters of the type of the discarded mythologist and bohemian sexual anarchists of Wolf Solent in all their fascinating individuality and with all their amorally pursued obsessions.
Maiden Castle marks a return to the testing of the mythologist of the occult. Wolf’s reluctant acceptance of making do with a passive nature worship has not held for Powys, and in Dud Noman and Enoch Quirm the mythologist dominates again. The mythology has shrunk from embracing a plurality of the ingredients of early 20th century spiritualisms, to focus on the pagan magician, and nature worship has sunk out of sight and has no independent presence. But the old antagonists are still there, though in lesser and less decisive roles – an egalitarian socialist ruining his health by subjecting himself to the reality of physical labour in a coal pit, a variety of half-hearted bohemian sexual dystopias that get nowhere, and a capitalist with the power and willingness to rescue strugglers of a different colour. Even the philosopher who seemed pure pagan classicist strikes a blow for normal sexuality. But mythology fails again and Noman, the thinned-down Wolf, loses what he wants in the human world through his addiction to mythologizing of himself, and Uryan cannot sustain his illusion in the face of community disbelief.
The only real survivors in this four novel survey are capitalism, gentle Christianity (particularly in the person of Matt Dekker in A Glastonbury Romance), good-natured normality, and a spiritualized nature worship. None of the three brothers world critiques, illusions or recipes for succour emerges triumphant from John Cowper’s sociological investigation, while the traditions they sought to supplant are exonerated.
The three discredited ideologies of Wolf Solent achieved a level of hegemony in the course of the 20th century, and its sociological record can be viewed as a longitudinal real-life, in place of novelistic, testing of their validity, with the state of early 21st century society the outcome measure. My own judgment is that John Cowper was largely right to reject them as he did.
Given the journey to final negativity towards what allures and disturbs us in the four great sociological novels, why do they attract such allegiance in those to whom they speak? When Powys embodies his mythologies and their associated megalomanias in his characters, it is engaging and intriguing, and has the virtue of truth in depicting a fashion in beliefs that was real at the time. They have the social embeddedness the novel demands. Those of us who love and admire his four Wessex novels must be grateful that after the life-illusion’s defeat in Wolf Solent he still felt the need to pursue this contest through three further novels before retreating into Wales where he was secure from the criticisms and reality tests of friends and society, and could devote himself to the fantasy world in which he was magician without challenge.
Wolf Solent warns against emulating just such a course. The three early novels as well as the first and last of the Wessex novels hypothesize that refusal to compromise with the world as it is leads to sterility and death. Despite the valorizing of engagements with the wars of good and evil in the moral universe, their real matter in this regard is the impossibility of entirely satisfying one’s conflicting desires, or rather, all one’s desires, while not admitting they are conflicting: the drives for both monogamy and promiscuity, for solitude and connubiality, for the retreat into one’s own mind and for the meeting of sympathies. This unreasonableness of expectation and demand is what creates the psychological and emotional power of the novels. They deliver, like tragedy, catharsis. Tragedies display the actions our feelings demand when our wife is unfaithful, or our mother marries our uncle and we are disinherited, while our grasp on reality and our recognition of other competing moral forces stays our hand. Powys does the same for our psychological defeats, defeats created not by the actions of others but by our own admixture of human and animal drives.
One need not introject Powys’s resentment and desolation at this state of affairs, any more than one should copy Hamlet or Othello. No one, or almost no one, would wish to eliminate one of each of the paired opposing forces whose conflicts he expresses. Take away the need for solitude and introspection? No. Then take away their opposites, the needs for sociability and conversation? No, again. The novel lets us enjoy a vicarious revolt at the challenge of living with both, but its insolubility does not necessarily dictate the despondence or death-wish typical of Powys’s heroes.
This brings us back full circle to Powys’s claim, quoted at the outset, that the book is about the need for opposites, but, I hope, less obscurely in relation to the actual contents of the book. In fact it would be truer to say that Wolf Solent and the other novels of this period reject the need for, contemn the very existence, of opposites. Perhaps it was only in later life, all passion spent, that Powys was able to see the conflicts of the human condition in this light, and I would still maintain that the conflict of ideologies provides the novel’s larger matrix.
Also in the person of Wolf, Powys takes to an extreme of expression the sorts of feelings of transcendence of the self that nature can inspire, and the ruminations on personal and vicarious experience that accompany its contemplation, but that our grip on reality warns us not to take too far or too seriously, or admit into our “real”, active lives. Just as characters in tragedies take us with them into the further reaches of being human that at the same time transgress being human, so Powys in the person of Wolf takes us into the further reaches of nature-engaged self-transference which, in its different way, though luxurious, is incompatible with a satisfactory life-course.
These passages are precious to us because, steeped in the literary and historical references of our mental lives, they express so eloquently, so romantically, so poetically, so ethereally, the contradictions of need and impulse that are set in us as necessities of nature and human intelligence and are not, as the later Powys accepted too, an irresponsibly mean and cruel trick of a malicious First Cause.
Atkinson, K. Started Early, Took my Dog. London: Doubleday, 2010.
Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras. (Transl. R. Gordon). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
Powys, J.C. Wolf Solent. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929.