The Secret of Life

From In Defence of Sensuality (1931), by John Cowper Powys.

The more childish and unworldly a person’s disposition is, the more happiness he gets from such simple things as air, water, sun, earth-mould, sand, leaves, bread, butter, honey, or the still more primeval sensation of a certain delicious drowsiness in his own limbs. This is what I mean by my recurrent image of the ichthyosaurus. What I am trying to indicate by “the ichthyosaurus-sensation” is nothing less than this simple primeval happiness in the immediate experience of being alive. To blink at that mysterious god, the sun; to stare at that equivocal goddess, the moon; to watch the incredible shapes of the clouds, as they pile up above the horizon; to observe, in early afternoon, a certain yellowish light upon a brick wall; to note a certain dark-blue wave of colour, as it sinks down upon the roofs of a city after sunset; to catch the ink-black silhouettes of bare branches against a November sky, just before the windows are lamp-lit in a roadside village; to feel the ploughed-up earth under your feet, and a cold wet wind upon your face; to sit over a fire of wood or of red coals, thinking the long thoughts of vague race-memories–all these things, belonging to a world of psychic-physical sensations that go back to the beginnings of consciousness, are the stuff of which the secret of life is made.

A New Religion

From In Defence of Sensuality (1930), by John Cowper Powys.

Ay, the moment has arrived in the history of our Western world when a new religion is on the verge of breaking forth and spreading like wild-fire among us.

One cannot yet prophesy what world-deep rapture this religion will bring. But this, surely, one can prophesy. It will be a religion that will help individual men and women to shake themselves free from the factious, shallow, vulgar, sneering humour of the commonplace world. It will be a religion of intense gravity and intense earnestness. It will be a religion that actually worships the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, the wind, the seasons. It will be a religion that strips off the hot, feverish, gregarious, over-human garments of the other religions. It will be a religion that could be shared by the non-human consciousness of trees enjoying the rain, of crows sailing across the sky, of cattle grazing in the fields, of fishes poised motionless in the river, of vipers basking in the sun, of ancient cosmogonic rocks breathing the air and feeling the magic of moonlight. In my own. symbolic words it will be a religion of the “ichthyosaurus-ego.”

It will be the most sacramental and the most ritualistic religion–but at the same time the most subjective one–that has ever existed; for every morsel of food and every drop of drink will be exquisitely godlike to it! Sleep, with all its mystical intimations, will be the greatest of its sacraments. Indolent, idle, dreamy, care-free thoughts will be the incense of its casual breath. Leisure will be its cathedral-court, and sensuous sensation its high-altar! Its piety will be drawn from the organic atavisms of planetary life, its ritual from the long centuries of human experience. Its moral virtue will consist in just being “kind” in the most simple of all senses, and in this alone! The best-remembered, though not the best-loved, of all its many gods will be the ultimate First Cause; and the great daimon Chance will be its Holy Ghost.

The Benefits of Routine

From A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), by John Cowper Powys.

A well-managed solitary life, whether surrounded by people or protected from people, is a very delicate and a very difficult work of art.

Routine plays the leading part. Men and women who do not insist on routine in their lives are sick or mad. Without routine all is lost. Just as without some kind of rhythm all is lost in poetry. For routine is man’s art of copying the art of Nature. In Nature all is routine. The seasons follow one another in sacred order; the seed ripens, the leaf expands, the blossom and the fruit follow, and then comes the fall.

Routine is the rhythm of the universe. By routine the harvests are reaped, by routine the tides rise and ebb; by routine the Constellations march in their sublime order across the sky. The feel of routine is the feel of the mystery of creation. In the uttermost abysses of life it holds sway. Beautiful and tragic is its systole and diastole. Without routine there can be no happiness; for there can be no endurance, no expectation, no security, no peace, no old or new, no past or future, no memory and no hope.

But after routine has been attained the most important achievement in the art of a solitary life is having the right thoughts, that is to say having thoughts that give you a calm happiness, in place of thoughts that prick you and sting you and bite you and corrode you!

It is astonishing to think how long humanity has existed, and yet how little we have advanced in gaining control over our thoughts. To control your thoughts—that is the most important thing you can do; far more important than to control your children or your food or your drink or your wife or your husband or your business or your work or your reputation. He who can control his thoughts is at the key-position of the Cosmos. He has the clue, the secret password. Down into the depths of the sea he can dive and find pearls and coral and drowned gold. Over the grassy prairies he can follow the wind till he feels as if he were clutching the rim of the horizon with his crooked fingers.

How to Be Independent of Outward Destiny

From The Meaning of Culture (1929), by John Cowper Powys.

Literature alone is something that conceals itself; for no one can force you to read advertisements or literary supplements; and withdraws itself, hiding in shelves and libraries and bookshops, until the exact moment arrives, propitious, auspicious, and under the right astrological influences, when you need just that particular book and no other. The outward destiny which places you near a good library is one of the redeeming aspects of a big town or a big university; but the nucleus of your culture will never abide in such a library, no! not even if it be the very Bodleian itself. It will abide in your own mental fortress. Your mind will be its own little round tower of Montaigne the Essayist. And as for collections of books, how independent of outward destiny is the man whose great library of Alexandria is contained in one small, portable shelf! Small enough that shelf can be to stand at your bed’s head or even on the ground of your nomad’s tent or beneath your charts in your ship’s cabin.

Every cultured man, every cultured woman will have his own secret ecclesia of precious books. The present writer’s would be the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” the texts of the Chinese “Tao” in James Legge’s translation, the Psalms of David, the four great novels of Dostoievsky, Goethe’s “Faust,” Shakespeare’s Plays, Wordsworth’s Poems, Pater’s “Marius” and as many of the volumes of Proust as such a tiny shelf had room for. It is, as we have hinted, a matter of your outward destiny what music, what drama, what sculpture, what paintings, what architecture, what delicate bric-a-brac your wanderings may have enabled you to light upon. But it is a matter of your inward destiny–beyond heredity and beyond environment–what books your mysterious daimon, upheaving from out the eternal through the phenomena of the temporal, has given you the grace to select.

The Power to Deal with Life

From The Secret of Self Development (1926), by John Cowper Powys.

One of his very greatest dangers, when a youth sets out to become cultivated, is the danger of allowing his reason to run riot at the expense of all other human faculties. Logic is an invaluable method of capturing the secret of life, but it is not the only one. Undiluted by instinct, reason can become a ferocious wild beast whose savage delight it is to rend and tear at its own vitals. What a deeper culture seems to suggest is that there is a certain equilibrium, a certain balance of his faculties possible to man–call it perhaps his “imaginative reason”–by which he can follow the evasive fluidity of Nature, of that Nature who herself cherishes certain basic illusions, and by throwing the force of his mind outward toward the flow of the world save himself from this Rational Beast bred in his vitals and feeding upon his heart’s blood.

Soon enough, when our youth has acquired the trick of this mellower, gentler more gracious philosophy, will that terrible job of his, that scolding wife–or to put it the other way round, her selfish husband, her cantankerous children–grow mellow, transparent, insubstantial, like things seen far off, seen through some lovely flowing vapor, as such an individual surveys them through the quivering luminosity of the thoughts of Plato or the subtle humor of the genius of Charles Lamb.

In particular cases a person will find that it is from the art of painting or the art of music rather than from literature that he will draw his power to deal with life, but I cannot help feeling that there are certain advantages possessed by literature which renders that art more potent than the others in the general stream of things.

Concentrating Upon the Great Humanists

From The Secret of Self Development (1926), by John Cowper Powys.

The most uneducated peasant or factory-hand, if he has developed an original and sensitive response to life, is in reality more cultivated in the truest sense of that term than many a college-bred professor. And the more deeply cultivated a person is the fewer will be the books he will read. For he will gather the great select spirits of the ages about him and meddle very little with contemporary fashions. He will carry the Sonnets of Shakespeare in his pocket as he goes to his office. Secreted in his desk in his office itself will be found Bayard Taylor’s translation of Faust, or Lang, Butcher and Leaf’s translation of Homer; and, who knows, if on his way home he will not debouch down some side-street to a second-hand book-shop and purchase there some stray volume of Matthew Arnold’s poetry.

I am inclined to think that one definite result of such a person’s concentration upon the great humanists of the world will be the development in him of a certain philosophical skepticism which will be turned just as frequently upon the latest dogmas of science as upon the oldest dogmas of religion! I am inclined to think that although he will love to skim over the gnomic pages of the great metaphysicians he will treat each particular thinker rather as an artist than as a discoverer of pure truth. I think he will visualize his “hard facts” for a month or so, shall we say, according to the vision of Hegel, and then, for another month, transform them according to the vision of Spinoza or of Schopenhauer!

A Startling Moment of Awakening

From A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), by John Cowper Powys.

Who has not heard of the psychological phenomenon known as Conversion? Well! just as the secular life of contemplation celebrates its own natural Mass, so there must come sometimes to a crowd-poisoned personality a startling moment of awakening that is exactly like a religious Conversion. We suddenly feel as if we had never beheld the actual face of the world before. In shame we recognize how many suns, how many moons, have come and gone, without one real flash of conscious awareness transporting our heavy souls. And we remember in a rush of remorse like the prodigal’s weeping with what a hard, corrupt, averted eye we have caught without catching, and noted without noting, that labouring moon, that melting and liquid landscape, those enchanted hedgerows. It is not merely the aesthetic or the poetical reaction to these things that I have in mind. What I am thinking of is an eternal necessity of human nature, like the eating or drinking of some sort of planetary sacrament, which is neglected at our peril. Yes, you can be as thick-skinned and unpoetical as you please; but there is a primeval necessity, harsh, inhuman, rugged, formidable–not in the least “artistic” or sentimental–about keeping our eye upon sun, moon, earth, sky, sea, and letting our nature grow “native and indued” to these solemn powers.

What the Soul Requires

From Suspended Judgments (1916), by John Cowper Powys.

For a flawless work of art is a thing for a moment, while that more penetrating projection of an original personality which one calls a mental or aesthetic atmosphere, is a thing that floats and flows and drifts and wavers, far beyond the boundaries of any limited creation. Such an atmosphere, such a vague intellectual music, in the air about us, is the thing that really challenges the responsive spirit in ourselves; challenges it and rouses it to take the part which it has a right to take, the part which it alone can take, in recreating the world for us in accordance with our natural fatality.

It is only by the process of gradual disillusionment that we come at last to recognise what we ourselves–undistracted now by any external authority–need and require from the genius of the past. For my own part, looking over the great names included in the foregoing essays, I am at this moment drawn instinctively only to two among them all–to William Blake and to Paul Verlaine; and this is an indication to me that what my own soul requires is not philosophy or psychology or wit or sublimity, but a certain delicate transmutation of the little casual things that cross my way, and a certain faint, low, sweet music, rumouring from indistinguishable horizons, and bringing me vague rare thoughts, cool and quiet and deep and magical, such as have no concern with the clamour and brutality of the crowd.

Sweet August Sadness

From The Philosophy of Solitude (1933), by John Cowper Powys.

As you walk along–with your eyes on the ground–you think of the whole strange rondure of this terraqueous globe and the spirit within you voyages with it through immeasurable space. It is twilight perhaps; and all around you there is that indescribable blue light which, like the blue robe of the Mother of God, the city wears at this season and this hour. But you still keep your eyes upon the ground; for you can feel the presence of that blue light in a certain mystical taste.

There is an indescribable sadness in this air as you breathe it in, as of a lingering incense in a vast empty temple; for the Autumn is beginning, though it is still only August. But this sadness is far sweeter to you than all the gaieties of all the places of pleasure in the world! This air which you taste in your mouth is indeed the very atmosphere of the earth, and into it have passed all the subtle, gentle thoughts of the men and women of the old time who in their day slipped out, just as you have done, to get a breath of air after their day’s work!

Work, work, work! Thus do the days of the years of our life pass by. But it is this daily half-hour–our very own out of all the rest–that makes it worth it to us that we were born at all.

And as we walk on, avoiding the people and still staring at the ground, the mute expectancy of all this vast mass of mineral substance beneath us, all this “thick rotundity” of Inanimateness between us and our antipodes, steals over us like a spell. Can it be that this huge mineral body–covered with its green pastures, its grey seas, its yellow deserts, its white mountain-ridges, and now with this strange blue light–is absolutely devoid of anything corresponding to what in us is consciousness?

And as we think of this–as we have done every day for the last five, ten, fifteen years!–the rare ecstasy we are always seeking begins slowly to tremble through our being. Is it–can it be–the response of all this vast orbic volume of Not-Self to the cravings and longings and fumblings of the Self, this quivering ecstasy that trembles through us?

Discovering the Primeval Grandeur of the World

From The Philosophy of Solitude (1933), by John Cowper Powys.

It is a pitiful degeneracy in our modern life that we are not more often transported out of ourselves by the eternal things that surround us.

Consider the wind! One of the best tests you can apply to yourself as to whether you are lost to the primeval grandeur of the world, taking it all for granted, is to note your attitude to the arbitrary motions of the wind. Do you take the wind for granted? Do you only notice it at all if it is wildly furious, madly violent, bitterly freezing? Or, on the other hand, is the least breath of it upon your face like the touch of the remote Past? Do you never feel it without thinking what a miraculous phenomenon it is, this invisible and yet most living presence, as it moves over the city, over the land, over the sea? Nothing can excel the wind in awakening from the depths of our natures those far-away memories which seem to carry with them the very essence of life.

The potency of memory is that it winnows and purges reality of its grossness, of its dullness, of its poisonous hurtings. Memory seems to retain, in great hushed vases and urns, at the bottom of its being, essences that have the power of redeeming all. And the wind stirs up these essences until their fleeting perfumes mount to our heads and fill us with an indescribable transport.

Creating a Magic Circle

From A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), by John Cowper Powys:

The whole trend of our present-day ideas is pitifully wrong. It is all heading in the direction of more and more unhappiness. To tell us “to keep on smiling” as the preachers do, is enough to make us howl like the damned.

Optimistic catchwords combined with the torture of gregariousness are more than the strongest nerves can stand. All this feverish social laughter takes on a theatrical ghastliness, to an eye that has learnt to read the heart. The thing becomes a Mask of Horror, as if the anonymous corpses from the death-slabs of the Morgue were to rise up and mock and mow at us!

The only thing to do is to detach yourself at one stroke from all these agitating too-human interests. Earn your living. Stop competing and self-pitying; and live–even in the midst of all your friends–as if the streets were the Desert and you were alone with the over-arching sky.

From the old great writers of calmer ages, from the race-memories brought to us out of the air, from the ineffable essences of our own gathered-up moments of vision, there can be created, if we bend ourselves to the task, a magic circle around us which none of these invaders can cross. Life is too short, its sublime and tragic grandeur too deep, that we should turn from it to such bagatelles as these crowd-fashions.