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The Best Books of 2007
1. Porius, by John Cowper Powys
Famous for never reading things he wrote, the British and Welsh writer John Cowper Powys is one of the great underappreciated treasures of literature. Dying in 1963, Powys lived a crazy life of affairs and absolution, letters and enemas. His classic book is A Glastonbury Romance, and it’s where newbies should start. His Autobiography is also extraordinary and badly deserves a new worldwide release. He spent a lot of his life going around giving lectures, and his health often failed him.
Porius, brought out by Overlook Press, has been restored to its interminable length and amazingly large cast of characters. It is a brilliant mess of a book that takes place in 499 A.D. and its commentary on lust and life is enrapturing, creating a narrative that reminds one of an anti-Bible. I like picking Porius up at different places and seeing where Powys’ mind takes the thought–it’s the most fun journey I can imagine. The following excerpts are taken from Morine Krissdottir’s excellent biography of Powys.
Buy Porius here.
Powys liked to project the illusion that he was a “charlatan” – someone who would become enthralled by “something exciting in life or nature or books or history or psyschology” and work out the idea without bothering to get the details correct.” His best novels simply do not bear this out. He may interpret the details to suit his own needs, but the details themselves and the substructure on which he builds are scrupulously worked out.
Just as A Glastonbury Romance grew out of the Grail myth, so Porius is grounded in the firm foundation of the alchemical transformation, each of the seven stages worked out methodically, every essential image and occult symbol in its proper place. Although the ostensible goal of alchemy was to transform base metals in to gold, many of the texts made it clear that the often dangerous chemical procedures were but outer manifestiations of the inner search for the “secret” or meaning of the whole material universe and on a personal level, an outer symbol of what was also an inner, psychic process; an allegory of the transformation of man.
Another reality which was intensely sexual was his use of enemas. One of the “subtler aspects” of Powys’s ulcer was that he knew the fiberless diet he insisted upon was “hopelessly constipating,” so constipating that he had long resorted to enemas. He frankly admitted that he had “come greatly to prefer this artificial method to the natural one!”
Enemas brought back memories of the nursery when the Powys children were routinely given enemas to “keep the bowels open,” and John had been using them since at least 1910. For some years he gave them to himself with a handheld clyster. However, after the Indian episode in 1932, he asked Phyllis to “help” him with them.
Neither of them could avoid being aware that the anal sphincter has sensitive nerve endings, and the introduction of an enema nozzle could be experienced as sexually pleasurable-in effect a buggering. At the same time, perversely, there were strong sadomasochistic elements for both of them in the procedure itself.
A favourite subject in the pornographic literature he was familiar with involved the forced administration of an enema and the attendant humiliation of the victim. Possibly for Powys it became another masochistic turn-on. Whether it was or not, the regime was a strict one; he insisted on an enema every third day.
Even when she was prostrate with her period, he had her come down from the bedroom to administer it, although he hated to see her look “so white, so tired, so pinched, so haggard.”
Once he began relying totally on enemas, he had another valid reason for never lecturing again, indeed for not leaving Phudd at all for more than two days. Once she began delivering the enema, it was also impossible for her to get away. When he un-learned how to give himself an enema, he learned how not to be abandoned.
Buy Descents of Memory here.
Download Powys’ The Complex Vision.
Margaret Drabble on Powys.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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