Man is a collection of atoms through which pass the moods of God…” T.F.Powys, “Soliloquy of a Hermit,” (Hardpress Publishing, Miami. Originally by G. Arnold Shaw, N.Y., 1916)
On first read, this work comes off as obtuse commentary on the nature of man, the appeal of simplicity, and the misguided desire for immortality…with some incomprehensible Jesus language tossed in. I was unsurprised that both it and Powys are little known to modern readers. Finding its core, if core there were, would take patience. Who has time for that these days?
But I’d come to the book via John Gray, a British political philosopher. Gray spends several pages in “The Soul of the Marionette” discussing Powys. So I explored what Gray and others had to say about him, then gave the book a second read. At some point (and with much help from Gray, on whom I draw for this review) I began to understand it. Once I did, I found it so insightful I had to read it yet again. It’s so full of pithy and even humorous commentary, I want to break it into chapter and verse and quote it like the Bible: Powys 6:23, or the like.
The book’s original publisher calls it “religious psychology.” Gray and others speak of Powys’ as being “deeply but unconventionally religious.” I presume, they mean religious from the monotheistic perspective. In “Soliloquy,” references to Christ, God the Father, and immortality recur throughout. But his God is inconsistent, with his “getting mood,” his “hating moods,” his “loving moods,” his “cruel moods.” And towards the end, Powys suggests a tired and depressed God who has given up on his clay creations and their quest for immortality, a God who seems himself wanting to expire into nothingness.
I’m more inclined to suggest Powys was a Buddhist with deistic leanings. He introduces himself early in the book as a priest, the main point of confusion on the first read. But the key to finally understanding the book is that his “priest” is a metaphor for someone who is different (who is “awake,” as the Buddha put it). He embraces his oneness with God through his own emotions, which he sees as the moods of a fallible, inconsistent and regretful God who vacillates between disgust and anger at his creations and pity and sorrow for them. Powys neither believes in nor wants immortality. Rather, he relates to God by being in touch with with the passage of time, with the bittersweet moments that can only be special in a life that ends…in touch perhaps, with entropy.
To appreciate “Soliloquy,” you have to accept a couple of things up front: First, Powys spiritual philosophy (if that’s what it is) is not entirely coherent. But this was an early work, and I gather his thinking comes together in later ones. Second, while other writers on Powys don’t suggest it, I wonder if he wasn’t mildly manic-depressive. A preoccupation of the book is “the moods of God,” which loosely equate with human desires and emotions, and he speaks more than once of waiting for God’s moods within himself to pass. I may be off the mark, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Powys presents himself as a priest living alone in a small rural British village. Again, he isn’t literally a priest, but a sentient, awake individual surrounded by others who are different from himself. He speaks lovingly of having children, but only in the context of emotions they stir in him. He embraces emotions as they come and does not deny them or try to immunize himself against the more painful ones, unlike his fellow townsfolk, all of whom look look askance at him and his simple ways.
A recurring theme of the book is mortality versus immortality, but not in the ethereal “immortality of the spirit” espoused by the monotheistic religions. He seems to imply that what man wants is immortality of the body, for physical life to never end, because in the body they find so much physical enjoyment. And in their shortsighted preoccupation with the physical and material, they overlook the truly beautiful and precious in life, the bittersweet moments that are special only because they will come but once. Powys instead embraces mortality by embracing the worn-out things of the earth, like old chairs and played out farm implements, or his decayed wooden yard railings. He finds solace in mending the railings with string, despite constant counsel of townsfolk to put up iron railings because they do not decay. He, unlike them, knows that is only an illusion.
The most remarkable thing about this book is Powys honesty in the face of his forthright and honest love of the earth and of simple things, of his alienation from other humans, and of the constant vacillation in his feelings about God and Christ, about life and death. It is not our way to admit such profound feelings, often hiding instead behind our social masks. Powys, however, freely admits his confusion and despair at the confounding and ever changing “moods of God.” He simply opens himself to them, but always while falling back on the simple, honest and emotionally in touch man of the earth to which he anchors himself.
This work is highly subject to personal interpretation. But for me, a glimmer of Powys philosophy emerges towards the close: A fallible God invested himself in Man as a means of playing out and dissipating his own disparate emotions. But He sees that He failed. Instead of release, he created a self-obsessed creature that embraces only the baser moods, a creature that wants never to die, never to give up the visceral enjoyment they bring. Christ, in a flash of visionary truth, understood this, understood God’s lament and Man’s loss. He pitied Man for his lack of understanding. He suggested that Man eschew his preoccupation and infatuation with emotions and immortality. He wanted men to understand that the meaning of life was joy in the moment, appreciation of beautiful simplicity, of acceptance and tolerance and love. Man at first saw him as a diversion, an entertainer or a comic…but when they realized he was serious, they became afraid and killed him.