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Newsletter no 10

What happened to Wolf Solent?

New concepts of an Ibsenian theme

by Gunnar Lundin


John Cowper Powys Wolf Solent could be interpreted as a key to Autobiography, which soon followed. It has been said about this novel that he alienates himself from the ”melodrama” of his earlier works. What does that mean? What is the hero’s new standpoint put into the movement of life?

Although with a hint of Gnosticism it is quite another view, for the world is not  solely seen as evil, but there is a hint of a contact with something lasting and peaceful beyond the sensual world, with its pain and joy, is the occasion, always in some way available, which reconciles us with ”the survival of the fittest”, the life-struggle, that makes itself manifest in the face of the man observed by Wolf in Waterloo station, in the slaughterhouse, in the vegetative world. Let’s name it an agnosticism of faith: ignorance of what it is, experience of that it is.

This could not happen until Wolf gives up his mythology. His variant of an Hjalmar Ekdahl life-illusion (Ibsen’s The Wild Duck) placed him outside everyday society – ”invulnerable” to common human feelings and short-comings – a protagonist warrior of good versus evil, an uncompromising idealist.

From looking upon the world as derived from a First Cause of both good and evil, hence the mythology, he now perceives that there is something beyond, or inherent in, this Cause. Already in the opening’s railway journey to Ramsgard this is suggested. Through the carriage-window Wolf contemplates the vernal landscape, the vegetation, nature, which infuses strength in the soon middle-aged man who is about to break with his former life, and this emanates from ”beyond the struggle of survival”. We must not forget that the image of the suffering man is immanent during the fast and shaking train journey. A seed is sown, the meaning of which will blossom at the end of the novel.

A man invulnerable by means of his secret life signified de facto a hedonism which relieved him of responsibility; it also relieved him of the experience of every day life. Wolf’s sort of solitude, his life-illusion, resembled Hjalmar Ekdahl’s: it implied an illusion of the other, his fellow men.

As this sort of pride looses its grip, he first tries to explain it as depres­sion, but what happens is that he now, under the influence of these new eyes, begins to see his fellow men liberated from the rigid pattern of his mythology. The squire Urquhart is no longer solely evil, and even worthy of compassion; lord Carfax, who painfully seduces Wolf’s young, and in his company languishing, wife Gerda, is in his aristocratic coolness and comfortable English amoralism the one who, by generously offering employment, gives new life-spirit to a worn out man; yes, to the man at Waterloo station in a new guise. Wolf now discovers that every individual has his life-illusion. Thereby, strengthened by a new dynamism, he realizes that he can retain his own.

Wolf’s so to speak unmetaphysical perception of a beyond doesn’t lead to a repudia­tion of the sensual world – on the contrary. Neither will Powys henceforth abandon the image of a both good and evil First Cause. The reconciliating beyond unites people in a new reciprocity; since it is situated beyond reason it opens up to the mystical, uncon­fessionally, a little similar to taoism, so that Powys can remain ”hedonist”, Pyrrhonist, a believer.

The way to this modus vivendi passes through simplicity. The slightly mentally retarded school-boy Gaffer Barg serves as a model, ready, as he is, to ”forgive God” even if he himself must suffer. Gaffer leads a life of active humanity with his idealistic naivety.

The life-illusion is really a capital in an extended social life; it indicates a direction. It becomes possible to use it as an asset. Hence it follows that Powys, for what happens to Wolf happens to him, takes himself with ease – is liberated from ”melo­drama” – listens, gives out; readily takes the part of a clown; acts from his disposition. You could object that this was the character of Powys from his early years – and you are in one sense right. But he now becomes able to exclude elements of the culture he was brought up in and establish a selective relation to it, based on his new life-view.

The title of the last chapter is Maturity is all. This means a readiness to face the difficulties which will appear when you have chosen your destiny – to Wolf a gray daily grind as a teacher. Two ways are suggested with ”endure or escape”: endure as animals and plants and be open to their transfusion of strength, as in the poems of Words­worth; escape, Taoisticly, by means of lowness, become like air, like water seeking its lowest level. But also this emanates from what happened to Wolf Solent.




This page updated 4 April 2012.