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Sam Decker and the grail vision in John Cowper Powys’s Glastonbury Romance - some thoughts

John Cowper Powys on Dr John Dunn.







John Cowper Powys



Before the grail vision came Sam's Promethean realisation.

The first motive of every living creature must be to realise its own identity - to fight for itself against the cruelty of life, ...

It is upon this realisation that the veil was pierced and…

the earth and the water and the darkness cracked...

…darkness was split, and the whole atmosphere split, and the earth and the air split,…


It is then that Sam is ‘rewarded’ with a vision of the Bleeding Lance and Grail Chalice.

The grail vision in mythology is focused upon the question asked by Percival.

Sam asks the question.

Is it a Tench? Is there a fish of healing, one chance against all chances,at the bottom of the world-tank? Is it a Tench? Is cruelty always triumphant, or is there a hope beyond hope, a Something somewhere hid perhaps in the twisted heart of the cruel First Cause itself and able to break in from outside and smash to atoms this torturing chain of Cause and Effect?

After this question, the grail faded away…

The Fisher King was ostensibly Christ, but in this personal vision, Sam himself, in the boat/barge on the river, was a conflation of the Fisher King and Percival.

The realisation about the individual’s first motive that split the veil was the answer to the question that Sam asked of himself.

Powys was aware of Spinoza's philosophy, and Sam’s question about the smashing of the chain of cause and effect was a defiant rage against a principle of Spinozism, which renders the individual a passive effect to whatever cause may come his way. This wasthe healing question that Sam as Percival had to ask.

And both the grail vision and the healing question were brought about by the veil-splitting realisation that ‘the first motive of every living creature must be to realise its own identity’.

The self must be actively created.

This was the way to smash ‘the chain of Cause and Effect’.

Fichte had attempted to smash the same chains of hypostasis with his philosophy of the ‘Absolute I’, claiming that ‘my system tears away the chains of the thing-in-itself, or external causes,…’

The nightmare for Fichte was that with Spinoza, Zeus and the gods of a transcendent, external world order had reappeared, and Spinoza would chain us again to a rock of external reality which is opposed to to the human thought which thinks it.

Like Fichte, Powys too would fall back upon nationhood and the ‘Absolute I’, but in contrast to Fichte’s politico-philosophical mindset, Powys’s response to the modern age wouldbe deeply personal and solitary.

In a further compression of metaphors on top of the grail legend, Powys, in Sam’s Percivilian question, had also evoked the Promethean struggle against Zeus, usurper of the throne of Saturn who brought the Golden Age to an end.

Thus for Powys, the struggle of man under the Zeusian dispensation was a Saturnian quest. The way to survive the modern age was by withdrawal into the ‘I am I’. The way to succeed was by using imagination as a human faculty with the same conscious deliberateness as the rationalistsuse their reason.

With his strong imaginative powers he adapted and used already existent myths for his own purposes

The imaginative world was not a remote speculative realm but one which was real in so far as he experienced it in his own consciousness.

The individual human being has his value in himself, and does not recogniseany moral or spiritual authority imposed on him from outside himself. He himself is the sole arbiter of what he accepts or does not accept; heis the one who values and decides (i.e. being a Weiningian genius).

Powys’s disregard for external authority positions him in a tradition of right wing anarchism that amongst his contemporary novelists might include Henry de Montherlant and Louis Ferdinand Celine.

We know that Powys corresponded with the quasi-fascistic Dimitre Mitrinovic, whose concept of the Three Revelations had the self-evaluating individual human being at its highest stage. At this highest level, ‘the individual does not recognise any moral or spiritual authority imposed on him fromoutside himself. He himself is the sole arbiter of what he accepts or does not accept; he is the one who values and decides.’

Perhaps the philosophy that Powys’s actively created self most closely resembles is that of Ernst Junger. Late in his life, Junger published a novel called Eumeswil which postulated the concept of the ‘Anarch,’ a concept that is modelled on Max Stirner’s idea of the ‘Egoist’, a model that too had a profound influence upon Powys. According to Junger’s philosophy, an ‘Anarch’ does not necessarily engage in outward revolt against institutionalised authority. Instead, the revolt occurs on an inward basis, and the individual is able to retain an inner psychic freedom by means of detachment from all external values and an inward retreat into one’s self.

Julius Evola also formulated a concept known as the ‘absolute individual,’ which was very similar to Junger’s notion of the ‘Anarch,’ and which can be described an individual that has achieved a kind of self-overcoming, as Nietzsche would have called it, due to his capacity for rising above the herd instincts of the masses of humankind.

Of alchemists Carl Jung wrote, 'The concept of imagination is perhaps the most important key to the understanding of the opus.' Accomplished alchemists realized that the God that they were projecting onto the philosophers’ stone was an imaginary God, a God of the Imagination. This is not to devalue their God, or imagination, in any way, as if to say 'their God is only imagination.' The alchemists knew that their God was a creation of the cosmic imagination, and this is why they venerated, revered, and prayed to it. For the alchemists, the imagination is the Divine Body in every person, a refined, rarefied and 'subtle body' that is not humanly constructed but divinely implantedin us from a source beyond ourselves.

To the alchemists, the figure of Christ, for example, as the incarnation of the Logos, became pneumatically impregnated with the substantiality of, in Jung’s words, 'the world-creating imagination of God,' which is why artist and poet William Blake refers to Jesus as 'Jesus the Imagination'. Christ, from the alchemical point of view, is the revelation of the divine imagination itself, referred to as the 'imagined God' which, alchemically speaking, is the highest praise. Blake comments, 'The Eternal body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself'.

Are we getting closer to the mystery of mysteries, the answer to the tentatively asked question - ‘who am I’?- 'what am I?'


*First published 1933.

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