Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Would that have been better or worse?" she thought: Weymouth Sands, a beginning

The Sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of waters in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled in upon the high-pebbled beach, was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth's ancient antagonist.
So begins John Cowper Powys' 1934 novel Weymouth Sands. The observation, of how each wave of the sea is like unto the whole sea, is made by Magnus Muir, "tutor in Latin to backward boys" and resident of Weymouth, England. Magnus is walking along the beach while he waits for a passenger ship to unload, as he's agreed to meet a young lady who is to arrive in Weymouth that evening. The young lady, Perdita Wane (yes, all of the characters have these extraordinary names), looks at the waters and perceives them differently:
Again and again as she followed abstractedly with her eyes the melancholy progress of some particular fragment of sea-foam, as it rose and fell on the rocking waves and entered the reflection of a red light or a green light, or got caught by some floating bit of wood or seaweed from which it extricated itself with difficulty, she found herself associating this wisp of whiteness in the dark water with her own fate! She felt pleased when it reached some particularly bright red reflection or green reflection and she could not bear it and had to turn her face away, when it showed signs of being sucked down under some cruel keel.
Muir and Wane both see the ocean as metaphor for humanity, but Muir sees everyone as being the same, where Wane sees each of us as unique. Muir regards humanity as a force against nature ("the earth's ancient antagonist"), while Wane sees the waves--us, that is--as fragile and doomed. And so on.

I'm not that far into the novel yet, but it's chock full of imagery which I like, of course. It's very grainy, tactile, physical, but rather than reminding me of Lawrence--which is what I expected, I guess--I am put in mind of Iris Murdoch.


  1. How does he remind you of Murdoch? (I ask because that comparison has never occurred to me.)

    1. What I get from Powys and Murdoch is that sense that the inner consciousness of a person is not simply a filter, a sorting mechanism or something, for processing and understanding external stimuli. I mean that a lot of writers present the inner person as essentially the outer person but with a monologue about the world going on. Powys and Murdoch claim that the inner life is boiling over with networks of ideas and emotions that are fully disconnected from the outer world, not a parallel but a wholly separate existence that's going on at the same time as ordinary "real life." It's not quite what Woolf did with her interior worlds. It's more a life within metaphors which exist for their own sake. I'm explaining this poorly, but it's late and I should be in bed. Tomorrow, maybe, I'll quote some Murdoch that I think is similar to what Powys was doing. I'd bet that Murdoch read Powys.