Llewelyn Powys, the youngest of three brothers to achieve literary fame, was a rather gifted and remarkable British writer. He was educated at Cambridge, worked as a stock farmer in Kenya during World War I, and then moved to New York to work as a journalist for five more years. The stories in EBONY AND IVORY, many of which were published in the best magazines of the time, were written during his stay in Kenya and New York. They present perhaps the best and most representative examples of his outlook and art.
Powys’ outlook and art are very closely related. His vision of life informs every aspect of his art, while his art is an attempt to answer that vision. This tension between outlook and art, truth and style, content and form, provides Powys’ stories with their intensity and force.
Powys’ vision of life, the spirit that informs these stories, was grounded in pain and death, cruelty and mortality, vanity and doom, for Powys was obsessed with agony and fate, which for him were the sole absolutes of life. His stories dwell overwhelmingly on the tragic soul-destroying aspects of life and have much the same spirit as ECCLESIASTES, the RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, and much of the fiction of Joseph Conrad. They show an intimate acquaintance with the terror, cruelties, and savagery that plague men. Powys knew the futility and mortality of humanity. This was the lesson he learned in Africa.
In this collection, there are the Ebony stories and sketches, which take place in British East Africa, and the Ivory tales, which take place in Europe. The title obviously contains an ironic play on skin color, on black and white, but beyond this fact and far more important is the reference to the Arab proverb: “On Ebony and Ivory the same dark doom is writ.”
The Ebony stories provide the hard core of Powys’ vision; their total effect is that of hopelessness and despair. These sketches show the soul-killing effect of Africa on the European and African alike. The unrelenting sun, the harshness of color and noise, the voraciousness of animal and human life all reduce men to their naked, cruel selves. The European is demoralized, and all of his illusions are destroyed. His rule is stripped of its benevolence in Africa and is shown to rest on brutality and cunning. In “Black Parasites,” a hard-hearted, mediocre farmer sets fire to his brushland after tying up a native sheep thief in the middle of it. In “How It Happens,” a sensitive boy arrives in British East Africa from England, and in his harsh, new surroundings, he is demoralized by his mediocre associates, gets syphilis, and commits suicide. Given his outlook on life, Powys’ theme, the loss of innocence, was almost inevitable. In “Black Gods,” he declared that the bottom of the well of life contains no hope, that the surface was all, the depth hollow and empty.
When Powys’ heroes undergo any change, it is in the direction of shedding illusions, of descending to the bottom of the well of life and facing life without hope. This does not mean that they necessarily give up; Powys’ most memorable heroes face life’s savagery with a hopeless defiance. In “Dead Matter in Africa,” a zebra guards his dead mate against the vultures, against all hope and reason, and against the universe. Again, in his Ebony story, “The Stunner,” a dumb brute of a man rises from his deathbed and staggers miles to his sweetheart solely on the strength of his love; but this kind of heroism, however admirable, is essentially futile—it means involving oneself in pain, in death, and in tragedy. Although Powys’ stories are not Christian in outlook, the figure of the crucified Jesus runs through the majority of them, for Jesus is the epitome of this futile heroism, of this agonized defiance of fate.
As the Arab proverb suggests, Powys’ Ivory tales elaborate the ideas and motifs of the Ebony section. In “Threnody,” “Death,” and “The Brown Satyr,” Powys develops the same theme he used in “How It Happens,” namely the loss of innocence and the problem of facing a world devoid of hope. In “Not Guilty,” “Un Mufle,” and “The Wryneck,” Powys shows again the impossibility of love in a cursed and savage world devoid of meaning and full of doom.
The Ebony stories seem slightly superior in quality to the Ivory tales simply because Africa provided a more appropriate background for Powys’ despairing vision; however, he does a fine job of conveying that vision in the Ivory section as well. For Powys, the world was cursed and damned, and it was damned no matter where one was, whether in the heart of Africa or in the heart of civilization. To him, it was as if some evil wizard had desolated the world and left it in agony and despair.
Such a vision of life could easily become intolerable to the person who possessed it unless he had some means of protecting himself against it, some means of converting it into something productive. Powys’ method of achieving release was through writing, through art which gave a tangible form to that vision. Powys sought his salvation through his stories and through observation. If participation in the world meant pain and tragedy, observation was a way of protecting oneself from pain and tragedy, a way of keeping the world at a distance. Art, for Powys, was a way of reshaping life’s pain and thereby controlling it. Passive observation and active artistic creation were his way of protecting himself against his vision.
As the reader might expect, Powys wrote about pain and tragedy in a detached style that was both cool and evocative. Powys possessed a happy feeling for the right word, the precise expression, which contributed greatly to the crisp, cold, clear quality of his writing. This detached mode of writing, which at times approached cruelty, considerably heightened the horror of his tales. If Powys had written with sympathy for his characters, the effect would have been reduced, and the full power of his vision would not have come through.
Powys was essentially an ironist. His irony was engendered by the conflict between his vision and his art. On the one hand, he saw the world as irrevocably damned; on the other, he tried to escape this damnation through art. Therefore, he wrote about cruelty, pain, and doom with detachment and reserve. Truth, for Powys, was only to be gained through passive observation. He hoped to gain a kind of salvation through truth, but the truth proved to be just as ironic as himself. What Powys did gain through passive observation was the ability to transform horror into beauty. His stories possess a cruel, evocative beauty, but his beauty, like his truth, was essentially ironic, frigid, and sterile in its revelation.
Powys’ failings and virtues as a writer arise from his vision of life and his attempt to cope with that vision. He was a fine writer of short stories and sketches and had a remarkable ability to express himself with clarity, beauty, and force, but he paid for this ability in terms of agony and coldness. His stories are comparable with those of Poe, Bierce, and Hemingway in vividness, beauty, and power. The reader must be prepared to pay for these things.
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