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In defence of sensuality

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In Defence of Sensuality was first published in 1930. The author's own foreword to the book is worth quoting in full:

'The author feels that perhaps some explanation is due tot eh reader for the rather unusual employment of the ''Sensuality'' which serves as the title of this work. The advantage given to the author by the use of this particular expression is that it enables him to proceed from rock-bottom upwards as far as he likes. A more refined title would have cut him off, in his method of developing his idea, from the physical roots of existence; for while it is easy to indicate the overtones and undertones of Sensuality it would be hard to bring a gentle, vague word, like the word ''sensuousness'' down to the bare, stark, stoically-stripped Life-Sensation which is the subject of this book.

How far has the individual the right to be what is called ''selfish''? How far has he the right to concentrate on his own solitary awareness of existence and make this alone his life-purpose? Is there such a thing at all as a Religion of Nature or a Cosmic Ethic? Such are the questions the author attempts to answer; and he finds that in his discussion of the root-sensations of life the word Sensuality, taken in an unusually comprehensive sense, serves his purpose better than any other word.'

In Defence of Sensuality is one of the self-help books John Cowper Powys wrote that owe their genesis to the free-lance lecturing he did in America. In addition to this one, Faber Finds are reissuing The Meaning of Culture , A Philosophy of Solitude and The Art of Happiness .

287 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1930

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About the author

John Cowper Powys

165 books133 followers
Powys was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, where his father was vicar. His mother was descended from the poet William Cowper, hence his middle name. His two younger brothers, Llewelyn Powys and Theodore Francis Powys, also became well-known writers. Other brothers and sisters also became prominent in the arts.

John studied at Sherborne School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and became a teacher and lecturer; as lecturer, he worked first in England, then in continental Europe and finally in the USA, where he lived in the years 1904-1934. While in the United States, his work was championed by author Theodore Dreiser. He engaged in public debate with Bertrand Russell and the philosopher and historian Will Durant: he was called for the defence in the first obscenity trial for the James Joyce novel, Ulysses, and was mentioned with approval in the autobiography of US feminist and anarchist, Emma Goldman.

He made his name as a poet and essayist, moving on to produce a series of acclaimed novels distinguished by their uniquely detailed and intensely sensual recreation of time, place and character. They also describe heightened states of awareness resulting from mystic revelation, or from the experience of extreme pleasure or pain. The best known of these distinctive novels are A Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solent. He also wrote some works of philosophy and literary criticism, including a pioneering tribute to Dorothy Richardson.

Having returned to the UK, he lived in England for a brief time, then moved to Corwen in Wales, where he wrote historical romances (including two set in Wales) and magical fantasies. He later moved to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he remained until his death in 1963.

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews
Profile Image for Richard S.
430 reviews58 followers
July 9, 2017

There are few books that I have read that have resulted in a similar combination of intense dislike and intense liking as much as this one. To begin with the difficult: JC Powys is not much of a "rigorous" philosopher, and some of the paragraphs in here are rambling and frequently just painful to read. But this is not philosophy like "Rousseau" (to whom the book is dedicated), but it is more of a "philosophy of life" - the creation of a proper mental attitude towards life, rather than an attempt to discover "truth", which is the usual intention of philosophy.

Powys' "philosophy of life," very simply put, is a focus on happiness, obtained through contemplation. As he puts it: "The secret of life is not "Beauty" or "Truth" or "Goodness". . . . It is a certain kind of self-conscious enjoyment that has behind it the full energy and strain of the will." He spends the over-300 pages of this book essentially expounding upon this approach, frequently with passages of amazing depth and insight. This complex philosophy encompasses pretty much everything in life, from our attitudes towards the poor, towards God (what he calls the First Cause), and towards our everyday life. Powys gives Chance a very significant role, and he is particularly strong in his invectives against cruelty. In fact cruelty and meanness towards others are his only "sin".

Happiness is obtained through "sensuality" (an unfortunate word - Powys does not intend it with sexual overtones), primarily it seems, through absorbing nature and life, and thereby obtaining beautiful memories that can be reflected on. While love is important to this process, Powys' vision here is largely a solitary one and not dependent on others. But I would not call Powys entirely selfish, the alleviation of the suffering of others ranks very highly in his view of the role of the individual towards the rest of humanity.

Something must be said about the relation of "Sensuality" to JC Powys' other works. Powys' first great masterpiece of fiction, "Wolf Solent", was made much more comprehensible by reading "Sensuality", in fact, "Wolf Solent" can be read as a sort of advertisement for Powys' philosophy; to paraphrase from elsewhere, it provides "insight into the intellectual structure that forms the metastructure [of the novel]". The two books are very closely connected (even some of the more obscure items such as the reference to "cuckoo-spit"). As a result, reading "Sensuality" makes the main character of "Wolf Solent" far more understandable. On a personal level, I realized while reading "Sensuality" that my intense identification with the character of Wolf Solent was also in part a strong subconscious identification with the philosophy expressed in "Sensuality," which led to my reading of this book being in part a self-revelation.

So I think this work is essential reading for people who enjoy JC Powys' work; unlike perhaps his other non-fiction, it contains the "key" to many of his ideas, including some of the startling ones like the "First Cause" (with which he begins "Glastonbury Romance"), and his concept of the ichthyosaurus-ego (another unfortunate term) is also important. I also view it, as a stand-alone book, as an incredible interesting and worthwhile "philosophy of life", not necessarily as one you might agree with, but one that will cause you to think a lot about how you live.

Note that, as I said up front, much of this work is incomprehensible, but who understands all of "Zarathustra" or many of the other great works of philosophy? This book is in its own very original way, at a "high" level which I think deserves more attention than just being the wild ramblings of a highly sensitive novelist. So I really recommend it to the life-searchers, especially to philosophers, Powys-fans, nature-lovers, but I think he's really writing it for the "lost" who maybe cannot accept or don't want to accept what the world has given them. It is very easy to call "Sensuality" "self-indulgent nonsense", but I don't think, in the end, especially viewed in connection with his novels, that this is the case: rather it is the expression of a distinct and highly unusual philosophy of life with considerable intrinsic merit. While difficult to stomach at first, by the end of "Sensuality" I was convinced that this was a work of great, original, creative genius.
Profile Image for Annabel.
3 reviews1 follower
September 18, 2012
Self indulgent nonsense for the lost person. Should have stuck to novels.
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