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Bill Hopkins’ The Divine & the Decay

Franz von Stuck, “The Spirit of Victory”

1,383 words

Bill Hopkins was one of the “Angry Young Men” group of writers who emerged in the 1950s. He was the most prominent of the “Outsiders” trio amongst the “Angry Young Men”—a groupuscule which consisted of himself, Colin Wilson, and Stuart Holroyd. 

His most outstanding contribution was a succès de scandale with the novel, The Divine and the Decay, published by MacGibbon & Kee in 1957—and his artistic credo, “Ways Without a Precedent,” contained in Declaration, the manifesto of the “Angry Young Men.”

Doris Lessing, in the second volume of her literary autobiography, Walking in the Shade, says that Bill Hopkins revealed a great talent at this time. She also goes on to mistakenly declare that he died tragically young! His greatest achievement remains The Divine and the Decay.

The Leap! (a.k.a. The Divine and the Decay) is largely forgotten today—yet when it appeared in the late 1950s it produced an absolute furor in the press; a cause célèbre which was almost unprecedented at the time. As an anonymous author, who wrote a foreword to the book’s deluxe second edition, put it: “an abscess seemed to have been punctured in the general culture.”

He goes on to say that anyone who wishes to analyze the nature of contemporary literary censorship—no longer about explicit mentions of sex (of erotica per se) but now primarily to do with “incorrect” political thoughts—should spend a couple of hours in the Colindale Newspaper Library in North London (the country’s largest repository of ephemeral non-fiction) surveying the literary press’s response to this novel.

The book is essentially a consideration of philosophical ideas. It deals with an ideological viewpoint, an aesthetic response to political reality, laid out in the form of a traditional narrative—i.e., a book with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a sense it is similar to a range of politicized fictions that occurred in the early 1950s across the Channel, such as Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy and Camus’ existentialist tour de force, The Outsider. But the irony about this novel is that although it takes a relatively “traditional” form it is, in actuality, a complete moral reversal of the left-existential works mentioned above.

In his anatomization of the culture of the 1950s, The Angry Decade, Kenneth Allsop describes this work as both unregenerate and morally “evil.” He basically declares that it is a loathsome product which should have been banned—although, like all true liberals of his ilk, Allsop could not bring himself openly to advocate the censorship that he seeks for this book (somewhat inevitably).

The work in question deals with the psychological origins of a dynamic leader (a veteran “Outsider”). It depicts the spiritual trajectory of a “British Caesar” on his way to complete power—or what is conceived as such. If you like, it is a version of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game played with human eyeballs!

It denotes the “amoral” power-curve of Peter Plowart—at least after he has succeeded in “murdering” the chairman of the New Britain League (the latter his vehicle to obtain supreme power): and furthermore, once he has successfully taken refuge on an almost deserted island called Vachau, which is depicted as a small outcrop off the Channel Islands.

In actual fact this island does not exist; it is purely imaginary. It is merely used for the purposes of narrative-drive, even though it may be based on the Anglo-French outpost of the Barclay brothers, Brechou, a tiny isle off Sark. On his arrival in Vachau, Plowart comes across various human types (or archetypes) against which he tests his will and his future view of the world. These correspondents—i.e., characters in a dramatic dialogue, all contained in the form of a novel—represent a Christian and “female” perspective (Clermont); a weakened, male, humanist viewpoint (ultimately speaking) (Lumas); and the drunken sensualist, the man addicted to fleshy pleasures (Lachanell).

Plowart is a man obsessed by the nature of his own destiny, irrespective of all other things such as human warmth and comfort (for example). He is a perfect paradigm of the dictatorial urge (the “Will to Power”). Moreover he resembles a novelist’s version of the young Saddam Hussein (as it were) set in England around the middle of the century. (We should remember that Saddam Hussein had set upon his course at an early age. Indeed he first came to prominence, as a mere stripling of 17, when he tried to machine-gun the Premier of Iraq).

Plowart is made of a similar human material. For he is a man who believes—in a purely Nietzschean sense—that the “Will to Power” is the basis of all existence (whether civil or otherwise) and that human beings only learn anything through their ability to transgress thresholds of pain. In many respects Plowart appears in this theoretical novel to be a mediaeval figure, almost a mystic, a man who wishes to go beyond what presently exists: but always with a totally different morality to that of liberal-humanism (quiescent or otherwise).

This is why Allsop—together with other journalists of similar views—reacted so violently against this novel: in that it completely contradicted their own beliefs, based as they were on soi-disant Enlightenment values. For, in all honesty, Plowart does not believe in the right to life, in humanist ethics, in opposition to slavery, in the belief that the weak are morally best, that women are superior to men, that sentimentality is a form of grace, that corporal punishment is wrong, that human beings are racially equal, that people do not wish to be dominated, that destruction is “evil” (as a principle of life) and that human freedom is anything other than a conceit to be used by those of a higher power. In other words, Plowart is an “inhumanist,” an antihumanist — although not in a crude political sense. (Even this is not entirely true for Hopkins does not dwell on political matters straightforwardly—or in any other way—with the exception of a few vague phrases about the populist New Britain League).

When we describe Hopkins’ character in this manner we mean—at least ethically speaking—that he is a mythical being who is closer to the spirit of Aleister Crowley than the contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury: at least as was depicted in Crowley’s novels such as The Moonchild and The Diary of a Drug Fiend.

For Plowart is—in a purely normative manner—a “left-hand occultist” or social magician: an “amoralist” and an anti-Christian; a new Assyrian; a man who believes in a religion older than Christianity, when the latter is controversially dismissed as a humanist creed, the weak-kneed religion of those unfit for life. In spirit, however, this is closer to the Plato of The Laws—rather than the lucidity of The Republic. In any event, it is a “sadic” faith (a doctrine beyond liberal-humanist and Christian morality) which sees war as the crucible of human meaning: and conflict/death as a state of “liberation” in relation to preconceived notions of being.

For Plowart preaches a “pessimistic” ideology of force and challenge. He believes in the manipulation of mass emotion (i.e., the use of contemporary fear and sentiment) primarily through the persuasive utilization of superior cultural energy. Basically, then, he stands for the values that animated European revolutionary regimes from the 1920s to the 1940s—i.e., the “dictatorships” that were defeated by Britain and her Allies in the last war.

Hence the fact that there was such a furious reaction to this novel—i.e., to a metapolitical inquiry; a philosophical speculation—undertaken in 1957, which was after all only a few years after the war itself had ended. But these events have now passed into history.

In this respect Colin Wilson misunderstands the book in his otherwise interesting introduction to the novel’s second edition in the 1980s—particularly when he speaks of it as a mystical travelogue. For, in actuality, this novel is an exercise in psycho-history before it has been written. It is a fusion of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (its Sabbatesque revelations) with an imaginary autobiography—an auto-hagiography, even—of the young Enoch Powell.

In this sense Bill Hopkins’s The Divine and the Decay—his greatest literary achievement—stands revealed as a Bildungsroman of the anti-Left; a premonitory explosion; a lightening-flash which reveals a terra incognita; an intrusion into the Zeitgeist; a “storm of steel” against liberal evasion.




  1. Petronius
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    CC take over and please, please, please re-publish that book!

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted June 8, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

      Steps are being taken to do just that.

  2. Posted February 20, 2015 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    It needs illustrations. I considered republishing it myself, for distribution in America, after Feral House found it inaccessible (at least in its ‘The Leap’ version). But it is such a contrarian, experimental novel that it needs pictures every few pages for the reader to hold onto, like a handrail. Because the writing is dense and oblique. Instead of inviting the readers in for drinks, it sends them out in the cold. This is not to say it’s a bad novel. Moby-Dick and Ulysses need concordances too.

  3. Posted February 21, 2015 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    It needs illustrations. I considered republishing it myself, for distribution in America, after Feral House found it inaccessible (at least in its ‘The Leap’ version). But it is such a contrarian, experimental novel that it needs pictures every few pages for the reader to hold onto, like a handrail. Because the writing is dense and oblique. Instead of inviting the readers in for drinks, it sends them out in the cold. This is not to say it’s a bad novel. It’s just difficult.

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