Enoch! Enoch! Enoch!
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
When Enoch Powell sat his examinations for Cambridge he faced a three-hour exam in Ancient Greek. Powell completed his task in half the allotted time and left the examination hall—some said he was arrogant, others a genius. Not only did he achieve the task in half the allotted time but he had torn up one answer and rewritten it because he was not satisfied; he had also annotated his answers so as to explicate his stylistic choices with reference to scholarship. Powell had a certain resemblance to Nietzsche: a brilliant grasp of philology and a youthful appointment, at twenty-two, to an academic post—Nietzsche was also appointed to an academic post in his twenties. Powell read everything ever written by Nietzsche, even down to little scraps of correspondence.
However, Powell was not a genius; he never fulfilled his promised. Today, there is a huge irony about him; he is remembered for his “rivers of blood speech” in which he warned that mass immigration to Britain would lead to bloodshed and demographic extinction for the British. I walked past the hotel where Powell gave this speech in the 1960s the other day: about six feet away there is a permanent security barrier to prevent a Muslim suicide car-bomb attack; and, as for the street, as my grandfather used to say, “There’s not a white face to be seen.” Not a white face to be seen on the central street of Britain’s second-largest city.
In the popular imagination—in official history—Powell is “a Nazi”. This is ironic, even though Powell adored philo-Teutons such as Carlyle, adored Nietzsche, and adored German culture in general—considered Germany to be his cultural homeland—he was against Hitlerism from the first. He made strenuous efforts to make sure he would be drafted into the military at the earliest opportunity when the war—a war he long foresaw—broke out. I think his opposition to Hitlerism stemmed from his love for Herodotus, the Greek historian was Powell’s speciality from his teenage years onwards. The Hitlerites preferred the other Greek historian, Thucydides—the difference is about that Herodotus is closer to a fable-teller while Thucydides is modern, cold and clinical and without superstition. Powell’s preference for the “warmer” Herodotus disinclined him to Hitlerism from the start.
The contemporary picture would have you believe that Powell was some foam-specked mad-dog racial obsessive from the moment the first coloured immigrants disgorged from the Empire Windrush. On the contrary, Powell was an extremely cautious and meticulous man who waited a long time before he broached the immigration issue; and he provided his own calculations to back up his suppositions. Powell had initially been weak at the sciences, but through iron determination he eventually became so good that he was at first streamed for science at school—until a perceptive teacher noticed he really had a flair for languages. He had intelligence, but he also had adamantine discipline—he could have mastered any subject he wanted. So he did his own calculations as regards the direction in which immigration would alter British demographics—and he has been vindicated.
However, it was Powell’s caution that means he was no genius—nor was he a Nietzsche, for Nietzsche left academia and became an outsider whereas Powell left academia and became…a democratic politician. Take a man like Henry Miller, very different to Powell—not as intelligent, nor as diligent; and yet Miller was a genius and Powell was not. Miller broke through his carapace, the careful rational mask men build up to manipulate reality, and instead relied on his own perceptions. He realised that at a certain moment you have to throw away the books, the preconceptions, and the popular opinions and state it as you see it—Nietzsche did just the same.
Ted Hughes understood this notion when he said the poet removes the armour that men build up to protect their “inner child”; the poet experiences reality directly—and this hurts, indeed it drove Nietzsche mad, and yet if you endure it is as if you have gone everywhere barefoot and built up a tough skin. The foot toughened by the environment retains its organic flexibility, the armour is rigid—the armour can snap. To be barefoot is to rediscover what Nietzsche saw as maturity’s hallmark: to undertake adult activities with the seriousness of a child at play.
Powell never took this step; he never went out truly alone. Miller trudged Parisian streets and Nietzsche walked by lakes alone. Powell was often described as a solitary, but he was usually alone with a book. When you are with a book you are not really alone, you are in dialogue with the author. Indeed, last month I read Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and it was as if I were locked up in a room with Paglia for two weeks while she hectored me in her particular cadence about her chthonic Italian peasant roots and the pagan symbolism to be found in the salami hung in a New York delicatessen.
Powell was solitary with books, but unlike the other men mentioned above he rarely went into nature to be alone for a protracted period. A colleague called him “a nit-picker”; he never let go the bannister provided by pedantic scholarship to trust his intuition. Worse, he became a democratic politician—a job that stifles an authentic relation to reality. This was why he could never capitalise on the immigration issue and become PM, as many said he had the potential to do. He said himself that he was a passionate man but that he held this firmly in check so no one would know—on the contrary, he appeared stiff and rational. He could not display the manic political genius found in a Churchill, even though Powell was more intellectually capable than Churchill. It was Powell’s reluctance to bust open his armour and allow his madness—his daemon—to guide him that meant he could never become a political genius.