Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Well at the World's End

A professor of Ancient History, whilst walking in the Highlands, encounters, with his wife, Fand, a well whose water is so clear that they are momentarily led to believe that it is dry. Where does the water end and the air begin for there appears to be no boundary?

This triggers in Peter Munro, the professor, a quixotic desire to go a wandering in search of a particular kind of adventure and to find 'the well at the world's end'. The adventure is to allow himself to meet all kind of folk and by paying them a certain kind of attention to tease from them stories when, like the well, they found that their ordinary boundary between self and world had disappeared and they had peeked into another world, though one wholly enfolded in this one.

This is then not an 'ordinary' novel - and one that quite baffled its readership. For its author was an accomplished writer of social realism - of the complex history and life of the Highlands - not notably regarded as a metaphysician (or indeed a mystic). But Neil M Gunn, the novel's author, was, in fact, all three and as his life and writing progressed, he attempted to ever more deeply intertwine the three, looking for the signals of transcendence amidst the everyday. Indeed in 'The Well at the World's End' he actually makes use of both his own experience and those related to him by friends of, for want of a better name, 'mystical experience'.

The novel has no especial guiding narrative - episode follows episode, loosely connected by the sense of a quest - and in the different ways, people step beyond the threshold - when close to death by drowning, at rest after an arduous day wrapped in twilight, by the simple grace of a Spanish garden drenched in the stillness of the midday sun, when encountering a storm at sea or in speculation over a shared myth. Many are the possibilities of being surprised by delight and of becoming made whole in the delight's grace, if only for a moment but then how long is that?

What Gunn gives one, through the text, are continuous opportunities to pause, ponder over life's meaning, taste it, without ever suggesting explanations. Indeed thought, whilst valuable, is often the hindrance to true seeing, revolving as it does so closely around 'my' purposes, the ego's self-referential dance, rather than being opened out and made vulnerable by the presence of what is, momentarily unnamed, unnameable.

It is, also, a meditation on those famed lines of T.S. Eliot's in Little Gidding where the explorer arrives where he started yet knowing the place for the first time or in Munro's case, where he beholds his wife, after a nearly deadly adventure saving a sheep, and wholly refreshes his knowing of her, made pristine again out of his renewing experience.

But never does Gunn stray too far from the wholly ordinary, otherwise he would defeat his purpose. His 'mysticism' is woven tight to his characters and their everyday lives - their hopes, loves, humours and struggles -  such that the 'well at the world's end' is everywhere, for the world's ending is placed in every particular being, every person, as their birthright.

The novel was written, in the post World War II world, at a time when 'realism' appeared to demand 'pessimism' and a shedding of the possibilities of transcendence for a secular making do (preferably gathered around the kitchen sink or assembled in a bar) and where the predominant emotion might be 'anger'. This may account for its poor reception but takes nothing away from its quality as a heart felt rejoinder and reminder of a better world.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is a Glasgow deeply divided between the world of the bourgeoise and the working class. A world teetering on the edge of renewed conflict and one broken by the scourge of Depression of the 1930s.

In the life of its central character, Will, a sub-editor at an evening newspaper, Gunn explores the 'age old' question as to where does social transformation begin? Does it begin with the individual or with society? Like many age old questions, the answer is often not 'either or' but 'both and' but by temperament, drawn to one or other end of the equation, we continue to argue it out.

Will wants to suggest, whilst recognising in his conversations with his socialist friend, Joe, that we are products of our circumstances, that there is another dimension to our selves that brings them to a completing wholeness. It is a wholeness he has tasted. One day, when observing wild geese navigating the sky, he has stepped out of the world that spins around his own ego into the world of the self that opens out to all that is present with a mixture of detachment and compassion. Learning what this means and how you might cultivate grace by falling into it by attention and by will is a core component of the book.

Will wants to maintain that it is through discovering this renewed self that we find the genuine energy to reach out and help others, not as pieces on the board of social progress, but as particular persons in their own right, to be enjoyed as such. The world, this world now, is an end of enjoyment in itself, never simply a means, and to see it aright always carries this potential for enjoyment.

This is not a position that can be argued for and if, like Mac, an older sub-editor at the paper the realism of the world is 'mud' or, like Joe, the socialist, clay to be moulded and only the product to be enjoyed, then there is little that you can do but point to the possibilities of a different way of seeing, and hope.

This seeing as a renewed self, a person, has the capacity to correct the tendency of ideology to become the ever postponed promise of a liberation that never comes and to neglect the contours of actual life A reminder that the world is inherently messy yet also deeply connected and at one.

Whatever the action of the novel (and this perhaps is its least successful part), the book is a beautiful exploration of what in Zen would be called 'polishing the stone'. For it describes, well and with telling observation, what happens after an illumination (the Wild Geese). Something is different but it needs to be worked out in and through one's everyday consciousness. Grappled with, felt into, and thought through. After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.

What is striking is how remarkably thoughtful Gunn is to the dimensions of this - the opportunities and the perils - after all being taken out of your habitual self can lead too great a detachment from real living or to an inflation - and to its spiritual corrective: 'the dark night of the soul'. It is no wonder that when later Gunn actually encountered Zen in his reading, it rang so true as a conforming instance of a pattern of being and experiencing with which he was deeply familiar. A Zen novel from Glasgow.


The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...