I make no apology for the length of this Glob which was drafted during the COMA Music Summer School in High Melton, near Doncaster, in August 2013 in the gaps I organised for myself between exquisite sessions of music & laughter. It formed a counterpoint to the music. It’s a celebration of an old book, the contents of which are well worth perusing by anybody who’s stuck in some way or simply wishes to confirm their own emergence from chaos. I quote extensively from it in order to convey the power of its language and ideas.
Nothing New Under the Sun
My very good friend Peter Knight once said to me that everything we regard as profoundly insightful has been thought and written about many times before; so one could go to the old books containing advice on living a ‘better life’ than one is living now rather than to the latest bandwagon books perhaps?
We assume that the life we are living now is the only one possible otherwise we would change it—many have tackled that in the past and sometimes they have offered useful guidelines. You may find little-known or completely unknown texts filed dustily in the back corridors of secondhand bookshops all over the land just waiting for you to rescue them.
What Peter said made me realise why I have acquired the writings of many old authors whose genius has been forgotten in the great rush for the New and untested: Richard Jefferies, Hilaire Belloc, George Bourne/Sturt, Henry Williamson, James Hanley, Henry Green, WMBarbellion and so on—there’s quite a list…
Sometimes I purchase an old book just because of its title: thus I had to have Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and WM Barbellion’s Journal of a Disappointed Man (via HGWells). David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment followed many years after Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas.
Hands Up Who’s Ever Heard of David Grayson?
The hardback copy of his most famous book I have is dated 1927 but just look at the printing history:-
It’s not really surprising that it had a global readership of millions in that period when the world was shivering in its boots: it is so well written and contains many insights which I shall point out and ruminate upon. In these days of passing fads and enthusiasms, what is somewhat amazing is the number of reprints.
Without beating about the bush the book starts thus:-
I came here eight years ago as the renter of this farm, of which I soon after became the owner. The time before that I like to forget. The chief impression it left upon my memory, now happily growing indistinct, is of being hurried faster than I could well travel. From the moment, as a boy of seventeen, I first began to pay my own way, my days were ordered by an inscrutable power which drove me hourly to my task. I was rarely allowed to look up or down, but always forward, toward that vague Success which we Americans love to glorify.
Grayson (a pen-name—see appendix) says he had been a wage-slave, forced to jump through other people’s hoops for their advantage. It turns out that even while writing the book he was still a wage slave and that the farm was more than likely a fictional ideal around which he built his thinking and his true reminiscences of country characters and events. But we do know that he escaped from his journalistic enterprises whenever he could to his home in the country for recuperation of the soul.
Anybody who has suffered under a system of unwelcome employment will know the effect of orders handed down by an ‘inscrutable power’ and the crying need to escape; this is real enough and certainly rings true for me. Not everybody has the yearning to escape though.
My senses, my nerves, even my muscles were continually strained to the utmost of attainment. If I loitered or paused by the wayside, as it seems natural for me to do, I soon heard the sharp crack of the lash. For many years, and I can say it truthfully, I never rested. I neither thought nor reflected. I had, no pleasure even though I pursued it fiercely during the brief respite of vacations. Through many feverish years I did not work: I merely produced…
This describes accurately how I suffered for ten years as what Conrad called a ‘wretched quill driver’ before I escaped into a world where I could use what I like to think of as my learning and enthusiasm for ideas. I know just how it results in a frantic hopeless misery when just to glimpse rose-bay willow herb in profusion on an embankment as the work-bound train speeds onward past it is a momentary relief from thinking about the drudgery of the day to come.
The only real thing I did was to hurry as though every moment were my last, as though the world, which now seems so rich in everything, held only one prize which might be seized upon before I arrived. Since then I have tried to recall, like one who struggles to restore the visions of a fever, what it was that I ran to attain, or why I should have borne without rebellion such indignities to soul and body. That life seems now, of all illusions, the most distant and unreal. It is like the unguessed eternity before we are born; not of concern compared with that eternity upon which we are now embarked…
How Has He Changed Himself?
And so we know that Grayson has effected a deliberate change in his style of living and we want to know, perhaps for our own sake, how he has done it; what might we learn from his experience?
All these things happened in cities and among crowds. I like to forget them. They smack of that slavery of the spirit which is so much worse than any mere slavery of the body.
Here’s the image-system that Shakespeare has in The Tempest or As You Like It—things will be different in the ‘green wood’ or on a desert island, some place separate from the constraining life of the court. City and crowd mentality are left behind.
The revelation came in a flash:-
One day—it was in April, I remember, and the soft maples in the city park were just beginning to blossom—I stopped suddenly. I did not intend to stop. I confess in humiliation that it was no courage, no will of my own. I intended to go on toward Success: but Fate stopped me. It was as if I had been thrown violently from a moving planet: all the universe streamed around me and past me, It seemed to me that of all animate creation, I was the only thing that was still or silent. Until I stopped 1 had not known the pace I ran and I had a vague sympathy and understanding never felt before, for those who left the running. I lay prostrate with fever and close to death for weeks, and watched the world go by: the dust, the noise, the very colour of haste. The only sharp pang that I suffered was the feeling that I should be broken-hearted and that I was not; that I should care and that I did not. It was as though I had died and escaped all further responsibility. I even watched with dim equanimity my friends racing past me, panting as they ran.
When I quit my first phase of being a wage-slave, I remember how my earnest & seemingly dedicated work colleagues reacted with disbelief; my father, with horror, supposed that I knew what I was doing quitting what he regarded as a solid job. Nobody knew that I used to escape from drear offices to a park at lunchtime or later to St Paul’s churchyard, sick in my soul with the desire to be among green things.
When you are asleep to life, shouting STOP! at yourself is a very simple effective device for coming out of such a deep dream-state. Stop! this very moment now and do something totally different… Revelation occurs that way.
One morning I wakened with a strange, new joy in my soul. It came to me at that moment with indescribable poignancy, the thought of walking barefoot in cool, fresh plough-furrows—as I had once done when a boy. So vividly—the memory came to me—the high airy world as it was at that moment, and the boy I was walking free in the furrows—that the weak tears filled my eyes, the first I had shed in many years. Then I thought of sitting in quiet thickets of old fence corners, the wood behind me rising still, cool, mysterious, and the fields in front stretching away in illimitable pleasantness. I thought of the good smell of cows at milking—you do not know, if you do not know!—I thought of the sights and sounds, the heat and sweat of the hay when a boy that flowed among alders and wild parsnips, where I waded with a three-foot rod for trout. I thought of all these things as a man thinks of his first love. Oh, I craved the soil. I hungered and thirsted for the earth. I was greedy for growing things.
Having inserted STOP! into your practice, as an antidote to a feeling of dis-ease, you have only to think in full technicolour and with dreamy music of a time when you have been fully at home with yourself, see the context, hear what you hear and feel what you feel—fully associate and bring the feeling into the NOW…
And thus, eight years ago, I came here like one sore-wounded creeping from the field of battle. I remember walking in the sunshine, weak but curiously satisfied. I that was dead lived again.
Wrenching yourself successfully from one way of being to another is something perhaps most conclusively done in a state of self-remembering—when you deliberately say to yourself, “This is me being me here and now”—fully aware of all that’s going on internally and externally.
For a time, in the new life, I was happy to drunkenness—working, eating, sleeping. I was an animal again, let out to ran in green pastures. I was glad of the sunrise and the sunset. I was glad at noon. It delighted me when my muscles ached with work and when, after supper, I could not keep my eyes open for sheer weariness. And sometimes I was awakened in the night out of a sound sleep—seemingly by the very silences—and lay in a sort of bodily comfort impossible to describe. I did not want to feel or to think: I merely wanted to live. In the sun or the rain I wanted to go out and come in, and never again know the pain of the unquiet spirit. I looked forward to an awakening not without dread, for we are as helpless before birth as in the presence of death.
How Does Change Come About?
What exactly do we go through during moments of profound change? What seems pretty clear is that excessive thinking & feeling gets us too wound up to focus on simply Being. Returning to the status of being an animal, revelling in atmospheric change as an objective correlative for Being-shift, engaging in physical labour—these are the kinds of activities that help to suspend the distorting pre-occupations of the mind.
All that summer I had worked in a sort of animal content. Autumn had now come, late autumn, with coolness in the evening air. I was ploughing in my upper field—not then mine in fact—and it was a soft afternoon with the earth turning up moist and fragrant. I had been walking the furrows all day long. I had taken note, as though my life depended upon it, of the occasional stones or roots in my field, I made sure of the adjustment of the harness, I drove with peculiar care to save the horses. With such simple details of the work in hand I had found it my joy to occupy my mind. Up to that moment the most important things in the world had seemed a straight furrow and well-turned corners—to me, then a profound accomplishment. I cannot well describe it, save by the analogy of an opening door somewhere within the house of my consciousness. I had been in the dark: I seemed to emerge. I had been bound down: I seemed to leap up—and with a marvellous sudden sense of freedom and joy.
Focussing on simple details, the opening of a door in the house of consciousness, leaping up—a combination of things that leads to revelation.
I stopped there in my field and looked up. And it was as if I had never looked up before. I discovered another world. It had been there before for a long time but I had never seen nor felt it. All discoveries are made that way: you find the new thing not in nature but in your self.
The simple act of looking up releases you into a kind of visionary awareness. Looking down is the typical pose of one who is either ruminating or spending too much time in feeling.
It was as though, concerned with plough and harness and furrow, I had never known that the world had height or colour or sweet sounds, or that there was feeling in a hillside I forgot myself, or where I was. I stood a long time motionless. My dominant feeling, if I can at all express it, was of a strange new friendliness, a warmth, as though these hills, this field about me, the woods, had suddenly spoken to me and caressed me. It was as though I was now recognised, after long trial, as belonging here.
Such new awareness can shift and grow so that your vision of the world you imagine you inhabit gets bigger and bigger.
Across the town road which separates my farm from my nearest neighbour’s, I saw a field, familiar, yet strangely new and unfamiliar, lying up to the setting sun, all red with autumn; above it the incalculable heights of the sky, blue, but not quite clear, owing to the Indian summer haze. I cannot convey the sweetness and softness of that landscape, the airiness of it, the mystery of it, as it came to me at that moment. It was as though, looking at an acquaintance long known I should discover that I loved him.
The visual sense widens in scope and then narrows back down to just one individual possibility of love. Once one sense is alerted you can awaken hearing and smelling & tasting till soon all your Being is alive and fizzing.
As I stood there I was conscious of the cool tang of burning leaves and brush heaps, the lazy smoke of which floated down the long valley and found me in my field, and finally I heard, as though the sounds were then made for the first time, all the vague murmurs of the countryside—a cow-bell somewhere in the distance, the creak of a wagon, the blurred evening hum of birds, insects, frogs.
The Food of Pure Impressions
It strikes me that this depicts a straightforward response to what Gurdjieff calls ‘pure impressions’—those which come uncluttered by thought, free from the intrusion of mental contortion and association, free from the ratiocination of the machine. Pure impressions are, says Gurdjieff, the highest form of food coming before comestibles and fresh air.
So much it means to look up from the task in hand. So I stood, and I looked up and down with a glow and a thrill which I cannot now look back upon without some envy and a little amusement at the very grandness and seriousness of it all. And I said aloud to myself: “I will be as broad as the earth. I will not be limited.”
What an expansive gesture that is! It’s worth noting that it comes as the conclusion of a detailed process: an emptying out, physical effort, stopping, looking up, widening perspectives, and adjusting impressions to take in both the expanding landscape and then panning down to ants & frogs. Only after the realisation (the making real) comes the culminating mantra:-
I will be as broad as the earth. I will not be limited…
Simply adopting the mantra without having undergone the process would not work at all—it would just be a set of meaningless words written on a placard.
This is rebirth; seedtime & harvest.
Thus I was born into the present world, and here I continue, not knowing what other world I may yet achieve. I do not know, but I wait in expectancy, keeping my furrows straight and my corners well turned. Since that day in the field, though my fences include no more acres, and I still plough my own fields, my real domain has expanded until I crop wide fields and take the profit of many curious pastures. From my farm I can see most of the world; and if I wait here long enough all people pass this way.
David Grayson’s world expands and his new awareness transfers to the people he writes so lovingly of out of his own small mental plot.
And I look out upon them not in the surroundings which they have chosen for themselves, but from the vantage ground of my familiar world. The symbols which meant so much in cities mean little here. Sometimes it seems to me as though I saw men naked. They come and stand beside my oak, and the oak passes solemn judgment; they tread my furrows, and the clods give silent evidence; they touch the green blades of my corn, the corn whispers its sure conclusions. Stern judgments that will be deceived by no symbols! [To this we will return…] Thus I have delighted, secretly, in calling myself an unlimited farmer, and I make this confession in answer to the inner and truthful demand of the soul that we are not, after all, the slaves of things, whether corn, or bank notes, or spindles; that we are not the used, but the users ; that life is more than profit and loss. And so I shall expect that while I am talking farm some of you may be thinking dry goods, banking, literature, carpentry, or what not [journalism in his own case]. But if you can say : I am an unlimited dry goods merchant, I am an unlimited carpenter, [I am an unlimited journalist], I will give you an old-fashioned, country handshake, strong and warm. We are friends; our orbits coincide.
We don’t have to call ourselves farmers then; for Grayson, in love with country life, as it turns out, farming was just a metaphor, potent as it is; it is enough to find oneself able to proclaim in any circumstances:-
I WILL NOT BE LIMITED
Says Michael Finnissy, to be worth anything books should be life-changing. Life-enhancing, they should add to one’s repertoire of enlightenment. In identifying with David Grayson in his book one finds relief from drudgery; one’s own vision enlarges as his does. As he sinks into the landscape so he learns to love people going about their ordinary business.
Of all my neighbours, Horace is the nearest. From the back door of my house, looking over the hill, I can see the two red chimneys of his home, and the top of the windmill. Horace’s barn and corn silo are more pretentious by far than his house, but fortunately they stand on lower ground, where they are not visible from my side of the hill. Five minutes’ walk in a straight line across the fields brings me to Horace’s door; by the road it takes at least ten minutes.
Grayson decides to buy the farm he says he’s rented for such a short time from Horace.
In the fall after my arrival I had come to love the farm and its surroundings so much that I decided to have it for my own. I did not look ahead to being a farmer. I did not ask Harriet’s [his sister’s] advice. I found myself sitting one day in the justice’s office. The justice was bald and as dry as corn fodder in March. He sat with spectacled impressiveness behind his ink-stained table. Horace hitched his heel on the round of his chair and put his hat on his knee. He wore his best coat, and his hair was brushed in deference to the occasion. He looked uncomfortable, but important. I sat opposite him, somewhat overwhelmed by the business in hand. I felt like an inadequate boy measured against solemnities too large for him.
Money & Words
Consider the way in which the formalities of the money-world have come to seem absurd. Grayson puts them firmly in their place.
The processes seemed curiously unconvincing, like a game in which the important part is to keep from laughing; and yet when I thought of laughing I felt cold chills of horror. If I had laughed at that moment I cannot think what that justice would have said! But it was a pleasure to have the old man read the deed, looking at me over his spectacles from time to time to make sure I was not playing truant. There are good and great words in a deed. One of them I brought away with me from the conference, a very fine big one, which I love to have out now and again to remind me of the really serious things of life. It gives me a peculiar, dry, legal feeling. If I am about to enter upon a serious bargain like the sale of a cow, I am more avaricious when I work with it under my tongue. Hereditaments! Hereditaments!
So we understand something of the way words work for David Grayson: that I now know that he was a journalist and confidant of Woodrow Wilson having written an eight-volume Life and Letters which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1940, it’s not surprising that words have a magical incantatory feel for him much like his landscape; while on the other hand they also have a purely utilitarian function. All the words of the legal game played out in the justice’s office are eclipsed by the one word which he keeps under his tongue for special occasions.
Some words need to be fenced in, pig-tight, so that they cannot escape us; others we prefer to have running at large, indefinite but inclusive. I would not look up the word ‘Hereditaments’ for anything: I might find it fenced in so that it could not mean to me all that it does now…
I suppose that examples of pig-tight words might be: bottle, pen, danger, tree and so on—concrete things or words that need to be interpreted correctly since they are a matter of life & death; whereas words that run free, unfenced, are any abstraction you care to think of, content unspecific—love, freedom, concern and so on. ‘Profit’ perhaps…
It’s pretty clear that Grayson is not intending to do his notional farming in the way Horace is expecting him to, being more concerned to ‘profit’ from the immediate pleasure of possession than to make monetary ‘profit’ which is Horace’s motivation.
We came away from the gravity of that bargaining in Horace’s wagon. On our way home Horace gave me fatherly advice about using my farm. He spoke from the height of his knowledge to me, a humble beginner. The conversation ran something like this—
Horace : Thar’s a clump of plum trees along the lower pasture fence. Perhaps you saw ’um
Myself : I saw them : that is one reason I bought the back pasture. In May they will be full of blossoms.
Horace: They’re wild plums : they ain’t good for nothing.
Myself: But think how fine they will be all the year round.
Horace: Fine! They take up a quarter-acre of good land. I’ve been going to cut ’em myself this ten years.
Myself: I don’t think I shall want them cut out.
How to Make Friends
Lovely process! let somebody think you are half-baked, prone to fooling around, give them the impression that you’re not quite right in the head as they might imagine—other things being equal it makes for at least the chance of a good relationship provided you act congruently and show the other some honest regard; then you can begin to have ‘hopes’ of one another.
Have you ever had any one give you up as hopeless ? And is it not a pleasure ? It is only after people resign you to your fate that you really make friends of them. For how can you win the friendship of one who is trying o convert you to his superior beliefs? As we talked, then, Horace and I, I began to have hopes of him. There is no joy comparable to the making of a friend, and the more resistant the material the greater the triumph.
When Horace set me down at my gate that afternoon he gave me his hand and told me that he would look in on me occasionally, and that if I had any trouble I was to let him know,
What do we really want from life? Money, riches, possessions, the fulfilment of ambition or just to let things happen in whatever way they do happen as they will anyway? An then to be able to make sensitive and sensible interventions… Grayson’s conclusion goes like this:-
Always as I travel, I think, “Here I am let anything happen ! ” I do not want to know the future: knowledge is too certain, too cold, too real. It is true that I have not always met the fine adventure nor won the friend, but if I had, what should I have more to look for at other turnings and other hilltops?
The Lure of City-values
But he had had deliberately to transform the values and beliefs left over from City life. He explains how having acquired the farm he became identified with its mere possession, with the sense that land and property were the most solid kind of possession seeming to provide a sense of self-worth.
The afternoon of my purchase was one of the great afternoons of my life. When Horace put me down at my gate, I did not go at once to the house; I did not wish, then, to talk with Harriet. The things I had with myself were too important. I skulked toward my barn, compelling myself to walk slowly until I reached the corner, where I broke into an eager run as though the old Nick himself were after me. Behind the barn I dropped down on the grass, panting with laughter, and not without some of the shame a man feels at being a boy again. Close along the side of the barn, as I sat there In the cool of the shade, I could see a tangled mat of smartweed and catnip, and the boards of the barn, brown and weather-beaten, and the gables above with mud-swallows’ nests, now deserted ; and it struck me suddenly, as I observed these homely, pleasant things—
” All this is mine.”
I sprang up and drew a long breath.
“Mine!” I said.
Grayson proposes to pace round the perimeter of his domain to take formal and palpable possession of it so that he could swell with the dignity and importance of a landowner. I thought of Tolstoy’s brilliant short story How Much Land Does a Man Need? in which Pahom, a greedy peasant-farmer, is offered as much land as he can run round in a day: he thinks to himself, “I’ll just have that hill and that bit of woodland and that lake and those fields over there…” You can perhaps guess what happened.
How sweet an emotion is possession ! What charm is inherent in ownership! What a foundation for vanity, even for the greater quality of self-respect, lies in a little property! I fell to thinking of the excellent wording of the old books in which land is called ‘real property’, or ‘real estate’. Money we may possess, or goods or chattels, but they give no such impression of mineness as the feeling that one’s feet rest upon [real] soil that is his: that part of the deep earth is his with all the [real] water upon it, all small [real] animals that creep or crawl in the holes of it, all [real] birds or insects that fly in the air above it, all [real] trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass that grow upon it, all [real] houses, barns and fences—all, his!
Exactly as with Pahom, Grayson went round his boundaries but began to develop an even greater desire for possession.
‘I must have that hill. I will buy it. I will set the fence farther up. I will plant the slope. It is no age of tonsures either in religion or agriculture.’ The very vision of widened acres set my thoughts on fire. In imagination I extended my farm upon all sides, thinking how much better I could handle my land than my neighbours. I dwelt avariciously upon more possessions: I thought with discontent of my poverty. More land I wanted. I was enveloped in clouds of envy. I coveted my neighbour’s land: I felt myself superior and Horace inferior; I was consumed with black vanity.
Look at the ‘I’s here—not just one ‘I’ but many ‘I’s each with a slightly different source or emphasis; a confusion of ‘I’s which land one in unclarity of vision. The knack is to line up one’s ‘I’s and discriminate between their individual motivations in order to discover what you might call ‘Real-I. Here there’s Being-a-brilliant-farmer-I, Discontented-with-poverty-I, Wanting-more-land-I, Being-envious-I, Coveting-I, Being-consumed-with-vanity-I.
Grayson’s story does not go the way of Tolstoy’s. There comes another moment of revelation, a STOP! moment. At the highest point of the farm his eyes extend into the distance which has the same effect as looking up into the sky; I know the sensation because through the hedge at the bottom of our garden I can stretch my eyes for a number of miles while from the upstairs on a clear day it’s possible to see twenty miles round the coast to Hunstanton—this experience can get you into a very profound change of state. I might call this Aurelian-I—in The Meditations Marcus Aurelius recommends going out into the night under stars and reducing the self to nothing. In expansiveness one can leave all petty ‘I’s in a heap to one side.
For a moment I stood looking about me—a wonderful prospect of serene beauty. As it came to me—hills, fields, woods—the fever which had been consuming me died down. I thought how the world stretched away from my fences—for a thousand miles and in each small enclosure a man as hot as I with the passion of possession. How they all envied and hated in their longing for more land! How property kept them apart, prevented the close, confident touch of friendship; how it separated lovers and ruined families! Of all obstacles to that complete democracy of which we dream, is there a greater than property?
Property is Theft, Says Proudhon
That human movement towards acquisition which deprives others of the possibility of owning a sensible patch of existence is certainly theft. Property is destructive. Think of Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner—brilliant fable that with Tolstoy ought to be in every school curriculum.
Admiring-serene-beauty-I, Being-content-with-small-things-I takes Grayson beyond those small ‘I’s of which he is suddenly deeply ashamed: ‘…how little of the earth, after all… lies within the limits of my fences. And I looked out upon the perfect beauty of the world around me, and I saw how little excited it was, how placid, how undemanding…’
Grayson’s timely realisation expands into a statement about how in general identification with money and possessions destroys any hope of civilising influences taking root in people. His farm is the microcosm… And the implications for Humanity? It will require a universal STOP!
I had come here to be free and already this farm, which I thought of so fondly as my possession, was coming to possess me. Ownership is an appetite like hunger or thirst, and as we may eat to gluttony and drink to drunkenness so we may possess to avarice. How many men have I seen who, though they regard themselves as models of temperance, wear the marks of unbridled indulgence of the passion of possession, and how like gluttony or licentiousness it sets its sure sign upon their faces. I said to myself, Why should any man fence himself in? And why hope to enlarge one’s world by the creeping acquisition of a few acres to his farm?
In his desire to avoid being ‘fenced in’, Grayson has stepped from an ‘I’ that craves possession and into a quite different kind of ‘I’—one that ‘…standing upon the highest hill in [its] upper pasture’ bethought itself of a ‘saying of a certain old abbot of the Middle Ages—He that is a true monk considers nothing as belonging to him except a lyre. —What finer spirit? Who shall step forth freer than he who goes with nothing save his lyre ? He shall sing as he goes: he shall not be held down nor fenced in…’
In my terms, adhering to the teaching of Gurdjieff & followers, such a stepping forth is to go from one ‘I’ into another one. The new ‘I’ here has a sudden profound anchor in the image of an abbot without the desire for possession.
With a lifting of the soul I thought of that old abbot, how smooth his brow, how catholic
his interest, how serene bis outlook, how free his friendships, how unlimited his whole life. Nothing but a lyre!
So I made a covenant there with myself. I said: “I shall use, not be used. I do not limit myself here. I shall not allow possessions to come between me and my life or my friends.” For a time—how long I do not know—I stood thinking…
I find it really useful as a general thinking process to reframe a sort of romantic concept like ‘lifting of the soul’ to the more pig-tight ‘removal from one more or less destructive ‘I’ into an ‘I’ that’s unlimited…’ So we arrive at Being-unlimited-I, Unfenced-in-I, Having-a-serene-outlook-I. Having got to these new places (take your choice) with nothing but a lyre, it’s simply a matter of returning quite happily & freely, as on a pendulum, to words that ‘run at large, indefinite but inclusive’ such as ‘soul’.
Then the covenant with oneself, a declaration of an intention to act differently as a result of settling at the bottom of the pendulum swing.
So I turned my face toward home. Evening was falling, and as I walked I heard the crows calling, and the air was keen and cool, and I thought deep thoughts.
And so I stepped into the darkened stable. 1 could not see the outlines of the horse or the cow, but knowing the place so well I could easily get about. I heard the horse step aside with a soft expectant whinny. I smelled the smell of milk, the musty, sharp odour of dry hay, the pungent smell of manure, not unpleasant. And the stable was warm after the cool of the fields with a sort of animal warmth that struck into me soothingly. I spoke in a low voice and laid my hand on the horse’s flank. The flesh quivered and shrunk away from my touch—coming back confidently, warmly. I ran my hand along his back and up his hairy neck. I felt his sensitive nose in my hand. ” You shall have your oats,” I said, and I gave” him to eat. Then I spoke as gently to the cow, and she stood aside to be milked. And afterwards I came out into the clear bright night, and the air was sweet and cool, and my dog came bounding to meet me.—So I carried the milk into the house, and Harriet said in her heartiest tone—
” You are late, David. But sit up, I have kept the biscuits warm.”
And that night my sleep was sound.
What is Your Lyre
The practical question is always—What is your lyre? What would it be like to step forth in freedom with nothing save whatever for you in your life is the equivalent of the abbot’s lyre?
Until we sort this out for ourselves it’s possible that we live life at secondhand—we are more than likely to ‘…gather the odour of odours, not the odour itself. A poor, sad, second-rate existence! Bring out your social remedies! They will fail, they will fail, every one, until each of us has our feet somewhere upon the soil…’
No system or programme can possibly change life until we begin to get the food of Pure Impressions, the odour and the music itself, rather than a theoretical odour or the conceptual soundings of standard musical grammar. We must go to the wild plum for inspiration, for soul-life.
My wild plum trees grow in the coarse earth, among excrementitious mould, a physical life which finally blossoms and exhales its perfect odour: which ultimately bears the seed of its immortality. Human happiness is the true odour of growth, the sweet exhalation of work : and the seed of human immortality is borne secretly within the coarse and mortal husk. So many of us crave the odour without cultivating the earthly growth from which it proceeds: so many, wasting mortality, expect immortality…
Craving the odour is being in one ‘I’ to the exclusion of another—Being-the-odour-I or Growing-the-odour-inside-you-I, Maybe…
In just spring, Grayson is up at half-past four on
…as perfect a morning as I ever saw: mists yet huddled in the low spots, the sun coming up over the hill, and all the earth fresh with moisture, sweet with good odours, and musical with early bird-notes.
It is the time of the spring just after the last seeding and before the early haying: a catch-breath in the farmer’s year. I have been utilizing it in digging a drainage ditch at the lower end of my farm. A spot of marsh grass and blue flags occupies nearly half an acre of good land, and I have been planning ever since I bought the place to open a drain from its lower edge to the creek, supplementing it in the field above, if necessary, with submerged tiling. I surveyed it carefully several weeks ago, and drew plans and contours of the work as though it were an inter-oceanic canal. I find it a real delight to work out in the earth itself the details of the drawing.
A project! A project gives sense to action. A project determines what you do in the gap between sunrise & sunset—it will even influence the other gap, the dark gap which goes with the insistent purring of the cat and the ticking of the clock so that you sometimes wake at midnight with the germ of an idea that has to be written down.
So I looked up and about me—not to miss anything of the morning—and I drew in a good deep breath and I thought the world had never been so open to my senses…
This theme runs through the whole of Grayson’s book: being open to sense impressions. I wonder if it would have made any difference if he had known that Gurdjieff called the reception of pure impressions such as he records ‘the highest form of food’? What does putting labels on being-experience do for us? Does it simply enable us to manage it rather more precisely? Or does it lock us in to pig-tightness?
Of all the hours of the day there is none like the early morning for downright good odours—the morning before eating. Fresh from sleep and unclogged with food the senses cut like knives. The whole world comes in upon you. A still morning is best, for the mists and the moisture seem to retain the odours which they have distilled through the night. Upon a breezy morning one is likely to get a single predominant odour as of clover when the wind blows across a hayfield, or of apple blossoms when the wind comes through the orchard, but upon a perfectly still morning, it is wonderful how the odours arrange themselves in upright strata, so that one walking passes through them as from room to room in a marvellous temple of fragrance. (I should have said, I think, if I had not been on my way to dig a ditch, that it was like turning the leaves of some delicate volume of lyrics!)
Sights, sounds, odours, tastes & feelings—all as pure as shadows & earth mould before the curse of thinking enters the scene. Then Grayson catalogues, simply does a catalogue, collecting the early morning into a gestalt.
…As I walked along the margin of my field I was conscious, at first, coming within the shadows of the wood, of the cool, heavy aroma which one associates with the night: as of moist woods and earth mould. The penetrating scent of the night remains long after the sights and sounds of it have disappeared. In sunny spots I had the fragrance of the open cornfield, the aromatic breath of the brown earth, giving curiously the sense of fecundity—a warm, generous odour of daylight and sunshine. Down the field, toward the corner, cutting in sharply, as though a door opened (or a page turned to another lyric), came the cloying, sweet fragrance of wild crab-apple blossom. almost tropical in their richness, and below that, as I came to my work, the thin, acrid smell of the marsh, the place of the rushes and the flags and the frogs.
After the catalogue comes the thought process—that seems to me to be the right way round!
How few of us really use our senses! I mean give ourselves fully at any time to the occupation of the senses. We do not expect to understand a treatise on Econmics without applying our minds to it, nor can we really smell or hear or see or feel without every faculty alert. Through sheer indolence we miss half the joy of the world.
Knowledge, Understanding & Being
In the Gurdjieff canon, Understanding comes only through a coherent combination of Being and Knowledge. The treatise on Economics will be full of so-called Knowledge, from either a Capitalist or New Money point of view; understanding, which, judging from opinion surveys and declarations of voting intentions, most people imagine they have already without working at it, comes from getting into as rich a picture as possible deriving from practical examples; it requires all faculties to be active. Is that what Grayson means by ‘applying the mind’, I wonder—that nebulous entity, the mind; and intellect… is that not similar? I happen to believe that true intellect is a lot more than a mentalistic performance—it’s a constant combining of thinking/feeling/doing/seeing/smelling/tasting/hearing/making connections and this is what Grayson seems to be getting at.
Those who sneer at ‘intellect’ and at ‘intellectuals’ miss the point: they imagine that intellectual pursuits are purely what they choose to call ‘cerebral’, head-stuff. Actually the life of the intellect consists of making all those things (thinking/feeling/doing etc) happen contemporaneously. It’s a fully alive way of conceiving the universe. I shall miss it very much when I’m gone.
Often as I work I stop to see : really see: see everything, or to listen; and it is the wonder of wonders how much there is in this old world which we never dreamed of, how many beautiful, curious, interesting sights and sounds there are which ordinarily make no impression upon our overfed, and preoccupied minds. I have also had the feeling—it may be unscientific but it is comforting—that anybody might see like an Indian or smell like a hound if they gave to the senses the brains which the Indian and the hound apply to them [when they follow the scents of things]. And I’m pretty sure about the Indian ! It is marvellous what you can do when you put your entire mind upon one faculty and bear down hard.
The senses require brains, a brain apiece maybe; they need some organising principle to keep them going; putting an entire mind on each faculty in turn is a way of doing this; habit is a good assistant for this.
So I walked this morning, not hearing nor seeing, but smelling. Without desiring to stir up strife among the peaceful senses, there is this further marvel of the sense of smell. No other possesses such an after-call. Sight preserves pictures: the complete view of the aspect of objects, but it is photographic and external. Hearing deals in echoes, but the sense of smell, while saving no vision of a place or a person, will re-create in a way almost miraculous the inner emotion of a particular time or place… Only a short time ago I passed an open doorway in the town. I was busy with errands, my mind fully engaged, but suddenly I caught an odour from somewhere within the building I was passing. I stopped ! It was as if in that moment I lost twenty years of my life : I was a boy again, living and feeling a particular instant at the time of my father’s death. Every emotion of that occasion, not recalled in years, returned to me sharply and clearly as though I experienced for the first time. It was a peculiar emotion: the first time I had ever felt the oppression of space—can I describe it ?—the utter bigness of the world and the aloofness of myself, a little boy, within it—now that my father was gone. It was not at that moment sorrow, nor remorse, nor love: it was an inexpressible, cold terror—that anywhere I might go in the world, I should still be alone!
‘Now that my father was gone…’ What haunting words! How they haunt me! I think of my father at least once a day who has been dead these 15,250 days or so. He died before his time in 1971. Though I often feel that I wished I’d told him how much I owe to him—I have only come to that conclusion in more recent years anyway—I don’t think there’s sorrow or remorse but there is certainly aloneness, a capitulation to Conrad’s ‘We live as we dream—alone…’
Deep in carefully nurtured sense impressions, their purity, all things return to us.
And there I stood, a man grown, shaking in the sunshine with that old boyish emotion brought back to me by an odour! Often and often have I known this strange rekindling of dead fires. And I have thought how, if our senses were really perfect, we might lose nothing out of our lives: neither sights, nor sounds, nor emotions: a sort of mortal immortality. Was not Shakespeare great because he lost less of the savings of his senses than other men ? What a wonderful seer, hearer, smeller, taster, feeler, he must have been—and how, all the time, his mind must have played upon the gatherings of his senses! All scenes, all men, the very turn of a head, the exact sound of a voice, the taste of food, the feel of the world—all the emotions of his life must he have had there before him as he wrote, his great mind playing upon them, reconstructing, re-creating, and putting them down hot upon his pages. There is nothing strange about great men; they are like us, only deeper, higher, broader: they think as we do, but with more intensity: they suffer as we do, more keenly: they love as we do, more tenderly…
Why is it that David Grayson’s book, Adventured in Contentment, from which I quote so much because I think that it is so worthy to have attention paid to it in some detail, has generally speaking sunk without trace? With so many reprintings there must have been thousands of copies in circulation in the 1920’s, millions of readers worldwide, and I just happened upon this copy in a secondhand bookshop, attracted by the title…
An Unfamous Book
Why is it that Adventured in Contentment is not a famous book? Maybe because it’s just that the modern fashion is to go for the spectacular, the money-spinner, the sexy, the loud, brash & obvious? Grayson’s book is quiet & homely and does nothing like set out to make a million.
And it flows from this to that in a very natural kind of way such that you can feel the movement of ideas and hear and see & taste what’s going on for a deeply contented person.
During the last few months so many of the real adventures of life have been out of doors and so much of the beauty too, that I have scarcely written a word about my books. In the summer the days are so long and the work so engrossing that a farmer is quite willing to sit quietly in his porch after supper and watch the long evenngs fall—and rest his tired back and go to bed early. But the winter is the true time for indoor enjoyment!
Days like these! A cold night after a cold day! Well wrapped, you have made arctic explorations to the stable, the chicken-yard, and the pig-pen; you have dug your way energetically to the front gate, stopping every few minutes to beat your arms around your shoulders and watch the white plume of your breath in the still air—and you have rushed in gladly to the warmth of the dining-room and the lamplit supper. After such a day how sharp your appetite, how good the taste of food! Harriet’s brown bread (moist, with thick, sweet, dark crusts) was never quite so delicious, and when the meal is finished you push back your chair feeling like a sort of lord.
It’s a matter of simple observation that certain types of people have an overwhelming desire for a special room of their own where things are set up exactly as they wish them to be. Of course that’s my own pattern of Being and so when I start to read any author’s kinaesthetic description of a room something inside me starts buzzing especially when it fits this room now.
How incredibly comfortable is the feel of Grayson’s being ‘…permitted to revel in the desert of my own disorder…’ Being able to choose to be your very own self as expressed by the environment you call yours is a delight.
A lamp with a green shade stands invitingly on the table, shedding a circle of light on the books and papers underneath, but leaving all the remainder of the room in dim pleasantness. At one side stands a comfortable, big chair with everything in arm’s reach, including my note books and ink-bottle.
Well, it’s more true to say that it’s important for such as myself at least, to have many different places where specific parts of my self can have expression or ‘feel at home’ with themselves. Making-Journeys-I gets its pleasure from starting up the motorbike; Being-a-gardener-I is at home in all the different spaces of sunlight & shade, sounds & colours of the enclosure of our little patch (the apples outside my window go golden in the sun…); Poem-constructing-I and Making-music-I find their settlement in the chaos of the Room I call my ‘Office’; Reading-I revels in its library. Longholm is a house of many rooms—there are nine in regular use for various purposes, not to mention spare rooms & hallway.
When you’re in one room, in one part of your self, it also seems so important to notice what’s going on outside in different rooms, in different parts of your self.
Where I sit I can look out through the open doorway and see Harriet near the fireplace rocking and sewing. Sometimes she hums a little tune which I never confess to hearing lest I miss some of the unconscious cadences. Let the wind blow outside and the snow drift in piles around the doorway and the blinds rattle—I have before me a whole long pleasant evening.
Such a thought-feeling—I sink into it; it sinks into me!
What a convenient and delightful world is this world of books!—if you bring to it not the obligations of the student, or look upon it as an opiate for idleness, but enter it rather with the enthusiasm of the adventurer! It has vast advantages over the ordinary world of daylight, of barter and trade, of work and worry. In this world every man is his own King [woman her own Queen]—the sort… one loves to imagine, not concerned in such petty matters as wars and parliaments and taxes, but a mellow and moderate despot who is a true patron of genius—a mild old chap [in my case] who has at court the greatest men and women in the world—and all of them vying to please the most vagrant of moods ! Invite any one of them to talk, and if your highness is not pleased with him you have only to put him back in his corner—and bring some jester to sharpen the laughter of your highness, or some poet to set your faintest emotion to music!
Grayson acknowledges his ruthless despotism when it comes to a choice of books; me too: these here I love and constantly come back to; the rest are just part of the essential decoration in the library.
What is it about books?—real books, not these new-fangled space-saving e-contraptions from which, though they probably contain many lines of print you may have warmed to in the past, you will get nothing but the cold gleam of an inanimate fishbowl in a bright light. Real books are living things, dear entities with smell & taste & texture, each distinctive in these particular ways; they express ‘high spirits applied to life’…
The End of Civilisation
While I was doing a draft for this Glob, my great Transatlantic friend, Patrick Lowery wrote that his wife’s new boss had announced that ‘Our goal for the future is for our university libraries to be free of all books’.
Hell’s teeth! What a vision—or lack of one. Do not call them ‘libraries’, buster. Libraries are intended to house liberos. A desk with an e-contraption is not a library; it is a dead seat with a dead person sitting at it.
Patrick continues: ‘Her once wonderful job has been hijacked by a corporate lackey who was hired by the university President to ensure a library system free of any books, periodicals, journals, or any text made of paper. Her old boss was a sweet pudgy Quaker who never wore socks and had a beard down to his belly button. He got out when he caught a whiff of what was about to happen. And this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the new regime is concerned. [My wife’s] heart is broken and the students that work for her and adore her are up in arms. Maybe the students will make something happen?’
Unfortunately, it seems that the fashion is to believe that the very latest craze is best; the insane lurch to be part of what’s fashionable is what I observe in modern youth. Was it always so, as they tell me it was? Maybe it was the fashion in my young days to be happy with dark old library shelves and dim & dusty hideaways—thus was I fashionable; what was my fashion then has not shifted in seventy years. Give me the ‘sweet pudgy Quaker who never wore socks and had a beard down to his belly button’ and all that represents any day.
When they all stare at antiseptic screens the world will be a dead place; brains addled & shriveled up to dust, though they will not notice that anything’s changed for it’s with their dust-pan-brains that they will make the judgement that all’s right with the world.
I get up and saunter into my library to find an old dusty book with uncut edges…
And now they wait and whiten peacably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more…
When I speak then of my books you will know what I mean. The chief charm of literature, old or new, lies in its high quality of surprise, unexpectedness, spontaneity: high spirits applied to life. We can fairly hear some of the old chaps you and I know laughing down through the centuries. How we love ’em! They laughed for themselves, not for us ! Yes, there must be surprise in the books that I keep in the worn case at my elbow, the surprise of a new personality perceiving for the first time the beauty, the wonder, the humour, the tragedy, the greatness of truth. It doesn’t matter at all whether the writer is a poet, a scientist, a traveller, an essayist, or a mere daily space-maker, if he have the God-given grace of wonder.
Without a feeling of wonderment, surprise, yearning for the unexpected. the ability constantly to shape-shift spontaneously, writing is dead words on a page. All words are dead on a rolling screen. I have seen them on railway trains—their rolling eyes, their glazed fixations, the shunting of the mind up and into nowhere.
The universe is a wonder, always surprising when you choose to let it be so; unexpected things are so common that you come to expect them; spontaneity is the art of creativity.
Grayson says that when he comes across one who lacks these characteristics…
I do not believe he has compassed this universe. I believe him to be an inconsequent being like myself—oh, much more learned, of course—and yet only upon the threshold of these wonders. It goes too deep—life—to be solved by fifty years of living. There is far too much in the blue firmament, too many stars, to be dissolved in the feeble logic of a single brain. We are not yet great enough, even this explanatory person, to grasp the ‘scheme of things entire’. This is no place for weak pessimism—this universe. This is Mystery, and out of Mystery springs the fine adventure! What we have seen or felt, what we think we know, are insignificant compared with that which may be known. What this person explains is not, after all, the Universe—but himself, his own limited, faithless personality. I shall not accept his explanation. I escape him utterly!
How about strong pessimism? One that rages and stands up for itself with a definite shout? A full-hearted pessimism & misery forms a valuable part of the mysterious adventure that absorbs the smallest of seekers into its scope and drive. Miserableness is the diving-board off which we dive into unknown ecstasy. A certain congruence with the universe is achievable this way.
Do we believe Grayson when he says he’s an ‘inconsequent being’? Only in the Aurelian sense that we are all inconsequential half-baked entities going nowhere, without purpose, absurd creatures. It’s the very realisation of this that makes us, each in our own way, far more than consequential: we make life just as we fashion it in our very own way. Stand up and shout for joy!
Grayson has a very distinct sense of wonder & mystery. He’s not a ‘great writer’; his voice is quiet and unassuming but he fits the category of those whom we are glad to have read. And what is a great writer?
Nobody becomes a great writer unless they possess a highly developed sense of Mystery, of wonder. A great writer is never blasé; everything to him happened not longer ago than this forenoon.
How do we distinguish the books of mere writers from the books of real people rather than so-called great writers? Maybe it’s not the writing in itself, after all just mere squiggles on a page, more the way the richness of the living that lies behind them gets transmitted that’s important.
True literature, like happiness, is ever a by-product; it is the half-conscious expression of one greatly engaged in some other undertaking: it is the song of one working. There is something inevitable, unrestrainable about the great books; they seemed to come despite the author. ‘I could not sleep,’ says the poet Horace, ‘for the pressure of unwritten poetry…’ Dante said of his books that they ‘made him lean for many days’. I have heard people say of a writer in explanation of success—‘Oh, well, he has the literary knack…’
It is not so! Nothing is further from the truth. He writes well not chiefly because he is interested in writing, or because he possesses any especial knack, but because he is more profoundly, vividly interested in the activities of life and he tells about them—over his shoulder. For writing, like farming, is ever a tool, not an end.
Grayson goes on to talk briefly about ‘the great one book men…’ I know of at least one of these which I shall explore in a subsequent Glob.
Nearing the end of his book, Grayson reminds us that he has escaped, in a manner of speaking, from city life where, amongst other things, whilst railing against the effects of it, he had avoided political practice, not knowing how to intervene to effect change by his own efforts.
In the city, when you would learn any thing about public matters, you turn, not to life, but to books or newspapers. What we get in the city is not life, but what some one else tells us about life. So I acquired a really formidable row of works on Political Economy and Government (I admire the word ‘works’ in that application) where I found Society laid out for me in the most perfect order—with pennies on its eyes.
Dead, that is—for the practice of ‘politics’ is hi-jacked by those who consider themselves to be ‘political animals’ but in reality they are those with a personal axe to grind or an empire to establish. From my own limited personal experience of local politics it seems pretty clear that only the dull & simple-minded put themselves up for office—without the capacity for seeing a Big Picture, unwilling to put two-and-two together to make the correct amount, at any rate incapable of developing and acting on a coherent set of political principles.
Meanwhile the majority are more concerned to oil the works of their simple diurnal practice and to leave the running of things to other people never noticing that these ‘other people’ are running things to suit their own agenda without regard for the majority which they pretend they are acting on behalf of.
It was good to escape that place of hurrying strangers. It was good to get one’s feet down into the soil. It was good to be in a place where things are because they grow, and politics, not less than corn! Oh, my friend, say what you please, argue how you like, this crowding together of men and women in unnatural surroundings, this haste to be rich in material things, this attempt to enjoy without production, this removal from first-hand life, is irrational, and the end of it is ruin.
Politicians come from a hierarchy of the moneyed or privileged class and are therefore removed from ‘first hand life’: they can only imagine what life is like for those whom, by extolling the virtues of frugality and self-help, they defraud, urging the pursuit of a policy of austerity while they themselves live in the lap of luxury. Things will never change, of course, while those in power hold on to it at any cost in order to preserve their own corrupt status.
An example of an alternative ideal can be observed in Baxter’s shop—metaphor of solid reality; life should be lived according to this pattern.
Baxter’s shop! Baxter’s shop stands close to the road, and just in the edge of a grassy, old apple orchard. It is a low, unpainted building, with generous double doors in front, standing irresistibly open as you go by. Even as a stranger coming here first from the city I felt the call of Baxter’s shop. Shall I ever forget ? It was a still morning—one of those days of warm sunshine—and perfect quiet in the country—and birds in the branches—and apple trees all in bloom. Baxter was whistling at his work in the sunlit doorway of his shop, in his long, faded apron, much worn at the knees. He was bending to the rhythmic movement of his plane, and all round him as he worked rose billows of shavings. And oh, the odours of that shop! The fragrant, resinous odour of new-cut pine, the pungent smell of black walnut, the dull odour of oak wood—how they stole out in the sunshine, waylaying you as you came far up the road, beguiling you as you passed the shop, and stealing reproachfully after you as you went onward down the road.
More examples of being fully aware of incoming impressions before they hit the associative clutter in the brain, going with rhythm, billows & fragrance, accepting things just as they waylay you. Beguilement!
The wonders there! The long bench with its huge-jawed, wooden vices, and the little, dusty windows above looking out into the orchard, and the brown planes and the row of shiny saws, and the most wonderful pattern squares and triangles and curves, each hanging on its own peg; and above, in the rafters, every sort and size of curious wood. And the old bureaux and whatnots and high-boys in the corners waiting their turn to be mended; and the sticky glue-pot waiting, too, on the end of the sawhorse. There is family history here in this shop—no end of it—the small and yet great (because intensely human) tragedies and humours of the long, quiet years among these sunny hills. That whatnot there, the one of black walnut with the top knocked off, that belonged in the old days to—
People brought their broken furniture to Baxter to be mended and stayed to talk.
There is great talk in Baxter’s shop—the slow-gathered wisdom of the country, the lore of crops and calves and cabinets. In Baxter’s shop we choose the next President of these United States! You laugh ! But we do—exactly that. It is in the Baxters’ shops (not in Broadway, not in State Street) where the presidents are decided upon. In the little grocery stores you and I know, in the blacksmithies, in the schoolhouses back in the country!
But presidential politics is a sham affair; presidential decision-makers are well-withdrawn from the carpenter’s shop, living with cloudy abstractions in high & mighty palaces & white houses. True leadership figures things out from the rear; it does not put on the airs & graces of what it imagines to be ‘high office’.
Like most Parish Councils throughout the land (according to research) our corrupt local organisation is mostly made up of people desirous of the airs & graces of Office. They lack the calling designated by Baxter’s lamp.
Baxter’s lamp is, somehow, inextricably associated in my mind with politics. Being busy farmers, we hold our caucuses and other meetings in the evening, and usually in the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is conveniently near to Baxter’s shop, so we gather at Baxter’s shop. Baxter takes his lamp down from the bracket above his bench, reflector and all, and you will see us, a row of dusky figures, Baxter in the lead, proceeding down the roadway to the schoolhouse. Having arrived, some one scratches a match, shields it with his hand (I see yet the sudden, fitful illumination of the brown-bearded, watchful faces of my neighbours!), and Baxter guides us into the school-house—with its shut-in, dusty odours of chalk and varnished desks and—yes, left-over lunches !
Baxter’s lamp stands on the table, casting a vast shadow of the chairman on the wall. “Come to order,” says the chairman, and we have here at this moment in operation the greatest institution in this round world: the institution of free self-government. Great in its simplicity, great in its unselfishness i And Baxter’s old lamp with its smoky tin reflector, is not that the veritable torch of our liberties ?
Here’s an example of true democracy in action: there was a need for an addition to the schoolhouse; a committee had been set up to determine the likely cost—$800…
And many a man is saying to himself—”If we build this addition to the school-house, I shall have to give up the new overcoat I have counted upon, or Amanda won’t be able to get the new cooking-range.” That’s real politics: the voluntary surrender of some private good for the upbuilding of some community good. It is in such exercises at the fibre of democracy grows sound and strong. There is, after all, in this world no real good for which we do not have to surrender something. In the city the average voter is never conscious of any surrender. He never realizes that he is giving anything-himself for good schools or good streets. Under such conditions how can you expect self-government ? No service, no reward!
The first meeting that I sat through watching those bronzed farmers at work gave me such a conception of the true meaning of self-government as I never hoped to have. “This is the place where I belong,” I said to mvself.
True Democracy is about Converting Chicken Houses into Classrooms
In winter1967/8, I visited Kilquanity House, a school near Dumfries which was run on ASNeill principles, a truly free school where kids and head, John Aitkenhead, were on an equal footing in the school council. When new classrooms were required it was decided to convert old stables where chickens had been kept.
Grayson calls Baxter and his caucus of farmers ‘our political bosses’—
…these unknown patriots who preach the invisible patrioism which expresses itself not in flags and oratory, but in the quiet, daily surrender of private advantage to the public good. There is, after all, no such thing as perfect equality; there must be leaders, flag-bearers, bosses—whatever you call them. Some people have a genius for leading; others for following:
each is necessary and dependent upon the other.
The Need for Leaders
Leaders are needed to come forward for particular purposes at particular times relevant to their individual expertise—people who set themselves up as leaders because of some empty office they aspire to are no more than cardboard cutouts; and followers should never be slavish in their followship; all should learn at school how to lead themselves into the common good. How can that happen? Little kids should be taught how to ‘go meta’ to ways of thought & action, given many opportunities to stand aside and look at oneself from a distance. The existing yawning divide between those in charge of things, driven by Capitalism, and those who are all too easily led needs attention otherwise office-holding leaders, empire builders, will continue to lead for their own advantage.
In cities, that leadership is often perverted and used to evil ends. Neither leaders nor followers seem to understand. In its essence politics is merely a mode of expressing human sympathy. In the country many and many a leader like Baxter works faithfully year in and year out, posting notices of caucuses, school meetings and elections, opening cold school-houses, talking to candidates, prodding selfish voters—and mostly without reward. Occasionally they are elected to petty offices where they do far more work than they are paid for (we have our eyes on ’em); often they are rewarded by the power and place which leadership gives them among their neighbours, and sometimes—and that is Charles Baxter’s case—they simply like it! Baxter is of the social temperament : it is the natural expression of his personality. As for thinking of himself as a patriot, he would never dream of it. Work with the hands, close touch with the common life of the soil, has given him much of the true wisdom of experience. He knows us and we know him; he carries the banner, holds it as high as he knows how, and we follow.
The pre-requisite for effective village democracy is ‘elbow-knowledge, that close neighbourhood sympathy, that conscious surrender of little personal goods for bigger public ones…’
His wisdom coming from years of frustrating socio-political journalism in the big wide world, Grayson concludes his rumination on village politics thus:-
It is easy to rally to a flag in times of excitement. The patriotism of drums and marching regiments is cheap; blood is material and cheap; physical weariness and hunger are cheap. But the struggle I speak of is not cheap. It is dramatized by few symbols. It deals with hidden spiritual qualities within the conscience of men. Its heroes are yet unsung and un-honoured. No combats in all the world’s history were ever fought so high upward in the spiritual air as these; and, surely, not for nothing!
And so out of my experience both in city and country, I feel—yes, I know—that the real motive power of this democracy lies back in the little country neighbourhoods like ours, where men gather in dim schoolhouses and practise the invisible patriotism of surrender and service.
The final chapter of Grayson’s book begins with a note of regret. He had begun setting down his ‘adventures’ with no thought of publication—
…the possibility of a book did not suggest itself until afterwards. I have tried to relate the experiences of that secret, elusive, invisible life which in every person is so far more real than visible activities—the real expression of a life much occupied in other employment…
The invisible life—your invisible life! Your whole life is an invisibility: remembering of things, desires, ruminations; even the recording of these things simply offers the illusion of visibility.
Other people are invisible to us—even those we imagine to be closest to us; we concoct stories about them and pretend that such fictions make them visible. Occasionally we realise all this in elusive bursts of clarity during otherwise general distortions & blurredness. We constantly swing thus:- All sorts of things go on somewhere inside one’s envelope of Being. Toy with that idea long enough and the concept of ‘inside’ dissolves to become—not even something that dances at the interface between inside & outside but some huge arena that can contain all kinds fo different acts all going on at the same time.
How are we to capture the secret elusive opacity of things?
Any attempt to capture whatever it might be always modifies the till then unverbalised experience.
And still one tries…
The Landscape of the Mind
Twenty years ago I was exploring my future by visualising what was in front of me as I went down my time-line At that moment there was a wide open space stretching away into the unknown (or partially known by reference to what had gone before).
Leading away from my feet there were many paths clearly laid out going towards gleaming cities on the horizon and visiting small hamlets & oases on the way. All this was there for me.
When I stand in the same place now, I find that I have visited many of those places and that there are still two or three paths leading away but darkness has closed down and I cannot see the horizon.
I happened to be talking about this with somebody the other day when it suddenly occurred to me that, during the course of the conversation & without my instigation, two tunnels had just appeared at the base of the darkness and I found myself driving my hands through them to reach through to the other side where everything, if more contained than the original landscape, was bright & sunlit; that felt entrancing—it was as if I were in a huge bubble of light, with trees & little cottages & fully accessible gardens close at hand and so on.
This put me in mind of the great traveller in Richard Jefferies’ Bevis who desperately sought a place where he might no more come to the other side of things, a place where things always went on forever. He was taken blindfold to a place where there was a small bronze door covered in magic inscriptions. Through the chink that appeared when the door was opened a little he could see a country where things went on forever.
…so clear was the air that though it was only a footpath, he could trace it for nearly half the hundred miles he could see. The footpath was strewn with leaves fallen from the trees, oval-pointed leaves; some were crimson, and some were gold, and some were black, and all had marks on them.
One of these was lying close to the bronze door, and as he had put his hand through, as you know, he stretched himself and reached it, and when he held it up the light of the opal sun came through it—it was transparent—and he could see words; written on it which he read, and they told him the secret of the tree from which it had fallen.
Now, all these leaves that were strewn on the footpath each of them had a secret written on it—a magic secret about the trees, and the plants, and the birds, and the stars, and the opal sun—every one had a magic secret on it, and you might go on first picking up one and then another, till you had travelled a hundred miles, and then another hundred miles, a thousand years, or ten thousand years, and there was always a fresh secret and a
Or you might sit down under one of the trees whose branches came to the ground like the weeping ash at home, or you might climb up into another—but no matter how, if you took hold of the leaves and turned them aside, so that the light of the opal sun came through, you could read a magic secret on every one, and it would take you fifty years to read one tree. Some of the leaves strewed the footpath, and some lay on the grass, and some floated on the water, but they did not decay, and the one he held in his hand went throb, throb, like the pulse in your wrist.
And from secret to secret you might wander, always a new secret, till you went beyond the horizon, and then there was another horizon, and after that another, and you could go on and on, and on, and though you could walk for ever without weariness because the air was so pure and delicious, still you could never, never, never get to the other side.
Some have been walking there these millions of years, and some have been sitting up in the trees, and some have been lying under the golden dome flowers all that time, and never found and never will find the other side, which is why they are so happy. They do not sleep, because they never feel sleepy; they just turn over from the opal sun and look up at the stars and then the music begins, and as it plays they become strong, and then they go on again gathering more of the leaves, and travelling towards…
But the bronze door was slammed shut before he could follow his soul down the endless pathway. It was explained to him that only one person every thousand years was permitted to enter the land of the opal sun. The great traveller lived to be very old because he had breathed its air.
And so my current metaphor for where I am becomes a bubble of light, large amphitheatre, on the other side of a tunnel or two under the darkness of time.
Anyway, as always, I am hung up on the idea of the secret, elusive, invisible life especially as it relates to the ordinary and the humdrum…
When I first came to this farm, I came empty-handed. I was the veritable pattern of the city-made failure. [Grayson keeps up his pretence…] I believed that life had nothing more in store for me. I was worn out physically, mentally, and indeed, morally. I had diligently planned for Success; and I had reaped defeat. I came here without plans. I ploughed and harrowed and planted, expecting nothing. In due time I began to reap. And it has been a growing marvel to me, the diverse and unexpected crops that I have produced within these uneven acres of earth. With sweat I planted corn, and I have here a crop not only of corn but of happiness and hope. My tilled fields have miraculously sprung up to friends!
His book was perhaps the most important part of the harvest. As a result of what, in sober-sided mode I’d call the feedback nexus, the effect of writing it was to bring a new resource to his life:-
At harvest time in our country I hear, or imagine I hear, a sort of chorus rising over all the hills, and I meet nobody who is not deep down within, a singer! So song follows work; so art grows out of life!
Art Grows out of Life
The art that grows out of life is a constant attempt to grasp all the circus acts in the ring—in music, painting, poetry and so on, letting each feed off and on each other. This must happen, I think, with as little brain-intervention as possible; brain-intervention tends to deaden everything so that you begin to suffer from the Sin of Seriousness; this you can tell from the tone of voice that people use and the lengths they go to explain what they mean.
How does art grow out of life? It undoubtedly requires the best conditions—playfulness, acting out of openness to all possibilities, without being puffed up with Self, receptiveness, exploring, questioning, seeking, never being satisfied with the first thing you thought of, laughter & misery, stooping to anything whatsoever, making connections & gaps, silence, worship.
When two people stoop (there must be stooping) and touch together, a magnetic current is set up between them: a flow of common understanding and confidence. I would call the attention of all great Scientists, Philosophers, and Theologians to this phenomenon : it will repay investigation. It is at once the rarest and the commonest thing I know. It shows that down deep within us, where we really live, we are all a good deal alike. We have much the same instincts, hopes, joys, sorrows. If only it were not for the outward things that we commonly look upon as important (which are in reality not at all important) we might come together without fear, vanity, envy, or prejudice, and be friends. And what a world it would be! If civilization means anything at all it means the increasing ability of people to look through material possessions, through clothing, through differences of speech and colour of skin, and to see the genuine person that abides within each of us. It means an escape from symbols!
Oh yes! Escape from symbols and abstractions that dog the human-race and cause great unnecessary perturbations of the human spirit. Things like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘valour’, ‘sentiment’, ‘democracy’, ‘love’, ‘success’, ‘desire’—all things that no doubt warm the cockles of the heart but which prove to be meaningless when you start to figure them out—they cannot be accommodated in a wheelbarrow. We come to the curse of labelling things that have no real existential meaning but which are the crazy cause of warfare.
In most people—those who dare to look themselves in the eye—I find a deep desire for more naturalness, more directness. How weary we all grow of this fabric of deception which is called modern life! How passionately we desire to escape but cannot see the way! How our hearts beat with sympathy when we find a man who has turned his back upon it all and who says ‘I will live it no longer’. How we flounder in possessions as in a dark and suffocating bog, wasting our energies not upon life but upon things. Instead of employing our houses, our cities, our gold, our clothing, we let these inanimate things possess and employ us—to what utter weariness. “Blessed be nothing,” sighs a dear old lady of my knowledge.
Ah, Nothingness! Not so much an abstraction—more a word for a functional and desirable state of Being. It might be an escape to a farm—the farm of your mind, maybe. But certainly one that is not mechanised, where you are close to the soil and the seagulls without the sense that you are running a factory just to get the furrows dead straight.
Of all ways of escape I know, the best, though it is far from perfection, is the farm. There you may yield yourself most nearly to the quiet and orderly processes of nature. You may attain most nearly to that equilibrium between the material and spiritual, with time for the exactions of the first, and leisure for the growth of the second, which is the ideal of life.
Grayson quite rightly issues a warning.
And yet a farm is only an opportunity, a tool. A cornfield, a plough, a woodpile, an oak tree, will cure nobody unless they have it in them to be cured. The truth is that no life, and least of all a farmer’s life, is simple—unless it is simple. I know a man and his wife who came out here to the country with the avowed purpose of becoming, forthwith, simple. They were unable to keep the chickens out of their summer kitchen. They discovered microbes in the well, and mosquitoes in the cistern, and wasps in the garret. Owing to the resemblance of the seeds, their radishes turned out to be turnips! The last I heard of them they were living snugly in a flat in Sixteenth Street—all their troubles solved by a dumb-waiter.
The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if you are in reality simple, if you love true contentment, it is the place of all places where you can live your life most freely and fully, where you can grow. The city affords no such opportunity; indeed, by the seductiveness with which flaunts its carnal graces, it often destroys the desire for the higher life which animates most of us.
A Craving for Contentment
One must crave contentment and the means to achieve it; a certain amount of soul-preparation is necessary; indeed, first of all it may be necessary to grow a soul—souls don’t come in packets of twenty.
And how do we get to a state of simplicity? One way might be just to jettison all the labels for things and stay carefully with their basic uses. Grayson is eloquent about this.
The uses of thinking, the uses of loving, the uses of feeling and the uses of commodities—never just the possession of any of these things.. Possession is a dead thing; usage takes us into a proper relationship with things & people. The true usage of ideas which everything boils down to in the end is play.
While on the subject of simplicity it may be well to observe that simplicity does not necessarily, as some of those who escape from the city seem to think, consist in doing without things, but rather in the proper use of things. One cannot return, unless with affectation, to the crudities of a former existence. We do not believe in Diogenes and his tub. Do you not think the good Lord has given us the telephone (that we may better reach that elbow-rub of brotherhood which is the highest of human ideals) and the railroad (that we may widen our human knowledge and sympathy)—and even the motor-car ? (though, indeed, I have some times imagined that the motor-cars passing this way had a different origin !) He may have given these things to us too fast, faster than we can bear; but is that any reason why we should denounce them all and return to the old, crude time-consuming ways of our ancestors ? I am no reactionary. I do not go back. I neglect no tool of progress. I am too eager to know every wonder in this universe. The motor-car, if I had one, could not carry me fast enough! I must fly!
The motorbike, now I have one, cannot carry me fast enough! I must fly!
Sometimes I say to myself: I have grasped happiness! There it is; I have it. And yet, it always seems at that moment of complete fulfilmentas though my hand trembled, that I might not take it!
David Grayson is the nom de plume of Ray Stannard Baker who was born in Lansing, Michigan, on April 17, 1870. An 1889 graduate of Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), he later studied law and literature at the University of Michigan.
In 1892 Baker went to work for the Chicago Record, remaining for 6 years as reporter and editor. This introduced him to the misery of Chicago’s poor, soup kitchens, charity wards, and thousands of homeless, starving men in the streets. ‘My attitude was that of the frontier where I had grown up. Bums, tramps! Why didn’t they get out and hustle? Why didn’t they quit Chicago?’ he said. But his attitude began to change after he tried fruitlessly to help a youth find a job. He was haunted for the rest of his life by this ‘Potato-Car Boy’, whom he wanted to make the central figure in a novel.
Baker’s experiences as a reporter in Chicago reversed, or at least challenged, his early attitudes. In 1894 he was assigned to go with Coxey’s Army on their march on Washington to demand relief from unemployment. When Coxey’s ‘petition in boots’ left Massilon, Ohio, Baker thought it was a ‘dishonest way for freemen to redress wrongs’. But 12 days later he wrote sympathetically that the army was a ‘manifestation of unrest in the laboring classes’ and should be looked upon as ‘more than a huge joke’. He returned to Illinois in time to cover the Pullman strike that began in May 1894 and broke into violence in July. Baker gave a full, sympathetic account of the strikers’ complaints and of the violence on the company’s part. He was critical of George Pullman’s ‘model city’, with its high rents, and he handled the Chicago Record relief fund for the strikers.
In 1896 Baker married Jessie Beal, and they had two children. Baker went east in 1898 to work for McClure’s Magazine. Other staff members were muckrakers (exposé journalists) Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Frank Norris. Baker wrote about conditions in industry and moved politically toward independent ‘progressivism’. But in Native American (1941) he said he had never belonged to a political party and had ‘never been a Socialist, nor a Communist, nor a Single Taxer’; and he looked back on his actions in the McClure’s days as ‘sheer bumptiousness’.
By 1906 he and the other muckrakers had become disenchanted. They broke away from McClure’s and gained control of American Magazine. Although American Magazine was also a muckraking publication, Baker was about to enter a new phase of life. He had long wanted to write the ‘great American novel’, but instead he shifted to two new areas—writing essays under the pen name of David Grayson and producing the official biography of President Wilson. Baker wrote Adventures in Contentment and eight other books on the same theme under the Grayson name for 35 years. Baker spent 14 years on the Wilson project, going through 5 tons of the President’s personal papers and becoming his intimate. The last two books of Baker’s eight-volume Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1940. Baker died of a heart attack in Amherst, Mass., on July 12, 1946.
Baker’s own writings include Native American: The Book of My Youth (1941) and American Chronicle: The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker (David Grayson) (1945). The best study of Baker is Robert C. Bannister, Jr., Ray Stannard Baker: The Mind and Thought of a Progressive (1966).
From an article in The Sun of New York April 15th 1916
Ray Stannard Baker reported that while he was working for American Magazine he was ‘…writing articles on many serious subjects—the race question in the South [and] political and social conditions which necessitated wide variety and a rather strenuous life. My home at the time was in a small town in Michigan. There I led about the same kind of life that I do here [in Amherst]… Naturally I was very tired when I got home from my trips. Tired not only physically but weary to death of the insoluble complexity and evil of the social and industrial conditions of which I was trying to write. I shall never forget the sense of liberation and joy I had in getting into my old work clothes and digging in my garden, or setting out for long tramps in the country roads or in the fields and woods, or in meeting and talking with farmers and other country people who had a cool, sane and often humorous outlook on life. I do not think I could have continued to live and work without this constant renewal in the country. All of these things went down in my notebooks from day to day just for the sake of writing about such fresh and delightful adventures. At its best I think writing springs always from the impulse to live over one’s finest experiences…’
[No reference to running a farm—just to digging his garden and talking with farmers… CB]
‘I have always felt that young authors, perhaps most authors, do not ‘sketch’ enough. An author or writer should ‘sketch’ just as an artist does. It is a mistake to write only for publication. The writer should handle his talent as the good farmer handles his field. Too continuous a production of crops will exhaust the field—or the writer’s talent. We should now and then grow a crop and turn it in for fertilising purposes… I had been writing sketches of country life for a long time, and when the cry went up for copy I got out my notebooks, put together a few of the sketches, gave them the title of Adventures in Contentment and turned them in under a nom do plume… I certainly felt that the articles and books I was writing under my own name were of far greater importance than the David Grayson writings. Hene the nom de plume. The success of the Grayson books surprised me more than any one else and still surprises me…’
‘David Grayson’ was a mood and a reaction.
‘The sketches were a reaction from the strenuous life I was leading during the investigations—those stormy days… [before and during] work on the American Magazine. The sketches were written to express that reaction, that feeling of retreat and restfulness, that realisation of the truly worthwhile things in life that one feels in the country…
‘While many of the incidents and some of the characters are literal transcriptions… often [on my excursions] I took my notebook with me and wrote sitting on a rail fence or under a tree—the real object I had in view was never to report events literally, not to describe actual scenes and places, but to put down on paper a certain spirit or attitude towards life. The outer things do not much matter; it is the inner birth which counts and there can be neither adventures in contentment… unless we drive to those adventures the inner spirit… and joy of living…’