Owls Hoot and Wood Pigeons Chunter
Often, these days, towards the end of Time, I fail to notice the sunrise, the silver sky & clouds in the evening, the movement of birds in the hedge between us and the river, the ribbon of chaffinches conversing from one tree to another in the back garden… Well, of course, I do notice them in order to say that I don’t notice them but perhaps they do not make their mark as they used to do.
What does that mean—things not making their mark? Is it perhaps the Wordsworth thing?
There was a time when meadow grove & stream
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light…
Things certainly carry on as usual—owls hoot and wood pigeons chunter at dead of night, seagulls fly up and down the river morning and evening, white against grey sky or green field—but something has gone out: it all fades into the light of common day. What I see around me at dawn surely can’t be ‘celestial light’ which sounds like something extra special—if I could tap into that I wonder where it might come from? A ‘celestial’ source? Or some species of interiority? Something we are capable of projecting on to ‘reality’ to make it shine with life & enthusiasm? In retrospect, things did seem to me once to be out of the ordinary, non-usual, and I can, even now, with conscious effort and the raising of arms, transform a sunrise or a sunset, for instance, into an event that penetrates to the core of my being; the sight of dogs or small children running across wet sand down to the edge of the sea has the same effect on me…
They (small children, says Wordsworth) make ‘…some little plan or chart/ some fragment from the dream of human life…’ and think of it as unique, as if it will go on forever, but the dead hand of custom & habit dismisses their precious fragment. There are these incessant ‘…Fallings from us, vanishings…’
The noise, the jabbering of life, the prison-house door that keeps on slamming. It still echoes down all my time, though Wordsworth’s prison-house itself has long since fallen into disrepair; I exit through low piles of broken bricks & fallen masonry.
The distractions, the awful distractions…
But the ‘first affections’, the ‘shadowy recollections’ are all still there for the picking, still there for the poking. First sight of the sea after long absence, the sound of wood-pigeons in a summer garden, bats circling the house in the evening, cycling down to Lulworth Cove sixty years ago, Salisbury Cathedral Close—soul container—just one of many, like my father’s garden… Climbing Box Hill, the magic in the distance…
Catching the sunset over Wimbledon Common, the smell of gorse in bloom cycling between Farnborough & Fleet on a summer evening in the mid-fifties, walking the Roman trackway from Box Hill to Epsom of a dying afternoon, Melbury Down—staring across the valley from Shaftesbury for a week from 20th August 1955 when the whole course of my life was determined.
Journeys, soundings and scents, uniquely and, be it noted, solely mine; they can belong to nobody else. But anybody can make this kind of collection reflecting on their own key places and events in the past; you can breathe new life into such ‘first affections’ and ‘shadowy recollections’ by deliberately seeing, hearing & feeling what they were like now. There you will find
the fountain-light of all our day
master-light of all our seeing
It does seem as though, for Wordsworth, the light, the master-light, is an interior quality deriving from such self-reinforcing early experiences. Along with him I feel quite clearly that even now, resurrecting their preciousness, they
have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake
To perish never…
Within the Silence such a catalogue stimulates new perception. You can attach your Being to something simple from the past, a sight, a sound, a texture or shape and you can do it now like this:-
The self fixes its attention upon a patch of barren earth, let us say, or an empty flower-pot, or a broken flagstone, or a stretch of sand, or a door-threshold, or a dead tree-stump, or even a little fragment of sky, and by flinging forth its spirit into this thing, it creates for itself and for it—even in the midst of the hubbub of the city—a circumference of isolation, the gates that enclose the mystery of matter roll back and deep calls unto deep.
(John Cowper Powys: A Philosophy of Solitude)
You can isolate the smallest fragment of Being in ordinary consciousness—this awareness right here and now—feel it, get into it, without words or psychologisms—and, quitting whatever’s going on around you, represent it to your self in a new, light, celestial maybe. To grasp what John Cowper Powys calls its ‘static sense’; we should, he says
…aim for a static view of life, as against all this whole business of striving towards something. By a ‘static view of life’ I mean that attitude wherein the mind, sinking back upon itself, envisages all the events of its existence in a sort of simultaneity, as if they were spread out before it like an unrolled map…’
…the sunset over Wimbledon Common, the smell of gorse in bloom on a summer evening, the Roman trackway stretching before you from Box Hill to Epsom of a dying autumn afternoon, Melbury Down… from ever so far apart and ever so long ago in simultaneity now.
The Philosophy of Elementalism
We have to stand up for this, the mystery in the inanimate, the uplift of the spirit faced with tree-shapes & trackways, cracked paving-stones & slippery newt because, in the midst of daily distractions, to escape our existential aloneness we seek to lose our awkward sense of being in gregariousness: ‘…the whole current of crowd-instincts in these days is so fatally perverted [by]… the stress laid upon outward things, upon outward achievement, outward progress, outward activity, outward publicity. The idea of what might be called the ‘Philosophy of Elementalism’ is that all this outwardness should be reduced to the vanishing point…’
In crowd consciousness, we lose the sense of what is to be gained from the real things, from the thinginess of things which can only be apprehended when we are steeped in solitude, since ‘…only when the soul is alone can the magic of the universe flow through it…’
No day, no night, should pass without a gathering together of the inmost core of our being with its defiant cry: “Alone with the universe! Alone against the universe!”…
At This Moment Now
So here I am at this moment now—cat on my lap, log fire, Dvorak’s First Symphony just started on the gramophone, thinking about the ice-berg Time—so much of it submerged; for me, just the cold tip of it to bother with in a practical way—replace a fuse, dig up a pernicious weed that invades the rockery every spring, post a letter, re-point some brickwork at the corner of the house where the gutter leaks, or hire a man to do it..
Once upon a time every turn of events was significant—the upshot of each had a long future which needed working on: I made gardens, collecting rock-stones against the time when I could sit on a lawn, admire sedum & sempervivums and read with the pattern of leaf-drift & bird-song while my shadow in the sunlight made of me a human gnomon all the long day. I visited towns and villages in the full expectation that, having made a quick survey of their delights, I would return for further exploration on later occasions—just as I thought that seaside spots would be revisited year after year. Apart from one or two key places at different times, this never happened.
Now whatever I do seems like a one-off. Ilfracombe is always there to go back to, the South Downs to be cruised over; once these kinds of repetition into the future always seemed a possibility; but whatever happens now is just for the day; it does not have the feel of possible repetition. However, now more than ever before, it seems important to record just that and to figure out the consequences, frozen in time though they may be.
Apart from all this, I choose, intellectually, to linger in the NOW, to decorate it, knowing that it’s always possible that it may be the last time. The sensation of this has only been with me since I turned 70—till then there was always a sense of futurity attaching to events as they occurred. Now there’s a sense of absence. This is the decade in which I may die—if not this one then with awful creeping certainty the next…
Then there’s the matter of the diminishing pattern of days, weeks, months, years: they will keep on repeating so; no sooner has the day begun than it’s more or less ended. Of course it doesn’t help matters that for many years now I’ve had what to others will probably seem to be the astonishingly curious belief that when it gets to 10 o’clock in the morning the day is more or less done for (it’s 9.30am as I write…)—that it’s all downhill from there. In one of my workspaces I keep an old electric clock, modern design, out of the 1930’s when, in spite of everything, modernity began; it won’t work any more, so I have its hands permanently set at five minutes to ten so that I don’t have to think of day’s depletion—but, of course, it serves as the perfect anchor for precisely that!
I detest Christmas because it marks time in such a disgustingly meretricious manner and seems to arrive more and more quickly under the banner of Capitalism—fast buck from uniquely spiritual event. In winter cold and darkness, like my father did, I have begun to long for spring, chaffinch at the window, blackthorn whitening in the hedges, all the trees & bushes that blossom before they leaf, rising sun moving to the left a little earlier each day. But by eight o’clock of an evening I’m ready for bed having begun to shut down much earlier on…
at 4 of an afternoon
my thoughts incline towards
cool sheets & pillow
On the other hand I think nothing of rising at 4 of a morning to read or start writing in the hour snatched from Paradise, as the Sufis say—that gives me a whole six hours before the day starts to subside into nothing.
It’s a conceit, I suppose, a way of constructing things, a little story I tell myself to pass the time. But I know full well that I can always recreate the old agility with the thought of lighting a bonfire or going off on a motorbike journey or writing a piece of music or a poem…
The Gale Had Ceased
At the open window there was just the general sound of all the trees for miles around, wind running through a trillion twigs creating the cumulative small background roar of mildly whipping branches. I was suddenly awake after five hours of deep sleep & dream at 2 o’clock in the morning with the memory of an essay by Robert Lynd I read at school all of sixty years ago called, as I remember, ‘Reading at Night’, which I cannot find amongst my old books. I think about writing such an essay myself.
I had awoken from a mildly tantalising dream during which I had been contracted to run a series of lessons (wearing teacher-hat) designed to aid self-awareness. I was in a street with just one person on the course. My instruction was that she should close her eyes and turn her head; on opening her eyes she should really focus on what she saw. It was a de Chirico street scene, shadows round corners and silent steam trains in the far distance. The person I was working with seemed utterly incapable of keeping her eyes closed to obey the rules of the game; she would keep peeking at me. “Keeping your eyes closed now,” I repeated, “when you open them again now I think you’ll find that when you look to your right you’ll see a wicker basket stood on the pavement…” There certainly was one there but she seemed to lack the control over her eyes to do exactly what I was suggesting and so I practised the exercise for myself. The wicker basket became the only one of its kind in the whole history of the universe.
Waking, maybe out of frustration or a feeling of failure, I began to make the exercise more precise: one could deprive oneself of vision and then make new sight or even gain insight by swivelling the head while the eyes were closed and really focus on what you saw when you opened them while remaining aware of what you were looking at when you last had them opened.
I sit up—
the swoop of a blackbird
from an ivied roof
You could then do the same with sound, feeling, smelling & tasting—a whole series of stopping each sense in turn and restarting it as though the whole world were suddenly a different place. This would be to track change and therefore emphasise things as they are, to be aware of the moment of transition, the act of self-remembering. Then, only just half-awake, I thought you could do this with books—the object of the exercise would be to open a book at random and expect to find the author writing about something very ordinary but making it new by the very act of writing about it, as though it had never happened before, nor would ever happen again.
The sweet sound of rustling leaves, as soothing as the rush of falling water, made a gentle music over a group of three persons sitting at the extremity of a lawn. Upon their right was a plantation or belt of trees, which sheltered them from the noonday sun; on the left the green sward reached to the house; from the open window came the rippling notes of a piano, and now and again the soft accents of the Italian tongue. The walls of the garden shut out the world and the wind—the blue sky stretched above from one tree-top to another, and in those tree-tops the cool breeze, grateful to the reapers in the fields, played with bough and leaf. In the centre of the group was a small table, and on it some tall glasses of antique make, and a flask of wine.
But, for the hour, the sun shines brightly, and a narrow line along the upper surfaces of the metals, burnished by the polishing friction of a thousand wheels, glints like silver under, the rays. The red brick of the booking-office looks redder and more staring under the fierce light. The door is locked, and there is no waiting-room in which to take shelter; nothing but a projecting roof over a part of the platform. On the lintel is the stationmaster’s name painted in small white letters, like the name of the landlord over the doorway of an inn. Two corded boxes lie on the platform, and near them stand half a dozen rusty milk tins, empty. With the exception of a tortoiseshell cat basking in the sunshine, there seems nothing living in the station, and the long endless rails stretching on either side in a straight line are vacant. For hours during the day the place slumbers, and a passenger gliding by in the express may well wonder why a station was built at all in the midst of trees and hedges without so much as a single visible house.
One of the great joys of reading is to come across such descriptions of unnotable things that have nevertheless been noted by a mind that deemed them worthy of being recorded; in this case Richard Jefferies in two separate essays in Hodge and His Masters; all such minutiae are worthy of recall; this being the only time when they will ever be recorded thus. The selection and the reading of such passages acts as a guide to what is important in life; in this way we are alerted to the mystical nature of Being. Istigkeit.
Here’s another extract that works in the same way. It’s from Tideline by Edward Seago who was an English artist of some note. The book was given to me when he moved away by a naval commander who lived in the lighthouse at the end of our road.
The Way this particular disposition of clouds seems to be of momentous significance…
Hanging over the bureau in my sitting-room there is a drawing by Sickert. It is a pencil sketch of an old costerwoman. She might be the daily ‘char’ who has paused for a moment in her work, one hand on hip and the other, beyond the margin of the picture, seemingly holding a broom handle. I chose that particular spot for the drawing because it goes so well with the statuette of a soldier… which stands beneath it. There is something remarkably similar about those two figures. Each of them are warriors in their own way—a couple of tough campaigners, who can face reality without losing their sense of humour, blessed with that quality which is commonly called ‘guts’.
This morning, when I was cleaning the glass on the drawing, I suddenly realised that it might easily be taken for a portrait of Emma Larkin. I know for a fact that she was not the model, and, anyway, her ‘pride’ would have forbade her to pose for a portrait except in her Sunday best. Emma Larkin came every morning and ‘did’ for me when I lived in Chelsea before the war. That was at a time when ‘dailys’ were easy to come by, and the registry office sent six of them to see me in one morning. Emma Larkin was the sixth. I engaged her on the spot. She was exactly what I had pictured a ‘daily’ to be. Her hat (so like the one in the Sickert drawing) was, indeed, a creation. Goodness knows how one would begin to make a hat like that. I suppose it had some sort of shape as a basis to work on, but after it came into the possession of Emma Larkin I think that she herself had a hand in its adornment. Right in the front of it was a large bunch of glossy cherries, which rattled whenever she nodded her head, and protruding from somewhere in the rear was an enormous hat-pin which had been jabbed recklessly into its depths. She wore a shabby black coat with a bit of dyed fur round the collar. Her apron was rolled up round her waist, ready to be let down when she went into action. Dangling from her clasped hands was a black oil-cloth bag, which accompanied her everywhere, but I never knew what she carried inside it. She came into the room with a twinkle in her bloodshot eyes and a grin which revealed the only two teeth in her head. I shall always associate Emma Larkin with that grin. It was the first thing I noticed about her, and it was the last thing I remember of her as she stood waving by a station barrier.
But, to return to my teacherly dream… what was its Behavioural Objective, as we used to say in the Old Days? What was I hoping to achieve in the mind of the one course member? What was she supposed to be able to do by the end of the lesson? To Have a Strategy for Making New… Perhaps… The whole sensory response to experience to be revitalised… A kind of self-remembering… The method—to get practice at really being instead of just ambling along in the habitual way deep in the business of receiving impressions but not being aware of the process itself, not being aware that you are doing so.
The kind of enlivenment that sets you up for getting shivers up the spine when certain extracts from books seem to read you rather than the conventional other way round.
Outside—black night. Here the ticking clock and a small lamp pitched against the darkness and the background roar of wind as down a long long tunnel.
All those sentences without a finite verb! Oh the joy of going against the rules!
Silence & Solitude
Silence is liberation, says Thomas Merton. It is being ‘…no longer involved in the measurement of life but in the living of it…’ Merton says that in a condition of silence ‘…my whole life becomes a prayer…’ I have a common problem with the word ‘prayer’: it comes so laden with mumbo-jumbo that I have to reframe it so that it makes sense to me: it might, for example, be an immersion in soul-life, no words, no paternosters to beam us up to another plane. Merton himself says that ‘…we put words between our selves and things. Even ‘God’ has become another conceptual unreality in a no man’s land of language that no longer serves as a means of communion with reality…’ So I wince for him whenever he relaxes what appears to be a firm linguistic stand and lowers his guard to cart ‘God’ in. Whenever he’s not thinking consistently, he succumbs to ordinary theistic encumbrance.
He continues: silence & solitude must be ‘objective & concrete’—you have to be in a ‘communion with something greater than the world, as great as Being itself…’ I can go with that—the paradoxically simple idea that there is something infinitely greater than myself gives me the appropriate mystical shivers—what I understand as ‘oceanic consciousness’. But then he trivialises things again by talking about ‘finding God’ in there somewhere. My own notion of Immensity is so large that the meagre thing they call ‘god’, projection of the superego on to a universal scale as Freud said, only occupies a very tiny corner of it.
Slipping into another mode, run perhaps by another of his ‘I’s, Merton pulls himself together and in mystical state he is invincible. His ‘vocation to solitude’ is ‘…to deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray [being immersed in soul-life] and work in the morning, and to labour and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but—silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence…’
‘Prayer’ here seems to be a simple wordless devotion to the idea of gratitude for being part of the Immensity and for the gift of being able to be a continual seeker.
‘If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything, will never become anything and in the end because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless at the moment of our greatest decision…’ says Merton. Solitude & silence are not intended ‘…to immobilise my life, to reduce all things to a frozen concentration upon some inner experience. When solitude alternates with common living it can take on this character of a halt, of a moment of stillness, an interval of concentration…’ Then it can become a habit: silence & solitude in the midst of the world’s hubbub.
A Quakers’ Meeting from the Essays of Elia:-
Reader, would’st thou know what true peace and quiet mean: would’st thou find a refuge from the noises and clamours of the multitude; would’st thou enjoy at once solitude and society; would’st thou possess the depth of thine own spirit in stillness, without being shut out from the consolatory faces of thy species; would’st thou be alone, and yet accompanied; solitary, yet not desolate; singular, yet not without some to keep thee in countenance;—a unit in aggregate; a simple in composite:—come with me into a Quakers’ Meeting.
Dost thou love silence deep as that ‘before the winds were made’? go not out into the wilderness, descend not into the profundities of the earth; shut not up thy casements; nor pour wax into the little cells of thy ears, with little-faith’d self-mistrusting Ulysses.—Retire with me into a Quakers’ Meeting.
The Art of Life
John Cowper Powys says that ‘the art of life consists in the creation of an original and unique self; something the simplest mind can achieve…’ which can be done by detaching oneself from all philosophical systems without dogmatically rejecting any of them. I savour that: the creation of an original and unique self… What would have to happen for that to emerge without all the mental encumbrances of vanity, self-centredness, over-weening certainty, without dogma, without attachment to theoretical invented structures but deriving some kind of eclectic mix?
‘It matters little whether some deep psychic secret of which you have luckily possessed yourself ought to be attributed to Plato, or Goethe, or Wordsworth, or Dostoievsky, or the Tao, or the wisdom of Zoroaster, or the doctrine of the Stoics. All the philosophers, all the prophets, draw their secrets from the same sort of fountain—that is to say from the solitary contemplations of their own lonely, anti-social ego, feeling its way by itself amid the smarting blows and the thrilling caresses of intimate personal experience.’
One should obstinately refuse to be finally committed to any one of them. What Cowper Powys calls ‘calm happiness’ is to be attained to by standing under (or alongside) the ‘fountain’ of ‘secrets’ from which all these great names have taken sustenance: ‘around the consciousness of the simplest among us float, when we are alone, images, fragments, tokens, memories, half-symbols, broken echoes, of the great mystical thoughts of the world…’ The chance to recognise them comes only when we are alone. Then we have to set up a ‘magic circle’ round us that cannot be invaded by ‘voices prophesying war’—the endless undeclared war on the spirit.
But ‘happiness’—such a poor word to describe the intense satisfaction of Being-to-oneself in what Cowper Powys calls ‘premeditated ecstasy’, obtained through the ‘machinery of the ecstasy release’ which we might now refer to as a re-arrangement of neurons. It needs, he says, ‘magnetic wires’—which, in my mind, can only lead to Magnetic Centre!
And why don’t we all seek it? Why don’t we attain it, this simple re-arrangement of neurons? John Cowper Powys says the answer’s simple: ‘We do not desire it. We desire desperately external forms of pleasure. We desire power, glory, money, health, reputation. But not happiness…’
In fact the word ‘happiness’ has become attached to power, glory, money and all the rest of it. That’s why it’s such a poor word to describe the intense satisfaction of Being-to-oneself alone.
‘Crowd-consciousness’ distracts us from Being-to-oneself-alone. To build a magic circle around you requires that you ‘sink into your soul. Say to yourself: “Here I am, a living conscious self. surrounded by walls, streets, pavements, houses and roofs. Above me is the boundless sky, beneath me the solid earth…’ This is my universe to which I can stretch out my spirit but it responds only to loneliness and solitude; what I see before me, ‘…these walls, these half-open windows, through which the yellow sun or the dark night appears, are the fringes, edges, margins of an unfathomable universe on the brink of which we stand while our soul grapples with the unknown…’ This is ‘premeditated ecstasy’…
We can have a powerful grasp on life when we hold off the temptation to lose self in crowd consciousness—in what Gurdjieff might call A Influences. Chat Shows & Phone-ins, the Have Your Say mentality that’s destroyed the intellectual probity of, say, classical music programmes on the radio, twittering & ‘social media’—all that is an aspect of crowd consciousness; it holds the world in thrall.
It is worse than madness to be born conscious, and then to clutter up this miraculous gift with such incredible follies [the bagatelles of crowd fashion]. Swinging upon her terrific orbit by night and by day the vast rock-structure of the earth calls upon us to share her immemorial vigil. Horror unspeakable is never far from our thoughts; but it can be forgotten, forgotten, forgotten, as we stand—flesh-covered skeletons upon pavement-covered rock —sharing the patience of the Inanimate, enduring in stoical exultation ‘the Something that infects the World’.
John Cowper Powys’ recipe for separating one’s self from crowd-consciousness is to eschew all crowd pre-occupations: emotional turmoils, rivalries, ambitions, notions of superiority and inferiority. What’s left once you’ve done away with all that? Irritable anxieties & regrets. Make Poof! to them! What’s left? Nothingness, the not-self, the centre of the soul.
We must let go especially of ‘life illusion’, he says.
‘A person’s life illusion is that secret dramatic way of regarding the self which makes you feel to yourself a remarkable, singular, unusual, exciting individual. Everybody has a life-illusion; and it is something that goes much deeper than mere vanity or conceit…’
I wonder if this is akin to ‘Chief Feature’ in the Gurdjieff canon—that which obstructs progress in life. It’s certainly different from, and runs counter to the creation of an original and unique self… quite without illusory constructs.
‘Life illusion’ is the shadow cast by your subjective self, your false imagination, ‘…the etheric mask of the abysmal thing in itself…’ The shadow of the inmost ‘I am I’; the shadow is the life illusion.
So now I ask myself the question: What is my life illusion? How do I begin to get at it? It’s a shadow so it moves as I move; as I go to inspect it it slips away.
What is there deep in my subjective notion of my self that casts a shadow over all I say and do? I wonder if it’s a sense of superiority—that’s a story I tell myself without realising it: that my way of looking at the world is watertight as against many others who seem to lack a consistent weltenshaung. This is a ‘secret dramatic way of regarding the self’. I find that I most respect, feel drawn to, those who, in their solitary way, hold to a similar certainty. ‘Listen to what you say about others and notice how precisely it fits your own way of being,’ says Gurdjieff.
But I normally hold such a sense of superiority very much in check; I deliberately demolish this ugly statue of my self; I operate in the dark so that I cast no shadow. Whether I succeed or not is hard to tell but the fact that it is (maybe) my life illusion means that it has some effect on the way I do things. Who knows?
John Cowper Powys recommends ways to get to what he calls ‘calm happiness’. But the skimpiness of the word ‘happiness’ remains a bit of a block for me. An alternative is perhaps to make a beeline for the opposite of happiness: what does he define as the unhappiness from which we must try to escape?
One of the chief causes of unhappiness is that our mind is pre-occupied all the while with its relationship with other minds. Free yourself from this; make the friendliest and kindliest retreat you can into solitude—in a few moments your nature will have bathed itself so deeply in the cool baths of primordial Being that you will feel yourself able to return to the troubling arena of humanity with an inviolable and secret strength…
And, following this advice by refocussing my thoughts on the nearest tree, moving away from taking what somebody else seems to think into consideration, focussing instead on a chink in the curtain, on the rising scales in Beethoven’s first symphony, on the flickering log-fire, what happened to my life illusion? It dissolved into nothing; I didn’t have to work on it; it was just no longer there. It’s only there in relation to other people.
Anybody close to me who chances to read all this will maybe think that there’s some fault in them that I feel I must avoid but that is not the case. Nobody needs to know about your withdrawal into solitude even when you are close to them; there may be a certain growth of peace in your demeanour which they may or may not notice; it’s just a peaceable ruse to mend your own soul’s state of unrest. It does not have to affect others in the slightest.
They too could understand that ‘…a portion of our mind, an inviolable, indestructible portion, is outside all this whole burden of Time and Space; outside this whole astronomical universe…’ ‘Spiritual anarchism’ Cowper Powys calls it; acquiring the noble habit of being able to step confidently into the impenetrable Silence between action and inaction, relishing both. ‘The soul that has made a habit of interior solitude can withdraw, even in the presence of those it cares for most, into its secret communion with the inanimate; instead of withdrawal weakening its feelings for others, it increases it…’
‘This is the whole secret of the practice of Elementalism: it obtains happiness by the most rigid and austere simplification of the means to happiness. A person may know that he is advancing, for example, in the true direction when he can get as great a thrill from walking along a muddy or a dusty road as from walking over soft green grass; when he can get as much happiness from seeing a tuft of waving grass-blades reflected on a bare stone, as from a woodland glade that is like the sky itself by reason of its masses of bluebells.
It is by a process of simplification carried constantly further and further that happiness is won. Having once aroused in our mind enough faith in our own will-power to create a universe of contemplation and forget everything else, there are few limitations to the happiness we may enjoy.
And we have a right to narrow down our universe ever further and further; until like the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey it is made up of certain simple endurances, enjoyments, mental and physical struggles, surrounded by the washing of the sea, the blowing of the wind, the swaying of the wheat, the falling of the rain, the votaging of the clouds, and the motions of sun and moon and awn and twilight…’
The Ivan Osokin Touch
I should love to step forth back down the long tunnel of Time I carved for myself to be a young man or child again. Of course, in any re-run, just as for Ivan Osokin, it would all turn out exactly as it has done. Something there is that binds us to the wheel. I could do a re-bore but up would come the same regrets and the same awful falls from Grace.
A truism: you cannot change the past—it happened thus and thus—but you can change your attitude to it now. To which end I step often and boldly back down the tunnel of my time. What I always discover is a tearful need to put my arms round the little lad standing in his father’s garden full of a dream that it is the whole wide world stretching all the way to India & back, or looking up at the constellations to make the garden sweep up beyond galaxy after galaxy forever.
It is only in solitude that these ‘divine’ observations make any sense—attempt to explain them to somebody else, share them, call them ‘happiness’ and they dwindle to nothing. You will almost certainly have had cognate experiences just as valuable to yourself but nobody on earth could get into the mind of the ten-year-old staring out of the train-window from Waterloo in the dark night being the Controller of everything he saw—driving the trains that passed on other lines, sorting out where cars & lorries were going, their point of origin & destination, arranging for the lighting of streets… Why are there so many lights, such a waste of energy?
Nobody, not even its author, could fathom the impulse that led to a line of poetry (the first ever?) coming from the mind of the pre-teen young lad:
this is my bridge on which I say I stand
He was not able at the time to appreciate that this would stand as an emblem for the whole of his life. It was a bridge spanning a huge abyss, Escher-like (though I’d not seen his drawings then), stretching slender & awesome from one misty cliff to another—my bridge; I stood there; I gave myself leave to assert both the existence of the bridge and the fact of my being there—solitary, unmoved and unmoving. I didn’t go to either side of the bridge; I was immobile at its centre, not wanting or requiring the apparent certainty represented by either more firm side. The landscape stretched out miles below me in perfect clarity even to the far horizon.
An emblem for my whole life! But I suppose I did not remind myself of the implications of the metaphor sufficiently often; too often I strayed from the middle of the bridge to investigate the tops of the cliffs on either side, the towns & villages and all the people with their alien philosophies, mired myself in requirements.
I stand back there now and, in spite of the dizzy height, it still feels right just as it was 60-odd years ago.
this is my bridge on which I say I stand
The piece of paper I wrote it on is long since gone but the idea lives on. Owner-of-the-bridge-I, Meta-I, an I that can stand above and apart from everything in absolute Solitude.
When I go back down the tunnel of time, it’s clear that all the images I relate to most intimately are those which have me on my own, not having to relate to anybody else. No place for resentments, no requirements…
Chaffinch & blackbird, bat & owl, swifts & swallows and a whole series of cats… Gurdjieff was quite right: if you want to make sense of feelings & emotion expend your energy on animals—they are more straightforwardly honest in their feelings; then come back to humans if you wish. What can then be omitted is all the mistaken identification with their concerns, the ever-frustrated attempt to take their interior being into account in your own thinking Being. Chaffinch & blackbird, bat & owl, swifts & swallows, cats & dogs just get on with life, more than happy to root about in tree, sky & undergrowth.
The trouble with humans is that they make too many assumptions and act on them. They mind-read and act on what they have in their mind rather than on what’s there in front of their very eyes. I too, of course, except that when I put my mind to it, I can at least step back to the centre of my bridge. That’s the one and only difference: I have a bridge on which I can say that I stand. Otherwise I’m sucked into the melée, just like everybody else.
These central organising images we have must have some internal representation—there’ll be a somatic marker. The bridge is in my diaphragm I think… How does the marker manifest itself in everyday life? My reverence for books—they behave themselves! If they do answer me back there’s no requirement for me to listen; more often than not they seem to have been written about me! The long bicycle rides between one melée and the next & now motorbike journeys… The journey is a bridge between one event and another landfall. All the rooms where I’ve spent the night. Places I’ve invested with my self: the pantheon at Stourhead, Box Hill, Bournemouth just after the War, Brighton pier end in a storm, secondhand bookshops all over the land, Salisbury Cathedral Close, the gallery in the Albert Hall, cycling down to Taunton. Paintings & poems & music. All these things are the bridge on which I say I stand.
Each makes a bridge between one elemental source and another. Here are the multiple stimuli and this is the product and there’s always an ‘I’ in between.
Except that before very long the bridge will collapse into the abyss…
3 thoughts on “ELEMENTAL (R11)”
What a moving post, Colin! The poetic tone emanates far beyond the verses you quote and illuminates the prose of every paragraph. I have re-read the section “At This Moment Now” twice already, and expect to re-visit it a few times more in the days ahead. It is a rich life indeed that you have lived, and are living, to produce such profound reflections.
Thank you, Colin; oneness
It’s like walking into a soul-door of Virginia Woolf. This is how I felt while reading this poetic marvel. It’s the river I will remember, the empty woods and the secret places that seemed to call to me in my youth. Not much has changed in the past 60yrs. There is nothing like the grass spread out in an endless field, merging with the sky and trailing off behind a giant oak, taking wing with the mocking crows, disappearing over the horizon, black dots with a touch of blue. The endless days alone near the old horse barn, crossing the muddy farm lands, up the side of a mountain and back down the old lumber trail. Something pulled me along those solitary ways, something still does. This is what I will miss…