A Few Preliminary Examples
• Three years running at the beginning of the 1990’s I chose to begin the academic Summer Holidays by cycling solo 1000 miles in a fortnight from John o’Groats to Lands End, from the top to the bottom of island Britain, a different way each time, averaging 92 miles a day. That was when I was very fit. It pleased me greatly to do this eating up of miles – it pleases me greatly now that I did it and can recall, as I often do, mental images of events along the road.
• I stick with old hats, old clothes, find it difficult to throw things away. I want many pictures on the wall to provide anchors for a sense of Being. The things I value seem to be a part of me: the collection of stones on my desk, the oddities I’ve bought in junk shops, a fountain pen from the sixties, remembrances of my dead sister, a large old collection of vinyl LP’s, as good as new, that I listen to with headphones in the early morning before it’s light. I feel so comfortable with all these things around me. It pleases me to find myself admitting all this at last.
• I’ve composed miles and miles of music, most of it never played. I’ve handmade over 10,000 paperback books for other people (and a few for myself) in the last 25 years.
• The amassing of things, words, sounds, paintings, ideas, people, events… “How do you find the time?” people ask. Perhaps I have been well on the way to learning how to escape time.
• I started writing ROOM books in 2001. I’m on my tenth now (March 2016) – they consist of over two hundred pages each containing literary-political-philosophical-Gurdjieffian rambles, no longer arranged in chapters, but in Combologues which are, literally, ‘knots of words’. When I first came across the word I found it intriguing that it contained letters from my name in proper sequence – CoBlu – and decided to replace ‘chapters’ with it. At the end of a section by Jacques Lacarrière in Needleman & Baker’s Gurdjieff – Essays & Reflections we are told that ‘a Combologue is a chaplet used in Greece for prayers as well as for the pleasure of the fingers’. He says
Certain people practise prayer or meditation. I practise writing. It is like an ascetic discipline but also like pleasure, like work that is identical with play. And during all these years… your image [Gurdjieff’s], your thought, your teaching have been like the thread of a combologue along which the progressive experiences of my life have been told…
Progressive Experiences of My Life
– long solo bicycle rides for forty-two years till 1994, the writing of miles & miles of words and of music, the fabrication of books for others, the writing of books for myself, old hats, all old hat things and this house as a museum of life – I love its creaky old floorboards…
Jacques Lacarrière continues:-
I am taking the road again, knowing that, starting tonight, I am going to load myself up with and delight in… emotions and sentiments: the scent of the wind, the cries of children playing in the twilight, the silhouette of a furtive cat on the counter, the silence of an old café where Time itself sleeps and dreams. I love these hours and claim them for myself… They build up in me, day after day, season after season, that part which perhaps will escape Time. Yes, I am voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral (others might say the impermanent), which is a way of being faithful to Time…
…And a way of being true to the secret of one’s inner life, the pattern of which saves us from drawing the most sinister conclusion as a result of accepting the ultimate truth that human existence is completely absurd, has no conceivable rhyme or reason or purpose.
So how does one construct a personal meaning of life? How escape the demolition of self because of a belief in its utter absurdity?
The things I’ve listed seem to me to be deeply charged with meaning and significance related to the minutiae, the oddities – what to other people will no doubt seem inexplicable or even crass eccentricities. I think one must hold tight to crass eccentricities! Have a positive pride in them. I’m with John Cowper Powys in The Meaning of Culture where he defines such pride ‘as an integral feeling of self-respect associated with what we may call a person’s Life Illusion… [which. he says] is that view of one’s self which includes both one’s role in the world as it appears to others and to the part played by one’s self, in secret solitude in regard to the universe…’
The first five paragraphs of this essay I recognise as coming out of my ‘secret solitude’. I’m not boasting about what I’ve done, nor advocating that anybody else do as I have done; the things I’ve listed are just what I have done; they are objective reality; they apply solely to me, to my singular self; they define something of who & what I imagine I am. But in what sense do they constitute a ‘Life Illusion’? Why an illusion? To describe something as an illusion is to make of it a pretence, an invention, a distortion or trick, something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of ‘reality’.
And so, of course, the key question is – what is reality? Perhaps what you invent stands over against everything that anybody else might describe as ‘reality’; it’s a determination to redefine things by dint of your own mind-power. Powys says it is to hold
…in deep contempt all the opinions of the crowd and all objective and worldly standards [so that] the ultimate pride of personality within us, this self-respect by means of which we lie back upon an unassailable life-illusion [would make it] perfectly content with itself quite apart from external success, fame, prestige, or any reputation in the eyes of others…
It’s an illusion, perhaps, because it takes us over in the way it does when it could have been different; it’s an illusion if we think it’s a way of dealing with life that nobody else has at their command. And it’s unassailable because, once you begin to run with it, nobody can deprive you of it.
Powys defines Culture as ‘the conscious development of life-illusion’. My ROOM books (which are literally a ‘growth’ I’ve cultured) therefore consist of an area of my life-illusion – what I consider life is about: the things that concern me in the solitude of my innermost being; the interconnectedness of all things, people, events, the memorialising; amongst other things they recount the way books I’ve read have crafted my being. It occurs to me that I must sometime somehow have chosen to have developed a consistently diligent attitude to reading to have persevered with this connecting business – it must have taken a fairly rare bit of dedication to be alert to the existence of connections, to the capturing or forging of them. It’s not that I ever set out to do this: it was an organic process; it crept up on me down all the lengthy years. The dedication grew on me; it wasn’t something I made an oath to but one afternoon sometime in the mid-’90’s I came to the conclusion that the most resourceful ‘virtual question’ I was in the habit of asking myself, entirely self-prompted, was – How can I connect this with that, x with y, in whatever context I might happen to find myself. This brought making connections to the top of my mind – a good place to hold anything that might contribute to what could turn out to be useful for whatever it is that’s deep down hidden away in one’s life-illusion!
I’d have to admit that it might all be an illusion – a rather complicated disguise behind which I’m saying that life is books, philosophy, Gurdjieff and descriptions of things, events and attitudes that I consider to be worth recording in detail; and the illusion that I’ve always suffered most from that life is not about ambition, prestige, fame, money (and all the rest of the A Influences) but about a systematic return to Essence.
Of course, there are many things which disturb one’s life-illusion. The frequent attacks from outside; the dismantling of things by agents large or small at all times of day and night. To counter them one must hold tight to all one’s crass eccentricities. And gather the self into the larger Self and all the selves into just the ONE.
Absolute Joy in Ordinary Things
Crass eccentricities seem to come suddenly from some level of existence one knows not where – part of one’s life-illusion, the dream of life. ‘…What one is wise to do with books is to saturate oneself in their imaginative atmospheres…’ (JCP op cit) and then locate the atmospheres in real life to
gather together the forces of his inmost being as he stands under any sort of tree upon any patch of bare earth or uncut grass, and let him feel himself as a human animal, unique among his fellows in his own peculiar personal sensations, carried through space-time on the surface of this terrestrial orb!… Then will all manner of old obscure feelings, evoked by both sun and wind, warmth and cold, earth and grass, air and rain, rise up in his mind. And he will remember certain street-corners where the evening light has fallen in particular ways. He will remember certain bridges where the rain-wet stones or the mosses have taken on a certain delicate sadness, or have pierced his heart ‘with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul. He will remember the tarry smells and the salty breaths of this or that harbour-mouth, passed carelessly enough at the time, but returning upon him now as of the very essence of his life. He will remember how he once came up the slope of a far-off hill, following some half-forgotten road; and there will come upon him vague memories of remote gates overgrown with elder-bushes and with tall nettles; memories of bare beech-trunks, God knows on what far uplands, of stranded barges in stagnant back waters, of green seaweed on lonely pier-posts, of glittering sun-paths, or moon-paths, on sea-waters and river-waters, of graveyards where the mounds of the dead were as drowsy under the long years as if the passing of time had been the passing of interminable flocks of sheep. Thus will he tell like beads the memories of his days and their long burden; while the unspeakable poetry of life will flood his being with a strange happiness.
If he waits long enough, thus standing alone, thus staring at earth and sky, there will even, perhaps, come over him that immemorial sensation, known to saints and mystics from the beginning of time, wherein the feeling of all outward things is lost in a singular ecstasy.
This feels like it might be the result of what Jacques Lacarrière described as being ‘voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral’. Rooting oneself in sunshine & rain, the tracery of cloud formations, the trees up on the hill (Chanctonbury Ring springs to mind), the pool in the forest, silent as moon-dust, is to return to elemental certainty.
But the question continues to gnaw away: why is this a life-illusion?
Why is this a Life-Illusion?
In The Art of Growing Old John Cowper Powys says:-
We can now take stock of our situation in a fresh and new way. Both to ourselves and to the world at large we are now no better than the little green grub that hides itself in what is usually called ‘Cuckoo-spit’…
In the grand scheme of things we are pretty negligible beings but we give ourselves airs & graces and act as though we are lords & ladies of creation giving not a second thought to the way we are destroying our living space, treading on the faces of those less able to fend for themselves than we are. We are negligible beings nevertheless. It is because of this that, in order to sustain our Being, we must create a life-illusion of some kind.
If that is what we are [grub in cuckoo-spit], let us boldly and shamelessly accept the situation! We, an abject and contemptible failure, we, a wretched and helpless criminal, we, a laughing-stock for all well-constituted persons, can turn round quietly now, even as the poorest blind-worm can ‘turn’, and enjoy once again the roar of the wind, the rustle of the leaves, the roll of the waves, the lights and shadows on the dust-heap, the waving grasses, the scattered stones!
‘Voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral’…
It will depend on the quality of our imagination whether the feeling that we are on a level with the weakest offspring of planetary life gives us – in addition to the lifting up of our own heart – a never-before-experienced thrill of melting tenderness for all these fellow-entities, children of the same Great Mother, who are as helpless, and often as vicious and mean and cowardly, as we are ourselves!
As a defence mechanism against the possible mental overwhelm that comes from contemplating our status as worthless, absurd and contemptible beings it is perhaps necessary to invent some protective factor – what Ibsen called a ‘saving lie’, as Powys points out, one that hides the brutal truth from people we relate to and also prevents us from giving way to total personal despair. Powys calls it a ‘life-illusion’ which is ‘…our inmost, secretest, personal respect for ourselves…’ He says it is important
…owing to our manifold weaknesses and infirmities – to keep [our personal sense of Being] inviolable to all shocks and to strip it of all pretence and assumption. Get it down – that is the clue-word – to the lowest and simplest level you possibly can! I don’t mean that we should yield up one jot of our natural and legitimate pride in being ourselves. Pride of this sort is twin-brother to that planetary humility which is our sublimest novum organum of wisdom.
What I mean is that we should have the pride, just as we have the courage, of our inherent limitations. And it is here that Nature, with her primordial elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plays so mysterious a part. For there are only four things that render our Life-Illusion absolutely indifferent to the Opinion of the World and completely impervious to our blunders and failures in the Struggle for Existence; and these four things are: absorption in books; devotion to a cause; some special erotic obsession; and the cultivation of a life of pure sensation. Of these four the last-mentioned is the only one completely within the power of an ordinary person’s will.
It’s still an illusion because the reality is that we are worthless as ever, absurd and contemptible beings who feel obliged to overcome that horrifying idea: some of us escape from it into politics or religion or sport or some such invented diversion in order to calm ourselves down; the relief of belonging to a larger organised group or set of rigid beliefs gives us the idea that all is in fact right with the world while we still live in antagonisms and furious rivalry. No progress, says Gurdjieff, till you realise fully that you are a No-thing going no-where,
Oh, what misery we escape, what heart-burnings, what disappointments, what bitterness, what pessimism, what tragic humiliation, by living in our immediate sensations, in place of competing with others or depending on the love, admiration, esteem of others, or on our position in society and our achievements in the Great World!
This is how celebrities of various kinds survive their ultimate pointlessness: ‘…their inmost Life-Illusion artificially blown up, like the rubber tyre of a wheel, by the air-pump of public opinion…’ To avoid such artificiality we need what Gurdjieff called ‘Second Education’ which we have to work hard at to achieve. ‘First Education’ is the standard one we get from parents, schooling and society in general seeking to fit us into patterns and forms that already exist. It is hard to escape First Education and the beliefs and proclivities it lumbers us with: we learn to self-justify, to make accounts tit for tat, to engage in A Influences, to relish negative emotion, making money, paying the mortgage, sport and what people call fun… We have to
…reach by a deliberate cultivation the sort of proud humility… which is absolutely essential if [we] are to face [our] own soul and… senses, and get [our] Life-Illusion down to the ground, where it can neither fall any lower nor be punctured by any sharp flint of reality when it takes to the road!
Not all the ‘mindfulness’ courses under the sun, or over it, will provide you with such an elemental starting point. Examples of a person in their life-illusion are not very sophisticated; simple things suffice; all that’s needed is to be ‘rooted in the ephemeral’. So
It always gave Wolf a peculiar thrill thus to tighten his grip upon his stick, thus to wrap himself more closely in his faded overcoat. Objects of this kind played a queer part in his secret life-illusion. His stick was like a plough-handle, a ship’s runner, a gun, a spade, a sword, a spear. His threadbare overcoat was like a medieval jerkin, like a monk’s habit, like a classic toga! It gave him a primeval delight merely to move one foot in front of the other, merely to prod the ground with his stick, merely to feel the flapping of his coat about his knees, when this mood predominated. It always associated itself with his consciousness of the historic continuity – so incredibly charged with marvels of dreamy fancy – of human beings moving to and fro across the earth. It associated itself, too, with his deep, obstinate quarrel with modern inventions, with modern machinery…
Thus the eponymous hero of John Cowper Powys’ Wolf Solent which I haven’t read for many many years.
As if to confirm the source of the benefits to be derived from being ‘rooted in the ephemeral’, Powys quite often resorts to making bright lists of the things that root him – a ‘conscious banking up’ of observable phenomena, of memorable moments.
Our innermost self, as we grow more and more conscious of it, surprises us again and again by new explosions of feeling drawn from emotional, nervous, and even chemical reactions; but for all its surreptitious dependence on these impulses, its inner report upon its own nature is that it is a clear, hard, enclosed, secretive nucleus with a detached and independent existence of its own… What… denotes the cultured person is the conscious banking up of this philosophy of his own, its protection from disintegrating elements, the guiding of its channel-bed through jungles of brutality and stupidity.
(The Meaning of Culture)
Memorable Moments and the Food of Pure Impressions
A deliberate dwelling on ‘memorable moments’ from the past serves to root oneself in the continuity of one’s Being. What is it that makes ‘moments’ into ones that become ‘memorable’? The knack of saying to oneself, “I shall remember this moment for the rest of my life…” will fix things in the whatever-it-is preserves things in the mind; I suppose that this can start any time but for me it started around the age of four pottering around my father’s garden, looking under stones for small wild life, poking the pond to disturb newts, staring up at the clouds and the moon, wondering how far up the sky was & what kept it in place…
So, early on, with no idea that my experience was of any significance, I consumed what Gurdjieff called the Food of Pure Impressions. Then I began to crave such experiences and bind them together.
Gurdjieff calls the Food of Pure Impressions the highest form of food, that which contributes most nourishingly to one’s innermost life – more than fish & chips and any more obvious sustenance. I think it’s what Powys is achieving in his listing process.
It is a memorable moment in one’s intellectual life when one realizes that it is not learning for learning’s sake, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge that is the object of our secret struggle with inertia and futility. It is simply that we may enjoy the most exciting sensations that life offers; and enjoy them over the longest possible extension of time. Among such sensations one of the most thrilling is that vague feeling of old countryside romance which emanates from certain far-off highways and certain remote villages. Standing upon some old stone bridge where the moss grows green and untouched on the curve of the dark arches above the water, one often feels that there, is a silent unspeakable secret hovering about such places that no writer has ever really caught.
To develop such images by ratiocination into some long prose elaboration would destroy their purity; just a list is all that’s needed – to rescue the minutiae from the oblivion they might otherwise suffer.
Another way of rescuing words from books that I relish is to construct ‘Found Poems’ from a prose text. I’ve found that some writers’ products yield up such poems more than others; in Powys’ prose texts you often suddenly find yourself reading something with a natural poetic style. This from Chapter 3 of The Philosophy of Solitude:-
deep into your soul say:
here I am a living conscious self
surrounded by walls
streets pavements houses roofs
above me the boundless sky
beneath the solid earth;
all around me are people
of my own kind with their fixed ideas
and their fixed habits
out of my loneliness I stretch forth my spirit
towards all those inanimate things
others are passing carelessly by
and taking carelessly for granted –
towards these stones
towards this dust
towards this brickwork & ironwork
& woodwork on which sun or moon
is shining upon which rain is falling
clouds rolling mist sinking down
I am in a prison – it’s all the same!
I stretch out my spirit
to these walls to that window
to that square of blueness
of yellowness of blackness
which is the window of my place
these inanimates –
inanimate space light & darkness
are my universe:
the world into which this living self
has been flung by an inscrutable destiny
it is in my power
to gather up my forces
and embrace this universe
represented by these material elements
it is in my power
to assert my nature my inmost being
against these things
upon these things
it is in my power
to satisfy my senses upon them
and to feel as I stretch out my spirit
towards them that I am embracing
and yet defying
the whole material world
it matters nothing
how ignorant I am of the great religions
the great philosophies
the prophets & gurus & sages
for here I am – the I am I
within this weak feeble wretched
discomforted body stretching out my spirit
to the great mystery of the universe
as represented by these queer objects
these stones this woodwork
this dark night
these gusts of rainy wind
only in loneliness…
these walls these half-open windows
through which sun or dark night appears
are fringes edges margins
of an unfathomable universe
on the brink of which we stand
while soul grapples with the unknown
In its original context this sequence is an understandable gestalt, a complete isolable notion, that renders itself into a Pure Impression like the circle of trees of Chanctonbury in the South Downs (which I haven’t seen for many years) just seeming to be awaiting release from its chain of words.
This is my secret mythology – entirely mine. It’s part of my life-illusion that one can rescue things from its Absurdity to make novelty.