This piece of writing, done at the end of March 1993, had been dawning on me since I was about ten when, on Friday afternoons, for a whole year we went into Mr Bullivant’s classroom to listen to him read stories which I never heard because I was too busy drinking in the painting which hung on his wall. The experience amounted to one of the most significant events of my entire education.
CB: Tell me, shepherd boy, what are you supposed to represent?
SB: I have no idea. Anyway, you know what Ben Nicholson said about his abstracts – when you see a tree in the middle of a field you don’t ask what it represents so why should you ask that question of a painting, any painting? It’s just what it is.
CB: What was in the mind of that Lenbach fellow when he depicted you?
SB: How should I know? The painter is not important – he’s just a by-product of the painting itself.
CB: That’s an interesting idea. Where did you get it from?
SB: Do you imagine that I lie here without thinking, without an original thought in my head? Lenbach’s been dead for ninety years but I’ve been stretched out here gathering ideas all that time.
CB: Ideas about what?
SB: This & that… Actually, that idea – the one about Lenbach being just a by-product of me, this painting – comes from an autobiography – it’s in the air we breathe –‘the oxygen of the soul’ he calls it – the by-product…
SB: Michel Tournier. I’m on the dust jacket of his book. He says I’m The Wind Spirit.
CB: I don’t know that.
SB: You should. It’ll answer all your questions.
CB: All of them?
SB: Try me! But if you were to buy the book thinking that it was an explication of me represented on the cover you’d be sorely disappointed. There’s nothing there about me specifically though there’s a fine blurb on the dust jacket:-
Lying on his back, his left hand shading his eyes, he no longer hears the bells of his flock in the distance. He no longer sees the mountain flowers and grasses that bow in fragile greeting around his body. He listens to the powerful wind descended from heaven, before which the vegetation of the high slopes bends down. He scrutinises the luminous void. He is tossed by waves in this azure gulf through which heavy white ships pass with majestic slowness. This is his way of doing metaphysics.
CB: Bold claim!
SB: And that’s right, but the writer didn’t do me; nothing about me except for this note on the dust jacket which will become detached from the book as it does the rounds of secondhand bookshops for hundreds of years.
CB OK. You’ve been lying there for 90 years, you say, which must make you an expert at lying on a grassy bank under a cloudless blue sky, so still that the butterflies play around you, oblivious. I’d like to know how you do it.
SB: It takes a lifetime to do it successfully, though the rudiments are quite easy to learn, easy to achieve: your average day-tripper to Brighton or Box Hill knows how to throw themselves on the ground and soak up the sun.
CB: But what you do is different?
SB: Oh yes! You have to nuzzle your shoulders into the planet, feel its surging through the blackness of space, its movement across the universe & time. With your right hand you seek to arrest its flow; with your right foot you tilt it at just the right angle. It’s not any old bank that will do for this. Then you think…
CB: What do you think?
SB: The thinking is of a piece with the activity; it does not follow from it – it is part of it. ‘Landscape is a state of mind’, says Michel Tournier. When I’m like this I become the landscape; it fits me like a glove; I fit it – shoulders, back, bum and leg. I am borne up by the motion of the planet. I am at one with the sandy bank and the impulse of the afternoon.
CB: So how do I get to feel like that? What do I have to do?
SB: It is both simple and complex, both at the same time. You’re out in the open air; you’ve opened your lungs wide; you are in need of spiritual rejuvenation…
CB: How does that follow?
SB: Take it from me… The day is hot; you see a grassy bank that’s just the right angle for sinking into. The moment is right; you sit and fill your eyes with fields, farms, villages, valleys flowing away from you till your sense of identity is lost in them. At that moment you drop back and wriggle your body into the shape of the bank and feel the planet spinning. The wriggle is important.
CB: What’s in your mind? Do you talk to yourself?
SB: Not to start with. I focus on things – sounds, skylarks, insect popping, bees, buzz of grass-hoppers, distant tractors, sheep, a dog barking as they always do. I stare into the blue sky till it becomes kaleidoscopic and I can pick the dancing patterns apart with what passes for my brain. I feel the grass stems. I scoop all these fleeting impressions up into the Nothingness of my other-than-conscious mind. Then I might go into conscious recollection to recall Michel Tournier’s quotation from Nietzsche: ‘one must have a chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star’. Sometimes Valéry: ‘God made everything out of nothing but the nothing shows through…’
CB: So you move into your conscious mind then?
SB: In and out, in and out. It’s not good to be in either place for too long or exclusively; better to learn to switch from one to the other as a matter of habit. Michel Tournier says that ‘the great joy of metaphysics is the warm & powerful conviction that by force of intellect one can proceed straight to the roots of the most palpable of things, to the fragrance & texture of the world…’ In my conscious mind I’m pretty clear that putting me on his dust jacket was to do with announcing the existence of an objective correlative (Eliot, you know) for a state of mind – he identifies with me but leaves readers to sort this out for themselves. Or maybe it was accidental. Most things are. When his publisher asked, “What shall we put on the cover?” he might just have looked up at the picture of The Shepherd Boy that had been hanging on his sitting-room wall for forty years and said, “That’s it!” But I don’t know.
CB: I haven’t read this book yet, remember.
SB: It’s a metaphysical autobiography. As far as I can make out, its organising principle is PHORIA which is a special word from the Greek meaning ‘bearing’ or in a more special sense a ‘bearing up’ consisting of a harmony of individual & moment, with time & place & circumstance but neutral – unlike euphoria, going over the top.
CB: So how would I do ‘phoria’? How would I know when I had it?
SB: Pure recognition, awareness of something being just right for the moment, for the time & place – maybe something as simple as a quotation that suddenly leaps off the page of a book at you like ‘rooks – slow dark thoughts of peace’ (Rosamond Lehmann: Invitation to the Waltz) and then a herd of rooks go past your window.
CB: ‘Window’ – how do you know about windows when you’ve been lying there all that time?
SB: I know about many things lying here. Many’s the room I’ve been hung in with morning sunlight streaming through a window – I know about windows.
CB: How do I do PHORIA?
SB: You may have to go back to a time when you could have chosen to be lonely, on your own, gathering the whole universe around you like a cloak.
SB: It’s like Michel Tournier says in my book: ‘no one is a good student who cannot and does not like to work alone…’ Then you have to sort things out for yourself following the example of a teacher who searches for enlightenment with you: ‘as for French, Latin & Greek, he was perfectly capable of plumbing their mysteries along with us… I think there is no better method…’ Then you must learn to get maximum excitement from small and even trivial events: ‘above all standing by through the terrible & glorious days when the thresher filled the barnyard with panting sounds and silvery dust: these were simple but important things and I am glad I experienced them before they disappeared forever…’
CB: But I cannot go back and rewrite my history.
SB: You cannot rewrite it certainly, but you can view it differently; you can polish it up, fiddle around with the remembering of it. Think of a time when you were lonely now; go back into it, see what you saw, hear what you heard and feel what you felt. Consider what you might have learned from the experience whatever it was.
CB: How pleasant it was to sit in a deckchair on a summer lawn and not be interrupted; bees and larks and internal noises would have taken on more significance for me – if only I had been able to dismantle my longing to be elsewhere.
SB: Now put a big gap between sitting in the deckchair and the longing; separate the experiences, dismantle them, dismingle them, one from the other.
CB: This I can do for myself now then…
SB: It’s my gift to you. And there’s more. Michel Tournier: ‘I think what a person reads early on in life forms an intangible, impregnable, base upon which to erect not only literary cultivation and judgement but also a personal sensibility and mythology – intangible & impregnable because we can no more deny our earliest admirations than we can reject the influence of heredity…’ Around the same time as I was being painted Richard Jefferies offered what amounts to specific directions on how to arrive at my state of mind; if I had asked him what I should do in order to be me I am sure that this is what he would have replied:-
The story of my heart commences seventeen years ago. In the glow of youth there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought My heart was dusty, parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge… There was a hill to which I used to resort at such periods. The labour of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home. On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continual effort, which carried away the sense of oppression.
CB: If what you’re doing isn’t working for you, do something different…
SB: It’s a PHORIA, a being born up in a way totally appropriate to his desire for change.
Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself… I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness – I felt it bear me up…
CB: Ah! Phoria. I see – a bearing up.
SB: Mystical combination of events. And then moving inwards. Outside-inside-outside.
…through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. By the blue heaven, by the rolling sun bursting through untrodden space, a new ocean of ether every day unveiled. By the fresh and wandering air encompassing the world; by the sea sounding on the shore – the green sea white-flecked at the margin and the deep ocean; by the strong earth under me. Then, returning, I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence. thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity… Next, back to myself I came and recalled myself, my bodily existence. I held out my hand, the sunlight gleamed on the skin and the iridescent nails; I recalled the mystery and beauty of the flesh. I thought of the mind with which I could see the ocean sixty miles distant, and gather to myself its glory. I thought of my inner existence, that consciousness which is called the soul. These, that is, myself, I threw into the balance to weigh the prayer the heavier.
SB: I could have written all that if I had not been so busy slumped just here; it’s as though old Lenbach had read Richard Jefferies and had a wish to represent the words in print. Anyway, what you have to do… Hey, are you listening to me?
CB: Ooops, sorry! I think I tranced out…
SB: Did you get it though? Never mind! I wonder what it would have been like if you had got it. What you have to do is to keep going backwards & forwards, macro/micro, specific/general, internal feelings/universal shudders – backwards & forwards so quickly that you settle at what’s been called the ‘still point of the turning world’.
CB: Not much money in that…
SB: What? So you’re part of what Michel Tournier refers to as the crisis that began in the 18th Century, ‘a turning point in the history of education, as moral initiation gradually lost out to practical instruction…’ Now ‘education, cleansed of every last vestige of initiation, has been reduced to nothing more than a dispenser of useful & saleable knowledge…’ as defined by those who stand to benefit from the cleansing.
CB: Quite. I think I must have been born before the 18th Century. I’ve wanted this conversation ever since I was 10 in Mr Bullivant’s classroom on a Friday afternoon.