BOOKS > BENEDICTUS
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child, a bike and a storm
The Perennial Philosophy
The Goths aspire
1st interlude: Sexuality and spirituality
2nd interlude: Enchantment
Spirituality of the land
Spirituality of the ordinary, the everyday
read about the writing of this book click
child, a bike and a storm (complete)
am eight or nine years of age and I am riding home after
home means riding west, and this often means facing headwinds,
but on the day I wish to describe there is no wind, so I am
riding quickly, hurrying because the sky is dark, dark blue.
is approaching. Behind me, in the eastern sky, all is normal;
ahead of me is something huge, and I am riding into it. From
the little town where I go to school there are three miles
to be covered before I get to the gate of our farm, and then
swing at right angles to the Deniliquin road, down ‘the
avenue’, as we call it, a track to our house which the
first owner has lined with pepper trees (Schinus Molle). Once
I’m between these trees the house is in sight, but while
I’m on the main road I feel more in view of whatever’s
looking down, more public, vulnerable, more exposed.
riding home and the sky tells me, by its lofty power, that
getting ready to unleash something. I’m frightened, and I’m strangely
calm. It’s common for me to face headwinds on both of my daily rides
because we live on the wrong side of town for cyclists; the wind changes
the school hours and I often face two headwinds a day. But not this time.
There is an ominous calm, and the wheels of my bike seem to be enjoying themselves
as they spin over the sand where it’s sandy, and spin along the bitumen
in the tiny patches where the council has sealed a few yards, usually near
a bridge, for some reason I don’t understand.
an obedient boy and I don’t understand much, so I do
what my parents and teachers tell me. Those who put rules
in my life are sensible.
ever broken trust with me. I know the world is dark, somewhere out there,
because there’s a terrible war being fought, but I also know that
the people my parents know live cleanly, honourably in fact. There are
in my life. I look at the dark, dark blue that’s approaching, and
I see an enormous force making its way slowly from west to east. I’m
riding home, I’m in a hurry, but time seems to be suspended. I’m
alone, and there are no rules. The dark blue stretches beyond the horizon
and in our flat country
that’s a long way away. This weather system is over my head by now,
and its other end is out of sight. I am alone, apprehensive rather than
frightened, and I also find what’s happening to be exhilarating.
turned tail, I’m heading into it as fast as my legs can push those
pedals down. I realise now and perhaps I realised then that I’m racing
the storm. I’m
giving it a contest and since it’s holding back the thunder, lightning
and downpour which are certainly within its powers, I’m winning!
pretty sure I can get home before it lets loose, and I do. Mother, who’s
frightened of storms, is pleased to have me arrive, and she sits me near
the stove for the hot drink and toast she gives me in the cold months
(something from the fridge when it’s hot). Once I’m there
I forget the sky outside. Our house is safe. It’s cosy in the kitchen,
and Mother wants to know what I did at school that day. I suppose I tell
her, but my memories
are of the sky, and the ride home, the time when I was exposed to the
forces of the world. Casting my mind back, in old age, to the many times
in and out to school, I have any number of impressions, but only one
of a ride when
it seemed that the world had a unity and I also possessed it simply by
riding, humbly yet in contestation with what was coming. The storm was
an invader enforcing
unity. There was no resisting that storm. I was little, and had no power,
except to pedal. I pedalled with joy. My bike went as fast as it had
ever gone for me.
The air was still, and I felt pure. If the approaching storm had tried
to wipe me out it would have found me alive and kicking! I’d have
hidden under a tree. If there’d been a bridge, I might have got
into the big concrete pipe that let the water through. But I didn’t
hide. I was intensely happy pushing my bike toward the advancing sky.
frighten me at all, and it did. This means that I felt it might do something
terrible to me if I
showed fear, so I knew I mustn’t. It was teaching me joy. I was
equal to the storm as long as I was in the contest, which meant I had
I did! I pedalled my little heart out until I got home and put the bike
in the laundry before rushing in to Mother, by the fire, with her welcome
of love, courtesy
and cocoa. ‘Were you frightened?’ Mother asked. ‘No,’ I
said, boldly and with semi-truth. I had been a little frightened, but
loved it, and much as I loved being home I’d loved the ride into
the approaching storm even more. As best I can remember I think the ride
home that day would
have taken between thirty and forty minutes. Something like that; not
very long. Looking back, over sixty years later, it seems a great event
this prelude, I’ve tried to stop myself ascribing purposes or intentions
to the sky I rode under that day, and I’ve tried to concentrate
on the exhilaration I felt: the thrill of being challenged, I think it
placed the ride home that day at the beginning of this book because as
far as I can recall it was my first awareness of something that’s
lurked around my life often enough since then. I shall use the essays
that follow to explore
this … whatever it is that lurks at the edges of human life and
of the difficulties of thinking about such things is that
we become more sophisticated as we age, which means we’ve
got better defences to hide things from ourselves when they don’t
fit the ways we’ve constructed
to view the world. That boy of eight or nine didn’t have too many
of those devices operating, so he was open to the sky, the storm, and
the effects it caused
inside him. I’m pleased to find him rising to the challenge:
I hope the man he gave rise to will be as unfearful, even if apprehensive,
Perennial Philosophy (excerpt)
night was my release. The discipline of submitting to the
sun was removed. Nights
were clear, and windless. Stars shone
in the heavens. The binding rules of daytime yielded to the
mystery, and potential, of night. I could walk up and down
through the paddocks, or along the roads that bordered our
farm, confident of being alone. My parents and our neighbours
inside their houses, little lights in the darkness. The trees,
not that so very many had been left by the early selectors,
were so black that they had more of the night in them than
above. The moon, when it rose, was majestic. I sometimes lay
down in the paddocks, trying to absorb whatever it was that
made the moon so impersonal in its consideration of the earth.
had made it clear that humans who wished to know the divine
inside themselves had to begin by cultivating detachment,
themselves from the passions that take over humans so easily.
was dangerous, I now think, because I was in the phase
of life when passion rules most strongly and there was also
a desperate need for commitment. Young
people need causes. At the time of maximum awareness it’s natural to
seize on some simplification and say it’s right, other commitments
are wrong, and then to make war upon them, with bullets and swords, or with
At my university college, I took part in discussions all the time. Theorising,
and refutation, disputation, took place day and night, and I enjoyed it.
It was a way of life, and it was so endless that even a victory in argument,
defeat, became yesterday’s event when a new day was dawning. The summer
nights I am describing, however, the nights when I went walking, politely
rejecting Mother’s offer to walk with me, ‘if I’d like
seemed to be waiting for me to make up my mind. The night was neutral, but
it made me impatient. I thought I should be finding something. Revelation
should be revealing itself. The serenity, the impersonality of night, was
it wasn’t repeated in me. Try as I could to enter the serenity, I knew
I was turbulent. After lying down and considering the night sky, I got up
again, and walked. An hour or so later I would go home. Mother would say, ‘Did
you have a good walk?’ and I would say that I had. Mother might offer
tea, if it had been made, or a cold drink, and I would read. Father, I think,
have found my walking strange, but he never commented. I think he belonged
to the school that expects people to sort out their thinking for themselves,
that people from good families would find good ways to live. Today, I see
that I was and I am Father’s and Mother’s child. The night never
told me anything unexpected, never did anything but settle the earth after
day and get it ready for another.
I was wanting, what I was waiting for, was a mystery to me
until, many years later, I saw the gothic cathedrals
of Europe and understood them in
with their wondrous windows admitting the light of another world, pressing
on this one, ever so close, but available only for those souls ready to
fly, lift, float, drift or rise in glory from this world to that one. That
world, I might have said, if I’d remembered my Huxley (I didn’t),
is this one, and this world is that one, the two are close, each is available
other, but the movement from one to the other is usually and all-too-normally
in the downwards direction. There never seemed to be any God (or god) in
the skies of New South Wales, only sunlight (!) or moonlight, ever so gentle
but equally impervious, impersonal, saying nothing, but shining down without
any attempt to change the world or offer a way out of it. Lying in the paddocks,
waiting for the moon to reveal answers to the sense of mystery I carried
with me – did it really come from the night, or was it a part of me,
unresolved, that was pressing on my thoughts? – I could do no better,
after a few minutes, than to get up and walk on. Or walk home.
Eagle family laughed about music. My uncle Teddy, we all
said, had such a bad ear that he couldn’t
Save the King’ until everyone stood up. (It was played
at the beginning of picture shows, and, if there was a piano
handy, at the start and often again at the end of community
meetings.) Mother, who laughed at Teddy, was no better; she
liked to whistle
tunes, as she called them, as she washed the dishes, but anyone
sitting in the next room heard only a prolonged sound, on the
one note, until she ran out of breath. Father claimed to like
popular songs, but they meant little to him, except that he
did feel free to say that the music known as ‘classical’ wasn’t
any good because it didn’t have any ‘tunes’.
I don’t remember anyone asking what sort of tunes he
liked but I feel he would have said, ‘Oh, something you
can whistle’ or ‘Something
that sticks in your mind.’ When the Eagle family got
together, they told stories, but nobody ever sang.
I was twelve I went off to an Anglican school in Melbourne,
and encountered its musical traditions; these included folk
songs, almost entirely from the British
Isles, and hymns. In chapel, there was a choir, which regularly sang anthems,
as they were called. I became distantly aware, in these Anglican years, that
musicians on the continent of Europe looked down on the British as being
inferior, but why they thought this I could not have said.
I got to university I was again resident in an Anglican college,
but the Anglicanism,
the Britishness, of our position was less strongly maintained.
Other music was talked about, occasionally at least. The university had
of Music and there were concerts in the city centre which I began to attend.
If I look back on the attitudes of the time, I think that music held equal
with Shakespeare and the English dramatic tradition as the twin, and major,
components of ‘culture’. There is an ambivalence, perhaps a
multi-valence about this word today which was not there when I started
at the University
in 1952. There was then thought to be little enough culture in fiercely
practical Australia but what there was came from the quality levels of
and it was undisputably good. The Marxist idea that ‘culture’ was
a means to maintain the domination of the upper classes was never mentioned
and was almost certainly unknown. The ingredients, the effects, of what
to be called ‘high’ culture were thought to be important in
the forming of well-rounded, well-developed people, the sort of people
on to run a country’s institutions. Countries needed such people,
so it was wise, and healthy, for societies to ensure that some at least
people – the
ones whose decisions would matter – were cultivated in appropriate
viewpoint that I am sketching here was regarded as so normal,
so unquestionable, in the school and college which completed the education
I began in the
wheatfields of New South Wales, that I have never quite been able to
overcome my surprise
when I hear it questioned, or, more likely, ridiculed by those many people
who would think these ideas reactionary.
music was part of the life of a cultured person, and so I
began to attend concerts in
the Melbourne Town Hall and listen to some of the
by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, mostly, as I recall, the
more popular arias from Italian opera. Not bad stuff, I thought,
Father I could
have wished for the tunes to crop up more often than they did.
something happened. I came back from three months of military
training, compulsory at that time, at the Puckapunyal army camp on
with a young man called Don Adams. Don had been a quiz kid and had
prodigious quantities of information and even learning in the recesses
of his mind.
He knew a great
deal about music and he told me that if I came with him to a house
in East Melbourne where he had Open Sesame, I would be able to hear
of great music
on the high quality sound system that its owner had developed. I
became fascinated. Life took on several, indeed an almost alarming
number, of new
dimensions, above all an awareness that there were people for whom
fine music and the highest
possible levels of performance were a necessary part of life. The
encounter which I wish to describe was of such importance
in my life that I feel
a need to draw
breath, as it were, before trying to say what forces had added themselves
to each other at this most impressionable time of my life.
left university and started teaching. This was a disaster
at first, but I became good at it, partly
because I no longer felt
alienated from the town where I was employed. It had mountains
to the north, and I had become fascinated by them. I went exploring
in my little Volkswagen, I got maps and discovered tracks and
the forgotten places they led to. I had something to talk about
when with locals, on their farms or in the pubs where men seemed
most at home. I had questions for everybody and they became
accepting of me because I wanted to know how Gippsland understood
and what its experiences had been. I was on the way to becoming
an insider instead of the outsider I’d been.
time, my fascination with, my adoration of, the eastern mountains
settled on two places: Mount Baldhead and Castle
Hill. I have written about the meanings
I associate with the first of these places in Wainwrights’ Mountain (4),
so it is Castle Hill which I want to deal with now. Castle Hill: when I returned
from trips to Melbourne, I could pick it up as the road swung north coming
out of Sale, a ledge, end-on, slowly turning itself as I drove east, or an
crag if I went north-west of my town to find the Dargo road, over which the
Castle loomed, close, distant, scornful yet attentive, beckoning to something
unanswered in my mind. I asked people how one got there and they told me what
they knew. With various friends I made attempts to walk there, eventually I
succeeded, and this is what I wrote (5):
the towns of Gippsland … lie unnoticed by day, in the blur of distance,
but by night each shows itself with a sprinkling of lights. On a full moon
night, with heaven’s stars diminished by their queenly competitor,
these shine out of an ocean of black as if the firmament is reversed,
until the moving lights
of a car set one identifying its destination. There is Lindenow,
there Bairnsdale; there Stratford, Sale and Maffra, an hour’s journey indicated
by a flick of a finger. Briagolong lies too close in under the foothills
and can only be
guessed at behind the deeper darkness of mountains. Open ground again – Traralgon
set about by farm lights, Morwell a star cluster, the ugly Latrobe valley
transformed into linking constellations. Over one’s shoulder
there are hints of Dargo and a flicker in the south-east. Lakes Entrance?
Metung? A ship? On nights of
heavy cloud the glow of Melbourne reflects like an aurora behind the
bulk of Wellington. West and north are darkness, beyond Dargo darkness
again, with Omeo
and the townships on the Tambo deep out of sight behind Baldhead and
his twenty-mile buttresses. Magic mystical night! The old rockpile
sits up like an offering left
by the retreating earth, a place of exposure to the void. To lie there
is rejection, the world put away, the self opened in ecstasy for the
shining white light. An
opulent moon floods the Castle top and half the planet besides. Leaf-edges
glitter and smoke-grey branches rise out of shadow. The valleys breathe
out a mist that
laps against the rim of the high country. In the early hours of morning
it steals over the parapet and washes against the Castle. Then the
sun announces morning,
the breeze lifts and swirls of mist fume about as if hot springs are
gushing. The sun is a red spot, swelling and fading, then the mist
clears, the wonder fades, and one is left with Gippsland spread quietly
around and a long, long walk to the car.
is a peak of experience, unwillingly left. It hurts, tramping
down, down, to think of the old crag accepting noon, sundown and night,
and sunrise with the blandness of immortals. If one could stay there
forever … but
the mind must go on, seek further …
Goths aspire (excerpt)
1979, at the age of 45, I made my first trip out of Australia.
My wife had been to
Europe two years earlier as a tutor on an
art study tour, and she said we had to travel as a family.
I was ready, and we did. I remember looking down on desert
of Western Australia as we flew out, marvelling at them, but
knowing that they and everything else would look different
when I came back. I was on my way to the places that had
before white Australia had come into being. Black Australia
matter very much to me, then.
seemed to me to be one long succession of marvels, and it
was extraordinarily dense,
to Australian eyes. Humanity
couldn’t escape itself. Even the thickest
forests – not very thick – only lasted for a few moments before
train windows showed the evidence of human labour again. You barely left
ambience of one city before entering the influence of another. Australia
was very scrappy by comparison. And the great churches, I came to realise,
had been made large enough to accommodate the populations of the towns they
dominated, standing on high ground and pushing their spires into the sky.
Saint Peters, in Rome, had been designed to impress: the Church, it proclaimed,
was the way to God, the only intermediary. Protestantism was dismissed by
this building and
all who celebrated within it.
Florence and Barcelona had mighty cathedrals
too, but it was in Paris that I saw that the gothic period
had created something that anticipated me. Notre Dame
was ready. I knew very early on that something of its effect,
its claims and its achievements, had filtered into the thinking
of my upbringing, even in
a land created at the time of the European enlightenment, a
huge country only lightly
sprinkled with churches even humbler than the settlements they
served. Christianity, it seemed to me, had barely made it to
our shores, but in Europe it was fundamental, and its claims
were made by its buildings and most strongly, in my imagination,
by Notre Dame and the other cathedrals of north-western France
that I saw over the next few years.
Rheims, Rouen, Amiens, Beauvais, the exquisite Sainte Chapelle,
and mighty Notre Dame, again and again. What did I see,
and, seeing it, what
did I hear against my inner walls?
buildings, I realised after a time, were created by the transformation
from within of earlier
Romanesque churches. Some new awareness had entered
the minds of believers, needing expression in stone, and glass. The buildings
higher, their steeples sharper. The openings that let light into their
gloom were made focal, glass filling the opening both to elaborate on
on which the faith depended for its exemplars, and to show with overwhelming
both the miracle of light, and what its existence meant.
central fact of gothic architecture is that it works in metaphors,
a few of them, in fact. The body of the church is called
a ship: so those who worship in the church are on a journey, even if
not actually in motion. The nave is oriented so the sanctuary is illuminated
by the rising
sun: light from the east. The other end of the nave is lit from the
west, so that the idea of the nave as a ship is supported
by the sunlight acting
give the day, and the worship taking place in the church, a beginning
other dimension of the church is up: the amazing and in some
cases almost preposterous dimension of the building
is its height:. This
is done to suggest
man’s ability to rise towards heaven, and his inability to
reach it. God must therefore come down, as the Christian faith says
when he sent his
son to earth to become a human being, like us. But upwards is not
only movement; the nave is given two transepts, causing it to resemble
a cross, with all the ideas and associations, the history of that
word, that shape: God’s
son died on a cross, so that the church by its very shape is a reminder
of Jesus’ story
and its implications for mankind. There is also the role of the glass
which, as mentioned in an earlier essay, both separates us from and
reminds us of that
other world which hovers close to this one, making us, sinful and
inadequate humanity, wonder how the gap can be bridged, the invisible
the impossible apparent here on earth. How can God’s kingdom
stone, light and space, are filled with sounds – music,
preaching – and
silence: prayer and meditation. Returning to Australia after my trips
to Europe, and looking down on the enormous emptiness of my own land,
it seemed to me that
we in this country could never repeat the miracle of gothic spirituality.
The land didn’t inspire it, nobody seemed to aspire to it.
The land was so flat that it simply couldn’t have the effect
of sending people’s
thoughts toward heaven, and heaven, earth and hell are, after all,
a di- or tri-chotomy that doesn’t rise naturally from the
Australian land, nor do they rise easily from the times of white
settlement in Australia.
interlude: Sexuality and spirituality (excerpt)
theatrical clouds moved around the edge of this dialogue,
swirling their capes of rain. A short-circuit in the celestial
wiring caused some startling flashes, yet the noises that
followed them, very loud, perhaps, at their point of origin,
tympani by the time they rolled up the Chinese mountain.
A flirtatious breeze ruffled her fair, curly hair.
up there loves you, young lady.
are you crying, darling?
is a point of perfection for you. It's an absolute. It's
a point of perfection for me
too, but it's not
not final. It's a point we're passing through. There
are no absolutes.
We just like to pretend there are by using words
like kingdom or ...
was momentarily afraid to say it.
struck him hard.
Extinction. Those things are not absolutes. They're part
of a process whereby everything
is done away with,
to be replaced
by something new. If we commit ourselves
to this process we're subverting our own position. If
we don't commit
it we're swept away anyhow. It's a no-win
situation. So you have to align yourself with what's going
to do away with you.
a woman, that means that the child is more
important than the adult, even though—isn't this
stupid—the child will
eventually become an adult.
He felt that what she'd said would become
a decision one day.
rocks kept very quiet. The birds chose not to approach.
took his hand.
think I've frightened you. Don't be frightened. I could
never do anything to hurt you.
mountain felt it was time to help.
of my friends are waiting for you. See them over there?
made their way down the grassy incline, sliding on their
Soon they were
at the bulldozer
track, then the rocky
way. Soon they were at the car.
care, gentle people. Come back if you can.
come back. They have to go on. They’re
as subject to time as everyone else, never more than when they
forget it in their moment of release. The time and energy they
stole from the universe will have to be paid back one day,
but lovers rarely worry about such things, because they are
state of release. Their selves are not left behind, not even
subjugated, or not exactly, but given a soaring freedom. Lovers
rise, circle, meet. They find a vast simplicity, a place where
they look down on all. The underlying requirement of the universe
is that they expend themselves for and with each other. Their
exhaustion is as happy as their rush to possess. The mystical
nature of their situation is not that they have moved aside
to contemplate the world they inhabit, but that they have rendered
themselves to its purposes. The lover is rushed along by forces
he or she is willing to accept, obedient to the strongest simplicity
of life: give yourself, and create another. Their child, if
child is produced, will then enslave the lovers who will turn
into parents, until the child is old enough to repeat the cycle … and
the world will go on. I said earlier that love is not unlike
the mysterious realm described by practitioners of the perennial
philosophy, with their aim for a mystical release which is
also a form of finding oneself. Lovers spend themselves. Lovers,
opening themselves to life’s most demanding forces, open
themselves to each other. Your perennial philosopher may think
that the self of the lover’s lover, that realm now open
for the many experiences of welcoming, hosting, sharing and/or
invasion, is small by comparison with the space, the bliss
offered by the shared divinity, but it is the best that most
of us will
ever get, and it offers the consolation prize that most of
us, most lovers that is, have at least got some idea of where
are. That’s no small consolation!
of Anton Bruckner? He was a socially inept man who hardly
knew how to live outside the world of
the church. Friends and
musical experts told him his symphonies needed editing, which
was done for him by men who felt they knew. His symphonies
would seem to be dated now, and to have no place in the modern
but, strangely, they live on and it seems to us today that
the simple man had something monumental about him which easily
the more sophisticated thoughts of those who laughed at him.
I bring Anton Bruckner into this writing because of the adagio
of his 8th symphony, one of those half-hour movements for which
he is notorious. What does it mean? I’ve listened to
it any number of times and I’m still not sure, but I’ll
set down my thoughts in an attempt to make them relevant to
my discussion of spirituality, blessedness, and so on.
opening of the movement takes us back, yet again, to the
vision locked in the stained glass of the cathedrals’ rose
windows, and that feeling of closeness, of immanence, which
the windows give. The composer begins with a haunting,
distant theme, ever so close, ever so far away. The whole movement is, I
think, an attempt to reach that state of loftiness, of blessedness,
which the opening
implies. As the music, the movement, grows in confidence the attainment of
this goal seems increasingly possible. Then something happens,
the confidence turns
into a noisy striving, that which should float easily into the upper reaches
of one’s mind seems to need grasping for, and in the grasping, it’s
lost. Bruckner offers us a mighty discord with every note on the scale played
at the same time. The key system, that notional embodiment of order since
the days of J.S. Bach, has broken down. Bruckner, or mankind, if you want
it in Beethoven’s terms, is helpless. Heaven has ways of its own, however.
The lofty music of the opening returns quietly, floating high above, far
away, and as close as ever. Attainable only by being unattainable. Not to
but always to be known, because always on offer to souls of great humility.
Bruckner finds peace by admitting his helplessness. Heaven smiles on him
because he confesses
that he’s nothing. The music dies away, and we know, as it ends, that
we have been present at a revelation. We know not to ask too much for ourselves,
but to be content to let revelation come when it will, and that is not in
have invoked these masters of the spiritual in music in the
hope that they
can help us with our own search, which continues in the sections that follow.
Before you read them, why don’t you go and play some music? Heinrich
Schutz, the Missa Solemnis, the mighty adagio, they’re all there, always
and forever … waiting
for you, for me, for us, to learn ….
interlude: Enchantment (excerpt)
to talk about Shakespeare’s last play, The
I’ve read this play almost as many times as
I’ve listened to the music by Beethoven, Schutz and Bruckner
that I was discussing in the previous essay, and yet I know how
hopelessly I would perform if compelled to sit at a table and
deal with exam questions on its text. Why is this? I think it’s
because the ‘text’, a restrictive term used in the
previous century as a means of limiting the imagination, doesn’t
so much release meanings, in this play, as it releases surges
of the imagination, and these, as everyone knows, dart all
over the place, doing all sorts of things …
Ariel does. What a creation! ‘My tricksy spirit!’ says
Prospero, and we know the play has an inner voice, or dialogue, between the
greatest of writers and his own imagination, his art, his
burden, his responsibility and
his joy … call it what you will. Shakespeare, for the purpose of his
play, has divided his powers, divided himself into two halves: one will return
where ‘every third thought shall be my grave’, and the other,
Ariel, Prospero’s ‘chick’, has to produce calm seas and
auspicious gales, and then to the elements he’ll be free. Question
1! Where is Ariel when the audience is returning home after the performance?
where is he, and does the location you ascribe to him make any difference
to those other people, using the same roads, trains, planes or footpaths
audience on their way home, who didn’t see the play? Question 2. Does
Ariel exist outside the minds of those who see him in the theatre and believe,
that he exists?
3. Can Ariel exist without Prospero, or must he find a new
master, or return, perhaps, to the cloven pine where he had
Sycorax, and wait for another Prospero to give purpose to his life. Discuss!
down, please. You can write your answers later. I wish
to take my argument a little further.
a start, here’s
Question 4. The play opens with a storm. Where is this
storm happening? Who caused it, and why? How is it that Miranda,
daughter, thinks that she saw the ship’s crew and passengers
drowned, but a moment later (Act I, Scene 2) believes her father when
her that the
ship and everyone on it are safe and sound?
think the 4th question is easy? I’m tempted to let
you write for a while, but no, I’ll go on. One of the
reasons why The Tempest is so difficult to analyse
is that it’s hard to find any firm
ground for its consideration. That is to say that most people, if
they have a wish to consider something,
choose a vantage point, which can be made known and then considered.
The advantage of
this, the benefit, is that anyone coming along later can evaluate
the thing seen against the position from which it is seen.
I am talking about here does, I think, have relevance for
consideration of mysticism that I have undertaken in these essays.
Bear with me, if
am talking about The Tempest, and I am looking for the vantage
point from which it may best be seen. This is not
easy to find,
is a reason.
Shakespeare’s last play tells a story,
and for most stories there is a given. For example:
Englishman, a Scotchman and an Irishman were shipwrecked
on an island …’ You‘re
listening, and you smile. You have been given the given of
what’s to come.
From the cupboard in your brain where you store clichés,
you pull out an Englishman, a Scotchman and an Irishman,
their faces worn featureless by all
the gags they’ve been used in. ‘Yes?’ you
say, ready for whatever’s
note that at this point you cannot interrupt the story to
I insist these men must be French, Russian and Chinese!’ If
you do this, you’re wrecking the story before it starts.
A good listener accepts the given. Suitable listeners know
what has to be contributed and do it willingly. ‘Yes!
An Englishman, a Scotchman and an Irishman. What happened?’
of the land (excerpt)
years ago, at home for Xmas on the family farm, I was tending
the fire under Mother’s
copper (she’d changed all
the sheets, and was bringing the dirty ones to the boil), when
my Aunt Olly came up. She was curious about the effects of
university on her brother’s son. ‘What are
you interested in, Ches?’ I was fond of Aunt Olly,
and I was more or less tied to the copper, so I had plenty
of time to answer. I said
I was interested in all the things I was studying – history,
literature, French, and so on. I was very interested in music.
I was interested in traditions, and how they affected us. How
useful they could be, and also how they could get in the way
of new thinking. After a while I thought I should inquire,
in return, ‘And what about you, Aunt? What are you interested
said at once, ‘The land. I like nothing
better than looking at country. Driving around is good because
you can see more of it. You can see what it’ll
do and what it won’t.’
had trouble with this answer: trouble being polite, I think
I mean, because I was at a stage when nothing was more
boring to me than the land. The land?
Christ! All my family, the Eagle side of it, was on the land, and although
I admired them and knew, even then, that I’d absorbed a great deal
from them, I had no intention of spending my life doing things the Eagles
oranges, sheep. Straining fences. Pick and shovel work. Binder twine. Getting
engines to start. Dogs, cattle, horses, irrigating. Watching the weather
and talking about it, every day, with everyone this side of the black stump
other side too. ‘When’s it gonna rain?’ And when it rained, ‘When’s
it gonna stop?’
land? No. Please. No. Please. No.
change began when I was given a job, teaching, in Gippsland,
and made my way east. Though it was summer,
by the road was green, and
new to me. There were mountains, and lakes, I’d heard. We seemed
to be close to the sea, and this also was new to me. In the years
that followed I came
to understand how Gippslanders related to their landscape, and what
a complete and to some extent self-contained system it was. I looked
at it from the sea,
on fishing trawlers. I flew along its coast in a small plane. I drove
all over it, in my little VW. I studied its contours with maps. I
listened to everybody
who knew anything about it. I walked. I climbed fire towers, and
I learned to identify the species of trees. Mountain ash normally
on the shaded, southern
sides of ridges, and then only if the soil was deep, and moist. Grass
trees (xanthorrhoea) grew on the dry, rocky northern sides, or down
near the water, on sand. Farmers
knew that certain species indicated they’d get good soil, if
they cleared, while other species told them the land was poor. No
matter that the trees of
poverty were more beautiful; they weren’t interested in aesthetics!
came, slowly enough, to the realisation that what grew on the surface,
what you saw as you walked about, was an eloquent expression, though
of what, exactly,
I would have found hard to say. There were areas, not far from
the lakes, where claypans, dominated by redgum, alternated
stringybark and banksia grew. Something – an ocean long-receded,
perhaps – had
shaped the land this way, and what grew out of the land, what covered
it, was its expression. I discovered, driving about, that the roughest,
were often the best endowed. Something in nature responded to a
challenge. Conditions that looked almost impossible hosted dainty
in flower. There were
systems, plants that liked each other’s company, as humans
would say, and any number of tiny creatures in the air and burrowing
in the ground. Farmers
imposing their monocultures were simplifying complexities they
were barely capable of understanding, and yet, of course, they
understood quite well. Good
farmers were observant; they might say things like, ‘The
ants are building their nests higher. It’s going to rain!’ How
true, how informative these observations were I never had any idea,
though I was, as usual, sceptical.
It’s best to be that way, I thought then and still think,
most of the time.
me go back to the contrast between the white settlers’ monocultures
and the huge variety of the bush.
takes us over. Many years ago I did military training at
the Australian army’s Puckapunyal camp, ‘Pucka’,
a tradition for soldiers who’d been there during World
War 2. I was scornful of the army – an interruption to
my real life at university – but, late in our fourteen
weeks, something happened which has stuck in my mind. The whole
camp paraded in front of its most senior officer, and as the
trainees marched off, giving him salute, and being saluted
in return, a band played ‘stirring’ music for us
to march to. The company of which I was a part approached the
saluting point, and the band, then swung left. The music which
muffled was suddenly clear. The regular army soldiers who were
our instructors began to march with panache because we were
passing under the eye of the camp commander. I let the music
and for the few moments it took to pass the officer, eyes right,
I had no identity. I was, you might say, only a passing note.
Twenty paces further on, I was as scornful, as detached, as
before. As usual.
had entered me? Answer, the military ethos, and it came
in via the notes. Music is the most pervasive language and
it takes us over easily. It does this
via our feelings, our inner pulses, providing no words for the mind to argue
with. It’s not easy to defend oneself against music, as I’m sure
you know. One of my pet hates is Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York!’,
but I’ve only to hear it, on my car radio, or anywhere, and I’m
hooked. Resist it as I may, it’s there inside me, laughing at my inability
to get rid of it. Frank has to finish before I’m free. ‘You bloody
I say, but I know Frank’s laughing in the stretch-mobile driving him
you again!’, he’s thinking.
can music enter us so easily? Ordinary language negotiates
with us, coming from outside. Ordinary language
is public, used by all. Ordinary language
has rules of grammar, abused as they are in coarser speech, and it’s
regularised by dictionaries, defining the knowledge which ought to be,
and often is, common.
Music? Herbert von Karajan said that all a conductor did was make the music
faster or slower, louder or softer. No more than that. He wasn’t
fooling anybody, least of all himself. Great conductors have a certain
in their minds and they project it to the musicians in front of them. The
gestures they make with their hands are only a response to this hidden,
The orchestra watches the hands but is connected to the mind.
I will mention the discussion of the relative importance of words and
music when the two are combined. Richard Strauss wrote a
on this subject, and he wasn’t the first. The two must combine,
of course. There’s nobody apart from the composer to settle the
order of precedence. Indeed, if the question of precedence arises, the
won’t be any good.
(Try Schubert to see how it should be done.) Each must serve the other.
to serve what? Who’s who and what’s what?
the best way to differentiate these two forms of language
is to begin with the
way they develop meanings. Words can be defined. Hence
We can ask what a word means, and expect to be told. Words are combined
sentences, and the meaning is more complex. The cat sat on the mat!
Sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs chapters, and chapters
reading a lousy one at the moment.) Thoughts (ideas) can be developed
into mighty structures
and, of course, as soon as you start to do this you are encroaching
on the zone of music because thoughts and ideas entail the
go with them, and
the two start to move along together. Music begins in the other dimension,
of feeling, mood, association, and it too flows with a logic all its
own, and it
too, now and then, can suggest the other stream, that of language.
You feel that the composer has certain thoughts in mind,
even though there
are no words. The
best example I can think of is ‘Must it be? It must be.’ which
Beethoven wrote over certain bars in the last movement of his last
quartet. You don’t
have to know the words are there to hear the question and answer in
the music. It is sufficient for music, which is relatively free of
to you, to make you think of, any question, any answer. If our minds
can move from the particular to the type, we can flow with the music
as we are meant
you may ask, has this to do with mysticism, with that and
thou, the inner and the outer divine? My usual answer: everything
and everything (the whole wide world).
of the ordinary, the everyday
heading of this section would seem to contain a contradiction.
is rarefied, refined, attainable only by great struggle,
discipline, or both. The ordinary, the everyday, are common
clay. The twain are not disposed to meet. It is my argument,
that this is not necessarily the case. I propose to develop
this argument, now, in three large steps, or movements, perhaps,
continue the musical theme.
will take the first step by drawing on a novel I wrote some
years ago called Cloud of knowing (8).
It is about a family who run cattle in the mountains, and
the book takes for its centre their daughter Claire (there are three sons
also). Claire is a very special person and a very ordinary
one. Much the same is true
of her father, too, a man of spirit and a man who operates well in the world
he’s chosen. Claire’s father, Thomas Patterson, takes her about
his runs, teaching her how to follow the tracks of cattle, to find her way
to sharpen her observations, and to look in every direction for signs of
been happening. He’s good at these things yet senses that his daughter
is both different and better. When he teaches her he’s learning too.
Something about the nature of Claire Patterson reveals itself when she’s
was not her earliest memory, but it was the one that
returned most frequently, giving her, on each occasion,
a sense of certainty much stronger than the
fear that came with it. At the school she’d just left, the headmaster,
she remembered, had tried to inspire his girls by talking of the mystics’ cloud
of unknowing: she had clutched to herself, secretly, the knowledge
that what had surrounded
her in its overwhelming might, one morning when she was only six, was
a cloud that brought knowing.
Pattersons have a house on the high plains, and are aware
of the phenomenon
by which clouds get trapped in the valleys surrounding their leases,
then escape when changing air pressure conditions occur,
allowing the bottled-up
flood across the higher land. Most of the family find this frightening,
but Claire has an affinity for this release.
heard her parents speak of it, and now, before her eyes,
the valley was lifting - or so
it seemed. The mass of white cloud which had been its floor
was swirling as it rose. Fascinated, she slipped off her pony and
walked nearer the edge, leading her mount by the reins.
She felt a shiver run through him
before she noticed it herself; the air was colder. The scale of
what was happening was
matched by its speed. It was as if a great struggle to hold the
cloud had been lost, and now, like the impoverished, the
crushed, the poor of the world, it
was breaking out.
at it, she assumed that the cloud would continue its
rise, straight into heaven, but it was spreading; trees
that she could have
individually, halfway down the spur that branched off Five Mile
Plain, were being swallowed.
It was heading her way. She swung around. It was a long way back
to the trees where the track ran onto the plain, and
the cloud was coming
escape. As it came near, a faceless identity-devourer, the chill
seized her; she’d heard about arctic explorers found frozen
in the snow, and wondered what this thing was going to do to
her. She wanted to
call, but there was nobody
to hear, only her pony, and he was more frightened than she was.
Something told her to crouch down, to wait and see.
squatted on her haunches, clinging to the reins. Looking
her shoulder, she saw the trees where the track was, then she faced
to see if anything
was coming with it. She knew it was silly to expect something,
but when a mystery revealed itself, anything might be possible.
you going to do to me?
you, was the answer. Swirling white advanced, hesitation
foreign to its nature, then it swallowed
her in its chilly body.
It had taken her over. It was inescapable. A duality existed
in her mind. The way out was to walk to the trees, and
her eyes closed. The cloud had gripped her mind, though.
It felt as if it was inside her as well as around. She
felt it had come to speak
would have a voice. She felt - though it wasn’t until years
later that she would be able to articulate this - that it had
chosen its moment to capture her. Either
it had seen her coming, and had rushed to take her in its grip,
known it wanted her, and had ridden out to meet it.
was happening was no accident; of that she was certain.
writing of this book:
book was written quickly. My earliest notes were written
on 8/10/2005, the first essay on 22/10/2005, and the last
essay was finished on 7/1/2006. Three months from go to whoa!
The reader will notice that lengthy passages are brought
in from earlier books, so there is a sense in which I was
summarising rather than writing. Nonetheless, the usual formative
period was quite intense; it took ten days to grope my way
through from a ragbag of ideas to the sequence of the final
work, and even then my writing was dogged by a feeling that
I ought to have been writing something else. What right did
I have to discourse on mysticism? I’d been attracted
to it as a young man, I’d never taken this aspiration
very far at all, so what I was offering was no more, I felt,
than a heap of substitutes: the experiences you have when
you don’t have a mystical experience. This disowning
of what I was doing was genuine, keenly felt, and accurate,
I think. Nonetheless, I could not stop my underlying suspicion
of, or aversion to, mysticism coming through the pieces I
was putting down. They are what I truly feel, and
I think that one of the things a writer has always to do
is to put
down things s/he feels to see how others react. We are rarely
the first or only people to feel in a certain way, and it
is only by the expression of ideas which may make their owners
uncomfortable that useful discussions can begin.
need nerves, and sometimes stomachs, of steel!
also found, when I had finished, that I was very pleased
that I had moved the subject matter of this
book from the themes and approaches of almost everything
I’d written before: I say this even though the essays are full of quotes
from things I’d written earlier. By putting these scattered thoughts
together I was making a new agenda for myself and any readers who’ve
bothered to stay with my writing thus far. I was pleased to have broken out
of a clichéd
form of myself.
word about method. In the first essay, about a boy cycling
home into an approaching storm, I refrained from trying to make a statement
on behalf of the cloud above
the child, tried, too, not to give the child any awarenesses beyond his actual
experience at the time. It seemed to me that it was enough to look up, again
and again, to reflect from here and there, because in that way a little more
of what was hovering in the sky might be understood by the reader who wasn’t
there to see it and the old man who, as a child, was. I thought this was
the best way to keep the writing clear, and pure: Orwell’s pane of
glass it isn’t, but I hope I’ve learned a little from that master
of clarity in prose.
a word about music. Few people can write about music, yet
easy to me. My advice? Never try until the music is as familiar as the
your rooms – because it is the furniture of your mind – and
then, when writing, never try. No controlling! Sit there, ten fingers extended
above your keyboard, and see what comes
out. Mozart and Beethoven weren’t
afraid to improvise, jazz musicians do it all the time, and so should you.
Go for it,
friends! Even if you make a mess, it won’t do you any harm! And I
suppose I have to admit that music seems better adapted to the expressions
of sensations that are so inward, or so unusual, that we call them mystical.
Most writers, I suspect, envy the fluidity, the infinite changeability
of music, bound, certainly, by the instruments’ capacities and their
but we writers who use language are bound by our materials, our medium,
and the words
and grammatical structures we use are developments, at best, of the words
and sentences used by everyone who uses our particular language, every
hard to get away from the commonplace, when you use the common language,
and scribblers as a group generally feel envious of those whose language
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