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OUR BOOKS > BENEDICTUS

Benedictus
Essays
Written by Chester Eagle 2005 - 2006
Designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Karen Wilson
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
Circa 29,500 words
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To read some extracts from the book click here:
A child, a bike and a storm
The Perennial Philosophy
Music (1)
Looking down
The Goths aspire
1st interlude: Sexuality and spirituality
Music (2)
2nd interlude: Enchantment
Spirituality of the land
Music (3)
Spirituality of the ordinary, the everyday

To read about the writing of this book click here.

A child, a bike and a storm (complete)

I am eight or nine years of age and I am riding home after school. Riding 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. A storm 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 I’ll 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.

I’m riding home and the sky tells me, by its lofty power, that it’s 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 somewhere in 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.

I’m 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. Nobody’s 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 no moral complications 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. I haven’t 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!

I’m 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 I rode 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. It didn’t 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 to keep riding. 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 I’d 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 to me. In writing 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 was. I’ve 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 consciousness.

One 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, today.

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The Perennial Philosophy (excerpt)

The 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 the avenue, through the paddocks, or along the roads that bordered our farm, confident of being alone. My parents and our neighbours were 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 the skies 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. Huxley had made it clear that humans who wished to know the divine inside themselves had to begin by cultivating detachment, loosening themselves from the passions that take over humans so easily.

This 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 ideas. Arguments! 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, or a crushing 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 some company’, 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 endless, but 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, must 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, confident 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 a baking day and get it ready for another.

What 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 a flash, 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 let themselves 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 to the 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 by comparison, 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.

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Music (1) (excerpt)

The Eagle family laughed about music. My uncle Teddy, we all said, had such a bad ear that he couldn’t recognise ‘God 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.

When 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 musically inferior, but why they thought this I could not have said.

When 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 a Conservatorium 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 rank 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 of Melbourne 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 European societies 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 later came to be called ‘high’ culture were thought to be important in the forming of well-rounded, well-developed people, the sort of people who could be relied 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 of their people – the ones whose decisions would matter – were cultivated in appropriate ways.

The 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.

So 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 music broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, mostly, as I recall, the more popular arias from Italian opera. Not bad stuff, I thought, though like Father I could have wished for the tunes to crop up more often than they did.

Then something happened. I came back from three months of military training, compulsory at that time, at the Puckapunyal army camp on friendly terms 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 endless amounts of great music on the high quality sound system that its owner had developed. I went. 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.

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Looking down (excerpt)

I 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 itself, and what its experiences had been. I was on the way to becoming an insider instead of the outsider I’d been.

Over 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 imposing 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 unsettled, 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.

It is a peak of experience, unwillingly left. It hurts, tramping down, down, down, to think of the old crag accepting noon, sundown and night, moon, mist and sunrise with the blandness of immortals. If one could stay there forever … but the mind must go on, seek further …

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The Goths aspire (excerpt)

In 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 regions 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 been historic before white Australia had come into being. Black Australia didn’t matter very much to me, then.

Europe 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 behind the 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.

Chartres, Rheims, Rouen, Amiens, Beauvais, the exquisite Sainte Chapelle, and mighty Notre Dame, again and again. What did I see, and, seeing it, what reverberations did I hear against my inner walls?

Gothic 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 grew higher, their steeples sharper. The openings that let light into their gloom were made focal, glass filling the opening both to elaborate on the stories on which the faith depended for its exemplars, and to show with overwhelming conviction both the miracle of light, and what its existence meant.

The central fact of gothic architecture is that it works in metaphors, quite a few of them, in fact. The body of the church is called the nave, from navis, 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 to give the day, and the worship taking place in the church, a beginning and an ending.

The 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 he did when he sent his son to earth to become a human being, like us. But upwards is not the church’s 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 made see-able, the impossible apparent here on earth. How can God’s kingdom become man’s dwelling place?

Glass, 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.

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1st interlude: Sexuality and spirituality (excerpt)

Some 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, were pianissimo tympani by the time they rolled up the Chinese mountain. A flirtatious breeze ruffled her fair, curly hair.

Someone up there loves you, young lady.

Why are you crying, darling?

This is a point of perfection for you. It's an absolute. It's a point of perfection for me too, but it's not an absolute, 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 ...

She was momentarily afraid to say it.

... death.

It struck him hard.

God. 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 ourselves to 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. For 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.

The rocks kept very quiet. The birds chose not to approach.

She took his hand.

I think I've frightened you. Don't be frightened. I could never do anything to hurt you.

The mountain felt it was time to help.

Some of my friends are waiting for you. See them over there?

They made their way down the grassy incline, sliding on their bottoms. Soon they were at the bulldozer track, then the rocky way. Soon they were at the car.

Goodbye mountain.

Take care, gentle people. Come back if you can.

Lovers don’t 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 in a 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 a 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, in 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 we are. That’s no small consolation!

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Music (2) (excerpt)

What 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 world, but, strangely, they live on and it seems to us today that the simple man had something monumental about him which easily outlasts 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.

The 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 to put 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 be grasped, 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 our hands.

I 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 ….

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2nd interlude: Enchantment (excerpt)

I’m going to talk about Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. 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 …

… as 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 to Milan, 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? That’s right, 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 as the 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, therefore, that he exists?

Question 3. Can Ariel exist without Prospero, or must he find a new master, or return, perhaps, to the cloven pine where he had been confined by the foul witch Sycorax, and wait for another Prospero to give purpose to his life. Discuss!

Pens down, please. You can write your answers later. I wish to take my argument a little further.

For 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, Prospero’s daughter, thinks that she saw the ship’s crew and passengers drowned, but a moment later (Act I, Scene 2) believes her father when he tells her that the ship and everyone on it are safe and sound?

You 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.

What I am talking about here does, I think, have relevance for the consideration of mysticism that I have undertaken in these essays. Bear with me, if you can.

I 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, and there is a reason.

Shakespeare’s last play tells a story, and for most stories there is a given. For example:

‘An 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 next …

Please note that at this point you cannot interrupt the story to say, ‘No! 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?’

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Spirituality of the land (excerpt)

Many 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 in?’

Olly 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.’

I 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 did. Tractors, 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 and the other side too. ‘When’s it gonna rain?’ And when it rained, ‘When’s it gonna stop?’

The land? No. Please. No. Please. No.

How tedious.

The change began when I was given a job, teaching, in Gippsland, and made my way east. Though it was summer, the grass by the road was green, and this was 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 grew 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!

I 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 with sandy rises, where 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, rockiest places were often the best endowed. Something in nature responded to a challenge. Conditions that looked almost impossible hosted dainty little things 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 sometimes 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.

Let me go back to the contrast between the white settlers’ monocultures and the huge variety of the bush.

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Music (3)

Music 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 had been 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 enter me 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.

What 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 gangster!’, I say, but I know Frank’s laughing in the stretch-mobile driving him away. ‘Got you again!’, he’s thinking.

How 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 consciousness of music 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, inner flow. The orchestra watches the hands but is connected to the mind.

Parenthetically I will mention the discussion of the relative importance of words and music when the two are combined. Richard Strauss wrote a whole opera (Capriccio) 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 music won’t be any good. (Try Schubert to see how it should be done.) Each must serve the other. But who’s to serve what? Who’s who and what’s what?

Perhaps the best way to differentiate these two forms of language is to begin with the way they develop meanings. Words can be defined. Hence dictionaries. We can ask what a word means, and expect to be told. Words are combined into sentences, and the meaning is more complex. The cat sat on the mat! Sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs chapters, and chapters books. (I’m 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 feelings that 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 language, to suggest 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 to do.

What, you may ask, has this to do with mysticism, with that and thou, the inner and the outer divine? My usual answer: everything and nothing. Nothing (buggerall) and everything (the whole wide world).

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Spirituality of the ordinary, the everyday

The heading of this section would seem to contain a contradiction. Spirituality 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, however, that this is not necessarily the case. I propose to develop this argument, now, in three large steps, or movements, perhaps, to continue the musical theme.

I 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 home, to sharpen her observations, and to look in every direction for signs of what’s 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 very young:

It 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.

The 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 cloud to flood across the higher land. Most of the family find this frightening, but Claire has an affinity for this release.

She’d 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.

Looking at it, she assumed that the cloud would continue its rise, straight into heaven, but it was spreading; trees that she could have identified 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 too fast; she couldn’t 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.

She squatted on her haunches, clinging to the reins. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the trees where the track was, then she faced front 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. What are you? she said. What are you going to do to me?

Surround you, was the answer. Swirling white advanced, hesitation foreign to its nature, then it swallowed her in its chilly body. Claire shuddered violently. It had taken her over. It was inescapable. A duality existed in her mind. The way out was to walk to the trees, and the track; she could have done it with 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 to her, that it 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, or she’d known it wanted her, and had ridden out to meet it.

What was happening was no accident; of that she was certain.

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The writing of this book:

This 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.

Writers need nerves, and sometimes stomachs, of steel!

I 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.

A 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.

Lastly, a word about music. Few people can write about music, yet it seems easy to me. My advice? Never try until the music is as familiar as the furniture of 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 players’ techniques, 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 day. It’s 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 is music.

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