Kernels of the Sublime
Neil Gunn might have been only a very loose contemporary of D. H. Lawrence but they share a wild respect for otherness within geographical specifics. Primitivist yet philosophical, Gunn's language pushes beyond the noun towards the ineffable as if exasperated with the word and trying to invest it with spirit. In the 'Chariot' we have "the loneliness", "bleakness", "moodiness", "directionless". In 'Blaeberries' "nothingness", passionless", "shamefacedness", "earthliness". The story's titles also often indicate a broader meaning than the practical: 'Symbolical', 'Dance of the Atoms', 'Love's Dialectic' and 'The White Hour'.
In a passage from his autobiography Atom of Delight, Gunn talks of three phases of history. The first phase consists of animism, "because things in nature were then reckoned to be animated by spirits; the next phase has its religions and its Gods; in the third or scientific phase the demon and the Gods vanish, leaving only traces..." Gunn reckons in the living of life today all three phases get mixed up, and his stories seem to search out traces of the first and second in an age that might not immediately accept the mysterious. Here characters are often told to be more realistic yet they frequently yearn for an enlightenment beyond the human. In 'Such Stuff as Dreams', the narrator says, "Human intimacies, human relationships, were well, but there is a last intimacy beyond all others, a last relationship." There is in Gunn's work what can be found in philosophers like Henri Bergson and Gaston Bachelard: the mystic desire for oneness in the former, and the fascination for the inner properties of objects in the latter. Referring to Proust in Atom of Delight, Gunn says that the "events are permanent within a time that never changes", but the "more remarkable part of the total experience, for accompanying the acts of perception are feeling and thoughts, the light and shadow of moods, their most subtle evanescent colouring...". The remark resembles Bachelard's in Poetics of Space where he says: "Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color." In Bergson's work there is this interest in souls that make "an effort to strike out, beyond the limits of intelligence, in search of a vision, a contact, the revelation of a transcendent reality." (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). Bergson's talking here of certain thinkers within Greek thought, but this attempt is basically the purpose of the mystic, the person who refuses to see in non-living matter the dead, who sees in the irrational a deeper, affective rationale.
There is often in literary criticism admiration for writers that describe things well, but one often feels that the metaphoric use of language can settle too readily on the object described, and deny it the inner secrets it contains. It pins the image to the page, rather than allowing it spiritual flight. Here are some examples, all controlled and to varying degrees well done, but all phrases one would be unlikely to find in Gunn's work. There is David Lodge's comment that "it resembles, this tongue, the dried-out bed of a badly polluted river" (Small World), and Aleksander Hemon saying in Love and Obstacles "I was an unwilling virgin, my bones draped in amorous flesh." In J. D. Salinger's For Esme, with Love and Squalor a character is described as being "rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out even if one bulb is defective." In contrast here are three passages that are fairly typical of Gunn's prose. "And though he nursed his impatience by deliberately pausing to examine this or that, it took him a very short time to reach the fatal birch, with not another soul in sight..." ('The Tree') "Yes, drunk with it, for what was an experience at the time was clarified and intensified afterwards." ('Such Stuff as Dreams') "Its green croft was snared in the moor's outflung hand." ('The Moor') Where in the former examples we have metaphoric control, in Gunn's we have a constant search for pathetic fallacies, for what John Ruskin saw as giving human feelings to the inanimate. Though used pejoratively by Ruskin, this may reflect no more than his taste for the refined over the hyperbolic, the materially contained over the spiritually searching. Gunn's interest in pathetic fallacies might sometimes lead to exaggerated clich: "the fatal branch, with not a soul in sight", but the purpose is to try and find an angle on our existence that is beyond the perceptual confines of the human. Often writers utilising controlled metaphor remain within the perceptually anthropocentric; writers including Gunn, Lawrence and Walt Whitman often sacrifice the containment of the prose to find the kernel of the metaphysically sublime: the source of existence rather than its function. As Gunn says inAtom of Delight, the test of wholeness is "that the self does not become self-centred or egoistic but on the contrary expands into wonder. It apprehends a whole greater than itself, but of which itself is part, and this apprehension is delight's essence."
Such statements can probably be reflected more immediately or more readily in poetry than prose, yet Gunn was a prose writer, and as a rule fiction is made up of character and situation, not nature and metaphor. Of course Lawrence, Hardy, Woolf and Conrad in very different ways seemed to work with this problem, trying to find a method in which to indicate a natural presence without diluting character and event. If one has problems with Gunn's stories here it might be because the characters and situations often don't quite possess the vividness he gives to natural description. When in 'Down to the Sea' he says "the North East coastline of the Moray Firth is wild and forbidding, its grim inhospitality welcome only to gull and peregrine falcon, to cormorant and diver", he can in a sentence set the highland environment, naturally, but his descriptions of people and place seem less vivid, and it is a matter of sensibility whether one finds this vagueness a problem or a plus.
In 'The Black Woollen Gloves', Gunn deliberately forgoes names as he also leaves the town unnamed. Where Edinburgh gets name checked, "this Highland town most respectably unexciting" remains ungrounded as Gunn hinges his story on an ironic misapprehension. The young woman who takes a teaching job in the town sits in the library and finds a young man there who interests her: "his thin pale face had the delicate finish of egg shell porcelain, dulled a little in grey strength. The pale student, emaciated a trifle, underfed possibly, but burning with inner fires." She assumes a pair of gloves she finds is his, and the rest of the story plays on the semi-interactions of the two people as they pass each other on bridges, and eventually talk. But though the story concludes on the gloves belonging to someone else, the purpose doesn't lie in an O. Henry twist in the tale; more in the exploration of mysterious feeling. As the teacher realises that "something had happened to her so unexampled that Melville's "incantation of whiteness" seemed the light side of an incantation of darkness under which she buried her head", so the story explores the ineffable, elusive nature of attraction. She is drawn to this young man, someone whose intensity is evident before they speak but exemplified when they do. "Most English critics never find it,", he says, "because deep in their minds they mistrust it. It's against their tradition. In spite of themselves they react against it. Carlyle and Melville...they admit their greatness and their immense vitality, but they don't admit the greatness of their prose. They detest it." The Edinburgh University educated young woman, enjoying their discussion, says, "they don't teach your views of English - at Edinburgh."
Here a potentially light story of a mix-up over a pair of gloves, becomes the opportunity to explore Carlyle's problem of a sceptical world. "It seems to me, you lay your finger here on the heart of the world's maladies, when you call it a Sceptical World" Carlyle says, "an insincere world, a godless untruth of a world." ('The Hero as Man of Letters'.) The teacher is a woman whose "normally fastidious nature would have withdrawn from even touching a stranger's belongings, particularly when found in a public place", so her interest in this stranger wouldn't seem like an extension of her personality but an escape from it - an ec-static moment. When Gunn says in The Atom of Delight, "If one could free oneself from old associations, verbal and other, and consider the alternatives from the standpoint of probability, it might be more difficult to see man's intelligence as the only intelligence in the universe than to see it as a manifestation of intelligence which be of another order or level elsewhere." Has the young teacher tapped into another intelligence that takes the delicate form of the young stranger? This is an intelligence not only expressed in his divergent account of literature, but more especially in a body language she finds unusual and unusually revealing. "Now why had he done that?...His act revealed him to her in a swift, intimate way."
In many of Gunn's stories there is this need for people to get out of themselves, to escape the narrow confines of personality and move towards the breadth of being. Gunn is an ambitious writer in the sense that he doesn't want to contain his characters within their social milieu, or even contain his characters within the more natural rural environment in which many of the characters live, but instead in a yearning for the metaphysically elsewhere. This is why he can talk in The Atom of Delight of first using the "word wholenesss here because at the moment I could not think of a better. It seemed to denote the tangible within a boy's experience, the rounded fullness of a football or a fruit," and yet of course this notion of the football or the fruit indicates that the elsewhere is also somewhere: it attaches itself to things, to people, to places. But it possesses within it a dimension beyond the thing itself. In talking about this, Gunn invokes physics. "For Newton, space was an absolute and time was an absolute. They were not aspects. But probing continued and presently when Einstein began playing billiards with stars he found that these two absolutes rather stood in the way of explaining certain strange workings of the universe; but they got out of his way and fell into line when he regarded them not as absolutes but as aspects of a four dimensional continuum, or a unity that contained them both." (The Atom of Delight)
This returns us to our point about the sentence, and also the comments made by the male character in 'The Black Woollen Gloves' where he talks of critics despising the greatness of Carlyle and Melville's prose and of course exemplified, many would feel, by D. H. Lawrence: a great writer whose sentences are often attacked. When W. W. Robson talks of "the overwought, violent, didactic tone so frequent in those later books", and the early ones that are "over-written" ('D. H. Lawrence and Women in Love') he adds, Lawrence is a novelist and storyteller as well as a poet of the cosmos, and when he deals in human relationships...we are often disturbed and challenged and sometimes repelled." Yet while Robson is talking of the importance of character and situation in Lawrence, one might think of certain writers attempting, taking into account Gunn's comments, four dimensional sentences, prose that is never quite capable of containing itself within the three dimensional expectations of good writing.
This four-dimensionality may well be vital to the difference between a writer Gunn is geographically closer to than Lawrence: George Mackay Brown. Brown was an Orkney writer alive to the Viking past and astutely able to capture the topography and climate of his island. When Mackay Brown says "a shred of cloud raced across the sun, and the world plunged in and out of gloom in a second" ('The Green Wave'), or "we ran into sudden pools of sun; the sea lost its greyness; it flashed with changing colour like the heart of an opal; then it was grey again" ('The Three Islands'), this is imagistically impressive prose. It is in many ways more immediately startling than many of Gunn's observations. "The water was dark, but the farther up they went the more perceptible became its smooth downward sweep. It gathered all the mysterious, lonely attributes of water flowing under the dark heaven to an eternal sea." ('The Black Woollen Gloves') It's as though Gunn is a writer searching out the four dimensional through prose, trying to find in his sentences not at all the bon mot, but in what Gunn calls the "glimpse".
For many, such prose is bad, as it strains for intangible meaning and arrives at the purple. Here are several examples in Gunn's stories of what critics might call bad writing. "Edith would be wondering. The vision of Edith in her nightdress was so perfect that he smiled to her in adoration. That she might be puzzled again faintly amused him. He was as sure of her as of the sun's rising. The grey was lightening; it was catching at last the inner glimmer. The coming of the sun from the abyss. ('Hill Fever') "The sunlight smiled back in its evasive, knowing way. It knew all about it all!" ('The Chariot') "Yet always she was aware, in terms of the inner woman-awareness that she could so surely assess her own obsession, that never at any time was he an enigma to her." ('Love's Dialectic') Within the confines of three-dimensional expectation this can seem like poor prose: the coming of the sun from the abyss, the sunlight smiling back and so on. But Gunn might wonder whether those dismissing such writing wouldn't be an example of critics who have no hint of the glimpse: "as for the inadequate critic - what he has to say can manifestly have no relevance in this region of experience." (Atom of Delight) A critic may ask what does Gunn mean when he says the inner glimmer or the sun coming from the abyss, but Gunn would be likely to reply that it isn't so much what he means as what he is alluding to, what he is hinting at, and hinting at it for no better reason than the best one can hope for is a glimpse of what is beyond our immediate consciousness.
Should good prose always remain with the realm of our immediate perception, or should it yearn for an extra dimension? It is fine to reject Gunn's style, but we should not pretend it is simply a failure of craft; more part of a genealogy of this fourth dimensional search that we see not only in Carlyle, Melville, and Lawrence, but also explored in Emerson, Bergson and Bachelard in the philosophical sphere. When Emerson says in a passage from Selected Writings "thus even in physics, the material is degraded before the spiritual. The astronomer, the geometer, rely on their irrefragable analysis, and disdain the results of observation" it could have come from Gunn's pen. Equally the following sentence: "The sublime remark of Euler on his law of arches, "thus will be found contrary to all experience, yet is true," had already transferred nature into the mind, and left matter like an outcast corpse." ('Idealism') How to write prose that reflects this desire to see matter as secondary to spirit? When Bachelard insists "complete psychology must reintegrate with the human that which detaches itself from the human - unite the poetics of reverie with the prosaism of life" (The Poetics of Reverie) Gunn might wonder how many have failed in this task, too grounded in a narrow notion of the real. The writer would lack in I. M. Bochenski's words, Bergson's notion of becoming as a more important state than being, that "once the philosopher allows himself to be plunged into the sea of life surrounding him he is in a position to grasp the origin of bodies and of the intellect; this intuition shows that not only life and consciousness, but the whole of reality is a becoming." (Contemporary European Philosophy)
Is this exploration of becoming the reason why in Gunn's tales the 'being' of the stories is rudimentary? Often characters seem indistinct, the places sketchily presented, nature utilised less to set a scene than to evoke a sense of immensity. The story that comes closest to evoking place is probably 'The Black Woollen Gloves', with the town surely Inverness. In others, like 'Mirror' and 'Henry Drake Goes Home', Glasgow and England get mentioned respectively for their effect on a character's sensibility. They aren't geographically secured; more emotionally calibrated. In the former, "Glasgow was a machine; even its hideous social problem was impersonal. Not that it was simply soulless; it was in an ultimate spiritual sense lifeless: an infinitely complicated robot animated by a clanging energy and subsisting on the digestive process of its iron guts." In the latter, "I saw that there was no justice in all England. I saw it was the one country in the whole world where justice could not be got." It was like living all your days in a bad dream." As Margaret McCulloch would say in Chapman magazine (no.67), "Neil Gunn is not typically a novelist of the city."
Characters are often similarly vague. We rarely find out what someone looks like, how they walk, talk and interact, more how people exist in their essence than in their social function. His characters are usually isolates, and even a socialized character like the woman in 'The Black Woollen Gloves' remains without a name and her background indeterminate. Others, like the central character in 'The Mirror', and the woman refusing to pay 'The Tax Gatherer' lives in a "wretched hovel", her husband apparently long since left. In 'Henry Drake Goes Home', the government official who visits the titular character sees that he "described himself as a trapper, with income "nil"".
People and place seem flotsam within the flow of time, so Gunn needs to find a prose style that can reflect this belief, as if a writer believes more than describes, must possess underpinning the writing a question of why we exist at all. This is a question Gunn feels one must address individually, and not assume the writer can describe it to the reader. As he says, "the only way I know of testing whether an intimate memorable experience can be communicated to others is by finding out whether others have had an experience of a sufficiently comparable kind." It may remind us of Lawrence, with whom we started. "While a man remains a man, before he falls and becomes a social individual, he innocently feels himself altogether within the great continuum of the universe. He is not divided nor cut off. Men may be against him, the tide of affairs may be rising to sweep him away. But he is one with the living continuum of the universe." (Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays)
© Tony McKibbin