The Atom of Delight

The Atom of Delight’ is Neil M Gunn’s autobiography , though an unusual one, like Jung’s it focuses on the unfolding of his ‘inner’ life: His realization of an ‘essential self’ that transcended his everyday patterning of identities. It is a realization grounded in experience, key moments of illumination, that polished in reflection, transformed his way of seeing, allowing the world to rest in its creating, transfiguring light. The sheer ‘normality’ and simplicity of these moments, many rooted in childhood, and affirmed later are striking: breaking nuts by a burn side and ‘coming’ on himself doing it, witnessing himself in the naked sense of ‘being there’, what Gurdjieff would call, ‘self-remembering’. Gunn wanted to avoid and evade any charge of ‘mysticism’ as ‘fuzzy’ or ‘esoteric’ and he took markedly later to reading and contemplating Zen precisely for its matter of fact, embodied quality. Realization is seeing that there is another world but it is wholly enfolded, enfolds this one.

I have been reading Gunn’s biography (by F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick) and one of the affirming delights is to discover that all the key illuminating experiences woven into my favourite novel (thus far as I am happily ploughing through the work with that special pleasure of discovering a new companionable author) ‘The Well at the World’s End’ are either autobiographical or related to Gunn by a trusted friend. In the novel, they have the texture of the imagined real, of authenticity, and here, in the biography, this is confirmed.

‘The Well at the World’s End’ is both a book about spiritual liberation that each individual has to come to by him or herself (and one of Gunn’s companionable books, unsurprisingly, was Hesse’s ‘Siddartha’) and the renewal of a marriage, a renewal grounded in being offered the opportunity to go away in self-discovery that deepens the realities of return.

The sadness of Gunn’s life was that he lost his readership. His early (and possibly deceptive) social realism – novels rooted in Highland life of great incident – the clearances, the drama of the fishing boom – won an audience that was bewildered by the inward turn (that was implicit from the outset) and the biographers’ speculate (as did Gunn) from his desire to bear witness to the light – to the upside possibilities of what it means to be human at a time (the 40s and 50s) when, especially in Europe, there was both the confrontation with the ugly realities of the downsides of human beings and an urgency in the arts to confront the ugliness (as being the site of what is ‘real’)!

He was ripe for a 60s rediscovery but by that time his books had mainly fallen out of print and his brand of mysticism was not as arrestingly exotic for that generation as Hesse’s or Huxley’s but you do feel more deeply grounded in actual experience, and more measured in its embodiment.


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