The Key of the Chest

On holiday, I continued to make my way through the oeuvre of Neil M Gunn by reading his novel, 'The Key of the Chest'.

It is a beautiful evocation of a Highland Scottish community in its interaction with an encroaching modern world.

What I continue to like about Gunn's work is his realistic defence of communal life. The village is a place of shared fortune and misfortune that never idealizes but offers a vision of possibilities that remain relevant.

One theme is that of 'being seen': many of the strands of life are observable by everyone and this brings both constraint but also the potential of mutual aid. People within the community know each other and offer one another the courtesy of both being themselves and shaping their own lives but also at critical moments falling into the help of others.

This falling is both challenging - we want to maintain the resilience of independence - and yet often necessary - we live in and through the lives of others.

We see this community through the lives of two sets of marginal personalities - two brothers, one a shepherd, one a failed ministry student, having lost his faith and two friends - the laird, a son banished for failing to enter the family business and given the 'Scottish estate' and his older intellectual friend. The mediator between their lives is the doctor, himself both fully present to the community as an essential worker after its well-being and yet placed outside by his profession.

The drama unfolds around a shipwrecked sailor who dies and the contents of his chest and the failed ministry student's relationship with the minister's daughter and her father's hostile reaction to it.

But it is primarily a novel of embodied ideas. They trip through thick and fast. The one that most lingers with me concerns different modes of seeing - a contrast between the communities embodied, practical, caring seeing and the laird's practice of photography that intrudes in curiosity; and, freezes rather than liberates what it sees.

Curiosity was seen in medieval philosophy as a vice. It is a look without caring or practice, that seizes surfaces, and wants only to know for itself. It does not open up either conversation or response. Gunn's novel is amongst much else an extended meditation on the difference between seeing with a curious eye and with a communal one, embedded in shared knowing and loving.


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