A surprising read

I do not know whether I am more surprised by the book itself or my reaction to reading it (Lewis Thompson's 'Fathomless Heart').

When I was in my school sixth form, aged from sixteen to eighteen, occasionally, about the middle of the day, I would be seized by a complete reluctance to stay at school. It had exhausted my patience. This was often triggered, I confess, by either a double period of physical geography or of economics (more usually the latter)! I would develop a nascent cold and feigning sickness go home, sit in bed, feeling luxuriously sorry for myself, and reading William Blake. Later that day (after the final school bell would have tolled), I achieved a miraculous recovery.

I cannot claim to have understood what I was reading but I was captivated by it and a sense that it was striking something in the depths of me long before anything was apparent on the surface. I was doing, without knowing it, what T.S. Eliot commended, reading poetry for its sensing sound before coming to comprehension.

In Guy Watson's review for this quarter's 'Resurgence' of Thompson's 'Fathomless Heart', he suggests that it is not a book to be read whole, from start to finish, but one to dip into, savouring its aphorisms and short essays. It is one approach but not the one to start with, I feel. It should be read first, as Eliot suggested, in its wholeness and for its felt texture before beginning to fathom it. Have it sing within before attempting the slow process of understanding.

My surprise is both in my reaction as I am completely arrested by the text and have not felt so compelled to keep reading such strangeness since my teenage encounter with Blake and by the content of the text itself. It is a beautiful accounting of how, at heart, we dwell in the one divine reality, our self-ing a gift of that Presence to which the only invitation is to surrender into it. The simplicity of the invitation is such that it eludes our endlessly clever, ego bound, sophistication, whose stratagems Thompson lays bare in pellucid prose. It is a text that could not have been written without a deep intuitive understanding of Vedanta and yet it is a text that is wholly, resonantly 'Western' and 'modern' and unique; and, where the principal figure of the realised person is Christ. Christ not as a figure to be believed about but one to be seen through as a full imaging of Reality.

Like Blake, he uses language in a radically personal yet objective way. Thus, his word for 'enlightenment' (or salvation) is Luxury. With this word, he wants you to see how any meaningful liberation is one into the world, seen aright, with the perceiving eyes rinsed and cleansed, to quote his (and my) beloved Blake. Wallowing in a world of wonder, a world transfigured into true self! There is no Presence that is not present and Presence presents itself always as gift, a gift that seeks you out, reveals itself, which you can only find through surrender. Likewise he has a beautiful use of the word, 'Hypocrisy'. I had a Latin master at school who famously once exclaimed (as a reproof to his misbehaved class), 'Every time I open my mouth some damn fool speaks'! For Thompson any attempt to say (rather than to show truthfulness through living it) is a failure - language is by its very nature hypocritical - claiming to something it can never arrive at - but owning truthfully this hypocrisy, tuning our soul to it, is part of the process of recognising our need to surrender through and beyond it.

I have finished my sensing reading of Thompson's text. Now comes the slow path of appropriation, supported by reading both the two volumes of his Journals and his poems; and, of critical engagement. He is not wholly free of the inward intellectualisation of spiritual life, and its devaluing of the just so-ness of the everyday world, which he criticised in Vedanta and his understanding of solitude veers into the neglect of relationship. You want to remind him that Blake had his beloved Catherine.

I do not know why I am surprised that he is not better known after all Blake died in equal obscurity yet you, wrongly probably, imagine in this new age of 'communication' it should not be so! Alas it is though the path of correcting this is being laid out. If Blake had Alexander Gilchrist, Thompson has Richard Lannoy as a faithful chronicler (and with a deeper appreciation of his charge than Gilchrist had of Blake)!


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