Zen in the art of Neil Gunn

The Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, came late to a discovery of Taoism and Zen (as wonderfully described in John Burns' study, 'A Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn'). It was only in later life when he read 'Zen in the Art of Archery' that he noticed that there was a deep, underlying similarity between Zen's account of sudden breakthroughs in illuminating experience, ones that moved you closer to an abiding union with the unfolding reality of things and Gunn's own experience that he wove into his novels, especially as he grew older, as he turned from 'social realism' towards a deeper interest in 'inner experience' and a connectivity with nature.

It was a 'turn' that perplexed many of his readers as this defender of 'community' and the political realities of a down trodden, yet to be reborn, Scotland (Gunn was a lifelong nationalist), began to explore the inner dynamics of the person. An exploration to which he came both too late and too early.  Too late because his readers had slipped into a groove of a certain expectation (and his readership was semi-fixed by his labelling as a 'Scottish author', caught in a particular place) and too early because he peaked in the 40s and 50s, when his audience was fixed upon 'social questions' - the breakdown and rebirth of Europe rather than the apparently inconsequential flickerings of the soul! It may have been a different matter if both his pedigree and his key interest could have been carried over into the sixties when a new audience might have been found. By this stage, however, age and acquiescence led Gunn to put down his pen.

I found myself comparing him with Huxley who moved from social satire to social critique and spiritual quest and either carried or created an audience as he went. Huxley, of course, was not bound by a country referent, indeed having moved to the US, found a more deeply congenial (and extensive) audience for his 'inward turn'. Huxley was better too at connecting his spiritual commitments and his social critique as they stand together; and, he is more explicit and structured in both.

However, Gunn created a 'dystopia' every much as intrinsically interesting as 'Brave New World', focusing on the dark arts of psychological persuasion rather than biological manipulation, in 'The Green Isle of the Great Deep'.

He was masterly too at describing the eruption of an illuminative experience within a common background. It is precisely because Gunn did not have the encyclopedic understanding of the mystical tradition that Huxley possessed that makes his accounts so fresh and revealing. What does it look like when such experience comes to us, afresh, out of the intrinsic nature of the world, free of the tradition(s) of interpretation? It takes on a simple normality in which we can, if we scrutinise our own experience carefully, a startling resonance.

His is a body of work that calls out to better known, especially when tradition(s) decay either into decline or fundamentalism because they quietly reaffirm that the natural state of being human is being connected to a deeper whole that expresses itself in an unfolding Way, that, at its best, 'the religious' is merely a description of the highest possible state of simply being.


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