Saturday, January 24, 2015

Neil Gunn goes to Davos

'The Well at the World's End' was the first of Neil Gunn's novels that I read and I found it magically suffused with the recognition that there is another world, wholly enfolding this one, a world of light. This world reveals itself when you stop seeking and allow yourself to look, looking you step into the way of things and the barrier between yourself and unfolding reality dissolves, if only for a moment (but then how long does a moment last?) and you are at one - within your self integrated, with the world joined.

"A Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn" is a beautifully lucid exploration of how this coming into oneself through belonging with the world's unfolding is expressed in Gunn's art. It was present at the beginning and deepened through time in a way that, sadly, made his novels appear less accessible to his wider readership. Those that came expecting the social realism of his works, woven with the fabric of communal Scottish life, and nationalist concern, were surprised by yet something other, latent at first but slowly accumulating to the fore. This was the recognition that, at the heart of things, there is not the time bound social and political realities, however important, but the recognition that we are spiritual beings in a purposeful cosmos. That cosmos unfolds within and around us and harmony comes from intuiting how to swim.

This central intuition was confirmed for Gunn in his encounter with Taoism and Zen in the second half of life. It is not, as John Burns' book shows, that he was 'influenced' by these 'Eastern' traditions but that he found in them a deepening confirmation of what he had recognised out of his own experience. While we, the reader, can get a better understanding of what he perceived in being shown the parallels between his pattern of seeing and that of Zen.

Reading it, like any good literary criticism, the first desire is to revisit the texts (and indeed add new ones) but also I found myself thinking about Davos, whose last day was today.

This global meeting of the 'great and the good' is one that, conceivably, I could now grant myself the excuse to go to (and indeed was asked, more than once, whether I would be there). At the simple, psychological level, I can hardly imagine anything more off putting as a hardy introvert, all those opportunities to 'network', constantly looking over one's shoulder (or more likely having one's shoulder looked over) to see who else is more important! But reading Burns, and through his lens, Gunn, I found myself thinking what is the point?

At the heart of Gunn's writing is a two fold (and related) movement. The first is the recognition that what essentially matters are communities sufficiently rooted to their places that they are able to navigate the challenging complexities of being in the world - and that destruction always emerges out of a forgetting of that rootedness (and Davos, sad to say, is more likely to represent the forces of rootlessness than rootedness).

Second that community is only possible when it is centred on the realisation that its health depends on people's ability to intuit both the transiency of their lives within an unfolding whole and to step out of time and its concerns, into a taste of the lighting of eternity. It is out of this realisation, savoured within the fabric of everyday life, that leads us to treat all things as ends in themselves, in their unique particularity, not only as means. Life both starts and ends in an appreciation of the mystery of this realisation (and mystery and eternity are probably not high up on Davos' agenda either)!

This recognition is both universal within the 'mystical traditions' of the world, has always and ever been true, and is more true than ever, now, as the complexity of the world deepens, the idea that 'you' can control it (or that your 'leaders' can for you) implodes. There is no escape from taking upon ourselves a transformation of how we learn to navigate the world (unless we wish to invite destruction). It is a transformation that sees everything as interlinked, as mutually arising, and which can only be addressed compassionately - and which calls forth new solutions rooted in actual communities, aware of their particular places, connected in a deeper wholeness (so if Otto Scharmer is at Davos at least there may be a taste of what is increasingly necessary:

This undoubtedly sounds 'utopian' but, of course, as Gunn recognised, it is stepping into the reality of 'nowhere' (the creative void at the heart of things and from which form emerges) that gives you the wisdom of insecurity to be one's self.

One of the key themes at Davos is 'inequality' and the need to address this is evident - myriad are its bad consequences - so, for example, one can only commend Indonesia's presidents new income transfer schemes to address it - but ultimately, which is Gunn's point - you cannot truly address the social realities of inequality until you recognise it is a ego bound 'fiction', until you can see that, at heart, our oneness is real and felt to be so.

This should never stop you from seeking the provisional goods of change but the true task ahead for each individual is yet somewhere other.

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