Sunday, September 4, 2016

Second Sight



Harry is walking down off the hills with his gillie, Alick, after a day's deer stalking. Alick is suddenly arrested in his tracks and watches intently at a scene only he can see. Harry vividly notices and, on interrogation, Alick reluctantly reveals what he has seen. A dead man carried by four others. It is a future prophecy. Alick is afflicted with the second sight.

From this incident, Neil M Gunn, weaves his novel, 'Second Sight' that comes to its tragic denouement as foretold, leaving you with the question whether the prophecy itself has become the mechanism of its very fulfilment?

The novel is not one of Gunn's best as the plot feels too contrived a mechanism by which Gunn works out what he himself thinks about such 'paranormal' phenomena as 'Second Sight'. Where do they sit in the nature of things? Where do they sit within the material world, as delusions or as experiences yet to be explained? How, if they are real, do they relate to any wider spiritual significance?

On this level, as a novel of ideas, the book is splendid as the protagonists in the hunting lodge, Harry and Helen (for the believers) and Geoffrey (for the skeptics) argue it out. There cannot be any key argument in and around the 'paranormal' that Gunn does not touch on, showing both a sympathetic interest and wide knowledge.

Thus, a miracle need not be an arbitrary supernatural intervention, simply, as St Augustine himself maintained, a happening that reveals something of the ordering of things not yet understood by our current paradigm of knowledge. So too, at a dinner party, a Colonel Brown manages to inject a discussion of Dunne's 'An Experiment with Time' and of multi-dimensional universes to explain how one might grasp the future in the present. Meanwhile, the wonderful Dean Cameron expounds how such secondary phenomena as 'second sight' might emerge as one deepens one's mystical consciousness of oneness. Everything being revealed as lovingly interconnected, we are enfolded in the lives of others, seeing into them. The waning of this tradition of seeing in the Highlands is, itself, traced to the dissolving of the bounds of community as an outward, imperfect expression of a grounding love.

None of which impresses Geoffrey, who pushing towards an exposure of superstition, steps too far and triggers his own death.

Running alongside the to and fro of talk is the backdrop of the stalking (and the real divide between English interlopers and local Scottish folk, between one class and another too) where Gunn can rehearse his deep feeling for landscape and of landscape as a character, a shaping presence every bit as important as any person. Geoffrey's ultimate failure is not skepticism, for all enquiry is legitimate, but his failure to genuinely listen to the presences in his life - neither the people he encounters nor the land he traverses (notably, in a set piece, refusing to 'be lost' in the fog, staying put, and needlessly pressing on towards potential catastrophe) nor the animals he hunts with unfeeling proficiency.

He is a man setting himself apart and above the reality he inhabits such that its reality shrinks to the level of his reason. He never allows himself to imagine differently, imagine into difference, empathise into unity, and thus never truly sees.

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