Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Shadow



"The cause of my nervous breakdown was..." As I know, any number of possible, complimentary and contradictory, clauses can complete this opening sentence; and, psychological theory is helpful only as a distraction.

It is one of the virtues of Neil M Gunn's novel, 'The Shadow' that the sources of Nan Gordon's remain open. Nan has returned to her aunt's farm in Scotland to recover from a nervous breakdown occasioned in London. The time being immediately after the Second World War has ended. What allows her to recover is a renewed participation in the health of a natural place - the lively, life giving country, the love of her caring and wise aunt; and, work on the harvest in undemanding but interested company.

This recovery is not unthreatened by the drama that makes the novel - a murder at a local croft, her male partner's arrival clashing with the attentions given to her by a stranger, a local artist. It is threatened too by a core dilemma. How can Nan's recovery of an embodied, felt way of seeing the world find accommodation with the man she loves way of seeing the world? For Ranald, her partner, is, amongst other things, a highly articulate and convicted Marxist waiting upon the inevitable revolution that his science speaks of.

A thread that flows through the book, never resolved, is this dialogue between a theoretical 'wisdom' that will seek to bend the world to its will and a compassion that 'knows' that the world is surprisingly resistant to our capacity to manage it according to the wills of our logic. A willing, that Nan's aunt at one point notices, drives men mad as they meet the resistance of that world.

The compassionate in the particular, cumulated in the fabric of our actual lives, seen bound, enfolded within one another, Gunn gently argues, is where the good is found; and, only incrementally can we fashion meaningful change that at once improves and yet remains connected to all that is presently good. This, he notices, may be a poor argument against ripe injustice and painful failure but has the revolutionary leap (capitalist or fascist or communist) ever contributed more than dislocating violence?

Meanwhile, beyond this 'argument', I was reminded personally that the best step into health is stepping out of oneself into a welcoming world and finding the blessing therein. My doctor, I recall, not a man unacquainted with the depths of barbarism, having been a young soldier liberating Belsen, asked me first whether I wanted pills or someone to talk to (a psychotherapist I presumed). I turning down both, he then followed Nan's path, sending me out into nature for long walks where I was drawn out of self into a shared ambience of life and slowly healed. Literally walking into sanity.

At a deeper level, Gunn implies the healing of the world needs an ever deeper intentional and attentional participation in its quiet rhythms. To know its 'tao' is the beginning of navigating from wisdom and the only ripe wisdom is a balance of thought and emotion, bound in compassion.



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