Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Well at the World's End

A professor of Ancient History, whilst walking in the Highlands, encounters, with his wife, Fand, a well whose water is so clear that they are momentarily led to believe that it is dry. Where does the water end and the air begin for there appears to be no boundary?

This triggers in Peter Munro, the professor, a quixotic desire to go a wandering in search of a particular kind of adventure and to find 'the well at the world's end'. The adventure is to allow himself to meet all kind of folk and by paying them a certain kind of attention to tease from them stories when, like the well, they found that their ordinary boundary between self and world had disappeared and they had peeked into another world, though one wholly enfolded in this one.

This is then not an 'ordinary' novel - and one that quite baffled its readership. For its author was an accomplished writer of social realism - of the complex history and life of the Highlands - not notably regarded as a metaphysician (or indeed a mystic). But Neil M Gunn, the novel's author, was, in fact, all three and as his life and writing progressed, he attempted to ever more deeply intertwine the three, looking for the signals of transcendence amidst the everyday. Indeed in 'The Well at the World's End' he actually makes use of both his own experience and those related to him by friends of, for want of a better name, 'mystical experience'.

The novel has no especial guiding narrative - episode follows episode, loosely connected by the sense of a quest - and in the different ways, people step beyond the threshold - when close to death by drowning, at rest after an arduous day wrapped in twilight, by the simple grace of a Spanish garden drenched in the stillness of the midday sun, when encountering a storm at sea or in speculation over a shared myth. Many are the possibilities of being surprised by delight and of becoming made whole in the delight's grace, if only for a moment but then how long is that?

What Gunn gives one, through the text, are continuous opportunities to pause, ponder over life's meaning, taste it, without ever suggesting explanations. Indeed thought, whilst valuable, is often the hindrance to true seeing, revolving as it does so closely around 'my' purposes, the ego's self-referential dance, rather than being opened out and made vulnerable by the presence of what is, momentarily unnamed, unnameable.

It is, also, a meditation on those famed lines of T.S. Eliot's in Little Gidding where the explorer arrives where he started yet knowing the place for the first time or in Munro's case, where he beholds his wife, after a nearly deadly adventure saving a sheep, and wholly refreshes his knowing of her, made pristine again out of his renewing experience.

But never does Gunn stray too far from the wholly ordinary, otherwise he would defeat his purpose. His 'mysticism' is woven tight to his characters and their everyday lives - their hopes, loves, humours and struggles -  such that the 'well at the world's end' is everywhere, for the world's ending is placed in every particular being, every person, as their birthright.

The novel was written, in the post World War II world, at a time when 'realism' appeared to demand 'pessimism' and a shedding of the possibilities of transcendence for a secular making do (preferably gathered around the kitchen sink or assembled in a bar) and where the predominant emotion might be 'anger'. This may account for its poor reception but takes nothing away from its quality as a heart felt rejoinder and reminder of a better world.

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