O Lord, help Thou Thy loved ones to acquire knowledge and the sciences and arts, and to unravel the secrets that are treasured up in the inmost reality of all created beings. Make them to hear the hidden truths that are written and embedded in the heart of all that is.
The saint, the artist, the poet, the Fool, are one. They are the eternal virginity of spirit, which in the dark winter of the world, continually proclaims the existence of a new life, gives faithful promise of the spring of an invisible kingdom, and the coming of light.
(Cecil Collins quoted on page 356 of Where on Earth is Heaven?)
Recently I came across one of those books. You know the kind I mean. You’re not looking for it but it finds you anyway. When you’ve found it, you’re not sure if you want to buy it, but you buy it anyway. And when you get it home you read it in a state that alternates between fascination and irritation. Sometimes you just can’t put it down and go hungry as a result, while at other times you can hardly be bothered to pick it up, so put off were you by the last bit you read.
You begin to wish you hadn’t bought it and start thinking of all the other things you could’ve done with the money – but, for some reason, you do pick it up again. And you keep on reading.
But I’m really glad I bought it, warts and all. And I’m even more glad I’ve kept on reading. In the end this is because the things in his book that interest and inspire me are of far greater weight and importance than the things that make me impatient.
Just to give you a flavour of what I’m talking about I’ll focus only on one chapter, two thirds of the way through the book and the longest chapter in the book so far, longer even than the one on Tolstoy.
It’s the one about Cecil Collins. He’s someone else I’d never heard of. The picture at the top is by him. I’m still not sure I like it (something about angels as they are generally portrayed, perhaps, that doesn’t quite click with me – I really struggled with Milton‘s Paradise Lost for connected reasons though I finished it in the end). Even so there’s something about this picture that arrests my attention and to which I resonate. I realise, of course, that seeing a reproduction is a poor substitute for experiencing the painting directly.
The picture immediately above, I’ll be honest, I just don’t get at all, so we’re in the middle of a muddle of feelings typical of this book for me, but when I read what Collins says about art I really begin to sit up.
In an essay entitled The Vision of the Fool he wrote:
Modern society rejects the Fool because of his faith in the essential holiness of life itself; contemporary society has mutilated the holiness of life itself by concentrating upon almost everything else but that, and by its neglect of the very means by which the sense of holiness of existence is developed, namely Religion and Art.
(op. cit.: page 356)
He feels we are ‘ruining the leisure of the soul': as Stedall explains it:
Painting is neglected because people have no time to look, to become receptive, to reflect and absorb, ‘no leisure to form a connection, a communion with the painting. And it not only applies to painting; we have no leisure to form a communion with life itself.’
In terms that are reminiscent of Iain McGilchrist he goes on to describe Collins as saying:
He refers to the machine age as being responsible for ‘the crucifixion of the poetic imagination’, making it – along with art and religion – a heresy.
I can respond to this sort of idea very well. As long as he steers clear of angels and elves he carries me with him.
Stedall quotes Kathleen Raine and almost persuades me to put down my prejudice in this respect. She describes Collins’ world as:
the interior country of the human imagination, where rivers and mountains and stars, sun and moon and seas, trees and birds, exist not as natural objects but as imaginative experiences. It is a world of correspondences, not arbitrary but intrinsic; for in the Paradisal state meaning and being are indivisible, are the same thing.
(Op.Cit.: page 362)
So, may be I shouldn’t be so literal minded about angels. It’s what they represent that matters. I’m still not on board with the elves and gnomes that Stedall talks about in other places (he ruefully acknowledges that such talk might put some people off but has the integrity to write about them anyway). You see my problem. He’s so inspiring on the one hand and yet so embarrassing on the other. But may be that’s my problem and not his. Perhaps I should stay with him till the end of his book.
For instance, he quotes Collins from a documentary Stedall made:
It is not necessary to understand in order to create: it’s necessary to create in order to understand.
(op. cit.: page 363)
If he was making films that included such wisdom he may be a Fool but a fool he is certainly not.
His book is an account of his own quest for meaning and catalogues his life as a film maker for the BBC to illustrate this quest with the encounters he has had with key people in his life, either directly or indirectly. His immersion in the lives of Tolstoy and Ghandi was obviously vicarious. But he knew others, like John Betjeman and Fritjof Capra personally. His story progresses through experiences with them that follow a similar pattern to his experience with Cecil Collins. He quotes a lot but then so do I. He can also render an important piece of wisdom in his own words as well:
. . . inner transformation is, I believe, inseparable from an involvement in trying to make the world itself a better and fairer place for everyone, materially and spiritually.
(Op. cit: page 327)
That’s what keeps me reading and I’m sure now I will finish the book in the belief the money was well spent. I feel he is on the side of the angels after all (did I really say that?), and perhaps the best that we can fairly hope for this side of death is that someone will feel able to say the same of us.
In spite of its simplicity, almost sentimental naivety even, in spite of the conventional if elongated angel figure, in spite of the cliché trumpet, and even though the sun is such a common symbol of transcendent light, there is a power in the last picture at the bottom of this post that will be enough to make me keep looking at it for quite a while yet, giving it time to reach the essence of me, wherever that might be hidden. My mixed reaction suggests that perhaps I have become too ready to delight in the novel and unusual for its own sake and at the expense of the deeply familiar but the deeply meaningful. Perhaps I’m not alone in that.
A similar power to that of the painting shines from the book in many places just as brightly and in spite of the seeming credulousness of its integrity. Even if you don’t like the picture it might still be worth reading the book. If you like the picture, even a little bit, I believe you’ll really like the book.