Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 7

Individual Transcendence
Gunn’s pathway to Zen

There are two doctoral theses on Gunn. One, by Christopher Stokoe (2007)¹, looks at the sequence of novels as an overarching narrative of the Highlands, the other, by John Burns (1982)², sees a preoccupation with transcendence as the unifying theme. Two different approaches but not necessarily incompatible – after all the material reality of the Highlands does not preclude characters finding moments of enlightenment, after all the inner and the outer are always intertwined. Burn’s approach does however take the specifics of a regional location and show something universal. Zen may be a defined discipline with roots in the East but for Gunn that was not the point. His excitement in discovering the philosophy was in recognising a common wellspring of understanding. He always claimed his insights (or delight as he termed it) could happen spontaneously, without prior knowledge of the Eastern tradition. In other words he was tapping into something that could be discovered by anybody, anywhere from Caithness to Kyoto.

Gunn’s formal interest in Zen came at the end of his career (after he read Zen in the Art of Archery when it was first published in 1953) but he was sure he had experienced related insights since boyhood. However after he discovered Zen he retrofitted it onto his work, as can be seen in his memoir, and last published book, The Atom of Delight, which describes his childhood growing up in Dunbeath and his formative years in the Civil Service. It is a book that works from the inside out. This is how he describes his first Zen moment:

The shallow river flowed around and past with its variety of lulling monotonous sounds; a soft wind, warmed by the sun, came upstream and murmured my ears as it continuously slipped from my face. As I say, how I got thereI do not remember. I do not even remember whether anyone had been with me on that expedition, much less what anxieties might have to be resolved with “excuses” when I got home. I was just there. Then the thing happened, and happened, so far as I can remember, for the first time. I have tried hard but can find no simpler way of expressing what happened than by saying: I came upon myself sitting there. Within the mood of content, as I have tried to recreate it, was this self and the self was me. The state of content deepened wonderfully and everything around was embraced in it. There was no “losing” of the self in the sense there was a blank from which I awoke or came to. The self may have thinned way – it did- but so delightfully that it also remained at the centre in a continuous and perfectly natural way. And then within this amplitude the self as it were became aware of seeing itself, not as an “I” or an “ego” but rather as a stranger it had come upon and was even a little shy of. “ (pp29-30)

This was obviously a moment so clear and full of meaning that it changed forever his sense of what it is to be human and how we form part of the world around us. But for Gunn it was also a hint of something that exists slightly beyond rational analysis, something outside the material, and something in tension with his practical cast of mind. He is, after all, a supremely rational person, with a history of enjoying maths and the sciences, being organised and logical as a civil servant, and being engaged in politics and public commissions where he looked at the evidence and then came to rational conclusions. He is down to earth but also he had a mystical streak (although he hated if that word was used to describe any of his works).  Mysticism and romanticism collided within him and found and outlet in his belief in a ‘golden age’ of Gaeldom and the lost wisdom of his ancestors. In his later years he deepened his interest in spiritual concerns and his interest in Zen deepened. This is indicated in The Atom of Delight where he devoted a fair proportion of what is a memoir to a description of: Zen in the Art of Archery. It is as if he is shouting out that this! – this way of seeing – runs through my work and outlook like veins in a slab of marble. Of course there is the white stone of family, history, culture, landscape, and the state of the Highlands but running through it is the tracery of individual insight and the way one comes upon flashes of understanding. This was obviously a moment so clear and full of meaning that it changed forever his sense of what it is to be human and how we form part of the world around us. But for Gunn it was also a hint of something that exists beyond the rational and the been a tension throughout his work. On the one hand he is supremely rational, with a history of enjoying maths and the sciences, being organised and logical as a civil servant, then being engaged in politics and public commissions where he looked at the evidence and then came to rational conclusions. He is down to earth but on the other hand he had a mystical streak (although he hated if that word was used to describe any of his works). He was not even afraid to use the word magic unmetaphorically Mysticism and romanticism can collide to form something like his belief in a golden age of Gaeldom and the lost wisdom of his ancestors. In his later years he deepened his interest in his spiritual concerns and his interest in Zen deepened. This is indicated by The Atom of Delight where he devoted a fair proportion of his memoir to a description of: Zen and the Art of Archery. It is as if he is shouting out that this – this way of seeing – runs through my work and outlook like veins in a slab of marble. Of course there is the white stone of family, history, culture, landscape, and the state of the Highlands but running through it is the tracery of individual insight and the way one comes upon flashes of understanding.

The Atom of Delight helps us understand some of the roots of Gunn’s vision and the way he has reworked incidents from his past into his fiction. But I find it frustrating to read and I agree with someone (I can’t remember who) who said that you can learn more of his life by reading the novels than you can from the memoir. Where things are clearly described in the novels they are overlain int the memoir. It is a book of two intertwined halves: the first, describes the boy growing up (and Gunn refers to himself in the third person as ‘the boy’) which is vividly told but it is mixed with great dollops of psychologising and philosophising. Many a time my eyes glazed over at these sections and words slipped by. Suddenly, though, a passage would click into place and I would be back on track. When he concentrates on the concrete the book is lovely but when he explains the theory and draws abstract connections it is less engaging. An example of this type of writing is this small, random, paragraph:

“Metaphor, or analogy with the physical, may help, but vaguely and only up to a point. Thus the radioactive atom of material stuff may be said to fulfil itself in the moment of its disintegration, in the moment of its “death”, but the radioactive atom of the psychic stuff fulfils itself in a moment of wholeness, which though it may seem to be “an end”, is presently apprehended as an intimation of a further experience of wholeness along the same way. To say that the way has “no end” is but to say that the adventure is open.”

Each sentence is of itself perfectly clear but for some reason I can’t be doing with it – I want to skip it but then, surprisingly, I find the last sentence quite uplifting. It is an odd experience. It’s as if I’m reading something that keeps coming into and out of focus. I’m quite willing to admit that the fault lies with me as the fallible reader but other people have also had difficulties. In a letter to Naomi Mitchison, who had obviously made some similar criticism, he explained:

“I know what you mean about too much psychology and too little physiology. I have tried to give a sort of balance to the whole man, even if at the end thought ran off into odd dimensions. The trouble is one of length. You see the blessed book is over 100,000 words! It was tempting to amplify at ever single point. But I wanted my main stress to be positive (hence the title). We have been getting so much of the negative stuff, negative emotions, and diggings into the futility of the Outsider that I have grown bored by the whole unending performance. It has become so unfashionable to be positive, so positively indecent to be optimistic. I just said so long to all that. I don’t care any more. I am even getting the notion that the one thing Scottish writers can be, over the existentialist French and their English copyists, is positive.”

It’s interesting that although he might accept some of the criticism he sees no way round it. He needed to defend his vision at a time when he saw the intellectual climate changing. It was only a decade since war had devastated Europe and shown, in concentration camps and mass destruction, previously unimaginable, depths of depravity. In this blasted landscape intellectuals were grappling with questions around what it meant to be human now most of the comforting assumptions had been stripped away. The philosophical winds blowing in from Europe were bleak compared with the consolation. Gunn wanted to offer via his work. His view on what it meant to be human was positive, not only because of the possibilities of individual transcendence but because he wanted to show that a rich life could be lived in remote areas and the virtues of the Gaelic culture of the past could be celebrated. It might be a bit of a stretch to claim that positivity is a particularly Scottish strand of literature but there is no doubt it was Gunn’s own credo.

But is being positive escapist? This is something he wrestled with in his later fiction as he hated the idea that what he wrote could be construed as escapism really bridled at the idea. Apart from The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944), which showed the dangers of totalitarianism, none of his books engage directly with the struggles of the world either during wartime or as it struggled to rebuild itself. His world was that of the Highlands, a very separate place, with different concerns but that doesn’t going there was escapist. Reading the books so many years later it is hard to see this problem. Why would it be said? Why would it sting? Why would it matter? But nevertheless he felt he had to justify what he was doing, either to assuage some sneery library types or answer a subconscious niggle of his own. Who knows why – but you can see the scars in one of his classifications of his fiction: ‘Escapism Validated’. It is his most populous category, with five novels, all written between 1939 – 1952 i.e. the brink of war and its immediate aftermath.

What these novels explore is something more timeless: the potential individual growth and development within the constraints of their environment. Community, nature and historic culture areal tightly knitted together and the response of people to these bonds is his theme. This means that moments of individual Satori is bound by the culture from which it grows. In other words the Celebration of Light described by John Burns is specific to the Highlands and a part of what may or may not be a Highland meta novel.

¹Stokoe, Christopher John Lawson. Closing the Circle : Neil Gunn’s Creation of a Meta-novel of the Highlands. University of Glasgow [thesis]. 2007. Web.
²Burns, J. Celebration of the Light : The Fiction of Neil M. Gunn. Edinburgh University [thesis]. 1982. Web. (Later published as Burns, J.. Celebration of the Light : Zen in the Novels of Neil M. Gunn. Edinburgh, Canongate. 1988. Print.)
³Gunn, Neil M. The Atom of Delight. London: Faber, 1956. Print.
⁴Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1987. Print. p133.

P.S. The picture of zen archery comes from here but I made it black and white – for reasons