Monday, February 7, 2011

The Silver Bough

Neil Gunn's 1948 novel treats, amongst much else besides, of the hoped for restoration of a man to life after the horrors of war.

In the case of the laird, Martin, this is not simply the case of re-finding his place - the familiar story of a lost pattern of intense friendship forged in the intensity of shared courage, fear and impending death. It is of the rediscovery of meaning in daily life that in its fragility (and inevitable loss) can be seen as resistant to carrying such meaning: how can something so easily destroyed (and we discover callously destroyed in Martin's wartime experience) be the place of man's delight?

That it can (or be hoped for) is shown by the last scene where Martin takes Anna and her child, his child until now disowned, into his boat and make away on a calm sea.

This being Gunn amongst the beautiful described 'action' of the narrative is a series of 'metaphysical strands' - of which Martin's is the one that arrested my attention. Martin has served in 'the East' and witnessing the flaying of the wife of a planter pursues her five Japanese persecutors, killing each in turn, a guerrilla in the wilderness of the forest, he is a hidden pursuer, able to avoid capture by an intense identification with his place, charged by its 'mana' (to use the anthropological term): a unity that is beyond any moral identification, and from which, Gunn suggests, the gods are born as workmanlike metaphors.

This intensity of experience detaches Martin from the normal round as much as the trauma he has seen.

It reminded me of Adrian Hayter, the first man to sail around the world, single handed, in both directions. A remarkable man, he had served with great distinction in the Second World War, winning a Military Cross. During that war, he had received more than one striking, life unsettling, mystical experiences, the intense unity that Martin describes in his own wartime experiences. His subsequent quest was both to recapture that intensity and find a way of expressing it. Part of his desire to sail single handed was to recreate the conditions of wartime - intense physical exertion and danger - as a trigger to release from ego into unity (and Martin does likewise).

It struck me when I met him, already in the grip of the cancer that would kill him, that this quest had been both deeply rewarding but oddly detaching, and ultimately a source of frustration. No one he felt quite understood what he had experienced and periodically he would discover a writer on the interior life who had seen, only to come away ultimately disappointed. Alan Watts, in a different context, wrote that once you got the message, you should hang up the phone. Repetition itself is no release.

There is required of us in responding to such experiences the necessary task of what Zen calls 'polishing the stone', finding a way to allow that underlying sense of unity to be a well-spring of engagement rather than a barrier of detachment. Martin's return is the arresting of his attention back to the ordinary world first in being saved from tragedy by the intervention of the woman he has abandoned and second by encounters with the unselfconscious play of his child.

It is a beautifully constructed testimony to the restoration of life by the joy of its domestic loves, loving.

Gunn is remarkable in being able to weave this theme into a complex tale - of an archaeological dig at an ancient cairn that yields a 'crock of gold' artifacts that no sooner is rediscovered than they disappear taken, it would appear, by Andie, a young man 'simple' in the then current parlance, who has a fondness for the glittering. This find becomes a local sensation and sets in motion a series of events that lead to Andie's death and Martin's rebirth but where neither are even the main character - that falls to Simon Grant, the archaeologist, whose actions, conscious and unconscious, drive the plot yet the transformations are not his own, as if he reveals in the life around him new patterns, without himself being changed.

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