Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is a Glasgow deeply divided between the world of the bourgeoise and the working class. A world teetering on the edge of renewed conflict and one broken by the scourge of Depression of the 1930s.

In the life of its central character, Will, a sub-editor at an evening newspaper, Gunn explores the 'age old' question as to where does social transformation begin? Does it begin with the individual or with society? Like many age old questions, the answer is often not 'either or' but 'both and' but by temperament, drawn to one or other end of the equation, we continue to argue it out.

Will wants to suggest, whilst recognising in his conversations with his socialist friend, Joe, that we are products of our circumstances, that there is another dimension to our selves that brings them to a completing wholeness. It is a wholeness he has tasted. One day, when observing wild geese navigating the sky, he has stepped out of the world that spins around his own ego into the world of the self that opens out to all that is present with a mixture of detachment and compassion. Learning what this means and how you might cultivate grace by falling into it by attention and by will is a core component of the book.

Will wants to maintain that it is through discovering this renewed self that we find the genuine energy to reach out and help others, not as pieces on the board of social progress, but as particular persons in their own right, to be enjoyed as such. The world, this world now, is an end of enjoyment in itself, never simply a means, and to see it aright always carries this potential for enjoyment.

This is not a position that can be argued for and if, like Mac, an older sub-editor at the paper the realism of the world is 'mud' or, like Joe, the socialist, clay to be moulded and only the product to be enjoyed, then there is little that you can do but point to the possibilities of a different way of seeing, and hope.

This seeing as a renewed self, a person, has the capacity to correct the tendency of ideology to become the ever postponed promise of a liberation that never comes and to neglect the contours of actual life A reminder that the world is inherently messy yet also deeply connected and at one.

Whatever the action of the novel (and this perhaps is its least successful part), the book is a beautiful exploration of what in Zen would be called 'polishing the stone'. For it describes, well and with telling observation, what happens after an illumination (the Wild Geese). Something is different but it needs to be worked out in and through one's everyday consciousness. Grappled with, felt into, and thought through. After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.

What is striking is how remarkably thoughtful Gunn is to the dimensions of this - the opportunities and the perils - after all being taken out of your habitual self can lead too great a detachment from real living or to an inflation - and to its spiritual corrective: 'the dark night of the soul'. It is no wonder that when later Gunn actually encountered Zen in his reading, it rang so true as a conforming instance of a pattern of being and experiencing with which he was deeply familiar. A Zen novel from Glasgow.


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