Vincent Van Gogh was the first artist I made an emotional connection with, in my teens. When I was in my early twenties I read his Letters and realised that he was a well read, thoughful artist far from the popular notion of the mad artist! I never tried to copy his style but this drawing, which I must have done over twenty years ago, shows some influence in the mark-making. If you haven’t read the diaries I highly recommend them. There’s an edited version produced by Fontana, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Ed by Mark Roskill. They are among the most moving testament of any artist I’ve read about.
Another Buddhist story I especially like.
“If you are as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you still will not escape slander! Get thee to a nunnery, go!” Around 1600, by way of William Shakespeare’s pen, that was Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia. A continent away in Japan, and 300 years earlier in 1290, Chiyono found herself facing similar options. So, Chiyono set off to the nunnery, to the Zen temple in Hiromi where she was accepted to work as a servant. Chiyono journeyed to the temple (and agreed to work there as a servant if that was the only way in) because she wanted to attain enlightenment (for the new agers or feminists among you, think empowerment). For years – years and years even – Chiyono worked faithfully, diligently moping and cleaning, chopping wood and carrying water for the nuns at the temple. And through all those years her desire to attain enlightenment never wavered.
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This is a painting I did on cardboard, using acrylic, some years ago. It is quite small, less than 12inch across. Looking at it now I’m surprised I chose black for the red kite! I don’t want to read too much into it but it was painted as an expressionistic non-naturalistic landscape, so perhaps the archetype of the Shadow is part of the symbolism.
The reason I’m posting some of my art work is that I have a pile of stuff gathering dust so I took photos of the best of the bunch and will post them occasionally on this blog. I no longer paint and thought up until now that was a part of my past; I would no longer pick up a brush. However, never say never, as they say! (The Blucher drawing was done this year but that’s a pencil drawing not a painting.)
I wouldn’t usually have a note which is longer than the poem! However, I think it is important to know what Darwin actually said about this. Creationists in their propaganda often select the first part of this quote to back up their anti-science views. Please read the poem before reading the note.
grass fly worm
here now this is it
Darwin’s eye told us how
that miraculous lens
letting in light
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.
Here’s the front cover of the booklet published to celebrate George Stephenson’s locomotive Blucher, which hauled coals to the staithes on the river Tyne. Blucher was built in 1814 and made Stephenson’s name. Along with his son Robert he developed the steam locomotive and the first public railway – the Stockton and Darlington railway -was built in 1825. The Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle Upon Tyne was the world’s first locomotive builder.
Here’s a drawing I did for the booklet. Thomas Bewick was a Northumbrian wood engraver who printed books of British fauna. I wanted to symbolise the remorseless eclipse of the agrarian society by the Industrial Revolution. The fox weaving in and out of the tunnel is based on a drawing of Bewick’s.
Average life expectancy in the United States is close to 80 years, 78.74 to be precise. Most of us don’t quite achieve octogenarian status. Life expectancy has seen a boost in the past century but regardless of how you look at it, we’re working with a relatively short period of time here. It will be interesting to see where life expectancy is in another 100 years, which would put me at 125. Slim chance unless I stumble across that Tuck Everlasting spring. What is important is that with this brief moment, we enjoy our lives, take advantage of our opportunities, and lead a life we find happiness in.
In the grand scheme of things 80 years is the blink of an eye. To put it in perspective, imagine, as author Bill Bryson so eloquently explains, “The 4.5 billion odd years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day…Humans…
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Imagine a group of prehistoric homo sapiens -or even Neanderthals- grouped round a cave fire listening intently to a story-teller. Now shift forwards a century or few to the Roman story teller, Apuleius and you can sense the continuity. Telling each other stories will never die out because it is in our genes!
Written towards the end of the second century AD, The Golden Ass tells the story of the many adventures of a young man whose fascination with witchcraft leads him to be transformed into a donkey. The bewitched Lucius passes from owner to owner – encountering a desperate gang of robbers and being forced to perform lewd ‘human’ tricks on stage – until the Goddess Isis finally breaks the spell and Lucius is initiated into her cult. Apuleius’ enchanting story has inspired generations of writers such as Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Keats with its dazzling combination of allegory, satire, bawdiness and sheer exuberance, and remains the most continuously and accessibly amusing book to have survived from Classical antiquity.
I’m reading the Penguin Classic translation by Robert Graves and can highly recommend it. Lucius implores his lover to get him a magic potion to transform him into a bird. Unfortunately she gets the wrong potion by mistake. Here’s what happens next:
I stood flapping my arms, first the left then the right. . . but no little feathers appeared on them and they showed no sign of turning into wings. All that happened was that the hair on them grew coarser and coarser and the skin toughened into hide. Next my fingers bunched together into a hard lump and my hands became hooves, the same change came over my feet and I felt a long tail sprouting from the base of my spine. Then my face swelled, my mouth widened, my nostrils dilated, my lips hung flabbily down, and my ears shot up long and hairy. The only consoling part of this miserable transformation was the enormous increase in the size of a certain organ of mine. . . At last I was obliged to face the mortifying fact that I had been transformed not into a bird but into a plain jackass.
As a donkey he has lots of adventures and this gives Apuleius the opportunity to tell story after story including Cupid and Psyche. Brilliant (!) and has the immediacy of style which is timeless.
The Man Who Wrote Spider World
Some time ago I finished re-reading Shadowland. The overwhelming question one is left with is, ‘why isn’t this fantasy series, better known?’ I have said before that Spider World is easily Colin’s best fiction. He has said himself that he would like to be remembered as ‘the man who wrote Spider World’. The fun and pleasure he must have experienced in writing this Opus Magnum seems to radiate from the page. In the four volumes he successfully integrates his ideas with page-turning narrative. With a readership appreciative of Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials and even Harry Potter, it remains a mystery why the Spider World series isn’t better known. It can’t all be down to marketing can it? Maybe it will gain a wide audience in the future? The spider-balloon scenes alone are tailor made for film adaptations!
Apparently Colin started writing Spider World in response to Roald Dahl’s comment, “Why don’t you write a children’s book?” What we end up with is a series that can appeal to older children and adults, just like Lord of the Rings.
In Shadowland (book 4 of the series) we see Wilson the Mystic, Wilson the Pantheist, Wilson the Ecologist and even, Wilson the Spinner of Fairy Tales. When I first read it I was surprised and somewhat puzzled by the sudden appearance of myriad nature spirits throughout the narrative. Giant man-eating spiders were one thing; but sprites, trolls and tree spirits quite another! It seemed that Colin was incongruently inserting characters from traditional Fairy Tales into his fantasy story about spiders and an evil despot. However, on second reading the ‘fairytale spirits’ no longer seem arbitrary. On the contrary they seem to reinforce the novel’s propositions about the nature of reality and consciousness.
The ‘chameleon men’ and other nature spirits can only be seen by Niall by ‘looking sideways’ – a technique of relaxing the mind which has parallels in some therapeutic systems. When looking sideways, these beings appear in various stages of visibility and can even become completely invisible. What is going on here? Is it possible that Colin believes literally in the existence of such entities? I am no longer sure, it has to be said! Of course, he is on record as saying he believes in ‘discarnate spirits’ but that is in the context of life after death/human survival. Whatever ones opinion of these matters, the worldview of Shadowland is strongly neoplatonic: spirit is integrated with matter but is also somehow independent of matter.
Niall reflects on the limitations of human nature towards the end of the book, contrasting our egotism and cruelty with the harmony of the chameleons’ group mind:
“The chameleon men knew better. Close to the living soul of nature, they knew that every rock, every tree root, every vein of quartz, embodies the force of life. And this force could afford to be benevolent, for it was infinitely powerful.”
This is also the view of Hinduism, Buddhism and that of countless Yogis,
not to mention William Blake [‘the world in a grain of sand’]. The common denominator in all these belief systems is that consciousness is manifest throughout the universe. The earth force and life force are also stored in various gizmos conjured up by Colin. The ‘goddess’ who features in the previous book, The Delta, is equivalent to Gaia.
The chapters featuring trolls are some of the most charming and memorable. The ‘feel’ of these chapters is reminiscent of the timeless quality one senses in reading the Brothers Grimm tales. Again Colin’s sense of fun and enjoyment in sheer invention bursts from the page.
One of the frequent psychological insights in the novel is when Niall realises that his feelings about the Magician – the evil tyrant – swing alarmingly from admiration to detestation. In effect he is asking the perennial questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Am I a slave to my thoughts and feelings?’ ‘Is there a deeper self?’
Those looking for Colin’s familiar philosophical themes won’t be disappointed! While sailing aloft in a spider balloon Niall has an altered state of consciousness when his mind ‘splits’ in two:
“He understood suddenly why every human being spends a lifetime trapped in a narrow room behind his eyes, becoming so accustomed to the prison that he is not even aware of his captivity. And this was the root of the human dilemma. Every one of us is so accustomed to seeing the world from a single point of view that it is almost impossible to believe that other people are as real as we are.”
Niall continues to become more adept at controlled telepathy in this volume of the series. Again, this can be understood symbolically as well as literally. Many spiritual traditions speak of the transcendence of the ego where ‘the dewdrop slips into the shining sea.’ The person feels part of a larger whole, no longer separate. This is the enlightenment experience spoken of in Buddhism usually by the use of the term ‘satori.’ Here is another description [of Shiva] from a text about Yoga meditation:
“When my presence is awakened in you. . .you experience Me as Silence, Absolute Joy and Peace. There is no duality between my Shakti and Myself. We are inseparable like the moon and moonlight. I am neither the mind, the intelligence, the ego, the chitta nor attention; neither the ears nor the tongue, nor the sense of smell; neither ether or air, nor fire, nor water, nor Earth. I am eternal bliss and awareness. I am Shiva.”
I would hesitate to use the word ‘spirituality’ when talking about Colin Wilson but in discussing Shadowland it is hard not to. If any of you have teenage children recommend Spider World – it may change their world, just as reading The Outsider changed mine way back in 1967 when I was 21!
Animal Farm meets Gulliver’s Travels! Although this is a comic poem you may find satirical allusions to political situations both past and present.
An Animalistic Coup
His mantra was four legs good;
two legs bad. His dream was to topple
two legs – even if it meant
all animals were equal
but some were more equal
than others; even if it meant
tilting at windmills or dressing up
and walking on two legs. The bottom line
was that two legs were to be banished,
the raging bull would lie down with the lamb,
private ownership would be abolished,
all produce of the farm would be held
in common ownership and brotherly love
would be the new market force.
All was on track until a herd of Houyhnhnms
muscled in on the act. Two of them struck up the pose
of Rodin’s Thinker, jaws resting on hooves.
They deliberated, interrogated; debated for and against.
The upshot was that Napoleon and his cronies
were declared not fit for purpose; their regime lacked
rationality. Two legs were confined to fields, digging up roots
out of harm’s way.
The porcine pretenders thought this was fine
until they found themselves the Houyhnhnm’s lackeys.