IN THE MIST
Driving into the village was a descent into the mist. The narrow road passed through the warmly coloured ironstone cottages, past a curious inn with a sign showing a dancing witch, or something resembling a dancing witch. Further on and the turn off the road would take me deeper into the valley and, just as I approached the turning I was looking for, a glimpse of the lake. It was, in fact, an artificial reservoir, but the water had long since bedded in to this place and it contributed to the mist as if it had always been there and as if these mists were ancient miasmas that were exhaled and inhaled by the folded hills over years and centuries.
The house I was looking for was set behind the lane, very close to the water’s edge. It was of a darker stone than some. It might have been, in its core, sixteenth century or older, one of those granges or farmhouses which had grown and receded organically over the years as it settled into the land.
As I feared the drive was very rough, pitted, and roughly filled with black bricks, and the yard showed signs of abandonment – weeds, rusting agricultural devices. stone urns and one or two broken pieces of statuary from a failed attempt at establishing an elegant garden in a more comfortable time.
Partly hidden by a wall I thought I could see an old caravan, perhaps a Romany vardo, but with no traces of bright colour remaining, if it had ever had any external cheeriness. It was misty enough not to be certain what lay more than a few yards from the door – which did, I was pleased to see, have a dim electric light above it.
It had always been a mystery, as I have written elsewhere, whether the traveller had actually wandered the countryside in a horse drawn vehicle, or whether his journeys had been entirely imaginary. Had he travelled wherever the horse had led him on the old green roads, composing music which followed the story of his journey, or had he made the journeys entirely within his imagination, following the paths the music took him?
If it had been the same traveller.
The idea of the romantic wanderer had been attractive all those years ago, but I had been aware that Mordant, who may or may not have been my traveller, had become lost in his own entangled mazes as age overcame him.
In more recent years he had, I believed, left the hedgerows and fields, real or imaginary, for the labyrinths of esoteric conjecture. The journey had been abandoned and the mechanism of the mind had become dominant. The music that escaped this unkempt house became abstract, conjuring with formulae, and, ultimately, obsessive.
But there seemed to have been a change. I had received a page of score posted in a several-times-re-used envelope. It was quite unlike the intense constructions of his obsession. It was, indeed, very simple. It could almost have been a child’s piece by Schumann. On the top of the page Mordant had written:
“Something remembered? What does it say? Is this A Work?”
It was a very pleasant miniature. At the foot of the page he had scrawled:
“What can we really know?!”
I was certainly nervous about meeting Mordant again but he was welcoming, though diffident. His hair was grey and straggly but his tweed suit was smart, though possibly nearly a century old.
His first gesture of welcome was to offer me a small glass of cider vinegar, sweetened with honey.
“It is the cure for all ills,” he insisted.
We sat in his study, which was also a crowded library. A dusty cello stood next to a travel clavichord which was littered with pencil manuscripts.
Conversation was difficult. He was quietly excited.
“I have been pondering the Great Question,” he said.
He handed me a small oil portrait. I recognised the pale face of Maude, her hair fading into shadow, or was it that her hair was covered in the habit of a religious?
“What was it that the lady was fond of quoting?” he asked in a breathless whisper. “The words were from Bonaventure perhaps? Or was it Thomas Gallus, or even Pseudo-Dionysius?”
I knew what he was thinking of. It was something I have long associated with Maude. It was a theme that had haunted these conversations.
LOVE DRAWS ALL THINGS TO THEIR IMAGE IN THE MIND OF GOD.
(I find I first noted this sentence down in the notebook in which I wrote the first of these conversations, in Amalfi in summer 2006. I have an idea it literally came to me in a dream. It might have been a memory. In fact, the original note had “Love draws all things to their FORM in the Mind of God.” It became a theme for the conversations with Maude. I have always felt it was related to the thoughts of Bonaventure, who has become my ideal theologian. As I learned more about Bonaventure I discovered that he had developed the idea that everything had its patterns in the Mind of God but, in his view, that pattern was the Word. Everything was a reflection of one source, the Word. Now, December 9th 2016, I find that Joseph Milne in “Metaphysics and the Cosmic Order” (Temenos Academy, 2006) writes of Bonaventure’s understanding of Divine Love “as the power that draws all things to unity in the Mind of God.” (p.26) This is substantially the same meaning, as the Image which all things are drawn to reveal is Unity, which they reveal in their own individual Unity.)
“A motto,” he went on,“ I should always have had before me in my travels. Wherever I may have journeyed – what was it that drew me? But Love we understand, do we not?”
“The love that moves the sun and the stars?”
“Ah, Dante. And yes, the sun still dances for us in the Theatre of the World. But the Great Question is not ‘What is this Love?’ but ‘What are these Things?’ We can understand Love, I think we can begin to, at least, as the cause of movement, but what is it that love causes to move? What are these Things? What are these Works? And can we know them? And in knowing them, what is that we KNOW?”
“An epistemological question?” I said, to myself, not a term I would use, but I was remembering an impenetrable discussion I had had with a curious philosopher many years ago.
“We can analyse the Music of the Spheres,” he continued, “and know the fundamentals of music, the threads that hold the universe together, but that is just one step in the Mind’s Journey Into God. It may lead us to an awareness of the Divine Unity in the Cosmos as a whole. But to learn MUSIC is another matter. A work of MUSIC is a THING which Love has drawn to its Image in the Mind of God. So many of our efforts never achieve this sense of being a Work, but they are still drawn, however they resist, towards becoming what they should be. Our failures shout from their incompleteness of their desire to become Works! You see my point?”
“Yes. That’s my experience. It’s a mystery. The whole business of composing is a mystery. Love draws us however much we might stumble in the undergrowth, yes.”
“I have prepared an experiment. I think you will find it both enlightening and amusing. This is simply a demonstration of the first step – in appreciating what constitutes a WORK, something which is drawn to its Image in the Mind of God. It is not for me to attempt to lead you to any actual knowledge of those Works. That is a matter between you, the WORK and God. If you have time I would like you to consider five works. I have prepared five Works in five rooms – the rooms which lead off the passageway linking this study to the kitchen. There, in the kitchen, Mrs Spratton has provided tea, a rich fruit cake and anchovy toast. This may prove a pleasant recompense for your time.”
THE FIVE WORKS
1 – GOLD
The room was shuttered and in darkness. The only point of light at first appeared to be a small sun in a black void. As my eyes adjusted I saw that it was a roughly shaped nugget of gold. It was hard to see how it was suspended in the illusion of space. I think it was simply supported by a black stand of some kind, a camera tripod, or convenient piece of furniture, a side table or an adapted cake stand. None of that mattered. All I was meant to see, and all I could see in this theatrical setting, was the piece of gold which was shining brightly. (Again it doesn’t matter, but I imagine it was illuminated by source of light, hidden somewhere in the room and focussed on this single object.)
This, then, was the Work.
What could be said about it?
As far as I could tell it was pure gold,
“It is pure Gold.” I heard Mordant’s voice behind me. “From the earth? Or could it be a rare product of the alchemist’s art? If so it has no supernatural powers. It is simply Gold, not the Elixir or the Stone.”
Nothing but Gold…the same atoms as all other Gold. This nugget had a certain weight and size but within it was nothing but Gold. Neither useful, nor, in itself, beautiful.
The spotlight switched off with a loud click.
2 – THE BLUE FLOWER
Again, a room in complete darkness apart from a single object in light. Under a glass dome, borrowed, perhaps from a piece of taxidermy, was a flower, a blue gentian. Extraordinarily blue, the essence of blue.
I knew, though it might have been whispered in my ear, that this was not just an example but a particular flower. Of course this is inexplicable, but this was this one flower and one refreshing burst of blue, the specific flower that someone had picked (not thing I would do) on a foothill of the Pyrenees, over thirty-five years ago.
The blue had been formed by that fresh Spring air. I am sure that the air and the light from the distant snow-capped mountains and the delightful tintinnabulation of far-away sheep (or cow?) bells, had infused this flower and this colour with their virtues, and the flower now radiated its life giving freshness to the room, even to me. It was a joyful hillside (at the foot waited cheese, bread and wine) yet the castle above us, a gaping decayed tooth, had been a place of terrible death.
The flower had been given to the beautiful, smiling, shepherdess, as I like to call her. I feel she disapproved of its plucking from the vivid grass, but she held it in her palm and smiled with it.
I remember saying:
“I wish I could think more clearly!”
She (and the flower) replied:
“Perhaps you should wish to feel more clearly.”
Or words to that effect.
The bells and the air were an echo of the moments of peace in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
The Shepherdess handed the flower to an old lady who had talked of Chakras and her home in Wales which was a retreat of an Eastern kind.
The blue flower immediately withered in her hand, the petals falling limp. Of course it would have withered within moments of being picked. It was not meant to be removed from the soil. But the Shepherdess’s hands had preserved it while she held it in their own light.
And though the Shepherdess is no longer with us, the flower, this particular flower, and its blue like the translucent blue of Chartres, is here still, suspended, I think, in this glass dome.
3 – THE FANCY
The third room was a compact cabinet. There were two or three Jacobean chairs with embroidered seats, and an ancient window of imperfect glass in diamond panes through which I could see the garden declining towards a backcloth of shrub and tree, hazily blended with the mist.
On a stand beside me was a wind-up gramophone with gigantic papier-mache horn. (Not necessarily very old – a product of E.M.G. Handmade gramophones.) Mordant placed the pickup on the record.
The music that emerged from that immense horn was strangely soft and mellow. It was a fantasy for viols, I am not sure whether there were four or five instruments, their voices intertwined. Shadowy melodies were announced, imitated, passed from one to another in a “divine conversation”, as the 17th century musician Thomas Mace called it. I did not recognise the music. Gibbons or Lawes but perhaps by a minor master? It may have been a piece Mordant had found and had had recorded by a friendly consort, or it might have been his own pastiche – but whether this was the truth or not the impression which grew on me was that this was music composed in this house and reflected the philosophical conversations which had taken place in this room.
Yes, I could see (in my mind’s eye, whatever that might mean) the figures, not of musicians of the period but gentlemen in dark clothing, three or four of them, seated on these oak and embroidery chairs, all with clay pipes which brought a thicker cousin of the garden mist into the room.
I understood the interlacing of meaning which linked them, but not the words. As they spoke they occasionally turned to the window and the dim impression of the garden. Grey shapes suggested the statuary, then standing but now discarded. Their thoughts carried the music, or the music carried their thoughts, to the woods beyond the garden, into the valley, which was damp, and the source of the mist, but not yet flooded by the reservoir and the need to provide water for the population of towns which would not grow for several generations.
The music passed through fields of aching discord, shafts of light pierced the shadow, then a suggestion of dance was accepted by the consort. There may have been smiles and long drawings of tobacco smoke. In spite of the calm of the last moments, as the music faded into the repetitive hiss of the end of the disc, what remained was the memory of the wood beyond the garden, and some sense of tragedy in the trees.
4 – THE WOODS
The fourth room was as kind of vestibule, some old boots and sticks, and an open door, I found myself on the slope of grass which had once been the garden, and, with the echo of the close of the viol fancy in my mind, I found myself walking downwards.
I passed through an opening in the shrubbery into the trees. The mist did not seem to penetrate this wood, even though I was, surely, close to the water of the lake. The path, such as it was, went on further than I expected and there was no sign of an end of the wood.
Fragments of the fancy’s counterpoint were threaded through the trees, memories of the more intense contemplations of the Jacobean philosophers.
There was water here, but not the expanse of the reservoir. This was a pool of black water, perhaps deep. At its far bank I could just see something which might have been a structure, though it merged with the colour of the trees and might have been no more than a heap of fallen boughs and branches.
My eyes were fixed on this indistinct object when a hand gripped my arm.
“The hag’s lair.”
The rasping voice was shockingly close to my ear and distorted by my partial deafness.
“They call her Black Annis. She keeps to her side of the pool. The local boys come this far and no further and perform their torments. But they won’t go closer. They make their cries and sometimes set their dogs loose to harry the witch. At times they set off firecrackers or shoot their guns over the water. She keeps her distance then, they make sure of that, or else she’ll creep this way and take the children. She has teeth like saws and takes bites out of children’s limbs.”
“She lives across the pool?”
But before I could turn my eyes from the lair or forest hut whoever had spoken had vanished. There was near silence, but for the odd shuffling of a creature, the cackle of a pheasant.
The contemplative philosophers, whose instrumental voices still hung in the silent trees, as far as my memory allowed, would not have spoken like this. Their gaze had been towards this woodland, through the trees and across the water. Their music had a quality close to pity.
I followed the narrow path, such as it was, around the margin of the pool. Yes, I could see the shape was a kind of chaotic shelter formed from fallings retrieved from the wood’s floor.
There was no sense of the sinister in this hovel. No scattered bones of village children.
Was the fancy which still drifted in my thoughts an “in nomine”? Something searching for the sacred – even here.
From a distance I saw a figure, a heavily cloaked and shrouded figure of a woman. She stood by the low black opening of the shelter. Her stoop suggested old age, though I suspect she was not particularly aged. Her one exposed hand held a string of beads. She was an anchoress, a solitary hermit. Not a Black Annis, but an Agnes.
The music was more audible here, in the bindings of the undergrowth, the ripples of the black water. Music from several centuries after her time, but woven around a simple chant she would have recognised, as the music reached back towards her.
In nomine deo….
5 – THE BOOK
The fifth room, though I suspect it was the same room as the first and my sense of the geography of the house had been confused by my apparent wanderings by the pool.
Whether or not it was the same room it was illumined by a weary 40-watt bulb in a table lamp. The side table on which it stood, a few chairs and the floor were strewn with book, photographs and loose pages, some of almost illegible handwriting and some of typescript.
Moving closer to the litter I recognised the writing was my own. Amongst the material were several white notebooks which I knew were mine. I picked on up. On the page at it which it had been lying open was the scribbled sentence:
“All things are drawn by love to their image in the Mind of God.”
It was the notebook in which I had written the first notes for what became the first Ravello Dialogue, sitting on a balcony at the Hotel Marina Riviera in Amalfi. These were, I realised, all sketches, print outs and completed versions of the various fragments of this book. And amongst the pages were photographs, my own and pictures from other sources, of the gardens at Ravello, and of portraits of certain people whose features were reflected in the faces of the Countess, Maude and the others. Here were other books, open at pages which had affected these conversations, drawings and even maps. I daresay there were even CDs or other media for music storage.
The material covered more than ten years, as many as thirteen, I think, to the notes made in Mustard Pot Cottage.
So, this was the Book, this Book, in, as they rather annoyingly say these days, deconstructed form. Yet linking all his, constructing itself with golden wires, was the Book itself. And some of the pages here were as yet unwritten.
Work in progress.
The tea, especially Mrs Spratton’s cake, was excellent.
Mordant had only this to say in explanation:
“Even understanding what kind of thing a WORK is is only the first step. I see now that beyond this is is the deeper knowledge. Once we recognise that something is a WORK we can begin to know what that Work IS and what it tells us by being what it IS. If we don’t even recognise what a WORK is we have no hope of reaching this knowledge. If we live as if we were not ourselves a part of the WORKS, or as if we were detached and that these Works were objects, or as if we had any meaning apart from the Works – and vice versa – we have no hope of finding TRUTH.”
I fear Mordant drifted back to his old ways. If we are part of this constant forming, this Dance of the Making of Works, are we not also formers, makers, ourselves? If we are drawn into a WORK, a story in the world, can we not draw things in the world into our own stories?
This is the working of Magic, of course, and Plotinus, as Mordant knew, suggests that we can create a desire to which other things are drawn.
There is a certain sense in this, and it does seem that this is what sometimes happens. Things seem to come our way because of our desire. But our perception can be distorted by our own self-centredness and our own self-love. We are all co-creators, but our freedom to create comes from humility and openness to the “love that moves the sun and the stars.”
12th December 2016