For the last week I have had many thoughts whirling round and around in my head and every time I have released them, tumbling, sprawling onto a page, I have felt a brief relief, before regretting the deluge and immediately deleting the offending words, sentences and paragraphs.
Until this morning.
There was a lightning-bolt.
Last weekend, I spent time with friends in the middle of nowhere, trying to quiet the mind, eat good food, think kind, gentle, loving thoughts, sleep well, smile often and brace myself for the return to the everyday world we all live in. I spent a lot of time sitting in a shed listening to the incessant rain and thundering gales, threatening to lift me and my shelter and send us hurtling to a splintery doom at any second, sinking deeply into an old canvas chair, cupping a very strong warming cup of coffee in my hand and thinking thoughts of past, present and future. In my mind I was wrapped in the warm comforting blue smoke of Old Holborn, remembering shining eyes, bright, joyous smiles and innocent laughter. And, through the small window of my safe harbour, I caught occasional glimpses of the moon casting a gentle light on me and my solitary thoughts.
The lady of The Moon was watching my every move, hearing my every thought, patiently waiting, knowing that eventually I would rise and begin the inevitable.
But, I sat, and I thought, and I breathed deeply the calming sweet smoke of an imaginary Old Holborn-filled ‘Rolly’ – and, it was summer-time, long ago. But it felt like the briefest of moments had passed – the faces were fresh, clear and bright and the voices fell on my ears like the sweetest music I have ever heard – I found myself smiling in the dark early morning chill.
I once wrote that my memory is failing in certain respects and the images of youth are disappearing from my life – however, I realised then that some are becoming sharper, brighter, more real – and with that realisation and those thoughts I felt a mixture of conflicting emotions. And so I sat and thought on. I thought of the musicality of the voices – that I wish I could hear them again, now, next to me. I looked deeply into eyes set in smiling faces – that no old master could capture in oil, water-colour or marble, and do justice to – the essence of beauty and life was set within my mind and could not be manifest in any way other than in the very being of the old ghosts who sat with me; Spectres haunting my thoughts. I wish I could reach out a hand and touch them, if only for a moment.
My thoughts lingered and then wandered freely up and down the paths of my life. I returned to another wet and windy day of long ago. I was a teenager in London attending an exhibition of the works of Stubbs – it was a relief to step into the warm brightness of the gallery. I wandered, staring at the walls and the pictures hanging there, mostly unmoved, as only a spotty self-centred ‘Yoof’ can be in the presence of such overwhelming beauty, until I came to one picture in particular – and then I was transfixed, rooted to the spot.
In my cold windy shed, I made the mental leap across the decades to my last visit to London and a day in the National Gallery, where, as a world-weary self-centred adult, I gazed listlessly at the marvels adorning the walls. Then, as I crossed from one gallery to another, I looked to my right and there, on a far wall, held behind a huge glass door were those exact same eyes, burning into the depths of my soul, compelling me to come closer, to reach out a hand and touch – to try to touch the untamable, the unattainable.
I stood for the briefest of moments, a mere twinkling, the glimmer of light on a fast flowing stream, and it seemed like an eternity, and the days, months, years fell away and I was given a fresh start, to look again, and maybe do things differently – to appreciate those smiles, voices, glittering eyes for what they where, who they where, and to love them more deeply than I thought I did, or had.
I was face to face with ‘Whistlejacket’ – only now I saw him with different eyes, and a deeper appreciation. I’m ashamed to say that I did not linger long in his presence. But, now, I have spent many hours with him and the thoughts that have arisen around, and because of his existence. Leaving aside the deeper personal thoughts, I have pondered this picture, it’s subject, the gentleman who saw such unutterable beauty that he felt it must be captured for posterity, and the artist, whose skills are, to me at least, supra-human. I think on each, deeply and at length – each different, yet connected, brought together briefly in life, a moment in time, exulting in life, pride, ownership, appreciation, skill, ability, magnificence – to pass from each others lives and on to other journeys, but, remaining inextricably linked for as long as the canvas exists and its memory is retained in the mind of at least one living soul.
In my mind, in my shed, I try to put into words what this means to me, how it affects me – but as I struggle and fail, I think of a conversation carried on over many hours with a now recently deceased friend about language, its uses and the human need to describe everything. He believed we have a duty to try to explain, to verbalise, all our emotions, to share them, and that the listener had an equally compelling duty to listen and to understand. I disagreed, of course – it’s in my nature – like it is the scorpion’s to sting. The verbal tussle went on for months, until his untimely passing and his ultimate landing amongst the stars. We never concluded the conversation – but I carry it on, internally, all the time.
Occasionally, I hear, read or see something that I wish I could share with Greg, that would bolster my argument, that says more beautifully, precisely and succinctly, what I fumbled over. One such was an interview where the interviewee was discussing this very subject; he spoke of the music of Bach, calling it the ‘Language of God’. I was struck by this – I tried not to conceptualise to let the meaning simply be grasped and intuited. But, the struggle for language took over, the need to explain, and I was wandering down a barren path yet again. Then two days ago I picked a little book called, “Jewels Of The Mind,” off my book shelf, opened a page, and read this:
“Language is not subtle enough to express all that we feel; and, when language fails, the highest and deepest longings are translated into music. Music expresses emotions without ideas. Literature appeals to the soul only through the mind. Music goes direct. It’s language is one which the soul alone can understand, but which the soul can never translate.”
Vindication? Maybe. Did it apply to other forms of art, to other forms of expression, of homage to beauty?
I thought of Julian Barnes and his book ‘The History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters”, one chapter of which was about the “Raft of The Medusa” – an epic work, as was Barnes’ essay on the subject. I remembered reading it, and being captivated and wishing I knew more, was able to understand, and critique like this man could – to see as deeply and discerningly as he did. Then, one day rambling around Paris, I saw the painting in all its imposing enormity, and stood held by the storm raging around the occupants, and looking at their faces. Briefly, I was lost in dumb-struck awe. I was face to face with a painting I had long admired, and had read much about. But, that was the problem, for immediately I began to examine it through the eyes of others, to see what they had said I should see, to feel what they said I should feel. No doubt there is much in the picture, there is narrative, there is meaning, commentary that the learned person will pick up on, as there is in almost all paintings of note, but knowing this, turning the visual into concepts, into words it lost its power – for me at least.
So, I resist this with ‘Whistlejacket’ – not just when talking with others, but in my own thoughts. I just want to let the painting – the results of a very powerful Muse, the Muse of others – move me, affect me deeply, quiet me, make me lower my head in reverence, create a hush in my mind that is deep and all enveloping, and spans centuries.
Maybe, it’s my mental inability, or laziness that makes me think this way – probably. For all around me there are things that are verbalised that move me deeply. But this is different to an explanation or rationalisation of the subject, the object, the meaning or intent of the art work, the piece of music, a song. The music, the lyrics, in combination are the art.
When I listen to music, it moves me – it always has. As a 4-year-old I remember listening to “Puff The Magic Dragon,” on a scratchy old record player, and crying. Not a great piece of music by any means, but it conveyed great pathos to me – I didn’t know about pathos then, certainly couldn’t explain or rationalise it – but I felt it, experienced it, deeply. The experience was pristine, and pure. Art? Does my reaction, or its cause need to be rationalised?
This morning, as I drove down the road, in the dark through pouring rain and strong winds (storms, again!) I became conscious of a song playing on the radio that I know well. As a teenager I listened to it over and over again, on a borrowed tape, on a borrowed Walkman, on dark morning walks, or sitting on warm grass on long bright evenings – I know every note, every word; and, whenever it comes on the radio, I unconsciously turn it up and drift. I did this morning. It seemed to fit my mood, my thoughts of the week more perfectly than it ever had before.
And, then, lightening strike! I nearly crashed the car.
For the first time in over 30 years I heard, and fully understood when Mr Knopfler, through the voice of Romeo, sang:
“All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme.”
Everything else disappeared from my mind.
Is this what Mr Stubbs was doing when he created? When Bach wrote using the Language of God, was he adoring the unattainable, the mental image of perfection? A Figment? A Muse? A beautiful spectre of the mind that draws the will to create out into the open? The force that drives creation, to try to release some beauty from within, to share with others some part of their being, their soul, their love?
Is the need to create, to express, the same as the need to be understood, to have to explain? If it, the work, the subject, the creation, has to be explained, has it failed in its purpose – has the Muse deserted the artist, the maker? If only one person sees, hears, touches, and understands, appreciates, is moved by the creation then surely the Muse has succeeded and the creators work is done?
I don’t know. I wonder, because after my weekend away I was compelled to sit and do something and was agitated in body and mind until I spent a day making a very rough miniature, a precursor for a full-sized chair. The concept had been in my head for a long time – deeply buried, and superceded many times by other projects. As I worked I was thinking about trying to explain what I was doing, why I was doing it, what it meant, where my motivation came from – why I used a particular kind of back for the seat, and shape for the chair. And all week, since making it, I have continued to feel the need to justify choices, explain my reasoning, not my process, as though the action of creation, and the created were wholly insufficient and insignificant, unimportant, unworthy….
Did I really draw inspiration from The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood for this one? Does the shape reflect the gothic arches of church windows deep in rural Sussex of long ago? Does the way I hope to create the back really develop a visually appealing, satisfying linear opposition to the curve of the uprights? Will the reds and greens of the back rails, closely set together, provide a gorgeous counterpoint to the pristine ivory-whiteness of the Willow? Will they? Will this really, eventually, be a semi-gothic throne for the ethereal Lady of the Moon?
Or, did i just sit down and play with some sticks and put them together? Do my justifications and explanations improve the work, make it more than it physically is? Is the object itself the Language of God? If I try to explain, does it suddenly become, for the beholder, my own version of ‘The Raft Of The Medusa’ when I finally saw the real thing? Or, do I leave it to the viewer to see what they see, to feel what they feel, to maybe want to reach out and touch, like Stubbs did – their very own ‘Whistlejacket’ moment?
I really don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t always feel like making or creating anything, physically or in writing, but at times, like last weekend and all this week I feel an overwhelming compulsion and I have to follow it – I have to heed The Muse, create for The Muse; The Muse is the past, present and future, illuminated gently in the light of the moon – present in the wood I touch and all the beauty I see in the world, even in the memory of an Old Holborn cigarette from my youth.
Romeo paid homage with his rhymes, it was all he could do; and I try to do so by cutting up sticks. While Romeo, Stubbs, and Burne-Jones created wonders, I create trinkets – trinkets that when completed I feel embarrassed by, want to consign to the flames (and have done many times) before trying again, to improve, to succeed, in capturing beauty, a beauty that is unmistakable and does not need explanations.
So, given what I have just written, if I see someone have a ‘Whistlejacket’ moment in the presence of something I have made, without words, I will know I have done something worthy of The Muse. Then, like Stubbs, I will walk away leaving the creation behind me, unadorned, unexplained, and unadulterated. And, I will probably smile quietly to myself – one day.