Monday, 25 November 2013

The Great Bridge Builder

Part Four

The Transfigured World 


"Over here," Jonathan said, and took his friend round to the other side of the room. A second easel was standing back to back with the first, also holding a canvas, but this uncovered. Richard set himself to look at it.
It was a part of London after a raid - he thought, of the city proper, for a shape on the right reminded him dimly of Saint Paul's. At the back were a few houses, but the rest of the painting was a wide stretch of desolation. The time was late dawn; the sky was clear; the light came, it seemed at first, from the yet unrisen sun behind the single group of houses. The light was the most outstanding thing in the painting; presently, as Richard looked, it seemed to stand out from the painting and almost to dominate the room itself ...
It was everywhere in the painting - concealed in houses and in their projected shadows, lying in ambush in the cathedral, opening in the rubble, vivid in the vividness of the sky. It would everywhere have burst through, had it not chosen rather to be shaped into forms, and to restrain and change its greatness in the colours of those lesser limits. It was universal, and lived.
"It's far and away the best thing you've done," said Richard at length. "It's almost the only thing you've done. It's like a modern Creation of the World, or at least a Creation of London."

"Any object, intensely regarded," writes James Joyce in Ulysees, "may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods." The statement is quoted in the story by Buck Mulligan. Leopold Bloom, thinking of his domestic problem, is sitting in a pub looking intently at the red triangle on the label of a bottle of Bass ale. When someone starts to disturb Bloom, Mulligan stops him, saying, "Preserve a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access, ... " etc.
Upon arrival in the Otherworld, at the end of our long and arduous voyage to the West, it may actually turn out that we realise we haven't gone anywhere at all. We find ourselves back at home instead, where we've always been, but a home transfigured and transformed, a home seen with fresh, newly baptised (or re-baptised) eyes. What we thought was commonplace we now see for what it really is - miraculous. The beauty had been there all along, but our perception had become too dulled to recognise it ...
"I have been here all the time," says Aslan to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, "but you have just made me visible."
In the above extract from Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve, Richard sees London transformed - made magical and mysterious in Jonathan's painting. The picture is rooted firmly in the everyday, with houses and rubble, as well as a cathedral. Yet the scene is transfigured and made more than the sum of its parts by a rich, resonant inner light, charged with meaning, pattern and spiritual significance. In my own fictional meditation on this passage:
"The painting to the right centred on a mighty domed building crowned with a silver cross. Alongside it were clustered a variety of smaller constructions in red, brown and gold. Julie saw a river in the foreground. Men in flat caps were standing on boats. The sun was a small flat disc.
Julie felt enthralled by the quality of light in the picture, a light emanating not from the sun but from inside the painting itself. The artist had somehow woven it into the texture of the canvas, this wartime dawn pushing up from within, light pulsating through church and school, bank and shop, cathedral, sky and water."
Do we think it possible then to imagine for ourselves a world where every brick, lamp-post and blade of grass might signify something, and where everything and everyone we see and meet possesses a deeper, wider resonance ("You have never met a mere mortal," as Lewis wrote), while at the same time continuing to be simply him, her or itself?
Can we imagine a solid, tangible world filled with what Joyce called 'Epiphanies' and freighted with an underlying sense of mystery and magic? What would such a frame of things look like? What would be its sights? Its sounds? Its smells?
 An image from Andrei Tarkovsky's film, 'Nostalghia' (1981)



At 25 November 2013 at 05:05 , Blogger Stephen Winter said...

This is a piece of writing of breathtaking beauty, John. Thank you so much. Thanks to Sorina Higgins I read "All Hallows Eve" recently and was also greatly moved by the same passage that you quote. I loved the way you drew that together with your quotation from Ulysses. I will never disturb anyone so intently engaged again! I had my own moment of Epiphany in London once looking over some very ordinary rooftops in Islington. I had been praying (not with any especial fervour) and had gone to have a coffee. I looked out of the kitchen window and while in one sense everything looked the same in another everything was transformed and I was transfixed by the beauty of what I saw and for a time taken out of myself and into a kind of communion with "it" whatever "it" was.

At 25 November 2013 at 15:33 , Blogger John Fitzgerald said...

Thank you very much Stephen. That's a terrific story about the Islington roofs. Yes, it's a tremendous piece of writing by CW. Had he lived I'm sure we would have seen a lot more of this in his work - the ordinary world invested and imbued with this sense that, as you say, although everything looks perfectly normal in one sense, in another it's become utterly different, and you know intuitively that another level of reality has staked a claim, however temporarily, on the day to day milieu we know (or think we know) so well.
All the best, John.


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