Sesshu / Gunn

Neil Gunn / Sesshu


Neil Gunn was a key author from the 1930s to the 1950s, part of what Hugh MacDiarmid called the Scottish Literary Renaissance. But that renaissance had its roots in the Celtic revival of the 1890s and that revival is the core of my talk today. But crucial to message is the essentially international nature of such cultural revivals. Gunn’s work provides an introduction to that interdependence of the local and the international. But even more than that – what I’ve always valued in Gunn’s writing is his ability to begin with the local and by observing it closely, to let it stand for the planet and indeed the cosmos. That is, of course, what many good writers do, and it is the starting point of many spiritual traditions.


One such is the Zen Buddhism of Japan, and it interests me that towards the end of Neil Gunn’s life there was a conscious convergence in his thinking with that tradition. His works from the 1930s, such as Highland Riverhave a very Zen-like quality of direct perception, but his formal introduction to such ideas was via Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which was published in English translation in 1953. A few years later Gunn published his final book, The Atom of Delight, which as been described variously as a novel, an autobiography, and indeed, a spiritual autobiography. One might call it a magic realism that is both fact and fiction. In that book there is an account of Herrigel’s work, and a few years later, in one of the very last pieces he published, one finds Gunn again meditating on a Zen view of reality. I’d like to quote from that essay. It is called Highland Space, and at it’s core is an exploration of the work of the fifteenth century Japanese painter, Sesshu. [1]


Murdo Macdonald



On Sesshu.



From the essay ‘Highland Space’ by Neil M. Gunn


Saltire Review, Winter 1961




My concern is with space.


The eye, then, is caught immediately by a tree in the foreground, and behind it—or, more exactly, above it—the looming shapes of two mountain peaks. These three objects are discontinuous; they are not linked together in the perspective with which the Western eye is familiar, so familiar that its absence instantly conveys a sense of bewilderment. … Then within the bewilderment came the uncanny feeling that these vague peaks were not simply apart in space but were being actively created by space. They were being born out of it. Space was the creative source.


But there was more than that—though now I hesitate, for, when the eye looks steadily, an odd, perhaps entirely personal, illusion can arise; in this case it was the illusion of movement, of, as I have suggested, active creation. To compare broadly: whereas in a Western painting the moment is arrested, static, here the moment is caught from what has been described as the eternal flux of becoming and unbecoming. I know this has inexhaustible philosophic implications, but I am not concerned with these at this point, only with seeing and experiencing. Just as I once saw the dawn coming out of space on the mountains above Lochbroom. The curve of the mountains took the light in a way which made me realise that the earth was a great ball turning in space. Dawn was not entirely the rosy-fingered affair of our traditional poetry. Nor, for that matter, did the rosy fingers thereafter lose their appeal or our human condition its interest; quite the contrary: because of that which had been added.


As for the third—or at least now the fourth—element in the picture, the splashed-in tree, it was no longer ‘the tree’ so much as ‘tree’. Nor was this quite the platonic notion of the ideal tree. Somewhere I have read that Sesshu got the splashed effect of the foliage by taking a little bunch of straw, dipping it in the ink, and then dabbing it on the paper. Which may permit the reflection that American action painting is neither so new nor so revolutionary as has been bruited; and the further reflection that in Sesshu’s case this irruption of the irrational is not the whole picture. These old masters had a way of putting things in their place.


One more picture by Sesshu I should like to mention, though it is not included in the de luxe volume. It is called ‘Seven Sages in a Bamboo Grove’. Why such a title should warm the human breast I hardly know. Perhaps it is not so much what they might say or do as that they should 1e there saying and doing it. Anyway, tradition has it that the seven met in the bamboo grove and gave themselves to painting pictures, making poems and playing music— having, of course, already attained freedom from the clogging absurdities of all negative and destructive emotions. But what particularly struck me was a final remark by the Japanese critic to the effect that such a picture could be painted only by one who had himself attained the mind which would adorn the bamboo grove. And that is the mind that brings us back to space. Many of those old master painters in Japan were, like Sesshu, Zen priests. Zen is a sect of Buddhism and enough is being written about it in the world today to make it unnecessary for me to say how little I know about it. Not that knowing, I find, or learning or even deep study helps much, for the central experience of enlightenment (revelation, perhaps, our word) can come only when thinking or the logical processes stop. That is not to decry thought, of course; merely to make it clear that enlightenment is not an end product of thought. However, the one thing I wish to avoid is verbal entanglement, so let me say briefly, then, that apparently our fear of space, the horror vacui, is not a fear or horror for all mortals. Certainly it is not a fear in Zen, which uses words like Emptiness, Nothing, the Void, quite commonly, but always in the paradoxical sense that Emptiness is not emptiness, space is not Void, yet, again, that they are these in the moment before they are not. To take the further step and hold these ultimate opposites in unity may be a true experience, but if so its expression—the communication of such a state of being—can never be more than a hint by the use of paradox. At this point the interesting thing about Sesshu’s landscape is that in it you see him resolving the paradox. He paints his picture (in the bamboo grove, I hope) and the eye sees his space or Void, the plenitude of his Nothing.


[Excerpted by Murdo Macdonald]


[1]From the essay ‘Highland Space’ by Neil M. Gunn      Saltire Review, Winter 1961