Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Candle of Vision by George Russell (AE)

It was a seemingly disparaging and throw-away line in Samuel Beckett's Murphy in which a minor character was reading The Candle of Vision by George (AE) Russell that led me to this 1919 publication.
Russell was a contemporary and confident of WB Yeats and one of the leading figures of the Celtic Twilight, a literary movement which Beckett's mentor James Joyce derided in Finnegan's Wake as the 'cultic twalette'.
There is scant reference to Russell in the various Beckett biographies I have, mostly name checks, and one instance when Russell, as editor of a magazine, rejected a poem submitted by Beckett early in his writing career.
In terms of subject material and style the two would seem to be miles apart - Beckett's stripped down prose depicting alienated characters who become increasingly detached from the physical world with little evidence of anything beyond that, while Russell uses flowery language to retell the other-worldly visions he says he experienced.
The Candle of Vision is Russell's account of his life as a mystic and recounts many of his visions.
Russell, possibly aware of the distrust of a self-styled mystic that many people will feel, outlines his case for belief in visions.
"We experience the romance and delight of voyaging upon uncharted seas when the imagination is released from the foolish notion that the images seen in reverie and dream are merely the images of memory refashioned; and in tracking to their originals the forms seen in vision we discover for them a varied ancestry, as that some come from the minds of others, and of some we cannot surmise another origin that they are portions of the memory of Earth which is accessible to us. We soon grow to think our memory but a portion of that eternal memory and that we in our lives are gathering an innumerable experience for a mightier being than our own. The more vividly we see with the inner eye the more swiftly do we come to this conviction." (P56)
In many ways I found his thinking and reference to an 'eternal memory' to be quite Jungian and his mysticism seemed to echo the Swiss psychologists' theories about the unconsciousness and the 'collective unconsciousness'.
And like Jung, Russell seemed to have arrived at a basically gnostic world view
"I cannot assume that the sudden consciousness of being in the air was absolutely the beginning of that episode any more than I can imagine a flower suddenly appearing without plant or root or prior growth; nor can I think that blind motions of the brain, in blank unconsciousness of what they tend to, suddenly flame in to a consciousness instinct with wild beauty. To assume that would be a freak of reasoning. (P82)
The Candle of Vision should come with a reality warning for those of a sceptical nature who will find their eyes rolling repeatedly but I found this to be a fascinating insight into the minds of a character whose name is often mentioned along with Joyce, Yeats and Beckett but who remained as a footnote in history.
Russell was also a poet and I remember seeing a dusty but beautifully bound collection of his poems in a secondhand bookshop for £10, which I wish I'd bought because the following day the shop was burned down.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

AE & Pamela Travers of Mary Poppins fame had an decade-long affair of sorts although I am unsure if it was consummated; she had an interest in spiritualism, Zen, and the occult that attracted her to the shadowed time of the Revival in the 1920s/30s of the Free State. Thanks for reading this work and elucidating it for us. Sorry that shop burnt down...