The Candle of Vision

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The Candle of Vision

By by AE (George William Russell)


BEFORE I may write more of that supernature which rises) a tower of heaven, above the depths where we move, I know I must try to solve some of the doubts and perplexities which come to most who hear of things they have not heard or seen for their own part. They will say, "You are an artist and have painted such things. We know you have imagination which creates images vividly. You are a poet, and it is the art of your tribe to gild for us the thoughts you have, the emotions you feel, so that what moods are common with us you attire richly till they walk like kings. But what certainty have you that it is not all fancy, and the visions you speak of were not born in the cloudy hollows of your brain, and are not glorified memories of things you have first seen with the sensual eye, and which were afterwards refashioned in memory? What certitude have you that these things you speak of are in any way related to a real world invisible to our eyes?" To solve these doubts I must not fall back on authority, or appeal for trust. It will avail nothing to say that others have seen such things and have with me looked upon them, we speaking of them together as people who see the same scene, who refer as they speak to rocks, waters and trees, knowing these are a common vision. It would be true if I said this, but it would avail me nothing in my desire that you should go hopefully on the way I would have you journey. On that path, as an ancient scripture says, to whatsoever place one would travel that place one's own self becomes, and I must try first to uproot false ideas about memory, imagination and vision so that by pure reason people may be led out of error and be able to distinguish between that which arises in themselves and that which comes otherwise and which we surmise is a visitor from a far country. I too in boyhood had the idea so commonly held that the pictures of imagination are old memories refashioned. I first doubted this as a child when, lying on my bed, there came a sudden illumination of my brain, and pictures moved before my inner eyes like the coloured moving pictures we see in the theatre. I saw, I remember, a sunlit hillside which seemed close to me. There were huge grey boulders strewn about. Beyond this hill-slope I could see far distant mountains, pale blue through the sparkling air. While I looked, giants in brazen armour clambered swiftly up the hillside, swinging clubs which had spiked balls of brass held by a chain at the end. They glittered in the sun as they ran up and past me. Motion, light, shadow, colour were perfect as things seen passing before the physical eyes. Then the illumination in my brain ceased, the picture vanished, and I was startled, for I had seen no hillside like that. no distant mountains, no giants in brazen armour in picture or theatre, and I began a speculation which soon ended because childhood keeps no prolonged meditation. I may take this as a type of vision common to most people. Either when they sit in darkness, or with closed eyes, or as they drift into sleep or awaken from sleep, they pass through strange cities, float in the air, roam through woods, have adventures with people who are not the people they meet every day. There is nothing uncommon about such visions. It is in the interpretation of them that error arises. People pass them by too easily saying, "It is imagination," as if imagination were as easily explained as a problem in Euclid, and was not a mystery, and as if every moving picture in the brain did not need such minute investigation as Darwin gave to earthworms. I was asked to believe that giants, armour, hillside and sunny distance so appeared in my brain because I had seen men who might be enlarged to giants, pictures of armour with which they could be clothed by fancy, brass with which the armour could be coloured. Any rocks might be multiplied and enlarged from memory by imagination to form a hillside, and any sky of sunny blue would make my distance. How plausible for a second I How unthinkable after a momentary consideration! I know I could hardly, if you gave me a hundred thousand pictures of heads, by cutting them up and pasting them together, make a fresh face which would appear authentic in its tints and shadows, and it would be a work of infinite labour. But these faces of vision are not still. They move. They have life and expression. The sunlight casts authentic moving shadows on the ground. What is it combines with such miraculous skill the things seen, taking a tint here, a fragment of form there, which uses the colours and forms of memory as a palette to paint such masterpieces? It has been said, "Every man is a Shakespeare in his dreams." The dreamer of landscape is more than a Turner, because he makes his trees to bend before the wind and his clouds to fleet across the sky. The waking brain does not do this. It is unconscious of creation. To say we refashion memories is to surmise in the subconscious nature a marvellous artist, to whom all that we have ever seen with the physical eyes is present at once, and as clay in the hands of a divine potter, and it is such swift creation too that it rivals the works of the Lord. Well, I am not one of those who deny that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us or that the King is also in His Heaven. We need not deny that and yet hold that vision comes otherwise. Nor can be it denied that vision is often so radiant and precise, for experience affirms that it is, and hundreds of artists, and indeed people who are not artists at all, will tell you how clearly they see in their dreams. But for those who hold that visions such as I and many others have had are only the refashioning of memory, and there is nothing mysterious about them, I say try to think out tint by tint, form by form, how these could be recombined, and, for whatever marvel I would have you believe, you will have substituted something just as marvellous but not so credible. Not that it is incredible to think that the spirit in man is Creator, for all the prophets and seers of the world have told us that, but the common psychological explanation is not acceptable, because we know that forms can appear in the brain which were transferred by will from one person to another. When we know that, when we know this inner eye can see the form in another's mind, we must regard it as indicating an immense possibility of vision on that plane. We then ask ourselves concerning all these strange cities and landscapes of dream, all these impish faces which flout at us when we are drowsy, all these visions living and moving in our minds, whether they too came, not by way of the physical senses transformed in memory, but came like the image thought transferred, or by obscure ways reflected from spheres above us, from the lives of others and the visions of others. If we brood on this we will come to think the old explanation is untenable and will address ourselves with wonder and hope to the exploration of this strange country within ourselves, and will try to find out its limits, and whether from image or vision long pondered over we may not reach to their original being.

I think few of our psychologists have had imagination themselves. They have busy brains, and, as an Eastern proverb says, "The broken water surface reflects only broken images." They see too feebly to make what they see a wonder to themselves. They discuss the mode of imagination as people might discuss art, who had never seen painting or sculpture. One writer talks about light being a vibration, and the vibration affecting the eye and passing along the nerves until it is stored up in the brain cells. The vibration is, it appears, stayed or fixed there. Yet I know that every movement of mine, the words I speak, the circulation of my blood, cause every molecule in my body to vibrate. How is this vibration in the cells unaffected? It must remain unaffected in their hypothesis, for I can recall the original scene, can discuss it, can after years re-summon it again and find the image clear as at first. I refer to it in thought and it remains unchanged. The physical explanation of memory itself breaks down even as the material explanation of imagination breaks down. Can an unchanging vibration be retained when the substance which holds the vibration is itself subject to continual movement? The moment we close our eyes and are alone with our thoughts and the pictures of dream, we are alone with mystery and miracle. Or are we alone? Are we secure there from intrusion? Are we not nearer the thronged highways of existence where gods, demons, men and goblins all are psychical visitors. I will not speak here of high things because I am trying to argue with people who see no wonder in anything, and dismiss all high things with a silly phrase as fancy or imagination or hallucination. But I know from questioning many people that it is common with them before they sleep to see faces, while their eyes are closed, and they are, as they think, alone. These faces are sometimes the faces of imps who frown at them, put out their tongues at them, grin or gibber. Sometimes not a face but a figure, or figures, will be seen which, like the faces, seem endowed with life. To call this imagination or fancy is to explain nothing because the explanation is not explained. The more one concentrates on these most trivial mental apparitions, the more certain do we feel they have a life of their own, and that our brain is as full of living creatures as our body is thronged with tiny cells, each a life, or as the blood may swarm with bacteria. I draw attention to the mystery in obvious and common things, and ask that they be explained and not slurred over as if no explanation were necessary. I ask the doubters of my vision to penetrate a little into the mystery of their own thoughts and dreams before they cry out against me, who for many years travelled far and came upon lovely and inhabited regions to which I would also lead them. I know that my brain is a court where many living creatures throng, and I am never alone in it. You, too, can know that if you heighten the imagination and intensify the will. The darkness in you will begin to glow, and you will see clearly, and you will know that what you thought was but a mosaic of memories is rather the froth of a gigantic ocean of life, breaking on the shores of matter, casting up its own flotsam to mingle with the life of the shores it breaks on. If you will light your lamp you can gaze far over that ocean and even embark on it. Sitting in your chair you can travel farther than ever Columbus travelled and to lordlier worlds than his eyes had rested on. Are you not tired of surfaces? Come with me and we will bathe in the Fountains of Youth. I can point you the way to El Dorado.



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