“The meditation room.”
Will followed him through an archway and along a short corridor.
Heavy curtains were parted and they stepped into a large whitewashed
room with a long window, to their left, that opened onto a little garden
planted with banana and breadfruit trees. There was no furniture, only a
scattering on the floor of small square cushions. On the wall opposite the
window hung a large oil painting. Will gave it a glance, then approached to
look into it more closely.
“My word!” he said at last. “Who is it by?”
“And who’s Gobind Singh?”
“The best landscape painter Pala ever produced. He died in ‘forty-eight.”
“Why haven’t we ever seen anything by him?”
“Because we like his work too well to export any of it.”
“Good for you,” said Will. “But bad for us.” He looked again at the picture. “Did this man ever go to China?”
“No; but he studied with a Cantonese painter who was living in Pala. And of course he’d seen plenty of reproductions of Sung landscapes.”
“A Sung master,” said Will, “who chose to paint in oils and was interested in chiaroscuro.”
“Only after he went to Paris. That was in 1910. He struck up a friendship with Vuillard.”
Will nodded. “One might have guessed as much from this extraordinary richness of texture.” He went on looking at the picture in silence. “Why do you hang it in the meditation room?” he asked at last.
“Why do you suppose?” Vijaya countered.
“Is it because this thing is what you call a diagram of the mind?”
“The temple was a diagram. This is something much better. It’s an actual manifestation. A manifestation of Mind with a large M in an individual mind in relation to a landscape, to canvas and to the experience of painting. It’s a picture, incidentally, of the next valley to the west. Painted from the place where the power lines disappear over the ridge.”
“What clouds!” said Will. “And the light!”
“The light,” Vijaya elaborated, “of the last hour before dusk. It’s just stopped raining and the sun has come out again, brighter than ever. Bright with the preternatural brightness of slanting light under a ceiling of cloud, the last, doomed, afternoon brightness that stipples every surface it touches and deepens every shadow.”
“Deepens every shadow,” Will repeated to himself, as he looked into the picture. The shadow of that huge, high continent of cloud, darkening whole mountain ranges almost to blackness; and in the middle distance the shadows of island clouds. And between dark and dark was the blaze of young rice, or the red heat of plowed earth, the incandescence of naked limestone, the sumptuous darks and diamond glitter of evergreen foliage. And here at the centre of the valley stood a group of thatched houses, remote and tiny, but how clearly seen, how perfect and articulate, how profoundly significant! Yes, significant. But when you asked yourself, “Of what?” you found no answer. Will put the question into words.
“What do they mean?” Vijaya repeated. “They mean precisely what they are. And so do the mountains, so do the clouds, so do the lights and darks. And that’s why this is a genuinely religious image. Pseudoreligious pictures always refer to something else, something beyond the things they represent—some piece of metaphysical nonsense, some absurd dogma from the local theology. A genuinely religious image is always intrinsically meaningful. So that’s why we hang this kind of painting in our meditation room.”
“Almost always. Landscapes can really remind people of who they are.”
“Better than scenes from the life of a saint or saviour?”
Vijaya nodded. “It’s the difference, to begin with, between objective and subjective. A picture of Christ or Buddha is merely the record of something observed by a behaviorist and interpreted by a theologian. But when you’re confronted with a landscape like this, it’s psychologically impossible for you to look at it with the eyes of a J. B. Watson or the mind of a Thomas Aquinas. You’re almost forced to submit to your immediate experience; you’re practically compelled to perform an act of self-knowing.”
“Self-knowing,” Vijaya insisted. “This view of the next valley is a view, at one remove, of your own mind, of everybody’s mind as it exists above and below the level of personal history. Mysteries of darkness; but the darkness teems with life. Apocalypses of light; and the light shines out as brightly from the flimsy little houses as from the trees, the grass, the blue spaces between the clouds. We do our best to disprove the fact, but a fact it remains; man is as divine as nature, as infinite as the Void. But that’s getting perilously close to theology, and nobody was ever saved by a notion. Stick to the data, stick to the concrete facts.” He pointed a finger at the picture. “The fact of half a village in sunshine and half in shadow and in secret. The fact of those indigo mountains and of the more fantastic mountains of vapour above them. The fact of blue lakes in the sky, lakes of pale green and raw sienna on the sunlit earth. The fact of this grass in the foreground, this clump of bamboos only a few yards down the slope, and the fact, at the same time, of those faraway peaks and the absurd little houses two thousand feet below in the valley. Distance,” he added parenthetically, “their ability to express the fact of distance—that’s yet another reason why landscapes are the most genuinely religious pictures.”
“Because distance lends enchantment to the view?”
“No; because it lends reality. Distance reminds us that there’s a lot more to the universe than just people—that there’s even a lot more to people than just people. It reminds us that there are mental spaces inside our skulls as enormous as the spaces out there. The experience of distance, of inner distance and outer distance, of distance in time and distance in space—it’s the first and fundamental religious experience. ‘O Death in life, the days that are no more’—and O the places, the infinite number of places that are not this place! Past pleasures, past unhappinesses and insights—all so intensely alive in our memories and yet all dead, dead without hope of resurrection. And the village down there in the valley so clearly seen even in the shadow, so real and indubitable, and yet so hopelessly out of reach, incommunicado. A picture like this is the proof of man’s capacity to accept all the deaths in life, all the yawning absences surrounding every presence. To my mind,” Vijaya added, “the worst feature of your nonrepresentational art is its systematic two-dimensionality, its refusal to take account of the universal experience of distance. As a colored object, a piece of abstract expressionism can be very handsome. It can also serve as a kind of glorified Rorschach inkblot. Everybody can find in it a symbolic expression of his own fears, lusts, hatreds, and daydreams. But can one ever find in it those more than human (or should one say those other than all too human) facts that one discovers in oneself when the mind is confronted by the outer distances of nature, or by the simultaneously inner and outer distances of a painted landscape like this one we’re looking at? All I know is that in your abstractions I don’t find the realities that reveal themselves here, and I doubt if anyone else can. Which is why this fashionable abstract nonobjective expressionism of yours is so fundamentally irreligious— and also, I may add, why even the best of it is so profoundly boring, so bottomlessly trivial.
“Do you come here often?” Will asked after a silence.
“Whenever I feel like meditating in a group rather than alone.”
“How often is that?”
“Once every week or so. But of course some people like to do it oftener—and some much more rarely, or even never. It depends on one’s temperament. Take our friend Susila, for example—she needs big doses of solitude; so she hardly ever comes to the meditation room. Whereas Shanta (that’s my wife) likes to look in here almost every day.”
“So do I,” said Mrs. Rao. “But that’s only to be expected,” she added with a laugh. “Fat people enjoy company—even when they’re meditating.”
“And do you meditate on this picture?” Will asked. “Not on it. From it, if you see what I mean. Or rather parallel with it. I look at it, and the other people look at it, and it reminds us all of who we are and what we aren’t, and how what we aren’t might turn into who we are.”
Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963. Island,1962, Chapter 11