The Living River

The Sleeping Fool 1943 by Cecil Collins (1908-1989) Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1951; Credit: Tate
The Sleeping Fool 1943 by Cecil Collins (1908-1989) Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1951; Credit: Tate

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Hello again. So for this month’s reflections for the blog, I thought I would come back to the beginnings as it were, back to the source – the Alle Fonti, as we were talking about last time in terms of the Psychosynthesis archives at Casa Assagioli in Florence. And bring the source back in a personal way to my beginnings as a therapist, that kind of origin story you might say.

From time to time, I get asked by people, friends, colleagues, people I’ve supervised, and occasionally by people I’m working with, “How did you get into this? How did you start in this realm of psychotherapy, talking, and healing as it were?” And whilst that story is probably bigger and wider than I’d have time to explore here and now in this format, I thought I would at least give you a sense of what for me perhaps is the deeper part of that journey, what I often think of as the kind of underground river.

So there’s a surface river, there’s a kind of biographical story, a sequence of events – now this course, this training, this happened, this led to this, this meeting – but actually underneath that, there’s a much deeper unfolding or flowing. That is what I would like to say a little bit about today. And it involves introducing you to two people, two figures, who function very much as kind of mentor figures in my inner world and in my emerging sense of sense making in the world. And, of these two people, I only met one of them, and I only met her once. So this is a story more in the realm of the imaginal than the actual, you might say the outer.

Kathleen Raine

So to get into that, the first figure that I would want to speak about is the English poet, writer and defender of ancient springs as the title of one of her books, Defending Ancient Springs, Kathleen Raine, who was born in 1908 and died in 2003 at age 95. And I met her in 1993.

Kathleen Raine
Kathleen Raine 1951 by Rollie McKenna © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation; Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

She lived in London at the time, and she was very well known as a poet, a very accomplished poet. And also she wrote greatly about, in particular, William Blake and WB Yeats – two poets that had been incredibly important to me in my studies as a literature student at university and prior to that even, they’ve been my original kind of turn on. So here’s the source, if you like, of the underground river. It comes to me through poetry, in particular lyric poetry, and the way in which that tradition in English (and indeed in other languages, but for me, in English) unfold some deeper perennial truth. And Kathleen Raine was basically the figurehead of that for me. She had set up something called the Temenos Academy and the Temenos Journal which was a publication and then a sequence of meetings that always took place in London.

I never went to any of them but I was very aware of them in the pre-internet age, where people would gather to reflect upon the life of the soul in culture and art, in music and painting and literature. And this was of enormous importance for me to know it existed, and to be able to have it as something to project on to and have a kind of echolocation returned to me, as I kind of felt my way, almost like someone reading braille through the culture as it existed at the time in the 80s, the 90s.

Haunted, perhaps as I was as a kid and as a young man, by a sense of having arrived just too late upon the scene, so this sense of the great golden age of something already passing, something leaving the scene. I was born in 1971 and became sort of conscious through the early 70s, but aware of something just departing, so that wistful, almost elegiac sense, I would argue has been with me my whole life as a sensibility and aesthetic. And it very much plays into this fading out of something, and the wish to serve it, to remember it, to preserve some aspect of its character as the new nighttime, the new dark age prevails.

So it’s in that context that I met Kathleen Raine, and had a great conversation with her about Yeats, about Blake, about her work, about the great Welsh lyric poet and friend of Dylan Thomas, who’s much better known than him, Vernon Watkins, who is himself a towering genius of a poet, though completely unknown really today. She also spoke about Shelley, she was a fan of David Gascoyne who I went on to write about, Edwin Muir, St John Perse, these kinds of mystic, lyric, high romantic, but more than romantic voices and poets.

Personally inscribed copy of ‘Yeats The Initiate’: To Keith Hackwood, also on the path of poetry visited me on January 23rd 1993. May that path lead you to the Garden of the Muses, the Mundus Imaginalis. With best wishes for your future Kathleen Raine

And really, that meeting with Kathleen figured me up and clued me into something really important as at the time, very early 1993, I just finished my undergraduate studies, finished my degree, and I was embarking for want of something else to do on a Master’s – studying within a department that sort of straddled philosophy and literature. And the Master’s was themed around basically post modernism and its effects upon literary criticism. And it was, looking back, a sort of battleground between disciplines that I bounced through, and seeing Kathleen Raine, it made me realise I was doing this in order to try and get it out of my system, not because I had any aspirations towards post modernism, which I frankly despised, but because somehow it felt like the coming thing or the arrived thing. And I felt the need to understand it in order to fully metabolise and let go of it.

So it was in that context that our conversations took place and that stayed with me. I think of it often and I’m deeply grateful for sitting in her room eating cake and drinking cups of tea in 47 Paultons Square in London, round the corner really from the famous Watkins bookshop, full of its tarot cards and magical kind of books that really one couldn’t track down or find anywhere else in this pre-internet age.

The Healing Powers of Beauty

But what did I take away from that? Well, reflecting on it today, 20 years after her death and 30 years after our meeting, there’s a sense of the beautiful that stays with me, and that informs and is relevant to my work today. So that me that met with her back then, page 22, I was very much interested in poetry, and I would have conceived of myself as a poet. And that identity has really receded for me. I’m a kind of retired poet these days, and yet the poesis – the creative making instinct, of vision and of image and of beauty – I think is manifest in my work with people and in the service of a healing dimension.

So whereas Kathleen Raine would speak about beauty in terms of the lyric, the voice, the culture singing back to itself, the eternal dialogue, as she would have said, quoting George Russell, the Irish sage mystic, also known as Æ, she would quote him arguing about what he called the politics of time versus the politics of eternity. That figures centrally in the work and maps brilliantly onto Psychosynthesis. The symptoms of the loss of soul, the loss of the sense of beauty, to quote George Russell.

So this notion that I took directly from Kathleen Raine that where once beauty had occupied the central function of culture in our tradition in the English speaking world, somewhere in the late 19th, early 20th century as a function of the industrial process, the industrial revolution and its effects on society and culture, partly as a response to the machinations of the First World War, partly as an offshoot of modernism as a movement, we basically find the idea of beauty being disposed of, thrown away, come to be despised, really, or to be materialised. So it starts to be the beauty of our weapons, as Leonard Cohen says, rather than beauty as the singing centre of the culture itself.

Kathleen Raine 1977 © Mayotte Magnus / National Portrait Gallery, London

And for many, beauty was replaced by, if anything, energy – instantaneous, spontaneous energy. Gesture which expresses nothing but its own spontaneity, the kind of spawning of the early seeds of a very narcissistic culture, very youth obsessed culture, a culture that has no use for beauty. So these things were in play for me back then, and were very much focused through the lens of this meeting with Kathleen Raine, for which I remain deeply grateful.

Just to say one other thing about beauty – beauty in this almost Neoplatonic vision, which she held the perennial philosophy, very much understood beauty as a unity, a kind of unification of culture, of being, of psyche, and certainly of poetry. She would have said that lyric form comes from something given, and is precisely a kind of imaginative arising of a perfected form – beauty listening to itself and being moved by that. And she would have also said that beauty was an embodiment of an archetypal order or form, as indeed, you could say music or mathematics might be a language unto itself.

So even though the words themselves are ordinary – they come from ordinary speech, like Wordsworth argued, common speech of the common tongue, common man – actually, the way they are positioned in the form of the lyric makes them a whole order of magnitude of beauty – greater, richer, deeper, more nourishing, more healing, more primary. And that too feels absolutely to be central, in my understanding of how words play their part in the talking cure, to quote Freud, or how the right words in the right order at the right moment are not a kind of preordained speech, but our spontaneous arising of the truth of what’s possible to say and be heard in the moment.

So that really gives a little introduction to Kathleen Raine, my deep admiration for her and her effect, certainly upon me personally, and in what I have gone on to do and think and be.

Cecil Collins

And the other figure that I really must mention in respect of all of this, very closely tied to Kathleen Raine, is the artist and indeed, I would say poet, but he’s mainly remembered if he’s remembered at all as an artist, Cecil Collins – English painter, born in Devon in 1908 and he died in 1989, aged 81. Cecil Collins whose works you can find in the Tate Gallery if you’re ever in London, and in various others, some of the British Museums, some in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and others in private collections. He was a fairly prolific painter.

Cecil Collins 1988 by Anne-Katrin Purkiss © National Portrait Gallery, London
Cecil Collins 1988 by Anne-Katrin Purkiss © National Portrait Gallery, London

And there’s also a great altarpiece by Cecil Collins, which I have as the screensaver on my phone and have done for 15 years or so, of this Divine Being, The Icon of Divine Light, I believe it’s called. It’s an image of what he called, The Great Happiness, an iconic face in a sun solar form, bursting out in gold in all directions. Truly wonderful image.

Cecil Collins sometimes bracketed as a surrealist artist because for a while he was allied to the early going of the surrealist movement in painting, certainly in Britain. But he clearly moved far beyond the confines of the works of the Surrealists and moved deeply into a form of archetypal, symbolic, lyric painting – painting of the soul.

That in particular, in the work of Cecil Collins, features the recurring motifs of well, ‘The Poet’ would be one, ‘The Artist and His Wife’, ‘The Muse’ would be another, but really the two best known and most visible and perhaps most striking and realised of his forms would be ‘The Fool’ and ‘The Angel’ – both of whom he always capitalised “Fool”, with a capital F and the Angel with a capital A. 

The Angel of the Flowing Light 1968 by Cecil Collins (1908-1989) Purchased with assistance from the Carroll Donner Bequest 1985; Credit: Tate

I had a poster on my wall in my college room of a great painting by Cecil Collins, The Angel of the Flowing Light, which remains to this day one of my absolute favourite paintings. And frankly, I gazed at that painting for probably days, and many, many, many hours of my life in many different moods and states. It felt like an object of contemplation and meditation, and features profoundly for me as a threshold, a gateway – I feel like I entered that painting and moved into the world, beyond and behind the landscape depicted in that painting, behind the Angel whose pierced side flows with this light that enters the world like a river, irrigating imagination, restoring a dead land. All of these kind of regenerative, resurrecting mythologies are richly represented in there, but it’s so much more than anything that could be said about it.

So this portal, this gateway painting, The Angel of the Flowing Light, was already deeply seared in my mind, and into my heart, my imagination, my soul, quite frankly, and continues to be something I try and respond to from time to time. Perhaps it represents the highest aspect of what therapy, psychotherapy, Psychosynthesis can be – the Angel as a kind of emanation of the egg that Assagioli speaks about, and the piercing in the side being the the pouring of blessing, the irradiating light of the solar Angel coming down through the crown chakra, being coming into form through the star at the top of the egg, to translate it into Psychosynthesis terms.

So I thoroughly commend and indeed recommend to you a moment of your time to let your eyes gaze upon this image of The Angel of the Flowing Light. It will be way more direct, and way more capable of pointing you at what I’m trying to grope after here with words. You won’t need the words.

So anyway, just to return to Cecil Collins, his work, in particular his meditations, poems, little prayers, and indeed his other paintings, which I’ve been lucky enough to see from time to time in the flesh on the wall. And I again, thoroughly urge anyone who comes close to any of those paintings to really be alert and aware to how they function as energetic objects. You just see them on a screen or to see them in a book reproduced is a truly wonderful thing, but to be in their presence, to stand before them, see the brushstrokes on the canvas, see the layering of his technique lacquering and varnishing in between the layers. So as he says, the light comes out of the painting, not on to from the outside. They sing from within, they shine outwardly. I would recommend it. It’s an incredibly potent healing, cleansing, edifying, revivifying experience which I would deeply wish for all of you.

The Angel and The Fool in Therapy

So how does Cecil Collins relate to therapy would be another way of trying to come at this. Well, I guess to summarise in very, very broad terms, he notes again and again that what we contemplate we become and that our becoming is in fact, deeply and more accurately are remembering. So, what we contemplate evokes memory of that which we have forgotten, the Lost Paradise, in his language. And the Angels as an expression of that, in his symbol world, are basically saying several things to us. They’re saying, “Awaken”. They’re saying, “Unite”. And they’re usually standing between worlds and saying, “If you don’t, if we don’t, then we perish”.

So these angels are always placed in compromised situations – they’ve entered from the realm of eternity into the realm of suffering form. And in paintings like the wounded Angel, where this great being has crash landed into a mountainous landscape and is perhaps asleep, perhaps dead, we don’t know, but kind of wrecked, broken upon the landscape out of great compassion and love. Perhaps meditating, perhaps going back into some memory of the place it came from in order to draw breath again and be of value and support to us. Again, serving that sense of beauty.

The Sleeping Fool 1943 by Cecil Collins (1908-1989) Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1951; Credit: Tate
The Sleeping Fool 1943 by Cecil Collins (1908-1989) Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1951; Credit: Tate

And the Fool of course, as with the Fool from the tarot, as with other representations of the Fool, it’s a kind of everyman character. It’s all of us. It’s the stories you find in the Sufi tradition of the great Fool who’s looking for his keys under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because that’s where the light is. There’s a kind of infantile and infantlike, childlike genius within there, and that too sings out of the work of Cecil Collins.

He says again and again, everything is permeated by consciousness. Life is about life, about the transformation of consciousness. That our civilization has come to be a sort of aberration, historically speaking, because it is so profoundly materialistic, it’s forgotten about consciousness, and it’s forgotten its origins and its function in consciousness.

He talks about concentric imagination – imagination that encompasses the whole of the human experience, and so forth. And these things remain incredibly important in the therapeutic realm. The so called unconscious, according to Cecil Collins, his vision comes at its best to be married to the conscious mind. It’s a marriage, it’s a mystical union, it’s an alchemical connection.

And as he points out, nothing is easier than to spill out the unconscious. But this construction, nothing but emptiness, nothing but empty diagrams, kind of soulless decays, rather like the observations you find in the work of someone like James Hillman who, at least in that respect, although he doesn’t push his vision as far as Cecil Collins or Kathleen Raine into the spiritually realised realm, but at least recognising that if things are only about the therapeutic expression, that catharsis, they lack the transformation, they become empty vessels. So the problem of creativity, you might say, is how to wrangle about this marriage of these apparent opposites. And for Cecil Collins, the icon as a form is the resolution of that tension of the unconscious, meeting the formerly conscious and marrying them together into something that absolutely resonates and shines with deep healing, restorative, inspiring, irresistible beauty.

Carrying their Legacy

So that’s just a little bit of reflection on my part of some of the deep origins that carried me forward from being someone lost, really. Adrift on a slightly depressive understanding of an empty culture that didn’t appear to offer a form or a shape or a space in which I could be myself. And it was not interested in my poetry, that much was very clear.

To absorb and honour and try to live according to those principles that these two great mentor figures, to stay true to the hunger for this beauty and revisioning actually. And rather as I found myself much later, around about 2014-15 when I first encountered the works of Steven Jenkinson, this understanding that actually, therapeutically speaking, the particular that is the client and their story, their experience, their suffering, their trauma, is always a conduit and aperture through which the traumas, memories, forgettings, woundings of the collective, of the culture itself are showing up to be known and to be heard. So that two became almost like an eyelet in a shoe through which a lace could be passed and pulled and drawn and a knot tied, binding back together that which has been split asunder.

So that’s where I think I’ll stop for now. Moving from decay to direct perception, from disillusionment to restored sight and vision, back to what in Cecil Collins’ words we could call ‘Virgin Seeing’ – the seeing through the eyes of the child in the deepest, highest possible sense.

So I offer that to you and I’ll provide some links to some of the works of both Kathleen Raine and Cecil Collins and I’d encourage you if you’re so moved to check those out. And I look forward to another blog coming soon where we might continue some of these themes or explore some of the other intersections that Catherine wheel out from this point. But for now, thank you very much for reading and for listening. And I’ll see you again soon.

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