The World Of Reality

The practical man may justly observe at this point that the world

of single vision is the only world he knows: that it appears to him

to be real, solid, and self-consistent: and that until the existence--

at least, the probability--of other planes of reality is made clear to

him, all talk of uniting with them is mere moonshine, which

confirms his opinion of mysticism as a game fit only for idle

women and inferior poets
Plainly, then, it is the first business of

the missionary to create, if he can, some feeling of dissatisfaction

with the world within which the practical man has always lived

and acted; to suggest something of its fragmentary and subjective

character. We turn back therefore to a further examination

of the truism--so obvious to those who are philosophers, so

exasperating to those who are not--that man dwells, under normal

conditions, in a world of imagination rather than a world of facts;

that the universe in which he lives and at which he looks is but a

construction which the mind has made from some few amongst

the wealth of materials at its disposal.

The relation of this universe to the world of fact is not unlike the

relation between a tapestry picture and the scene which it

imitates. You, practical man, are obliged to weave your image of

the outer world upon the hard warp of your own mentality; which

perpetually imposes its own convention, and checks the free

representation of life. As a tapestry picture, however various and

full of meaning, is ultimately reducible to little squares; so the

world of common sense is ultimately reducible to a series of

static elements conditioned by the machinery of the brain. Subtle

curves, swift movement, delicate gradation, that machinery

cannot represent. It leaves them out. From the countless

suggestions, the tangle of many-coloured wools which the real

world presents to you, you snatch one here and there. Of these

you weave together those which are the most useful, the most

obvious, the most often repeated: which make a tidy and coherent

pattern when seen on the right side. Shut up with this symbolic

picture, you soon drop into the habit of behaving to it as though it

were not a representation but a thing. On it you fix your attention;

with it you "unite." Yet, did you look at the wrong side, at the

many short ends, the clumsy joins and patches, this simple

philosophy might be disturbed. You would be forced to acknowledge

the conventional character of the picture you have made

so cleverly, the wholesale waste of material involved in the

weaving of it: for only a few amongst the wealth of impressions

we receive are seized and incorporated into our picture of the

world. Further, it might occur to you that a slight alteration in the

rhythm of the senses would place at your disposal a complete

new range of material; opening your eyes and ears to sounds,

colours, and movements now inaudible and invisible, removing

from your universe those which you now regard as part of the

established order of things. Even the strands which you have

made use of might have been combined in some other way; with

disastrous results to the "world of common sense," yet without

any diminution of their own reality.

Nor can you regard these strands themselves as ultimate. As the

most prudent of logicians might venture to deduce from a skein

of wool the probable existence of a sheep; so you, from the raw

stuff of perception, may venture to deduce a universe which

transcends the reproductive powers of your loom. Even the

camera of the photographer, more apt at contemplation than the

mind of man, has shown us how limited are these powers in some

directions, and enlightened us as to a few of the cruder errors of

the person who accepts its products at face-value; or, as he would

say, believes his own eyes. It has shown us, for instance, that the

galloping race-horse, with legs stretched out as we are used to see

it, is a mythical animal, probably founded on the mental image or

a running dog. No horse has ever galloped thus: but its real action

is too quick for us, and we explain it to ourselves as something

resembling the more deliberate dog-action which we have caught

and registered as it passed. The plain man's universe is full of

race-horses which are really running dogs: of conventional

waves, first seen in pictures and then imagined upon the sea: of

psychological situations taken from books and applied to human

life: of racial peculiarities generalised from insufficient data, and

then "discovered" in actuality: of theological diagrams and

scientific "laws," flung upon the background of eternity as the

magic lantern's image is reflected on the screen.

The coloured scene at which you look so trustfully owes, in fact,

much of its character to the activities of the seer: to that process

of thought--concept--cogitation, from which Keats prayed with so

great an ardour to escape, when he exclaimed in words which

will seem to you, according to the temper of your mind, either an

invitation to the higher laziness or one of the most profound

aspirations of the soul, "O for a life of sensations rather than

thoughts!" He felt--as all the poets have felt with him--that

another, lovelier world, tinted with unimaginable wonders, alive

with ultimate music, awaited those who could free themselves

from the fetters of the mind, lay down the shuttle and the

weaver's comb, and reach out beyond the conceptual image to

intuitive contact with the Thing.

There are certain happy accidents which have the power of

inducting man for a moment into this richer and more vital

world. These stop, as one old mystic said, the "wheel of his

imagination," the dreadful energy of his image-making power

weaving up and transmuting the incoming messages of sense.

They snatch him from the loom and place him, in the naked

simplicity of his spirit, face to face with that Other than himself

whence the materials of his industry have come. In these hours

human consciousness ascends from thought to contemplation;

becomes at least aware of the world in which the mystics dwell;

and perceives for an instant, as St. Augustine did, "the light that

never changes, above the eye of the soul, above the intelligence."

This experience might be called in essence "absolute sensation."

It is a pure feeling-state; in which the fragmentary contacts with

Reality achieved through the senses are merged in a wholeness of

communion which feels and knows all at once, yet in a way

which the reason can never understand, that Totality of which

fragments are known by the lover, the musician, and the artist. If

the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything

would appear to man as it is--Infinite. But the doors of perception

are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice,

sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually,

but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too

arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its

way. It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that

transition: for the process involves a veritable spring-cleaning of

the soul, a turning-out and rearrangement of our mental furniture,

a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild

birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with

wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of

the gramaphone within. Those who do this, discover that they

have lived in a stuffy world, whilst their inheritance was a world

of morning-glory; where every tit-mouse is a celestial messenger,

and every thrusting bud is charged with the full significance of


There will be many who feel a certain scepticism as to the

possibility of the undertaking here suggested to them; a prudent

unwillingness to sacrifice their old comfortably upholstered

universe, on the mere promise that they will receive a new

heaven and a new earth in exchange. These careful ones may like

to remind themselves that the vision of the world presented to us

by all the great artists and poets--those creatures whose very

existence would seem so strange to us, were we not accustomed

to them--perpetually demonstrates the many-graded character of

human consciousness; the new worlds which await it, once it

frees itself from the tyranny of those labour-saving contrivances

with which it usually works. Leaving on one side the more subtle

apprehensions which we call "spiritual," even the pictures of the

old Chinese draughtsmen and the modern impressionists, of

Watteau and of Turner, of Manet, Degas, and Cezanne; the

poems of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman--these, and

countless others, assure you that their creators have enjoyed

direct communion, not with some vague world of fancy, but with

a visible natural order which you have never known. These have

seized and woven into their pictures strands which never

presented themselves to you; significant forms which elude you,

tones and relations to which you are blind, living facts for which

your conventional world provides no place. They prove by their

works that Blake was right when he said that "a fool sees not the

same tree that a wise man sees"; and that psychologists, insisting

on the selective action of the mind, the fact that our preconceptions

govern the character of our universe, do but teach the most

demonstrable of truths. Did you take them seriously, as you

should, their ardent reports might well disgust you with the

dull and narrow character of your own consciousness.

What is it, then, which distinguishes the outlook of great poets

and artists from the arrogant subjectivism of common sense?

Innocence and humility distinguish it. These persons prejudge

nothing, criticise nothing. To some extent, their attitude to the

universe is that of children: and because this is so, they

participate to that extent in the Heaven of Reality. According to

their measure, they have fulfilled Keats' aspiration, they do live a

life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on

thought: for the state which he then struggled to describe was that

ideal state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the

essence of things, of which all artists have a share, and which a

few great mystics appear to have possessed--not indeed in its

entirety, but to an extent which made them, as they say, "one with

the Reality of things." The greater the artist is, the wider and

deeper is the range of this pure sensation: the more sharply he is

aware of the torrent of life and loveliness, the rich profusion of

possible beauties and shapes. He always wants to press deeper

and deeper, to let the span of his perception spread wider and

wider; till he unites with the whole of that Reality which he feels

all about him, and of which his own life is a part. He is always

tending, in fact, to pass over from the artistic to the mystical

state. In artistic experience, then, in the artist's perennial effort

to actualise the ideal which Keats expressed, we may find a point of

departure for our exploration of the contemplative life.

What would it mean for a soul that truly captured it; this life in

which the emphasis should lie on the immediate percepts, the

messages the world pours in on us, instead of on the sophisticated

universe into which our clever brains transmute them? Plainly, it

would mean the achievement of a new universe, a new order of

reality: escape from the terrible museum-like world of daily life,

where everything is classified and labelled, and all the graded

fluid facts which have no label are ignored. It would mean an

innocence of eye and innocence of ear impossible for us to

conceive; the impassioned contemplation of pure form, freed

from all the meanings with which the mind has draped and

disguised it; the recapturing of the lost mysteries of touch and

fragrance, most wonderful amongst the avenues of sense. It

would mean the exchanging of the neat conceptual world our

thoughts build up, fenced in by the solid ramparts of the possible,

for the inconceivable richness of that unwalled world from which

we have subtracted it. It would mean that we should receive from

every flower, not merely a beautiful image to which the label

"flower" has been affixed, but the full impact of its unimaginable

beauty and wonder, the direct sensation of life having communion

with life: that the scents of ceasing rain, the voice of

trees, the deep softness of the kitten's fur, the acrid touch of sorrel

on the tongue, should be in themselves profound, complete, and

simple experiences, calling forth simplicity of response in our


Thus understood, the life of pure sensation is the meat and drink

of poetry, and one of the most accessible avenues to that union

with Reality which the mystic declares to us as the very object of

life. But the poet must take that living stuff direct from the field

and river, without sophistication, without criticism, as the life of

the soul is taken direct from the altar; with an awe that admits not

of analysis. He must not subject it to the cooking, filtering

process of the brain. It is because he knows how to elude this

dreadful sophistication of Reality, because his attitude to the

universe is governed by the supreme artistic virtues of humility

and love, that poetry is what it is: and I include in the sweep of

poetic art the coloured poetry of the painter, and the wordless

poetry of the musician and the dancer too.

At this point the critical reader will certainly offer an objection.

"You have been inviting me," he will say, "to do nothing more or

less than trust my senses: and this too on the authority of those

impracticable dreamers the poets. Now it is notorious that our

senses deceive us. Every one knows that; and even your own

remarks have already suggested it. How, then, can a wholesale

and uncritical acceptance of my sensations help me to unite with

Reality? Many of these sensations we share with the animals: in

some, the animals obviously surpass us. Will you suggest that my

terrier, smelling his way through an uncoordinated universe, is a

better mystic than I?"

To this I reply, that the terrier's contacts with the world are

doubtless crude and imperfect; yet he has indeed preserved a

directness of apprehension which you have lost. He gets, and

responds to, the real smell; not a notion or a name. Certainly the

senses, when taken at face-value, do deceive us: yet the deception

resides not so much in them, as in that conceptual world which

we insist on building up from their reports, and for which we

make them responsible. They deceive us less when we receive

these reports uncooked and unclassified, as simple and direct

experiences. Then, behind the special and imperfect stammerings

which we call colour, sound, fragrance, and the rest, we

sometimes discern a whole fact--at once divinely simple and

infinitely various--from which these partial messages proceed;

and which seeks as it were to utter itself in them. And we feel,

when this is so, that the fact thus glimpsed is of an immense

significance; imparting to that aspect of the world which we are

able to perceive all the significance, all the character which it

possesses. The more of the artist there is in us, the more intense

that significance, that character will seem: the more complete,

too, will be our conviction that our uneasiness, the vagueness of

our reactions to things, would be cured could we reach and unite

with the fact, instead of our notion of it. And it is just such an act

of union, reached through the clarified channels of sense and

unadulterated by the content of thought, which the great artist or

poet achieves.

We seem in these words to have come far from the mystic, and

that contemplative consciousness wherewith he ascends to the

contact of Truth. As a matter of fact, we are merely considering

that consciousness in its most natural and accessible form: for

contemplation is, on the one hand, the essential activity of all

artists; on the other, the art through which those who choose to

learn and practise it may share in some fragmentary degree,

according to their measure, the special experience of the mystic

and the poet. By it they may achieve that virginal outlook upon

things, that celestial power of communion with veritable life,

which comes when that which we call "sensation" is freed from

the tyranny of that which we call "thought." The artist is no more

and no less than a contemplative who has learned to express

himself, and who tells his love in colour, speech, or sound: the

mystic, upon one side of his nature, is an artist of a special and

exalted kind, who tries to express something of the revelation he

has received, mediates between Reality and the race. In the game

of give and take which goes on between the human consciousness

and the external world, both have learned to put the emphasis

upon the message from without, rather than on their own reaction

to and rearrangement of it. Both have exchanged the false

imagination which draws the sensations and intuitions of the self

into its own narrow circle, and there distorts and transforms them,

for the true imagination which pours itself out, eager,

adventurous, and self-giving, towards the greater universe.