Nothing much needed saying; the visit had been a good one, conversations with individuals were yet to be reviewed, observations made ( " did you notice his wonderful slippers? Like a mediaeval jester's!" " She still loves and fusses the dog, doesn't she? ) but there was no urge and no urgency, we lapsed into silence.
I looked out of the passenger window at a sunburst in the western sky, a beauty, a blessing. One of those sunset sunbursts that looks like an opening in the sky, an archway to heaven, a glimpse of enlightenment, a view onto an altered state, or else perhaps a 1930s radio front, or something from a Cecil B. de Mille movie. An archetypal sunburst. Yet in my weariness I turned from the effort of any creative impulse towards it; the camera remained in my pocket, the words largely unformed in my head. I could do it no justice; the idea seemed utterly pointless, what's another sunset, in words or images? Yet with this abandonment and apathy came not only a sense of disappointment in myself, an oppression of the spirits, but then a restfulness and peace, a going beyond what seemed a paltry human need to reach and grasp and take possession, always to form beauty into an artefact, to shape and contain it, to take nibbles out of it with our silly narcissistic chatter . The sunburst did not need me to make anything of it, but I could come to rest in it. If this was emptiness or fullness I could not quite tell.
Then next morning I found this essay about Rilke ( about whom I am shamefully ignorant...) on Alistair's blog, which I was led to by rr. Quoting Robert Hass on Rilke,
' " The angels embody the sense of absence ... They are absolute fulfillment. Or rather, absolute fulfillment if it existed, without any diminishment of intensity, completely outside us. You feel a sunset open up an emptiness inside you which keeps growing and growing and you want to hold on that feeling forever: only you want it to be a feeling of power, of completeness and repose: that is longing for the angel." '
Alastair writes that Rilke first perceived this as a longing for death,
'(Rilke)... doesn’t get fooled by the idea that romantic love or religion or fame are going to paper over that chasm. But in the first half of his career he does think that death might. Over and again, Rilke sees death as a place where this ragged longing becomes beautifully quiescent.'
But, paradoxically, in contemplating the actual death of a young woman he knew, he transmutes it into a stronger force for creativity, writing in a letter,
' "Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible." '.
In the late afternoon of that day, there were more sunbursts. I walked the road along the ridge which forms the watershed between Channel and Biscay, watched the cumulus bubbling up over the Channel to the north and east, arching over us and flattening out in layered horizontals south and west, mirroring the opaque layers of the receding hills away to the interior of the peninsular and eventually to the Atlantic. I looked at the familiar winter silhouettes of the lopped trees, their branches inky rivulets streaming out from their uneven trunks, and I thought about the water courses springing invisibly from somewhere under my feet and falling away downhill, merging and joining and increasing in substance.
Three gulls wheeled between the planes of ploughed earth and backlit cloud, a buzzard like a bark-coloured ghost swept low over the mudded meltwater and rapeseed stalks and perched in the top of a spruce tree, and a flock of lapwings whorled upward and out from behind a dark row of pines. I snapped haphazardly at the sky, clichés, the cross-linguistic pun aposite. The pictures at once over-dramatise the light and fail to represent the grandeur, and the small moving detail of the birds is lost altogether, or never caught. Like these words they are inadequate, fragmentary shards of record, of just an ordinary winter sunset over an unremarkable agrarian landscape, which cannot show much at all of the endless, ever-moving, ever-changing skin of light and dark and life and death which surrounds us. But I am moved to take the pictures, to write the words, all the same.
At the top of the hill, beyond the village and between the fields is a small factory. A family business and workaday piece of light industry, it manufactures suspended ceilings mostly for public buidings. The mirrored glass of its office windows faces the fields and trees and the setting sun. As I approached it I felt that curiosity, now what if ? This was surely a more interesting way to photograph the sunset, framed in those windows, then I could crop it, straighten it, tweak it a bit...
From the angle I could see it from the sunset wasn't even fully visible. The image is reflected, darkened, cropped and lopped, distorted, rendered artificial, an artefact, a manufactured thing; it is contained within square panes, drawn around, serried, divided, limited. But I made it, it's mine.
And, one way or another, this is what we do, all we can do. It is the nature of our minds, our creativity, our humanity and our spirituality . It is pointless and inexplicable, and it may be the source of our destruction or of our salvation, but do it we must. Happy New Year.