The Ravello Dialogues

1 FORM – UNITY
“Etrange persistence d’un souvenir.” (Berlioz - “Lelio”)


And what kind of memory is this – this garden? There’s a Mediterranean clarity to the light. If I were to climb those steps behind the kiosk (selling delicious ice creams and sorbets) I would find myself far above the sea itself – looking down as if from the clouds to that dangerously alluring blue! The Belvedere of Infinity? This may be Ravello – though the planting is more ornate than my memory would lead me to expect. Surely the gardens of the Villa Cimbrone are too parched to produce such a variety of colours?

The heat and light have a threatening quality, as if the world and time were going to crack again, as they did a century or more ago at Versailles. Indeed, a migraine-like distortion of colour momentarily cuts through the air and the Countess is standing on the grass, with that smile which in itself is a crystalline crack in the world. She raises her folded parasol and traces my outline with its point, as if confirming the image she sees of me.

She is coolly Edwardian today. The palest of blue silk, her fire-red hair pinned loosely with glittering jewelled stilettos. She has persisted in my memories for a very long time indeed. Is she the Countess today? It hardly matters. She has worn an Elizabethan mask in the past. Her names change as much as her disguises. The smile is always the same. She is both a memory in the sense of a recollection, and as a form made of gathered fragments of experience and imagination. She is also, quite specifically, a Daughter of Memory.

But I apologise for this fancy style.

A long time ago (in June 1972) while I was listening to something on the radio a very vivid image of a landscape came into my mind, an effect of the music. It’s a common experience, but the idea that struck me was that, perhaps, the meaning of the music and the imagined scene was the same. Both were translations into sound or images of something else, a hidden language. This seemed to be a “visionary moment.” It might be fanciful to think that music can convey an actual image, a story or a landscape, but the effect of an experience, place, encounter, and the quality which we remember, could be due to this deeper language which has an existence quite apart from the music or the experience, This is natural, surely? We could all translate a symphony into a cake? I have long realised that a few ideas, probably wrong, have driven everything I’ve done for over forty years.

A moment such as this one, listening to the radio, can set us off on a long train of thought - exploring ideas of all kinds but always returning to the process of composing and how the music and, particularly, the form of the music, can convey ideas – not specific ideas but things that have a meaning in this hidden language. There are all kinds of side-tracks, of course, all that late seventies New-Age stuff, the delights of the Renaissance magical tradition. And sometimes side-tracks which you dismiss for twenty years can suddenly return and have a new significance.

Fortunately for me there has always been the sceptical voice – and a belief, from the very beginning, that the mystery of things can be found in the ordinary and modern, not just in the esoteric or ancient. The “hidden music” is not the music, or the place with which it shares a meaning. It’s something outside this, a language of the world of Ideas – whatever that is. Our music, though, is a close approximation of this invisible language. In composing we learn how ideas are put together to give meaning and how forms can evolve which can have a quality of truth or beauty – or, in their own unfinishedness, imply that such a thing is possible somewhere. But to what extent could music convey a specific meaning? It’s clear, I think, that two people with shared experiences, might have very similar reactions to the same piece. But this is not surely, universal – and it isn’t as if that piece is “about” that night-time scene. The music and the image share the same hidden music.

But, as time goes by, I wonder if everything is this hidden music? A memory may be pure music, perhaps originally sounded in the mind by a place or experience, but it is only this music which is the thing itself. And this would explain, and justify, this apparition of the Countess. Memory provides images to make the hidden music visible.

THE COUNTESS

Am I merely a remembered song? Am I immaterial? If I, then you so also.

Very good – but can we “unpack” this concept. Can we explain it, or, at least, justify it by reference to higher authorities?

She seems to have been listening to my thoughts.

I

We can try. There is a hidden music in the world. This is an invisible language which conveys the quality or meaning of a thing and which can be translated into music, words or images by the artist. The hidden music is the individual quality of a thing, simple or complex, and it is only through hearing this hidden music that we can be aware of the beauty and truth (the eternal forms) in the world, experienced in moments of vision or grace. The vocation of the artist is inspired by the forms, which speak through the world, attracting the creation of new work just as they drive the evolution of nature. The artist’s duty is to reveal the hidden music to others, and, ultimately, to reveal the unity to which all things move.

COUNTESS

Enough! This begins as a simple creed, but within a few sentences it seems to raise most of the great mysteries of existence! I cannot let such a statement pass without questioning almost every word. This is material for a week’s amusement, but we must do what we can with the time we have. We can continue our pleasant stroll in these gardens while I gently interrogate you. They have the most refreshing limoncello ice at this kiosk. Allow me to present you with a carton.

The girl at the kiosk already has one ready to hand to the Countess, who passes it to me. It is very intense. The lemons grow on the steep slopes below us. Old donkeys carry them down to the coast in metal panniers. Their juice is steeped in alcohol in small laboratories and the essence of citrus is sold in bottles of every size and shape – and here materialised as this piquant ice. The Spirit of Delight. For the moment, but possibly just for a moment, it clears the brain and the sight.

THE COUNTESS

For example, you throw in “forms” with no explanation. Why should anyone accept the existence of these intangible things – even if they knew what you were talking about? What you say sounds attractive, but it is built on air.

I

Our awareness of “Forms” comes with an awareness of unity.

COUNTESS

Unity sounds rather dull – I dislike monotony.

I

In this world we only know unity through variety, creativity, life.

COUNTESS

Do you suggest that our awareness of “Forms” is simply a step towards an awareness of unity?

I

Yes.

COUNTESS

What seems to be Beauty or Truth is an appearance or effect of unity? Perhaps in its quality of “rightness”, its “being just-so.”?

I

I think so. But isn’t that the same thing? Beauty and Truth must be aspects of the Beauty and Truth of the whole.

COUNTESS

This depends on a belief that there is a Beauty and Truth in the whole – and in a cosmos which is a beautiful whole - which is, I believe, the proper meaning of the word “cosmos.”

I

Yes, but I do not begin with an assumption that there is a true and beautiful whole. I begin with the experience of truth or beauty in individual things, whether a person, or in music, or in a place or in a work of art. Experience of a sense of mystery or delight is the beginning of my interest in the higher truths, if I may use such a phrase.

COUNTESS

Of course you may, and I would like to think that I had a small part to play in some of those moments of vision. But what are these Forms if not higher truths?

I

I may not have had such a great experience of divine Truth as Dante had with Beatrice but I have had many small experiences of the golden spark of truth. I can also understand Dante’s account of his experience as true and beautiful in itself. And so I ask myself what it is that makes the experience seem true.

COUNTESS

There are those who would say that this is purely subjective – that everyone has their own view of beauty.

I

I don’t understand how that can be. We are all made of the same stuff, part of the same world, and formed of common experience of the same life. We all have individual qualities but these are, you could say, superficial – though they are the windows through which the shared and common experiences are experienced or revealed.

COUNTESS

I agree, of course, and I see that this is another subject for another conversation. The point you are making, as I see it, through my individually formed eyes and mind, is that though every one thing has an individual nature and language its effect is to reveal the Forms as an appearance of unity. All the experiences we have of revelation glory or wonder are moments when something, by being completely itself, shows us the simple and brilliant light of unity.

I

A thing, when it reveals its own Form or Idea, by being true to itself, in showing its own “truth” reveals the ultimate Forms of Truth or Beauty – which are, perhaps, the same. Music, and Art, may be “True” without being apparently beautiful.

COUNTESS

You would say that the higher Forms, the abstract ideals of beauty harmony truth or justice, are all one. They are in themselves only particular aspects of unity.
I

I would.

COUNTESS

In this case you would say that the small glimmer of truth you may experience in a piece of music, or in a product of a very fine pasticceria, is a glimpse of the Unity.

I

I would – and I agree it might as well be provided by one of Andrea Pansa’s fine cakes in the square in Amalfi (flavoured with the quintessence of lemons) as in the development of one of Haydn’s quartets.

COUNTESS

In which case you are saying that all such moments of delight or grace are experiences of the Unity?

I

Indeed.

COUNTESS

And is the Unity God?

I

Ah, this is where words confuse us. Yes, the Unity is, I would say, by definition, God - but people obscure the word with their own complications.

COUNTESS

 Ah yes, complications which flow from the Unity but which are not the essential Unity. But is the Unity also the Good?

I

It has to be so. The Good is the same thing. What is Good (to us) is what reveals, or serves, the Unity.

COUNTESS

I agree, as I feel I have to as a student of Mr Plato and his enlightened followers, but there are difficulties with this simple concept. People have an unfortunate habit of imposing their own ideas of unity on the world.

I

But are they, in fact, serving Unity? They are usually imposing a particular personal view of the world which creates division.

COUNTESS

Does the Good cause division?

I

It might appear so to us. Nature is always changing, creating and destroying. The Unity is unchanging. We only enjoy glimpses of Unity (or, I feel, a better phrase to use is “The One”) because we are changeable. Variety reveals Unity. An aspect of The One is that its effect in nature is infinite fecundity and variety – so it is always the case that variety reveals Unity (in those flashes of delight) and human attempts to impose unity are always false and destructive. We can never see the full picture. We never understand the effects of our actions. I would say that any movement towards Unity must never damage the individual. We only experience Unity when the individual is truly itself. A person grows towards the true form of themselves (through vocation), as a piece of music grows to its unique but true form in the process of composition. We cannot write music which simply is Beauty or Truth. We can only write as an individual, human, flawed thing which may touch Truth by being itself. The flaws are essential too. In the natural, living, world decay and death are part of the process, part of the “work”. A beautiful tree will have damaged branches. It will change with the seasons. A beautiful building may have crumbling plaster. It will not be beautiful if it pretends to be unchanging. A “restoration” can produce an appearance of death, or an embalmed corpse. A piece of music almost certainly will not be beautiful or true if it is “perfect”. Beatrice was not the single face of beauty. She was an individual face who revealed God by being Beatrice. “I am, I am Beatrice” as she said in the Earthly Paradise, not “I am, I am the image of God”.

COUNTESS

I am so pleased that you see the benefits of imperfection. This seems to be an important aspect of this personal creed. It may seem to contradict Plato – though I may be wrong, but it may not contradict my dear Marsilio. In the simplest terms we can say that we only know God (if you will take the word in its simplest meaning) through being human - flawed and changeable and individual. We only know the Unity through the changes of Nature.

I

Yes. We have to contemplate the Forms through real experience. We have to contemplate Unity through the Forms. We sense the Forms as a mystery in the world or in our lives. This is the Way of Affirmation. We may, if we wish, contemplate Unity itself by rejecting all earthly experience, but the Way of Negation is hard. Most people reject only what they want to reject and see only what they want to see.

COUNTESS

The same is true of the Way of Affirmation. People look for God in only what they want to see. To find God in the World you must see the whole, light and dark.

I

Yes. They are failing at the first stage. They fail to know themselves. They have to know themselves to be able to see the world as a whole. They have to know the world as a whole to know themselves. The visions of God are in the decay and ruin as much as in the living and perfect. Truth and Good and Beauty, as Forms, are not the same as our earthly images of Truth Good and Beauty.

COUNTESS

You are affirming the Platonic Forms and, at the same time, you affirm the cracked and damaged nature in which we live. And you justify the creation of imperfect music! But my friend Maude might question your simple view of God as Unity. She would declare that she can know God in a more human guise. Are you making God a remote impersonal thing far away from experience? If God is Unity can He be actively

I

Of course. Completely and utterly! The Unity, the One, is the driving force in everything that we are, in everything around us and in everything we do. I can compose by serving God. Why else would I do it? How else would I have the desire for so much hard work? God is not remote. The Unity is intimately present in the world. Everything moves towards, or, perhaps, ebbs and flows, because of Unity, the First Cause. We all know Being and God is Being itself, but we understand God through being human. Our only way of understanding God is through our own language of humanity, through our senses, mind and reason.

COUNTESS

And so, my dear friend, you are affirming the Christian view that Christ is fully God and fully Man. I understand. Good heavens, you may one day make me a convert if you continue to harmonise our dear Plato with the gospel. Marsilio all but succeeded.

I

It would seem to be the Christian view. I couldn’t say whether or not the same meaning might be expressed in different faiths. To me this is what Christianity means. Christ is the reason, logos, which is the Unity seen in changing Nature. We understand that through humanity, simply because we are human.

COUNTESS

There are some who say that their own religion is the only expression of one truth.

I

Of course. But when Christ says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” it is a simple statement of fact. That’s what Christ is, the Word made flesh. You only come to God through knowing the “logos” in Nature. If you know God in Nature it is because of this “reason” or “logos” in all things. If we use these terms it is purely logical that you can know and experience those traces of God without knowing anything of any particular religion. All religions have to be an attempt to speak of absolute truth. They are alternative views of one Truth. To me the Christian view clearly explains this intimacy of God – unless you make nonsense of it by thinking too literally and trying to explain things in the wrong way. My purpose, my vocation, is to serve the One and to hope to reveal Unity through my imperfect work.

COUNTESS

In which case it is always better to live in Unity and attempt to demonstrate Truth in your own humble way than to try to explain it. Good advice for life, but we can still enjoy our friendly conversation, however pointless it might be. Shall we have an ice? They are serving lemon ices at this kiosk. A moment of refreshment would be a simple delight before we move on to the question of Vocation.

ON VOCATION


COUNTESS

So this is your vocation – to reveal Unity in your imperfect works?

I

Yes. It’s the irresistible lure of the Unity in the cosmos. It’s the desire to have a relationship with that mystery.

COUNTESS

Does this lure, the vocation, lead you to serve in a particular way? Is it the same as a Priestly vocation?

I

I don’t know if there are different vocations. I would say that vocation is the calling of the divine Unity to the individual to become what he or she should be. The Vocation is the desire created in the individual by the Idea of that individual, drawing the individual to become themselves. And we become aware of that Idea through the world, through mystery, things that speak to us from experience or are reflections of ourselves in the world. It may be that we become ourselves through Love – and know ourselves by finding Love in another.

COUNTESS

Ah, yes, Desire throbs through the cosmos and drives every nerve and muscle of Nature. So, Vocation, appears to be a calling from God, or the One, to the individual to follow a particular path. Is this an individual voice that a person might hear in themselves or is it a something in the cosmos itself to which a person may respond if they wish? Are there many vocations or a single voice?

I

Either the vocation is a tendency in Nature from God or it is something outside Nature, a detached voice of God. I believe nothing that we have discussed requires a “supernatural” element – by which I mean a force or being that is detached from Nature.

COUNTESS

Is God detached from Nature or within Nature?

I

Ah, an old question – and possibly a matter of personal attitude. Some have always seen God as being outside Creation, others prefer to think of Nature emanating from God. But I think it is misleading. When we talk of Forms or of the One we are not talking about something outside Nature, are we?

COUNTESS

Would they exist if Nature did not exist?

I

Is there an answer? Do Unity and the Forms need to exist before things come into being? It is the ultimate chicken and egg question. One might argue that once anything comes into existence so does its ideal Form. If I begin a piece of music its Form is there drawing the work on. Philosophically we can argue that the Form, and before it Unity, must exist before Nature, but in terms of the actual time or moment of their existence the question may be unanswerable – except that the Form and the One are, by definition, eternal and, philosophically, must pre-exist. The Ideal String Quartet does not exist in time. Forms can be thought of as Eternal.

COUNTESS

The Forms are the designs of all things, produced by the Unity in Nature. Is that so? Is there are a design for Nature?

I

Another old one.

COUNTESS As old as I.

I

An answer may be – eternal, not old. The Design is eternal. God is eternal. Philosophically, therefore, the Design exists before what we think of as Nature, or what we might think of as “Creation”, but this has nothing to do with time. The source of our desire may be thought of as being “outside Nature”, because eternal, but the process of Vocation is within Nature.

COUNTESS

And how does this Desire affect us? How does Vocation work on us?

I

We experience those moments of Delight or Truth – and these will create desire in us. We will experience a new kind of joy. The joy is something we can pursue by being true to ourselves – by knowing ourselves – which means the self we should be, not a selfish thing. It is not a personal desire because the Delight comes when we see something external to us as it really is, or, to be more precise, when we see, as an individual, the beauty of unity of things in the individual quality of an external thing.

COUNTESS

 In that case the vocation need not be outside us – but be in our own awakening – our own eyes opening to the world.

I

Yes, I would agree. It could be that the vocation is a force within ourselves – and yet it is part of the nature of all things.

COUNTESS So your God is not personally involved. He has merely set the machinery running.

I

Do you think so? That sounds like a cold and lifeless kind of Deism, and yet I would see the working of vocation as entirely spiritual.

COUNTESS

But where is the spirit if the working of vocation is entirely within the individual soul?

I

Perhaps “spirit” is not a helpful term at this stage.

COUNTESS

And perhaps neither is “Soul”.

 I

No, I think we should avoid words which are heavy with aggregations of meaning. I think the mechanistic view is misleading. Vocation is not a material following of a simple desire within a person. It is concerned with the qualities and meanings of things. Mind and imagination are part of the same world, the same Nature. The process is personal, but as we experience the world it becomes personal to us, living in our memories and imaginations, which are, themselves, formed from the same Nature.

COUNTESS

But is the process entirely in our minds or do things happen external to us to help us on our way?

I

Do you mean does God produce events external to ourselves, for our benefit? Is the process of vocation in the world and not just in ourselves? I think that may be an unnecessary complication. If an event occurs which inspires us, or reveals something to us, it has happened for our benefit. It hardly matters if the event occurred at the will of God for our benefit or whether we, by chance responded to it because we happened to observe it. Were we there for the event or was the event there for us? Is this a question that should be asked in a cosmos which is permeated by Unity? The object of our vocation is to remove such divisions between us and the world so that there is only the One and in that end everything happens for us because we exist for the One.

COUNTESS

To remove the division between us and the world is not to become part of the world but to reveal the One?

 I

Yes. If we lose ourselves, some would say, in the world we are not doing that. Quite the reverse. If we follow purely physical instincts and enjoy purely physical pleasures we are not being fully human. If we lose ourselves we lose ourselves. The relationship which reveals the One is one in which we are fully ourselves – united with the World rather than absorbed in it. This is the way Love works. The Lovers remain themselves, united, they do not become lost in each other.

COUNTESS

It is also easy to follow the mental and deny the physical. Would that bring us closer to the One or further separate us?

I

A difficult question. I prefer not to talk in terms of Mind and body as being separate things. Our true selves are not purely spiritual. Our vocation may, for example, depend on physical skills.

COUNTESS

And where is the Soul?

I

Another word that it may be best to avoid. Is our mind separable from the body? Perhaps we should think of the Soul as the immortal part of us – the pattern to which vocation is drawing us.

COUNTESS

We accept that there is also a way of Negation in which we attempt to find pure Being by denying the flesh. It is valid way and can lead to holiness for some, but it is not a way either you or I are suited to. So, to go back – We hope to find moments when we and the world touch Unity – and we only do this when we are being fully human. And those moments are also things which help us pursue Unity. There is no meaning in saying whether they exist for our benefit or we exist for their benefit because we are part of one world. In this case is there in fact a single Mind or Soul in the Cosmos?

I

The Soul of the World? That may not be the right term. The Mind in the World may be simply a way of understanding, the way we can understand it. It is the meaning, reason, and feeling of the cosmos.

COUNTESS

I think we should say, we fanciful neo-Platonists that there is simply Mind - one Mind in the cosmos - and our Souls participate in it. Do they swim about in Mind as fish in a bowl? Or our souls reflections of that bowl?   Ah, this is exciting. I feel we are approaching the truly cosmic and, at length, we will justify our own existence. But we were talking about events in the world which inspire us. Perhaps we should talk about more concrete examples and, if you don’t mind, bring in the question of what kind of events are significant and seem to be (without saying they actually are) the product of the cosmic Mind. I am referring to those meaningful events that seem to reveal truth to us – not quite what we think of as coincidences. It is as if things occur or reveal themselves that seem to be for our own personal benefit, as if the cosmos is guiding us. How are such things generated?

I

I am not sure that “generated” is an appropriate word. All I can say is that nature, while being constantly changeable, occasionally reveals the unchanging reality beyond it and those moments are signs of Beauty, Truth and so on.

COUNTESS

Excuse me a moment. Why, in the infinite power of God, should the world not be perfect and whole from its beginning?

 I

Another old question. It seems illogical to me. This World is a world of Nature and change. It might be a world which is growing towards perfection through a kind of cosmic evolution – or it might be a world that is moving from Unity towards infinite variety and collapse – but in which Unity is an occasionally potent memory.   Of course, there's no conflict between Creation and Evolution for most theologians. Creation means everything - and every event in time - not just the first things.   Can Evolution may be a progression towards a worse state? The Delight of creativity and love may be the tension between the move away from Unity in the physical cosmos and the eternal Idea of Unity. If the world was perfect we would not exist to be aware of it. We can only rejoice in imperfection. It is only because of change that we can be aware of the eternal. We certainly do not exist to reverse things and impose a material unity. The quest is to find a “spiritual” unity in a world of change.

COUNTESS

I rejoice in my imperfections, indeed, and even, the lady said many years ago, I find my sins are “behovely.” But these events in the world that seem to be part of our vocations, our guidings and moments of vision – what are they?

I

Moments of vision, or recognition – when we discover something of ourselves. Or they may be meetings with people that change our lives, or encounters with mysterious or significant places, or with works of art – particularly those that make us feel a personal connection – which make us feel, at least, that the encounter happened for us.

COUNTESS

And these events give the impression that they have been pre-arranged?

I

Yes. But how can we know? They may be chance events. The only thing that matters is that they are significant. I strongly feel that these events are nothing to do with coincidences or synchronicity. (Not a word that would have been known until the 20th century – Ed.) Pure chance produces infinite coincidence. It is the meaning that matters in these events that guide us on our vocation.

COUNTESS

But if vocation is dependent on chance encounters, where is the vocation then?

I

It is in our own selves, waiting to be revealed.

COUNTESS

And it is revealed by events which show us our own mind reflected in Nature – or the Soul of the World. Our mind and the Mind of Nature are revealed as one. Perhaps this a process of remembering what we already know.

 I

And even so, if it reveals that our mind is one with the Mind of Nature (or should I say simply Mind) the question of whether the event is external or simply our way of seeing it becomes meaningless.


Perhaps I should add an editorial note. A word about Forms –
Confusingly “Forms” here usually mean the ultimate simple realities – Good, Truth, Beauty. These are held to be the only “real” (i.e. eternal and unchanging) things. Form is also used to mean a “work” in art or in nature. A simple tune has form – a group of phrases, like the parts of a sentence, assembled together to make a form, a thing made of smaller parts. A complete piece of music may be seen as a larger form made up of small forms, melodies, rhythmic patterns, all brought together to make a larger object. On a still larger scale several pieces or movements may come together to form a symphony, or an opera etc. Nature also assembles things into forms. Each individual thing has its own form - a tree, a stone, a creature – but many of these things may be drawn together to produce a larger form – a place, large or small. Similarly a series of events may be drawn together to make a larger form – a life, a story. These forms have a reflection (or vestige) of ultimate Forms in them. They seek Truth or Beauty in their formation. When a thing reveals its own Form or Idea it also reveals the higher Forms – by being “True” or “Beautiful”. In other words “composition” is merely a small part of a natural process in all things - a tendency for things to come together to make forms and larger forms – and the structure or language that binds them together is the “hidden music” – all drawn by a desire to create a new unity (of infinite variety) out of the infinite fragments of the ever expanding world. So this unity that is being sought is a quite different thing to the simple unity in which all things began. It is important to think of “music” in terms of “pieces of music”, structures with form and meaning rather than “harmony” which is a static, vertical concept.