The Atom of Delight

The Atom of Delight was Neil Gunn's last book and marked the end of a long and creative period of work that saw the publication of twenty novels. The Grey Coast appeared in 1926 and the last novel, The Other Landscape, in 1954. The very title The Other Landscape carries a symbolic overtone—that of Gunn's lifelong concern with the relationship between local reality and transcendent meaning. Gunn saw everyday reality in the Highlands of Scotland as something charged with symbolic significance. In each of his novels there is an element of search for what has been variously termed as wholeness, integration, delight or, simply, self. The way for the search was prepared by a prolonged and intense backward gaze at roots, origin and source.

This book has been called a spiritual autobiography. It certainly does not fit the idea of a conventional autobiography based on external facts of a public or private life. If it is to be called an autobiography at all, it is because it does contain circumstances and things that shaped a life. Also within it are incidents and places that appear in his novels and stories. This prompted John Pick and Francis Hart in their excellent biography of Gunn, A Highland Life, to write of it: "The book is reflective philosophy rather than autobiography. He could only write autobiography in fiction and fictional autobiography at that." The biographers' analysis could be applied, at least in part, to Marcel Proust, the French author to whom Gunn alludes in The Atom of Delight. Proust maintained that any worthwhile novel expressed the author's hidden self and explored memories of his own past. This theory was borne out by Gunn in his novels and is explicitly declared by him in the dedication to his brother John in a brilliant early novel, Highland River, which anticipates and prepares the way for his final work. "Some of the characters may have strayed in from Morning Tide under different names. I cannot explain this odd behaviour—apart from the old desire to be in on the hunt in any disguise." With Morning Tide such an archetypal novel of family life (and strongly influenced by Gunn's childhood experiences) the last phrase of the dedication could be considered the key to most of the author's work.

For Gunn there were two selves, the social self that presented itself to the world and the second self or inner core, which, like a proposition from Euclid, was autonomous and given. The inner core, the circle round himself, was precious to Gunn and nothing was more abhorrent or terrifying to him than its being threatened. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, written in the 1930s, made an immense impression on him. He was profoundly disturbed by the possibilities of psychiatric torture as practised in the modern police state. Some years later when prompted to write a novel with immediate relevance to the dark years straddling 1940 he came up with his anti-Utopian work, The Green Isle of the Great Deep. The novel illustrates the failures of the totalitarian state and its machinery of control over the individual to destroy minds alive to the values and experience that provide meaning. It concentrated Gunn's thinking on the importance of wholeness and spiritual integrity in a world increasingly dominated by materialism and the utilitarian philosophy of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

In the early 1950s John Pick sent Gunn a copy of Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. It was received with delight. Here was a centuries old tradition of exploration of a region remarkably similar to that which had fascinated Gunn throughout his creative life. The parallels between his own work and that of an alien tradition thrilled Gunn and caused him to plunge into the study of Zen Buddhism. Indeed the Eastern philosophy had a noticeable influence on the structure of The Atom of Delight. Gunn, however, never claimed to be an authority on Zen; he simply asserted that he felt at home with the exponents of Zen. He disliked the label mystic, with which he had been tagged, because of its unfortunate connotation of woolliness of thought and lack of clarity. For him, with his vision of light, the balance between intellectual and intuitive functions was all important. Reason had never to be abandoned—only kept in its place. After all, the atom of delight or, in Zen terms, the moment of Satori, was when a heightened awareness was achieved by the understanding going beyond the boundaries of conscious and limited intellect. The autobiography vividly depicts Gunn's two worlds—the everyday world to which he was bound by habit and fear and the world that lay beyond this, the other landscape or the landscape of delight. As a poetic novelist, Gunn in this autobiography and in all his works wanted to be seen not standing for, but amidst his words. John Pick and Francis Hart sum up most beautifully the wonder of the autobiography in a sentence from A Highland Life: "Once you accept The Atom of Delight in its own terms and live in its world, it is wise, enlivening, humorous and full of golden light." To that I have nothing to add.

Dairmid Gunn