Wandering Scot and intellectual nomad

Michèle Duclos

Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3

Scottish identity during the last century has often been linked with nationalist aspirations expressed in the themes chosen and occasionally through the choice of language – lallans more often than gaelic. Glasgow-born Kenneth White has always steered clear of all forms of nationalism, which for him disguise, when they do not  disgrace, the real nature of the Celtic and the Scottish mind. He has a deeper, more far-reaching definition to offer, which is neither obviously Scottish, nor obviously anti- Scottish, but…otherwise Scottish.

Born in the Gorbals in 1936, Kenneth White spent his childhood and adolescence roaming the shores and “matricial hills” of the Ayrshire coast at Fairlie near Largs where his father worked as a railway signalman. There he had an intense experience of nature which he later described as “shamanistic”; from an early age he made it the undisputed aim of his poetry to recapture and transmit this experience through words, very frequently in poems. An early poem, “Precentor Seagull », which opens The Cold Wind of Dawn, his first collection of verse published in Britain in 1966, depicts a form of religious awakening; when the boy listens to the “tantric cry” of the seagull he identifies himself with the warm, white body of the bird which through the alchemy of language focusses the cosmos on itself. It is to be regretted that the poem was not included in the British edition of his recent Collected Poems, The Birdparh :


You up there in the lurching church of the elements
mover and moved
white as a ghost and fat
as the paps of the dark earth-woman
with a squawk man in you
would waken wide if there was one
the sleeping gate to paradise
or the white world’s thighs
give us the sound at least the note
the initial noise
and it’s we that make the psalms we need
with whatever we know and are
o you beginning
archangel of language we continue
you singing movement
that nests in the stormy memory
a winter while
that clings to the cliffs of imagination
washed by the rain and spray of our blood
and fed in the fury of our flesh
you that fly upwards always
out of the generations how many ever
the same white bird
o same white bird you rise ‘
sun-beaked sea-breasted innocent
white from the ocean of fire
phoenix I see you
from childhood onwards
ferocious in beauty_
rising and gliding
above this trodden martyred town
winged with the wilding wind I see you
wheeling waxing and waning
in the drift of days

and coarse as reality always
squawking ! squawking !
no voice of dumb eternity yours
but a barbary tongue firm-cased
in flesh and bone
alive and antic
grotesque and graceful
o bird I see and hear
I feel my body bending to your shape
your throat is mine
and look alive this bird-thing here of words
is struggling

To denote such moments of ecstatic-enstatic presence, Kenneth White uses Coleridge’s word “joyance” or borrows or coins words and phrases such as “ozeanisches  Gefühl”, “eros logos cosmos” or “White World”. Indeed “whiteness“ is most appropriate because it relates his own name to the original, ancient name of his country, Alban, “region  of the white hills ». He reminds us also that the pagan equivalent for “paradise” in ancient Celtic mythologies was “white field »: “fin-mag” in gaelic (Finn, “the white one », was the mythical ancestor of the Fennian tribes of warrior poets), “gwenved » in Welsh and Breton (incidentally the name he gave to his Breton house). Thus we already feel how with him, poetic language radiates in a non-linear way from the sensuous to the numinous, in order to structure his thought as a field, a network of correspondences; thus he can, as advocated by  Eliot, bridge the gap between the intellect and the senses.

When he moved back to Glasgow to study French, German, and also Latin and Philosophy at the University there, White had, like Ted Hughes, already found in poetry-writing a substitute for his relation to natural things; so much so that a piece of quartz, a seared leaf, a gull’s wing, became, as it were, nature’s poems, and the contorted bark of birch-trees nature’s writing ; not metaphors but ontological equivalents. Yet, the seven volumes of early, unpublished verse which he had entrusted to the National Library of Scotland are not lyrical, but for the most part satirical and critical of the then shallow, static  nature of art, poetry and culture both in Scotland and Britain, as it appeared to him in the late fifties. It was because of the situation that, after a year in Munich, four years (1959-63) in Paris, partly on post-graduate scholarships, then four years (1963-67) lecturing on modern French literature in his own University of Glasgow, he resigned his post and settled again in France in 1967. It was less than a year before the ”68 “events” or, as he wrote in an article in 1969, “the phenomenon of May”; it influenced, as it were a contrario, his conviction that a genuine revolution could only be a cultural one (but not in the Mao sense) and should bypass politics; it should proceed at a deeper level of thought, i.e. a metaphysical one.

But how could revolution and metaphysics work hand in hand? In his effort to move beyond modern nihilism – i.e. the demise of age-honoured metaphysical and ethical values  -, White’s main acknowledged influence, along with Whitman and Rimbaud, has been  Nietzsche. Such a surpassing White calls “surnihilism” hence the title, Itinéraire d’un  Surnihílisre, of his three-volume autobiography, two of which are now available in English:  Travel in the Drifting Dawn and Letters from Gourgounel (a hamlet in the French Cévennes where he bought a ditapidated farm in the early sixties and spent several summers repairing the building, roaming the woody mountains, reading Chinese and Japanese poetry). Like Nietzsche, White advocates rejection of Platonic Idealism which views this world as  ontologically imperfect, in order to achieve another, more satisfactory, relation to the earth, the body, the feminine or Anima part of the self, so that he no longer feels estranged from  cosmos, in an “absurd” world of loneliness, illustrated, say, by Beckett’s characters. Like Heidegger in his “topology of being” (but also as in all traditional cultures), he claims that  man’s real self is achieved not in his little “bonebound island” (Dylan Thomas’s phrase), but in an open, dynamic relation to “the outward”, meaning particularly the earth: “There is a lot  of physics in my metaphysics”, he claims, and the assertion finds expression in what he calls  “a physics of language », in the use of concrete, geographical, topographical words to  describe the way the mind works: not metaphors but an extension of the semantic field to  the mental, psychic, life.

White’s claim that a new approach to thinking should be developed beyond the division between Idealism and Realism, body and mind etc., is made the more valid as he openly joins the new, revolutionary (once morel) scientific and epistemological approach devised by scientists and philosophers since, early in the century, Einstein and Plank, exploring the areas of the infinitely big and the infinitely small, postulated that the metaphysical absolutes of time, space, beginning, end, as well as the forms of Aristotelian logic, could not be applied to the newly discovered areas. Although not a scientist himself, White has read a great deal in various scientific fields and contends that scientific-like analysis is an element in the poet’s approach to the world. Like a number of first-rank scientists and philosophers today (and scientists have had a tendency to turn to the latter for a new definition or explanation of the universe), White considers energy as the dynamic and, indeed, the only principle at work, through complexification, in both nature and the mind. Like them he is a rationalist who objects to both the irrational, esoteric and to the narrow Promethean positivist rationalism of the past centuries. Metaphysical dualism is an exploded doctrine responsible for the nihilistic neurotic aspects of contemporary Western culture. But where philosophers today write about the necessity for thought to reach beyond the century-long, artificial, ontological gap between man and nature, White, as a poet, went through an existential and intellectual ascesis partly inspired by Buddhist, Tibetan tantrism, as related in Incandescent Limbo, the autobiographical volume not yet available in English, in order to grow out of his “psycho-social ego” and rediscover the “homo cosmicus” present in all of us. Simultaneously he experimented with the “physical language” which made it appear natural to reinsert abstraction in an immediate experience of the sensuous world. Through a few simple devices, he has brought his language to portray the dynamic unity of the world, for instance bringing together physical and psychological data in phrases and portmanteau words such as  “chaosmos”, “chaoticism”, “erotic logic », “geopoetics”, “Intellectual Nomad”… For him, poetry’s ultimate function is to discover and explore new concepts, coining new words for  them or borrowing from cultures which still retain a living relationship with the cosmos. Like Plato’s philosopher, White’s poet has a definite function in collective life, yet not to govern; he must see to it, as a shaman would, that society and its culture keep alive their cosmic  connection through words, language, myths… The poet teaches – in his own way. It is interesting to note that White occupies the Chair of XXth century Poetics at the Sorbonne, and considers lecturing as an integral part of his function as a poet.

Like many thinkers and scientists of various disciplines, ranging from psychology to physics, mainly French and American, White has looked both to pre-Socratíc poet-thinkers and to Eastern cultures, to escape from the mental and epistemological dead end where Aristotelian logic and Platonic-Christian-humanist metaphysics had eventually stranded Western culture. The East (Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese zen Buddhism) provided him with a new anthropology, a new psychology (“cosmic consciousness“), a new ethics (“wuwei”,  action-now action) and “cosmic” aesthetics (language being made to suggest the basic  rhythms of the universe). Chinese and Japanese cultures taught him new, complementary forms and techniques of verse and poetry-writing: haiku, an apparently effortless approach  to cosmic unity in a minimal verse form (he deliberately ignores the strict syllabic counting but captures its spiritual climate) and the “way-book », whose prose, more comprehensive  than Western fiction, is at the same time autobiography, travel book and diary, in which the inner and the outer worlds are no longer separate (the book seems to proceed as haphazardly as the layout of a zen garden). In an essay, The Figure of Outward (La Figure du dehors), he makes clear that the discovery of Japanese, zen aesthetics, in Glasgow enabled him to move beyond nihilism.

White’s Eastern “waybooks” are not yet available in English (he travelled to Hong  Kong, Taiwan and Thailand then to Japan). But another journey, to Labrador, The Blue Road, illustrates his attitude (even more than his technique) when travelling. The book brings together geographical and biographical elements, memories of his own past, along  with brief descriptions of the landscape and long lists of place-names which express man’s link to the earth; these are interspersed with sociological and ethnical analyses. Following what might appear to be haphazard arrangement, the journey, which is as much a spiritual as a physical one, climaxes in “Labrador”, a poem supposedly engraved on the rock by a Viking figure who stands out as the very reverse of Eliot’s “Gerontion” and as a kind of cosmic mask for the poet himself. Amerindian culture fascinates the poet as much as the Buddhist culture or the pre-Socratics do, because of its attachment to the earth. But Celtic culture also figures as one of the repressed but not extinct cultures that keep a link with the earth and can teach us how to move away from our neurotic quandary. This is where Scottish identity comes in.

After he left his country, there was a period when White”s “scotticity » was challenged, due to what for a spell appeared to be an immoderate attraction to the Orient (didn’t he call a major book of his poems Mahamudra in 1979?). Things eventually cleared up and he is currently held in France as the representative of his country ‘s specificity: he has been invited  to write and lecture on Scotland by publishers and academics on numerous occasions. Although, already with several books on Scotland in general, he has written a small book on Edinburgh, but he is a man of the West Coast, with a wry, Glaswegian humour (in the early years he wrote ballads in dialect for a while); his love-hate relation to his native town is a subject that merits investigation. When Glasgow became Cultural Capital of Europe in 1990, he was a guest of a French radio cultural programme on that theme; he has also featured there on Scottish music. When in 1989 Mainstream, then Penguin, decided to publish his complete work in yearly instalments (thirty odd books already popular in France, most of them in his French wife’s translation), his “Scottishness” was not questioned by the critics.

He himself has always presented himself as an heir to the “Scotus Vagaris” medieval monk or Renaissance scholar, who would leave his country and erect monasteries or lecture  on the Continent. His own “subject-matter” or “faith”, the lesson he is intent on “teaching” as poet and as professor, is man’s unitive relation to cosmos. This he sees, apart from the references already given, even in the early Celtic christian monks who retained a “pagan” attraction to nature as a potential source of good: Pelagius denied original sin; medieval poets (often monks) viewed nature with clear, observant eyes before rendering it neatly in minute detail in their poems. For White, today’s few cramped areas of Western Europe associated with the Celts are but the dwarf remnants of a unique, vast, archaic people and civilisation which sprang from Eastern Europe or even mid-Asia and spread over the whole northern area of the two Continents. To the ancient Greeks they were part of the Hyperborean Complex. Fragments of folk-songs and other cultural artefacts testify to an original unity (about which Levi-Strauss has written) among the now Siberian, Amerindian and Celtic Cultures, a unity of mind for which the same Atlantic topography partly accounts. Such an archaic culture was shamanistic in that it expressed an actual experience of unity with the world; the shaman-poet-teacher-medicine man was in charge of its harmony. White’s intellectual ambition as poet is to “un-cover” this ontological approach to the cosmos which although there were resurgences with the Romantic, then Surrealist movements, has been stifled over twenty-five centuries; he can do so by coining, or rediscovering dynamic concepts and images which he uses in place of the static logic and “topoi” of Aristotle. So he turns to cultures which have succeeded in keeping alive this dynamic language, expressive of a deep relationship to thing and to place. The Amerindians, for example, would express their sense of unity with the earth through their place names so that their mental map was itself a poem:



Up on the edge of Hudson’s Bay
between the river Severn and the river Winisk
there is a place called Achawakamik

in the Cree language, that means
“a place to watch from”

they say, on the point of dying, an old man
planted his wigwam there
so that in his dying he might see
the forests and the waters
and the breath of the great spirit

if you go up there on day
try and see with his eyes

(Handbook for the Diamond Country, Collected Shorter Poems, 1960-1990. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990)

But the paradigms of White`s cosmology originate in his experience of the Scottish scenery, townscape and mindscape; the scenic equivalent of the fulness of the mind is the bare,  “ontological” sea shore, islands or inlands where solitude, silence and light prevail. His archetypal “floating world” – although the phrase is a translation of the Japanese ukiyo – is the cosmopolitan town-harbour of Glasgow (later Antwerp or HongKong, or even Paris). Not least, the Scottish mentality, “antisyzygy” or “coincidentia oppositorum” provides for the twofold psyche of the “Intellectual Nomad », another phrase for the new type of poet-thinker  he wants to promote. If White`s major influences have been from the start Nietzsche, Whitman and Rimbaud, and if he has claimed that American literature appeals to him more than its British counterpart, because of its sense of open, geographical and mental space, if French  Surrealists, particularly those on the “fringe” of the movement, set an example of “Intellectual  Nomadism” – i.e. refusal of set, narrow rationalist values -, Irish and Scottish figures have always been permanent guests in his Pantheon, from the Fianna, Brandan, Erigena, Pelagius, to Urqhart (translator of Rabelais), Burns, Carlyle, MacDiarmid… He has paid homage to some of them in his long poem Walking the Shore and has defined his intellectual relation to MacDiarmid in two long essays, laying stress on his elder’s evolution, from a politically committed nationalist, to the Sage and visionary inspired by Plotinus and Buddhism. In his  “Taking off from MacDiarmid” (written in 1975, published in The Scottish Literary Journal, vol.  17, no. 1, 1990), White quotes from “In Memoriam James Joyce”:

Unlike you, Joyce, I am more concerned
With the East than with the West and the poetry I seek
Must be the work of one who has always known
That the Tarim Valley is of more importance
Than Jordan or the Rhine in world history

and concludes: “he’s talking about the work that has absorbed me for the last ten years“.

We are far here from nationalism, but we are at the source, perhaps, of Celtic energies and perspectives. That White should have chosen to develop those energies outside his native country, while never losing sight of it, can be seen less as a paradox than as part of a tradition (Joyce did roughly the same),

It may take some time before all of his work is available, and even longer before it is completely understood and assimilated, but a beginning has at last been made, and White’s return has been seen already by many as a turning-point: a new concentration of forces (a  group inspired by Whites’s ideas is already at work in Scotland), a widening of the intellectual and cultural horizon.

Études britanniques contemporaines numéro 4, 1994


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