Friday 12 July 2019

William Arkle and the secret of living (Romantic Christianity)

Backwell Hill House, where William Arkle and family, friends and many animals lived in the 1970s - an ex-Claretian novitaite house, the former chapel can be seen as the tent-shaped structure on the left

I first encountered William Arkle in 1977, in the context of a thirty minute documentary on his life and work broadcast by our local BBC television company. I can remember very little about it; but it evoked in me a suspicion or hope that Arkle was someone who actually lived the kind of life I personally (you may, of course disagree!) regarded as near-ideal.

When I found a copy of A Geography of Consciousness later in the year, this was confirmed for me by Colin Wilson's introduction* - clearly CW (who knew Arkle as a friend) was fascinated by Arkle's 'success' in actually living his life in a 'higher state of consciousness'. Arkle (to a significant, albeit not fully or perfectly) succeeded in Doing what Wilson could only write about.

This I take as the fact on which I proceed, my starting-point. For Me, over a span of more than forty years, William Arkle has been a very rare example of living life in the kind of way (qualitatively distinct, but not as flawless or perfection) that I believe life ought to be lived, and which I aspire to live. My interest here is my failure honestly to understand the basis of Arkle's success.
Because, in trying to learn from Arkle, however; it seems that both myself and Colin Wilson made the same mistake - which was, quite simply, leaving-out God.

For Arkle - at the centre of his 'system' was God, God the creator, and furthermore a creator who was our loving Father. Arkle's 'Romantic' system was built around this core; yet I wanted Arkle's success in living but without Arkle's God.

I (like Colin Wilson) implicitly regarded Arkle's God as just wishful thinking; as a God he had invented to aperfom a function he wanted performed in his belief system. Having disposed of Arkle's God, which - being unreal - could clearly have no necessary role in Arkle's life; I then proceeded to try and learn fro the rest of Arkle's system.

In effect, I was hoping to get the benefits of living in the successful way that I regarded Arkle as having achieved; while eliminating the source and core of Arkle's system - which was God (I ruled-out God in general, except for 'deity' conceptualised in the most abstract and impersonal way; as well as regarding as rather silly and pitiful God in the particular 'loving Father' understanding of Arkle).

In a nutshell, I wanted Romanticism without God; and it led me in the same direction as those many others who have sought Romanticism without God from the days of Byron and Shelley to contemporary examples of Romantics such as Woody Allen or Francois Truffaut. Or, in a much more positive way, Colin Wilson himself.

For 200 years our culture has been full of examples of people who (apparently sincerely) espouse the Romantic life, but are unable to live it; people who can research and talk about Romantic themes; but who live (in their consciousness, in their souls) much like everybody else and often-enough live worse.

So myself, Colin Wilson and many others wanted Romanticism, but did not believe that God was real - and we did not achieve Romanticism in actual living. Meanwhile there were examples such as Arkle or William Blake of people who did achieve Romanticism in actual living; 'yet' apparently insisted on basing it upon Romantic conceptions of God that struck me as obviously 'made-up'.

My understanding of this phenomenon is that those who seek Romanticism are those afflicted by alienation; by the modern sense of feeling cut off from life, and who are plagued by a sense of meaninglessness, lack of a purpose that fulfils our creativity and also unites ourselves with other and the world.

Like many/ most modern people from adolescence onwards; we begin with the assumption that there is no God, never was a God; and that all talk of personal Gods who care about us is either delusionally-pitiful wishful thinking; or else a dishonest means of manipulating others.

And we do not 'notice' that (by eliminating all possibility of the reality of God, and in particular the kind of God that Arkle speaks-of) we have already made assumptions that inevitably will ensure that our lives will fail. And fail by the very criteria we ourselves have chosen.

(Not everybody will share my feeling about Arkle's success in living - this makes no difference to my point. My point is that despite Arkle's being my own idea of a successful life; I nonetheless failed to 'notice' that God was necessarily central to it. I unthinkingly, arrogantly, supposed that I could have the superstructure without the foundations!)

It was not until I first allowed the possibility of God, then the possibility of Arkle's concept of God; that I could proceed to seek whether or not this was in reality true. Then I discovered that it was true.

Only now can I really understand Arkle 'from the inside', in a way which explains the primary cause of my long-term interest in him. Only now can I benefit from his example; in changing my own life for the better.

It turns-out that successfully-lived Romanticism requires God; furthermore it requires the kind of personal God that Arkle knew; and it turns-out that this God is real.

It turns-out that in practice Romantic Christianity is the only Romanticism. Arkle has been telling me this for decades - but only recently have I been willing to hear him.

*An excerpt from Colin Wilson's Introduction to A Geography of Consciousness:

I would place the author of this book among the half dozen most remarkable men I have ever met – and I suppose this would include some of the most eminent writers and thinkers of our time. This book which I am introducing is not an easy one; I suppose I may as well be frank and say that in parts it is extremely tough going. But I think it is an important book, and my aim in this introduction is to clear away some of the difficulties.

Let me speak first of the author, William Arkle. Like most writers, I receive a fair amount of correspondence from strangers. And since I write about questions of human evolution and the nature of human consciousness, many of these are from occultists and people with theories about how man can become a god overnight. Very often, the writers send me manuscripts and explain indignantly that publishers are too materialistic to understand the importance of their work.

But it is usually pretty easy to see why publishers are not interested. The manuscripts are often full of important ideas; but they are never properly thought-out, with consideration for the reader. And I always find myself reflecting that it is a pity that the intelligent people are so often egocentric and lacking in self-criticism, while the sane, decent, healthy people are so often mediocrities. There are very seldom exceptions to this rule.

In 1960, William Arkle sent me a reproduction of one of his paintings, and it was certainly a striking painting; it was an abstract, geometrical sort of landscape with abstract human figures, a little like Wyndham Lewis’s. The colours were all very light, yellows and greens and reds. But although it was striking, it was not, in the last analysis, a good picture.

It is hard to explain this except to say that in spite of its abstract nature, it lacked real complexity. The letter that accompanied it talked about spiritual values and so on, and it was clear that this is what the picture intended to express.

Arkle lived in Bristol, and he invited me to call and see him if I ever came through. I seem to remember that I assumed he was probably a man in his fifties. My guess was that he had probably started life in the Church of England, tried a few evangelical sects, and ended up by producing some occult religion of his own. In 1961, my wife and I were driving to Blackpool to the Long Playing Record Festival, and it seemed a good opportunity to call on the Arkles.

So we found our way – after some difficulty – to a large house in Royal York Crescent, with a fine view over the valley. And we were met by a tall, good-looking man in his early thirties, with a clean cut face of the Charlton Heston type and a lock of hair on his forehead that made him resemble that Sargeant drawing of Yeats that can be found in the Collected Plays. I was introduced to his wife Elizabeth, who did not look in the least dreamy or mystical; in fact, she looked one of those cheerful, healthy girls that Shaw put into early plays. I was not surprised to learn she loved horses.

Bill and Liz Arkle - probably early 1950s

The enormous house belonged to them, and I discovered that they made a living by buying houses, re-decorating them themselves, and then letting them as flats. It seemed fairly strenuous work for a visionary, but apparently it solved the basic problem of making a living. And neither was I surprised to learn that he had been an engineer and served in the navy towards the end of the war. There was something about him that suggested that he was not one of these subjective, egocentric people who find the practical work unbearable.

I asked him some years ago for a biographical sketch, and I may as well quote what he sent me: ‘Born 1924. After school, trained in engineering for the navy. After demobilisation, I had a strong urge to go to Art school which I did for two years. But I did not finish the course as I felt strongly that the attitudes to painting that I was being taught were not right for me. ‘My first marriage broke up as I left Art school. I was reading a lot of mysticism and esotericism generally and developing meditation and the ability to tune my nature, as it were …’

Later in the same letter, he says: ‘I married Elizabeth about 1952 (it is typical of him not to be sure of the date – he wrote 1953 and then changed it) and this helped me to integrate properly with ordinary life and widened my interests (and responsibilities).’

Certainly, the remarkable thing about him is that he is so integrated with ordinary life – considering the completely otherworldly nature of his basic vision


Francis Berger said...

Thank you for sharing this vital bit of introspection on your experience of lived Romanticism, both with and without God. I agree with Arkle's (and your) conclusions - true Romanticism, or a truly successful mode of living requires God. Arriving at this understanding is key.

Jonathan said...

Bruce, what do you mean when you say Arkle and Blake "did achieve Romanticism in actual living"?

(I don't even have a guess what you mean by that, but it's clear that knowing that is crucial to getting the full impact of this post.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - You will need to follow the links. This, specifically will also help - which I shall add:

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - I've also appended what is available online of Colin Wilson's introduction to GoC; there is considerably more detail about what so impressed CW about Arkle's life in the printed book.

seriouslypleasedropit said...

I'm glad you keep writing about Arkle. Thank you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@spd "I'm glad you keep writing about Arkle" - You're welcome - try stopping me!

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm curious about that "Then I discovered that it was true." I would have thought that, for you, the existence and nature of God would be among those metaphysical assumptions which cannot be "discovered" empirically. How do you make that jump from a non-empirical assumption to an actual "discovered" belief? (I myself have not been able to make that jump, and I am well aware that my decision to assume that there is a God is a very different thing from actual faith.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - When we seek God as the creator who is our loving parent; then we can know God is true by knowing God - as a person, knowing the loving relationship.

We know God, *then*, in the same way we know the love of our family or spouse (which is not by their physical presence).

And that is also the same way that true metaphysical assumptions are known from among those that are merely assumed.

We can know this, as much as we know anything in this mortal life. Yet it can, of course, be doubted - as a child may doubt the love of his mother; while knowledge of that love still remains, known by the true self even when superficial selves (false selves) can doubt it.

In my case, some superficial selves ruled-out God and insisted that the world was 'mechanical' - so that I needed to keep over-ruling what my true self was telling me -- e.g. my true self kepts insisting things like that truth was an objective value - not merely a means to an end of human gratification.

I kept on recurrently feeling that my life was 'for' something; despite that the superficial selves said no. Kept feeling that I was 'linked' to the universe; that some things had an eternal reality and so on. In sum, I kept on feeling that my life was, or could be to some extent, for my good and the good of 'everything'.

This sense of knowing obejctively was impossible to shake-off altogether, for example it underpinned my primary discoveries as a scientist.

I suppose that for some people (nowadays especially) this is one of the 'lessons' that mortal life is intended to teach - the distinction between the knowing of the true self and other selves, the recovering of doubted knowledge.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - added to the above. It strikes me that this also entails that we are kept-alive to be able to recover from doubts. I often reflect on the wide differences in the length of human lives (as well as differences in their nature) - and that most human lives have ended in the womb or around the time of birth - and an even higher proportion without attaining adulthood. Any explanation of mortal life needs to take this into account.

My understanding is that some lives need to be longer in order to allow time for the learning of particualr things. The current unprecedented Western extension of average lifespan is probably to give more people more time to learn that which they have failed to learn (maybe a single simple thing; which may be why so many undergo the extreme simplification that is dementia) - rather than advanced age being any kind of 'reward' (or curse) of prosperity/ technology, as people seem to suppose it.