While reading Book One of Virginia Woolfes To The Lighthouse, when the train of Mrs. Ramseys thought finally flows to Lily Briscoe, after having compared that houseguest painter with a famous mediocrity and his colony of imitators across the island, I am struck in the gut by some idea I cant identify. The artist wanted to paint, not from fashion, but from some deep place in herself. I had been struck by the image of an abyss that seemed to occupy her center. She is roused from this meditation by the work on her easel which pictures the scene with people through whose thoughts we've just travelled. I misread (or rather visualized) Mrs. Woolfe's line as describing descent into a deep well, of 'tunneling' down into herself. I was transfixed by the sensation in my own body, of the experience she was having on the page. I was unable to leave the next page turned. Again and again, I returned that page to read the line again. I was an altar boy at a crisis of understanding.
As I looked, from where I lay reading, at a dozen or so canvasses leaning around the room, some of them freshly prepared and therefore blank, I could get no material handle on them. My mind couldn't grasp any memory of the feel of the scratchy, sometimes furry bare linen canvas to my skin, of any of the smooth grounds that were visible. Earlier, with Neal, I'd seen Rimbaud and Verlaine standing in their lithographed black London clothes, tiny and together, before my canvasses rising as skyscrapers before them where they studied them, then stepped over the wide gutter between floorboards for another view. I wondered, then, what lay 'behind' paintings, behind Art. I asked every painter I knew, every sculptor, composer, poet. No one knew what I was talking about. I was making one of those questions one gets asked out of nowhere, as by a stranger, without a context.
Philip Whalen, in a letter from Oregon, answered my plea for him to tell me what was happening,
"...it is a classical vision of death...an interruption of Creation...-a vision of...the idea of the words, "Never", "Impossible", "can not"-- & the idea is desolating & terrible because we so firmly suppose & enact & ARE the opposite of all this."
And indeed, I now know it is that search down into the void of being that brings forth a new existence for humankind. This search is that of each individual finding his own evolutionary path, some of us conscious of our path and some of us putting out notice that such growth is possible and actually happening on earth.