I didn't discover The Cloud of Unknowing at Oxford, along with all the other Middle English texts I read there, but encountered it for the first time when I was twenty-nine and searching for something other than this world. I bought it for two pounds in a church more or less opposite Euston Station. While it failed to induce any mystical experience, it did give me the courage to pursue a certain way of writing: of not minding if I did not always know what something meant.
The Cloud of Unknowing is not a writer's handbook but a fourteenth-century religious treatise, describing a procedure to be followed in order to attain an intuitive knowledge of God, but it can be profitably considered in relation to writing because it is seeking to convey an intuitive experience beyond the scope of language.
'. . . forget all the creatures that ever God made,' it says, 'and the works of them, so that thy thought or thy desire be not directed or stretched to any of them, neither in general nor in special .... At the first time when thou dost it, thou findst but a darkness and as it were a kind of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God . . thou mayest neither see him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel him in sweetness of love in thy affection . . if ever thou shalt see him or feel him as it may be here, It must always be in this cloud and in this darkness .... Smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.'
A state of consciousness whose content is not 'understanding in thy reason', affective - 'sweetness of love', or sensate 'darkness', 'cloud of unknowing'; an active "forgetting" and an objectless "longing" - these activities of renunciation and contemplative meditation are common to the mystic and to the writer; read Marilynne Robinson's account of enshrouding herself in darkness and silence to write, wearing sloppy old clothes, so as not to be conscious of anything, even fabrics, when everyone was sleeping; consider Proust's writing regime. And it sometimes happens, when a writer 'lose[s] themselves', as the author of The Cloud writes:
'afterwards, [when] these persons mine to themselves again, they find themselves possessed of a distinct knowledge of things, mare luminous and more perfect than that of others. . . This state is called the ineffable obscurity. . . This obscurity is a light to which no created intelligence can arrive by its own nature.' This state is described in mystical literatures as one in which the mystic is passive, having abandoned striving. Tom McCarthy has alked recently about seeing the writer as tuning into a radio station and 'downloading' or 'channeling' content in an analogous way. Some descriptions indicate that the senses and faculties of thought are suspended, a state described in Catholic literature as the "ligature." The result, in rare cases, is writing that feels 'deep', 'resonant', 'ineffable' or 'profound'.
Great art and great writing have nothing to do with the writer herself. If the conscious ego has momentarily been abolished, agenda, analysis and intellect, then it is possible for something of real value to appear. As in mystical meditation, thought is an interference with a source that yields a more essential 'knowledge'. Perhaps all great things come from the same place. If this is true perhaps it really isn't surprising that contact with 'the divine' or some other vibrational reality and channeling words or sounds or images as an artist does is a similar process; perhaps it's why some artists find it hard to shake off solitude and slip into the rush and tumble of life. Meister Eckhart writes: "If we keep ourselves free from the things that are outside us, God will give us in exchange everything that is in heaven .... itself with all its powers ....” The similarities between artists and mystics often extend to their actual life circumstances: poverty, celibacy, and solitariness, not sought out for themselves, are generally conducive to absorption in a process which requires passivity, surrender and receptivity amidst 'darkness'. If the mystic or artist makes effort of their own they hinder the end result and will not be blessed by 'God'.
One of these blessings according to mystical texts, is the new vision that takes place, the new brilliance which tinges perception, the reported sensation of seeing everything as if for the first time, noticing beauty which for the most part may have previously been passed by. Stimuli of the inner world become invested with the feeling of reality ordinarily bestowed on objects. Through what might be termed "reality transfer," thoughts and images become real. Of course mystical experiences are ineffable, incapable of being communicated adequately to another person and the whole point of writing is to convey something to another. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing points the way, though: a way of not trying, not doing, not thinking, conjuring a state that is blank and empty and welcoming of the unknown.
When I think of my own books, for most of the time I was striving, thinking, scheming, orchestrating - and that produces adequate novels, perhaps even technically proficient or commendable ones. But when I look back at those parts of them I know the writing is dead. Those parts are like water, whereas there are a very few passages that are like whisky. Ironically, it was the watery stuff that I struggled with, for months and for years. The whisky always came instantly and happened when I was in a different state of mind; a lighter one, almost a playful one, or one heavily charged in some way. But in all these states of mind, my mind itself was quiet. These passages don't serve an obvious purpose. They don't advance the plot. If I had let my writing consist only of them then maybe there wouldn't be a novel, so perhaps the cerebral, draining, straight-jacketed wars of attrtition were neessary too. At least, in order to produce a certain type of novel. A currently commercial one, perhaps even an 'excellent' one to many people. A Booker Prize winning one. But I don't want to be an 'excellent' writer. To me that's a watery one. I would rather be a flawed writer with flashes of something else, would rather bask, or at least be open to, unknowing; would rather serve Glenfiddich, albeit laced with tap water, than the finest Beaujolais or Earl Grey.
The Value of Not Knowing