Of Peaceful Havens and Mind Palaces


In this town it’s a long time between breakfasts’
Brigadoon, 1966 TV Version)

‘The Legend of Brigadoon‘ began as a Broadway musical and went on to become an Hollywood film. It tells the story of two Americans who stumble into a small Scottish town which, every hundred years, springs into existence for a day and then disappears again for another century. When I was A Young Person living in Scotland the only times I ever heard Brigadoon being mentioned was when Scottish Nationalists vituperated angrily against it.

The cause of their irritation was that, supposedly, it held up as an ideal vision of Scotland an archaic idyll that never was rather than the real Scotland that the future could become when built upon the best available resources of the present. Like many who make the statement ‘everything is political‘ carry more weight than it is capable of they missed the point of the thing in front of their eyes. As an aside I would say that, yes, everything is political but only to some extent, to act as if ‘everything is political’ means ‘everything is only political’ is to make a huge category error.

Be that as it may the chief value, I think, of the vision at the heart of Brigadoon is not what it is but that it is. It did not come into existence and persist as a commentary on the external details of the world, still less as a manifesto for its transformation. No, such visions arise as a consequence of the internal state of people- their longings, their loves, their hopes- and function as ways of changing the internal not the external world of the visionaries. As one of the songs from the show puts it-
‘...you’re all I’ll see from this day on.
These hurried hours were all the life we could share.
Still, I will go with not a tear, just a prayer
That when we are far apart, you’ll find something from your heart
Has gone! Gone with me from this day on.’

By holding in our Mind, that is, in the complex consisting of mind and heart, an otherwhere, a place where the normal rules are suspended so that love and kindness are always the dominant notes then we strengthen ourselves for acting in loving and kind ways in this place. Which is what Wordsworth was referring to when he wrote of the effect that the remembrance of the Wye valley had on him-
………..                           These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

The Brigadoon’s and Tintern Abbey’s of the Mind are peaceful havens into which we can withdraw in order to be refreshed. These are not escape pods from the Earth but re-charge points where we can find the strength to do good in the world. And not just the strength but also the reason. It might be argued that this is merely a kind of nostalgia which urbanised Man (male and female) feels for a bucolic pre-industrial revolution world but we see the same sentiment in the ancient world. The Hebrew psalmist, for example, wrote of the Good Shepherd leading him ‘beside waters of rest .’ We can see this illustrated even more clearly in The Peach Blossom Spring a Chinese fable written by Tao Yuanming in 421 AD.

The story tells of a fisherman who finds a community that his been hidden from the outside world for about six centuries. The people are friendly and loving, the community thrives. Once the fisherman returns to the ‘normal’ world he tells the authorities about his experience but no one can ever find the the place again.

Classical Chinese stories are very short so it is necessary for the reader to reflect on the depth of meaning conveyed by brief phrases (or by individual characters in the original script.) So we have, for example, “As he was departing, some of them said to him, ‘No need to tell outsiders about us.’” Which might mean that the villagers did not want to be found but more likely it means that if you tell anyone about the haven of peace in your mind palace it will do no good, they can never find it and your memory of it will be adversely affected by your failure to lead others to it. In 1883 St Thérèse of Lisieux believed that she had had a vision of the Virgin Mary, and for the rest of her life she bitterly regretted telling anyone about it precisely for the reason that in the process of public narration the private experience lost something incredibly precious.

Another significant line from the text is ‘Liu Linzhi of Nanyang was a man of refinement. When he heard about this story, he cheerfully made plans to go look for the village. However, he died of an illness before he got his chance.‘ None of the details will have been included here accidentally. When someone ‘of refinement,’ or as other translations have it an ‘an acclaimed scholar and recluse,’ hears of a peaceful haven he ‘cheerfully’ plans to find it. Why cheerfully? Because such an haven is both the source and destination of the human urge towards a deep form of happiness. And his death, from the point of view of the world might be thought of as marking the failure of his enterprise but perhaps Tao Yuanming intends us to think of Liu Linzhi succeeding by the only way that it is possible to definitively and forever enter into the rest of a haven of peace.

As St Augustine put it, the human heart is restless. And as science tells us everything in this cosmos is continuously in motion. But the human Mind craves rest. An Eden, a Promised Land, a Peach Blossom Spring, a Western Pure Land, a Brigadoon, a Wye Valley an otherwhere in which there is no motion save for a gentle exchange of selfless love between lover and beloved. It is a transcendent longing with which we are all born. In life we are exiles from the peaceful haven but nothing, not even vituperative critics, can prevent us from envisioning that haven within the rooms of our Mind Palace.


The picture is from the 1954 film of Brigadoon (photographer unknown)

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