When young, my brother and I had a book called (I think) The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (indeed I believe it was this one), which dealt with the life (and somewhat unpleasant death) of Kenneth Mackenzie, also known as Coinneach Odhar or the Brahan seer, who was celebrated for having what in the Highlands is called ‘the second sight.’
It came to my mind because of a family saying associated with it, which seems to me to shed light on some of the things I have been thinking and writing about, particularly in relation to language and metaphor.
The family saying, ‘Them was the beds I saw’ (as th’oul’ gunnock said) is best explained by giving its history. I had thought it had its origin in the Brahan Seer book, but since that was written in 1899, I think it could only have been in some later commentary added to the text, perhaps as a footnote. As I remember, this concerned a man who was credited with having the second sight. In his youth, he had a dream of looms flying in the air; in his old age he lived long enough to see the first primitive aircraft thrashing through the sky, all wings and wire and canvas and whirling propellers. Whereupon he asserted, pointing at them, ‘those were the looms I saw!’
(By the same whim of disrespectful youth that branded the gentleman ‘an old gunnock’ we converted ‘looms’ to ‘beds’ for no better reason than to mock further one we clearly thought an old chancer, desperate to get credit for his ‘gift’ on the strength of a highly fanciful resemblance. From then on, any attempt to ‘draw the long bow’ or tell a tall tale on the part of one of us would be met by the other’s pointing at some wholly unbedlike object and proclaiming, in a rustic peasant accent, ‘them was the beds I saw!’)
Now that I am getting on myself I feel that old gentlemen should perhaps be treated with more respect; in any case, I think the story casts light on a number of things now of interest to me.
First, it touches on the ambivalent nature of ‘seeing as’ which I began to deal with here. But it also touches on another ambiguity which might not seem relevant, though I think it is, namely the different senses in which we use the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’.
It is evident that in our youth we were deeply sceptical both about this man’s supposed gift and the sincerity of his claim to have predicted the coming of the aeroplane – and of course, the two go together: if you don’t believe it possible to foresee the future – or that a particular person can – then you will approach anything that is offered as proof of that with a mind already closed and looking to find ways to ridicule and dismiss it.
As a matter of fact, I think we were willing to entertain the general possibility of seeing into the future, if only because it made life seem more exciting; but about this man, we clearly had our doubts, and thought his identification of a loom and an aeroplane more than far-fetched.
I have to say now that I think we were a little hard on him. As I said elsewhere Vita Sackville-West defined metaphor as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Now here is a man who knew nothing of aeroplanes but was familiar with looms, who has a dream of some complicated machinery flying in the air – it seems perfectly reasonable that he will describe them in those terms.
What interests me here is the twofold process, first of interpreting something you do not understand in terms that you do (and the limitations that imposes), next of recognising that same thing in an unexpected guise, and identifying the two.
It seems to me that the very ambiguity that here makes ‘seeing as’ vulnerable to scoffing – that it leaves open the possibility of interpreting any future event as the fulfilment of any past prediction (and we see this in play with notoriously obscure predictors like Nostradamus) – can also be a strength: it allows us to accept that our expectations may be satisfied in a wholly unexpected way; it gives us flexibility and interpretation as weapons against a rigid dogmatism (often backed by vested interest) which insists that ‘this, and only this, is what is meant here.’
Where we need such flexibility is at exactly the point where we have begun to outgrow ideas that are important to us – or, more accurately, have lost our sense of the language they are expressed in. These ideas have been valuable to us, they inform our culture and we have a strong attachment to them, yet now they have begun to seem hidebound, mere empty words; we can no longer relate to them. Is our only option to abandon them (and all that they stand for) or can they be revived, refreshed? we might find an answer if we think a bit more about the old man and his looms. In his youth, the man interprets his dream in the only terms that make sense at the time: what he dreamt was complex machinery that flew through the air; the only complex machinery that he and his neighbours know is the loom; so that is how he describes his dream to them.
We could imagine that a cult might grow up, predicated on the man’s dream, so that people live in daily expectation of seeing looms in the sky; they invest a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy in it, discussing it, writing poetry about it, painting pictures, writing songs and music – and because they know a great deal more about looms than they do about aerial flight, it would be no surprise to find that the loom-like aspect of the vision predominates and features in all sorts of elaborations derived from it, perhaps about the wondrous material that will be woven on these aerial looms, and the properties that might have.
Against that background, picture what happens on the day the loom-cult-folk are out on the hillside at their toil (cutting peat, probably) when of a sudden a great noise makes them all look up and over the brow of the hill comes a fantastic contraption, a Bristol Boxkite perhaps, accompanied by an equally fantastical Avro Triplane. The pilots give a cheery wave as they sweep overhead at no great height. The old man, now revered as the founder of their cult, dozing amid the bog-cotton, squints upwards from his deckchair at the sound, then cries out, with a laugh of recognition, ‘those were the looms I saw!’
Consternation! one can imagine that a great many people will not be pleased, the marvel of the aircraft notwithstanding. ‘Those are not looms,’ they will say. ‘We know what looms look like! and where is the wondrous sky fabric that was to be woven on them?’ It may be that among them weaving has become a very profitable activity on account of the curious cult that attaches it, and people come from far and wide to buy their products. Now, with this frankly insane outburst from their revered – but, it must be said, somewhat senile and doddery – founder, all that is in jeopardy. Those people will be more likely to hush the old man up and lock him away – ‘for his own good’ – than pay heed to what he says.
But there will be some – delighted, perhaps, by the sheer marvel of the aeroplane – who take the old man’s part, and insist on the legitimacy of his interpretation – ‘yes, we can see it like that, that is what it meant all along.’ To them, all the weaving lore and the rest will fall away like so much chaff, a discarded husk now seen as of no relevance: they will be for building an aeroplane factory or becoming pilots; they will see that it was not weaving but flight that was the thing of real significance; they will alter their poetry, their music and their art accordingly.
Hmm. I think there might be the possibility of a short story there, or better still, a film. As for prophecy and the second sight, that will have to wait till another day – yet there is a curious link to them, in the person of JW Dunne, an Irish aeronautical engineer and pioneer aviator, who enjoyed a great vogue at one time for his attempt to provide a theoretical footing for his personal experiences of prescience in dreams, An Experiment with Time.