Golf Through the Looking Glass
A Layman’s Reflections on The Art of Seeing
In the early 1940s, Aldous Huxley wrote in “The Art of Seeing” of how he had improved his chronically poor eyesight through the Bates Method — a controversial approach based on the belief that seeing was as much a psychological phenomenon as it was a physical act, and that better vision could be achieved not merely by using glasses, but by retraining the mind.
In analyzing this belief system, Huxley — a prolific author and wide-ranging intellectual who was soon to write “The Perennial Philosophy”, a seminal mid-century study of mysticism and spirituality — used language borrowed from philosopher C.D. Broad to describe the process of visual perception, a process that, in his view, was not at all identical to seeing.
Huxley argued that the eyes (and related nervous system) don’t actually see, but instead merely sense; that it is the mind that perceives what is being sensed; that the mind’s ability to accurately perceive what is sensed is related to an individual’s personal experiences, to his/her own memories; and that clear seeing — or better vision — is the result of both accurate sensing (the physical act) and correct perceiving (the psychological phenomenon).
The core concept involved here is one that Huxley had explored before and would return to again, namely, that knowing (or seeing) is closely tied to the character of the knower, to his/her personal experiences. In his introduction to “The Perennial Philosophy” Huxley wrote: “Knowledge is a function of being; when there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing”. In the spiritual context (the philosophia perennis): only those who become pure in heart and humble in spirit are capable of knowing, in its fullness, the one Reality; only those who prepare themselves faithfully can experience the divine Ground.
Huxley’s contemporary, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, once put it more simply: “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing, but it also depends on what sort of person you are.” Lewis and Huxley were very different men, far apart temperamentally and in their metaphysical beliefs, but they would have agreed that “what sort of person you are” was largely dependent on what you had made of yourself — on the character you had chosen to forge through a lifetime of thoughts, decisions and deeds. In this sense at least, the universe is not mocked: just as one sows, so shall he reap.
Turning to the realm of art and creativity (and indeed, to the art-craft that is golf course architecture), the relationship between personal character and artistic vision — between who you are and what you are able to see — again presents itself. Throughout history, that relationship has been made manifest in the inspiring works that great artists have left behind. It is a relationship (and a creative process) well illustrated in the story of Michelangelo’s “David”, the monumental sculpture this genius of the Renaissance had chipped out of a ruined piece of marble that others — less able to see — had rejected as useless.
In Michelangelo’s words: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes, as mine already see it.” There is perhaps no better description of the creator as Conduit: he skillfully shapes a (subjective) vision into an (objective) fact — for only then can it be shared with the rest of human kind.
This is a special kind of seeing, obviously: to use Huxley’s language, it is a rare and near perfect marriage of the physical act of sensing and the psychological (even spiritual) phenomenon of perception. And this special kind of seeing has found its expression as well in the creation of the world’s great golf courses, i.e. in the process by which golf course architects find, discover, intuit — in short, see — golf holes and a series of interconnected golf holes (a routing) already contained in the natural site, pre-existing there in the land itself in its original state. To again borrow from Michelangelo: a great architect is able to set free the golf course — that lovely apparition — once imprisoned in the land.
For decades, golf course architects have been judged in large part by this very ability, i.e. the ability to visualize and then make manifest an 18 hole routing that is as well suited to the demands of the game as it is to the character (and properties) of the land, i.e. of Nature itself. Of course, in terms of honouring the land, ability is not enough; there must also be a genuine willingness to treat the character and properties of Nature with respect.
On that subject, one of the most literate (and philosophically-inclined) of all Golden Age architects, Max Behr, had much to say. In 1927 he wrote: “Hence, it is fundamental principle that we must search for; that basic principle of all which, in the degree it is apprehended, points the way to beauty and order, to the law of Nature. It is the consummation of this in design that alone can give to outward expression an inward meaning…Golf architecture is not an art of representation; it is, essentially, an art of interpretation. And an interpretative art allows freedom to fancy only through obedience to the law which dominates its medium, a law that lies outside ourselves. The medium of the artist is paint, and he becomes its master; but the medium of the golf architect is the surface of the earth over which the forces of Nature alone are master.” If Behr had lived in 1st century China instead of 20th century America, he would have likely written not of Nature, but of Tao — i.e. the path, the principle, the underlying order of the universe.
With his references to inner meaning and fundamental principles, it is easy to forget, misunderstand or even dismiss entirely Behr’s contributions to the field of golf course design; but Aldous Huxley would likely have enjoyed long and fruitful discussions with him. Despite Behr’s determined tendency to explain himself in the most mysterious ways, Huxley would not have denied his basic contention that architecture could have meaning and significance, and that its practitioners — the best among them, if they chose to — could serve as channels for a more-than-ordinary spirit to manifest itself in their work, bringing beauty and truth and thus a measure of healing to the world.
Today Aldous Huxley might best be remembered for his early experiments with psychedelic drugs, described in his book “The Doors of Perception”. (The title of the book and the name of the 1960s rock band led by Jim Morrison came from the same source, i.e. William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, famous for the line: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is — infinite”.) Huxley passed away of cancer on the
same day in November 1963 as John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, some say after having ingested then then-largest single dose of mescalin ever recorded.
Less is remembered now of Huxley’s nearly life-long study of history’s great spiritual giants, those rare men and women who had made themselves fit to experience the presence of God, fit to participate in — to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase — the Ground of All Being.
In his pursuit to understand (and to live) this truly experiential religion, Huxley had been shaped by William James’ 1902 work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. Coming at the end of the Victorian Era, this ground-breaking analysis of spirituality identified and gave voice to the ethos and value system of a brand new age, one that was willing to reject tradition and embrace change — and the very concept of change — as never before.
First presented as a lecture series at the University of Edinburgh in 1901, the work of this American psychologist (and pragmatic philosopher) startled the world with its focus not on doctrine and dogma but on personal religious experience, on the experiences — inside their own heads, as it were — of men and women who found purpose, meaning and fulfillment in their own spiritual feelings, insights and ideas, regardless of whether or not those experiences had ever
been codified in the foundational texts of the world’s religions.
Writing not as a theologian but as a psychologist, James argued that human beings seemed to be manifestly religious animals — that a desire to re-link to the Basic Fact and Source of Life seemed to be lodged deep in the human psyche, independent of any official religious upbringing or affiliation. It is as if James had said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.
With this endorsement of personal religious experience, James opened the door wide to emerging concepts about spiritual worship in daily life. In a sense, he gave a whole generation of religious seekers permission to abandon traditional places of worship — the churches, temples and synagogues — and to instead worship and seek spiritual nourishment wherever and in whatever way suited them best. Not surprisingly, many in the newly-minted Edwardian Age found that it was in Nature and the natural world, so free from actual or perceived Victorian restraints, where they could most easily and directly experience the Basic Fact of existence — where they felt most free to participate in the Real. Lying with a lover on the banks of the Thames listening to the wind could be as deeply spiritual as a stern Sunday sermon inside St. Paul’s Cathedral; and so too might a solitary round of golf played in the misty silence as a steady rain fell from low grey clouds hanging over a sea-side links in Scotland.
In terms of golf course architecture, it is difficult to determine how much of this same spirit of the age influenced that group of young men in the United Kingdom and America who became architects and went on to play a role in golf’s first Golden Age — although presumably, none of a certain class or educational background could be wholly immune from so dominant a social, cultural, and philosophical shift.
(Men like John Low, Tom Simpson, Hugh Wilson, Charles Alison and Alastair Mackenzie come immediately to mind. Herbert Fowler, though older, began his architectural career around the turn of the century, and was capable of spiritualizing the craft: “God builds golf links; the less man meddles, the better for all concerned”. And C.B. Macdonald, while also older and more inclined than Fowler “to meddle”, did invest heart and soul into the pursuit of the Ideal
golf course, and articulated and popularized a notion of fundamental principles that until then few would have ever thought to relate to as prosaic/secular an undertaking as golf architecture.)
On the other hand, it is plausible to suggest that Arnold Haultain’s romantic and poetic “The Mystery of Golf”, first published in 1904, had indeed been influenced by the same ethos and value-system William James had given voice to; and that Haultain’s work would in turn influence Max Behr, he of the inner meaning of golf architecture and of the fundamental principles of Nature. It is certainly clear that the spiritualizing of golf and nature made another significant appearance in Michael Murphy’s “Golf in the Kingdom” — and that Murphy’s Esalen Institute, with its initial interests in Eastern mysticism and mind-altering substances, linked back to ideas that Aldous Huxley had first popularized. (In passing, it is interesting to note that the roots of this sub-genre of golf writing — as exemplified by Haultain, Behr and Murphy — might stretch down past even William James himself. James, after all, was the godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism; and, as Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in expressing a typical sentiment: “Nature is full of genius, full of the Divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.” Nor a golf course either, some might argue.)
And it is here, at the confluence of spiritual sentiment, golf, nature and the art of seeing that Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy” again comes to mind. In that book — an anthology of spiritual texts from the world over — Huxley includes a story by ancient philosopher Chuang Tzu:
“Ch’ing, the chief carpenter, was carving wood into a stand for musical instruments, and when finished his work appeared so perfect as to be of supernatural execution. And so the Prince asked him: What mystery is there in your art? And Ch’ing replied: No mystery, Your Highness. When I am about to make a stand, I guard against any diminution of my essential powers. I first bring my mind into a state of absolute quiet. After 3 days in this state I become oblivious to any possible reward or gain. After 5 days, I become oblivious to any fame I might achieve. After 7 days, I become unconscious of my limbs and physical frame. Only then, when there is no thought of you or the Court in my mind, the skills I have become concentrated and all disturbing elements from without are gone. And only then do I enter some mountain forest, and I begin my search for a suitable tree. That tree already contains within it the form required, which I afterwards elaborate. I see the musical stand in my mind’s eye, and then set to work. Beyond that there is nothing: I simply bring my own native capacity into relationship with that of the wood. What is suspected to be of supernatural execution in my work is due solely to this.”
The description is clear, as is the parallel to an architect’s ability to see/find a golf course inherent in the land, waiting to be unveiled. (To put it too bluntly: Ch’ing is an architect like Bill Coore, wandering long and patiently through the Sand Hills of Nebraska in search of a golf course, and then finding one; and he is also Michelangelo, seeking the heart-wrenching “Pieta” in a slab of plain white marble; and he is Handel, scrambling to notate “The Hallelujah Chorus” as the music poured into his soul from a source seemingly outside of himself.)
More significantly, however, note how Huxley’s core ideas as expressed in “The Art of Seeing” are reflected again in this short parable: how intimately Ch’ing’s (outer) skills are linked to his (inner) perceptions, i.e. how definitively his (outer) status as a master craftsman is explained by his (inner) dedication to psychological and spiritual preparation.
The parable compresses time, of course, and purposely so: it distills a lifetime’s worth of inner work — of memories, experiences, dreams and decisions — down to the basic essentials of becoming; down to the core tasks/elements involved in changing the “being of the knower” so that there might be “a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing”. It is, in other words, a parable about becoming pure in heart and humble in spirit, in the hopes of being able to see and to know – and thus to express – the world of the Supernatural, the Real, the Infinite, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Note how carefully Chuang Tzu outlines the tasks/elements and processes he deems necessary for this dramatic personal transformation to take place; they are familiar to anyone who has ever studied the masters of spiritual life, from whatever tradition east or west:
1) There is a one-pointed concentration of focus and intention: “I guard against any diminution of my essential powers,”
2) There is a period of intense inner and outer silence: “I first bring my mind into a state of absolute quiet”,
3) There is a profound shift in priorities, from those of the (outer) world to those of the (inner) spirit: “I become oblivious to any possible reward or gain…to any fame I might achieve”,
4) There is a deep humility and lack of ego: “unconscious of my limbs and physical frame…with no thought of you or the Court in my mind”, and
5) There is Time: “I enter some mountain forest, and I begin my search for a suitable tree.”
Only then — after he has changed himself, and thus expanded his capacity to see — does the artist-craftsman initiate the creative process as normally understood, i.e. the set of concrete physical actions that we tend to equate with skill. Even then, however, Ch’ing downplays any personal role, any specific set of skills that he might possess. In fact, there is only one reference to himself or to his talent, only one word used: “That tree already contains within it the form required, which I afterwards elaborate.”
As suggested earlier, the parable distills a lifetime of dedication into a week of intense preparation; the reader is not meant to assume that Ch’ing has always been chief carpenter, that he has always been a master. And this picture of a life-long process fits well with the thoughts of a current golf architect, Ian Andrew. In discussing the differences between, in his words, prodigies and masters, Andrew concludes that great architects are more like masters than prodigies: “The Master is equal to the prodigy in terms of talent; but their route to a successful expression of that talent is much, much longer.…They usually begin the journey without clarity, and much of the early work is setting the table for what is to come in the future. They obtain clarity through exploration. They learn, work, experiment, seek new ideas, create, assess, refine and so on, often for decades until through determination and inherent ability they find what they are looking for. The main reason for this drawn out approach is they seek perfection.”
Andrew is a modern-day, working professional who uses language of a more direct and practical nature; but the story he tells of life-long personal development in pursuit of other-worldly perfection would have resonated both with Chuang Tzu and with Ch’ing, the chief carpenter who was once a student.
So too would the observations of another modern-day architect, Tom Doak. An early and influential exponent of the minimalist movement that returned to the top of architecture’s value system a deep appreciation of the golfing possibilities inherent in the land in its natural state, Doak has often noted the primary importance of Time in the creative process – time to wander across the landscape, to ponder and reflect, to look and to look again and again at the
golf holes and potential routings that lie already present there in nature itself, waiting for human hands to simply hew away the rough excess so that others may one day see and enjoy them too.
In this context, it is important to note that Huxley also put his finger — albeit inadvertently — on a development that changed the face of American design for almost half a century, and that ushered in the post-World War II Dark Ages of golf course architecture that lasted until the advent of the modern minimalists. That development was mechanization, the use of heavy machinery. While not a perfect analogy by any means, Huxley’s words are worth quoting at length, as they do offer a possible (if esoteric) explanation for that period of decline:
“From the foregoing extract from Chuang Tzu we see how essentially religious (and not merely professional) was the Taoist craftsman’s approach to his art. Here we may remark in passing that mechanization is incompatible with inspiration. The artisan could do and often did do a thoroughly bad job. But if, like Ch’ing the chief carpenter, he cared for his art and was ready to do what was necessary to make himself docile to inspiration, he could and sometimes did do
a job so good that it seemed ‘as though of supernatural execution’. Among the many and enormous advantages of efficient automatic machinery is this: it is completely fool-proof. But every gain has to be paid for. The automatic machine is fool-proof; but just because it is fool-proof it is also grace-proof.
The man who tends such a machine is impervious to every form of aesthetic inspiration, whether of human or of genuinely spiritual origin. ‘Industry without art is brutality’. But actually Ruskin maligns the brutes. The industrious bird or insect is inspired, when it works, by the infallible animal grace of instinct — by Tao as it manifests itself on the level immediately above the physiological. The industrial worker at his fool-proof and grace-proof machine does his job in a man-made universe of punctual automata — a universe that lies entirely beyond the pale of Tao on any level, brutal, human or spiritual”.
As noted, the analogy is not perfect, but it does highlight the difference between the artisan and the industrial worker; between work/art produced by human hands (capable of being inspired) and that produced by the levelling thunder a dozen bulldozers (impervious to Tao).
It is not difficult to imagine what Tao — or lack of it — Huxley would have sensed in today’s blackberries and ipads and computer generated models; he was already out of place in the then-modern world 70 years ago. (In his brief and failed tenure as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, he wrote a long, detailed treatment for a film version of “Alice in Wonderland”; Walt Disney complained that he could only understand every third word.) And, as he did in the previous quote, Huxley often used a word that today is (and in his day was) rarely heard outside of church meetings or fundamentalist revivals: Grace.
Despite his worldly sophistication, his metaphysical daring and broad intellect, and his experiments with hallucinogenics, Huxley believed in Grace; like his more traditional and religiously dogmatic counterpart C.S. Lewis, he believed that spiritual, psychological and artistic gifts were continually being offered human beings from a source outside of themselves.
Granted, it is up to each individual to open themselves to these gifts, to change the being of the knower in order to expand that which could be known; but it is possible, Huxley believed, to see more, and to see more clearly, and to recognize/experience the presence of Grace — and, once experienced, to share it with others.
For this reason, it seems quite appropriate to end on that word, Grace. Aldous Huxley uses it in reference to the experiences of chief carpenter Ch’ing — the craftsman, it should be stressed, who had mastered The Art of Seeing by faithfully preparing himself to embody the psychological (spiritual) phenomenon of perception.
It is true that, if you were so inclined, you could choose to end on another word — that is, Talent. All talk and discussion about an architect’s ability to see golf courses where none yet exist could probably be summarized (and set aside) with that one word. But, while in many cases it is a useful enough word, Talent somehow doesn’t do the subject justice.
Listen to golfers (down to earth, secular, good and honest people) as they reflect on the moments of Transcendence they experienced at their personal golfing meccas (Dornoch, say, or Ballyneal, or New South Wales at twilight); you can hear their voices crack with what might be Joy, you can see in their eyes the gentle distant look of what might be Blessedness.
Talent simply doesn’t seem adequate to describe the nature and quality of a creative process and product that could engender such a response. At those times, it rings closer to the Truth to say that the architects who first saw Dornoch or New South Wales were touched — at least for that one brief moment in time — not so much by Talent as by Grace.
It may be, in short, that the Art of Seeing is actually, at its heart and at the end of all things, an Act of Grace.