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Cover for Pari Perspectives 5: The Pari Center 20th Anniversary Issue
This essay was published in
the September 2020 issue of Pari Perspectives.

When I think myself back to Pari, I see again my first morning’s view, from a house which stands almost directly across from the Palazzo, at the top of the village, a seemingly impossible twenty years ago. I think it was autumn. I had arrived in darkness the evening before, and opened my shutters to the sight of olive trees far below my window, their silvery leaves flickering; to sun-parched, gold-green farmland on the plain below; to the tidy village cemetery nestled close to the foot of the slope.

Someone’s laundry fluttered from a line. A lizard scampered along a wall. I imagined tusky wild boar in the distant patches of shadowed woodland while Pari’s large church bell rang the hour. The bell swayed in my mind like a hypnotist’s watch. I was suspended.

In Brighton, England, as I write this, I can still almost hear the heartbeat of that church bell, and the sounds of voices, uncannily clear, rising up from the plain below the village. I can see the sculpture of the lion outside the church, poised as always on his wall, between stony stillness and animal wildness. I can almost taste again the best peach I have ever known, offered to me straight off the tree. There are few weights more pleasurable in the palm of one’s hand than a fresh, ripe peach.

In my mind’s eye, in the village shop, I am offered again my first morsel of pecorino toscano cheese. The people of Pari nod to me, smile, gesture and proffer greetings. The scents of herbs and blossom, heated by the morning sun, waft in my wake. I am touched again by the human-scale loveliness of claypot roofs; by the golden veil of late afternoon light as it drops outside the Palazzo; by balmy nights of music, chat and dance outside the seemingly eternal café-bar.

Other memories blow in like blossom. I recall the luxury of Maureen’s nasturtium fritters; the pleasure of watching children play freely everywhere inside the village walls—the village is their turf, above all. I am honoured to be shown Olinta’s olive press by Olinta herself, although we hardly understood a word the other says. I am cheered again by the tidy vision of small bin-bags hanging from the village walls.

Something elemental—something beyond language—governs Pari, and, whether citizen or visitor, we pass through, its subjects only. What is the knowledge of those ancient, round-shouldered hills?  Who is to say?  But it speaks itself in brooding woodlands and umber fields; in the glow of fireflies on night walks; in the ancient stones, slick underfoot, as I dash through the village in the rain.Medieval 21st century Pari can, like any oxymoron, take me by happy surprise. Two summers ago, I watched, fascinated, as a drone zipped back-and-forth over the Palazzo. My eye was on it, amused, and perhaps its eye was on me too. That same summer, I grinned, astonished and delighted one night, to see the exuberance of an impromptu, American-style country line-dance in the piazza.

Pari comes in a flux: of images, memories, ideas, delights, meetings, misadventures, reunions, laughter, sonorous debates, stories told, and fly-away threads of old gossip. When I think of the intimate roads and shortcuts through the village, I think of strange encounters, marvellous meetings, individuals preferably avoided, and wondrous sights: a woman’s eye infection relieved, apparently, by milk squeezed from another woman’s breast as I looked on outside the café-bar; a harvest moon rising, a huge golden platter, above the church tower; a sweet girl—Arianna’s—oddly good, Picasso-like drawing of me one day, which was wondrous because, as Picasso himself said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’

And always, there is the immediate sense of freedom as one arrives on that hilltop and is received once again in the curving stone embrace of the village’s low perimeter wall. Pari seems—quietly and unassumingly—to ‘hold’ a person, as naturally as a vessel holds spring water, or—to draw on one of David Peat’s fond images—as naturally as the fabled alembic holds its transforming metals. Paradoxically, this vessel of a village also feels, simultaneously, like a clearing, an open and unfettered space in which to walk, dash, taste, laugh, ponder, chat, look, daydream, read, be curious, be idle, and invite new ideas and connections to come.

Perhaps the defining image of Pari as a place for me is ‘the good table.’ One is well fed, both literally and figuratively, in Pari. First and always, I think of Maureen and David’s generous table, in their former home where I was first received that evening twenty years ago; where, on subsequent visits, I enjoyed some of the best meals and most absorbing conversations of my life; where, as the wine was poured and more courses served, ideas, laughter and plans sparked, firefly-like, between those gathered around it.

I think, too, of the great conference table around which my first course at the Pari Centre took place. I can still hear David’s voice as he shared, across that table, his knowledge of Bohm, the Blackfoot, Bohr, Cézanne and Pauli—a voice which was fast-speaking, resonant, humble, and always tumbling forward with ideas, curiosity, levity, directness, questions, and through it all, a certain quality of boyish excitement, which I admired above all. David’s words and thoughts seemed to vibrate within the massive stone walls of the Center like humming bees in a hive as we, his students, jotted in our notepads, catching the honey.

Finally, when I think of the tables of Pari, I think of the ordinary tables outside the café-bar; of the late-night Sambuca and early-morning black coffees served there; of the countless meetings which have spontaneously arranged themselves across those tabletops; of the hand-signing across languages, and the conversational digressions and detours into the fabric of the universe, the nature of consciousness, the power of art, or simply and happily, talk of the latest plan to walk down the hill to the terme.

Such conversations, discussions, debates and disagreements have often developed, very naturally, alongside televised football matches inside the bar.  When a goal is scored, and the roars go up, in triumph or despair, the conversationalists at the tables outside are reminded that, sometimes, nothing matters so much as the precision and force of a foot on a ball. Pari grounds everyone.

A thousand miles away, when I imagine those tables now, I see past and future meals shared, bread broken, bean soup enjoyed, flirtations ventured, friendships forged, exchanges heated, addresses scribbled, languages attempted, wanderers at rest, new babies bounced, and lost souls moored.

I first travelled to Pari in 2001, I think, for a short course with David in the Center. I was researching my second novel, The Wave Theory of Angels, and I had been reading a variety of physicists for three or four years by that point—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, James Jeans, Brian Greene, Richard Feynman, Danah Zohar, Michio Kaku, Edward Witten, (mathematician) Roger Penrose, and many others. I was determined to ‘check the wiring’ of my own knowledge of what was still, then, dubbed ‘the new physics,’ and to hone my understanding before I completed the first major draft of my book.

I wanted, above all, to ensure that a working physicist could, in principle, read my novel and not cringe, smirk or feel I was lazily importing ideas from her or his field into my story. I wanted to ensure I had not appropriated concepts in any hazy or ‘flaky’ manner. I knew that was a common complaint from many working in the field of quantum theory and quantum mechanics. Many lay-people were inclined to use the discoveries of quantum phenomena to prove everything from auras to angels to time travel. I did not want to be one of them.

As a 17-year-old, I had received the physics award for my school, but my studies in those years were solidly Newtonian in their foundation—all macro, in other words—and I wanted to find ‘entry points’ into the micro, and specifically, the sub-atomic. As part of my early research, before I had ever heard of Pari, I flew to Chicago, primarily to visit Fermilab, the American particle physics and accelerator laboratory. One of my major characters, in a modern-day plotline, is a physicist based at Fermilab. His medieval counterpart, in a parallel 13th-century storyline, is an ‘Imaginator,’ one of the class of sculptors employed by the Church to create the sacred images of a cathedral’s interiors in the Gothic period.

For my medieval character’s ‘stage’ and milieu, I chose the little-known, ‘high Gothic’ cathedral of Beauvais, France—hardly known at all because its highest vault collapsed before the cathedral was ever completed. I had already been to the site in Picardy and had seen the remains of the walls and foundation of the 13th-century cathedral.

Some time afterward, I set out for Fermilab, to get a look at the place that was to be vital to my modern-day storyline. CERN certainly would have been an easier and less expensive research trip for me from the UK, but I had grown up partly in Michigan, next to Illinois, and I felt I could write an American/Anglo setting far more readily than a Swiss community and landscape.

At that time, circa 1997, Fermilab’s online presence was minimal. I’d seen only a photo or diagram of a particle accelerator. I had copied down the bits of bare text offered about the work of the team at Fermilab. I had little else to go on. I was informed, when I phoned, that I would find educational guides upon arrival. No guided tours were offered in the winter. My heart sank. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake in booking such an expensive flight.

On entering the sky-lit, towering main building of Fermilab—at last—I picked up a welcome leaflet at the front desk and experienced one of those strangely charged moments, the sort of moment which a friend of mine describes as ‘benedictions’; that’s to say, a quietly powerful moment of seemingly impossible connection, a moment which seems to say—in the midst of a major, all-absorbing, even labyrinthine project—that you are in fact on the right path, whatever the evidence to the contrary, and ‘Keep going.’

I read and re-read the words in the leaflet, blinking: the design of the main building of Fermilab—the building in which I stood that stark winter’s day in late December—was based, the leaflet explained, on the plans for a little-known French cathedral, the site of which the Fermilab architect had once visited in his youth and had been inspired by: Beauvais Cathedral.

I must have stood there in the empty front hall, looking perplexed and amazed all at once. What were the chances? Of all the cathedrals in France…

The close physical—and in some sense, conceptual or perhaps even spiritual (as in, ‘spirit-of-place’)—relationship between Fermilab and the barely existent Beauvais Cathedral was nothing I could have known when I chose my two major ‘landscapes’ for my book. I had considered dozens and dozens of French cathedrals for my medieval storyline’s vital location before I came across a single bald reference to a cathedral which had fallen down in out-of-the-way Picardy.

In the days that followed, I took down every note I could find about that cathedral ruin—there weren’t many. Yet for reasons I didn’t understand, and equally, for reasons I trusted instictively, I knew, before I travelled anywhere, that the twin ‘poles’ of my novel would be that physics lab and thatcathedral. When I picked up the leaflet in the empty, glass-lit foyer of Fermilab and read the words ‘Beauvais Cathedral,’ I had to take a seat on a nearby bench.

Creative labours—and scientific ones, too, I suspect—come shiningly to life in such moments, as do, I believe, the great relationships and connections of our lives. I myself am not partial to over-thinking them, or to treating them as anything other than a part of the natural fabric of our lives. I believe one should recognise them, offer up some form of thanks, and honour them, in whatever way possible, be it a smile of recognition, or a committed—even devotional—act of real-world work. As a writer, I feel somehow accompanied in such moments, in the long labour of a major work, but by what exactly, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t need to know, in fact. I simply know to trust, and always have.  Each of my novels and most of my stories have depended on these disarmingly wondrous—and giving— ‘coincidences.’

A few years after my visit to Fermilab, after I felt I’d done all the groundwork of physics study I could manage on my own, David was precisely the person and educator I needed for my questions and ‘wiring-checks.’  He was expert in his field and open to fresh thought about it.  He was rigorous in his explanations, but unusually encouraging of dialogue. He loved to talk, and was also sometimes lost—as everyone should be at times—in his own thoughts. He was a physicist and a writer, married to a writer and literary editor who shared my fondness for certain Modernist writers especially. I was, in other words, in the right place.

I warmed immediately to David and Maureen for their warmth and for the mischief in their thinking, expressed differently by each, but a part of the remarkable bond between them, it seemed to me. Their laughter and ironical eye on the world fuelled their capacity, as a couple, for daring and risk-taking; for not toeing the orthodox line; for determining the shapes of their lives as few others are brave enough to do.

I also admired the fact that their feet were planted solidly on terra firma, and that they had given their vision an entirely practical form: the solid, stone-walled, high-ceilinged ‘Pari Center’ in the Palazzo of their adopted village. I am inspired by their example as much today as I was that first evening when I joined them at their table.

A year or two after my first visit, David, very generously, agreed to read my final manuscript, to ‘check my physics’ as I put it, and I was more delighted than I can say when he told me he’d needed to correct only one word. I seem to recall that he changed ‘neutrons’ to ‘neutrinos.’ I was possibly prouder of that than of any gratifying review which followed.

As a novel, The Wave Theory of Angels was my attempt to explore those points in the fabric of reality where the physical, embodied, day-to-day visible world meets the mysteries and ‘unknowability’ of the invisible world. In my 13th-century story, in that age when theology was also physics, my Imaginator character takes a great risk for a radical, outlawed theology in which, it was posited, the human imagination co-creates, with the deity, the physical, unfolding world.

In my 21st-century (2001) storyline, my physicist character at Fermilab also takes a great risk for an unorthodox theory. He dares to follow an interest in the, at-the-time (and perhaps still) radical, mathematically-postulated branch of physics known as String Theory. As the novel unfolds, the conundrum of the ‘Observer Effect’ becomes key to both storylines. Both storylines also seem to ‘entangle,’ affecting each other across time and space.

In my attempts to i) evoke the quantum truth of ‘entanglement’ in the unseeable world, and ii)  to enact the principle of the Observer Effect in the live motion of the novel, I am asking the reader, above all, whether ours is a dynamic participatory reality, and something more than the sum of its parts. Might the universe be composed in some way ‘of consciousness,’ even as it contains consciousness?

These questions still preoccupy me, philosophically and artistically, and the influence of my discussions with David ripple onward. In my 2013 short story, ‘The Heart of Denis Noble,’ for example, one character, Ella, a literature student in 1960, is in bed one night with her scientist-lover—a young version of the real-life cardiovascular physiologist Prof Denis Noble. As she draws him out on his PhD work, she suggests to him that his thought processes might need somehow to admit ‘Eros’ if his work is to evolve in the truest sense.

She adjusts her generous breasts. ‘The principle of Eros.  Eros is an attractive force.  It binds the world; it makes connections. At best, it gives way to a sense of wholeness, a sense of the sacred; at worst, it leads to fuzzy vision. Logos, your contender, particularises. It makes the elements of the world distinct. At best, it is illuminating; at worst, it is reductive. It cheapens. Both are vital. The balance is the thing. You need Eros, Denis. You’re missing Eros.’

In this passage, I am—for Ella’s insight above—drawing directly on a remark made by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli to psychologist Carl Jung, and recounted by David. David introduced the point in a seminar in the Palazzo on my first visit to Pari, and it stayed with me, for both its strangeness and for my instinctive sense of its truth. In his article, ‘Wolfgang Pauli: Resurrection of Spirit in the World,’ David singles out Pauli’s remarkable statement: ‘In a letter to Jung he wrote that the missing element was Eros; only love could bridge the gap between physics, spirit and psychology.’

It is difficult to remember precisely, but I imagine this strange statement also influenced the opening of my novel The Wave Theory of Angels:

The world yearns.  This is its sure gravity: the attraction of bodies.  Earth for molten star.  Moon for earth.  A hand for the orb of a breast.  This is its movement too: the motion of desire, of a longing toward.

Back in the bedsit in 1960, my character Ella, doesn’t know it of course, but she goes on—in her ‘metaphysics,’ as the character of Denis terms it—to draw on the thoughts of David Bohm, via David Peat, via me and my own longstanding sense of ‘literature’s implicate order’—as she corrects her scientist-lover Denis, telling him that a book is not merely a thing or an ‘it.’  He scoffs gently:

‘Of course it’s an “it.” It’s an object, a thing. Ask any girl in her deportment class, as she walks about with one on her head.’

‘All right. A story is not an “it.”  It’s a living thing.’

He smiles beseechingly. ‘Perhaps we should save the metaphysics for after?’

‘Every part of a great story “contains” every other part. Every small part anticipates the whole. Nothing can be passive or static. Not if it’s great and… true to life. Nothing is just a part. Not really. Because the whole cannot be divided. That’s what a real creation is. It has its own unity.’

‘The Heart of Denis Noble,’ though a single story only, represented a six-month process of research and discovery for me, as I explored, for a fiction commission, the real-life Denis Noble’s 1960 ground-breaking work relating to the electrical signalling in the human heart. I visited and spent time with Denis Noble, walking about Oxford with him, ruminating, and visiting the places in the city which meant the most to him. We remain fond friends today.

The process was a joy, but also a risk, for both him and me. As a writer with a commission to deliver, I had a problem: I did not for a moment want to intrude on Denis’ life with personal questions about his past, and yet I knew that a story cannot come to life as a mere summary of research papers—it needs ‘life.’ I was determined not to ‘thieve’ from Denis’s own personal life, by asking awkward questions, which meant, I could only invent it.

So I created the literature student Ella. I gave my version of Denis’ 20-year-old self a lover. She never existed.

And yet it seems she did…

On being sent the final draft of my story by the editor who had commissioned it, Denis—with characteristic kindness—replied to both of us by email almost immediately. It was uncanny, he said. I couldn’t have known…  There had been a lover, a young woman student—philosophy rather than literature—and her presence and her ways of thinking had catalysed something previously unknown within him, insights which led him to look differently at the data he already knew well.

‘Muse’ is a sometimes too reductive a label for the influence of women, especially in the history of thought and art, and Denis didn’t use it, but he did explain to me that that difference in looking, in perception—catalysed by his formative relationship with the philosophy student—led him directly to a breakthrough insight, and is a part of the reason why we can today treat arrhythmias and other heart complications. He was generous enough to tell me all of the above, and also that tears came into his eyes as he read, such was the force of memory and recognition. That meant a great deal to me.

How had I done it? he asked.

‘God knows!’ I laughed. But I knew a little more than I could explain.


Not me.

Just as a story is not merely a thing or the object of a book, the village of Pari is not a dot on a map. It is the stones underfoot, the circling embrace of its wall, and the heat and hum of the many bodies which have leaned on that wall. It’s the zig-zagging of the swallows over Pari en route to Africa, and the glow of the clay-tiled rooftops. It’s the readied tables, the sprigs of fresh flowers, and the strings of laundry. It’s the late-night semi-inebriated conversations and the early-morning epiphanies—scientific, artistic, philosophical, emotional and corporeal.

Pari cannot be represented by any blinking GPS image on a phone screen.  It is, at once, too big and too humble. I always feel, when I am there, that it exceeds our capacity to know it. Pari, as a place or a space, is a unity, a process, a flux, a magnetic hum of knowing. It is neither a Paradise, as tourist-brochures would surely claim, given the chance, nor a mere stopping point on the highway for the Siena-to-Florence bus. It is innately itself, and always transforming—through the unaffected, quotidian, sun-to-moon motion of each of its living parts. It is also infinitely more than their sum.

I feel as if I can join David now, here, recollecting him as he recollected the words of the artist Paul Cézanne, an artist who tried to describe the almost indescribable, namely, his vision of the way in which the natural world thinks itself through the medium of our bodies. Cézanne’s words, I believe, also expressed, at least in part, David’s own feelings for, and his intimate connection to, Pari, his adopted home.

Cézanne writes, ‘The Landscape becomes reflective, human, and thinks itself though me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting … I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.’

For Cézanne, this ‘thinking-through’ was, first and foremost, a truth held by and felt in the body. David writes powerfully on this subject, and indeed, his chapter, ‘Creativity and the Body’ in The Blackwinged Night, is one of my favourite written explorations of the creative process—and I have read many. He explores, with great nuance, the physical pressure of the creative force in the body. It’s a little examined area, and yet I’d suggest it’s vital to artists and writers.

Any story I commit to as a writer is a story which must grow within my body as a sort of volume, pressure or weight before I know I can commit to it.  The writer Virginia Woolf expressed it beautifully when she said, ‘As for my next book, I won’t write it till it has grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall.’

For me, it is an ongoing pressure, a freshwater, underground spring which seems to demand release from my mind, shoulders, chest and lungs. I am always a little amused when friends send me messages, wishing me ‘Happy writing!’ I’m not sure happiness comes into it; one is concentrating so hard on the pressure moving down one’s arms and into the fingertips; on keeping the wet clay on the wheel. The joy comes after, in seeing the beautiful thing one has, perhaps, been able to make, against the odds.

In the live ‘flux’ of it, I am, seemingly, the story’s vehicle, much as Cezanne’s Landscape was thinking itself through him; much as something, quiet but active in the space that is Pari—in its earth, light, rain, stones, scents, tables and age-old offerings—made David, and makes each person who loves it, its voice or reflecting mind in the world.

Author bio

Alison MacLeod is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and senior academic. Her most recent short story collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, was shortlisted for the 2018 Edge Hill Short Story Prize for best short fiction collection in the UK and Ireland. It was a finalist for Canada’s prestigious 2017 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and named one of the Guardian‘s ‘Best Books of 2017.’. Her most recent novel, Unexploded, was long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize for Fiction, named one of the Observer‘s ‘Books of the Year,’ and serialised for BBC Radio 4. In 2016, she was jointly awarded the Eccles British Library Writer’s Award. Alongside her writing, MacLeod has served as a judge for numerous literary prizes and awards, and has appeared at literary festivals worldwide. After almost a decade as Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester, she is now Visiting Professor, and an occasional contributor to, for example, The Sunday Times, the Guardian and assorted BBC programmes. Her next novel, Tenderness, will be published internationally in September 2021 by Bloomsbury UK/USA and Penguin Canada. You can find out more about her work at www.alison-macleod.com .