Judith Weir CBE, Master of the King's Music
David Matthews

Some Thoughts on Direct Perception

By Michael Regan

Which is to see things as if for the first time and with wonderment.

The British artist Cecil Collins said, in a film about his work made in 1983, that direct perception is the view of the world of the child and the fool [or more correctly the “holy” fool] and that it is almost totally missing in the modern world which has become dominated by science, technology and materialism.

At the beginning of Axel Munthe’s autobiographical book, “The Story of San Michele” the author, just arrived on the island of Capri, asks the young girl who is leading him up the steps to Anacapri, the name of a certain flower. She replies: “fiore”, and asked to name a different flower, she says again “fiore”. To her all flowers are “fiore, bella, bella”.

This is an example of the direct perception of the child who does not categorise things in the way that adults do. 

Now, in some ways categorisation is useful, even essential. We do need to distinguish between the harmless and the harmful, of course. But taken to extremes, as it has been in the modern [i.e. from 18th century] world it has destroyed our view of the world of the child, the primitive and the artist, who can still be in awe of their natural surroundings. To return for a moment to flowers, they have been scientifically catalogued for centuries: to the botanist they can be no more than different species. Their intrinsic beauty and the marvel of their existence is forgotten in this urge to list them according to number of petals, size, shape and so on. I do not imply that the scientific view is wrong, but that, to be fully conscious and spiritually attuned to our world, the scientific view is not sufficient. We need the direct vision spoken of by Collins and Munthe previously. And we must not forget that we so often categorise things in order to exploit them for our own ends.

For too long have we seen ourselves as somehow outside of nature and free to exploit it for our own purposes, with disastrous results that are becoming more apparent, and worse every century. The balance is upset – but it is always restored, and we must surely suffer in this process of restoration.

The natural world, including the “living” planet and us, are parts of, to quote Alexander Pope, “One stupendous whole…” Everything is related and interconnected to everything else. So called “opposites” need each other and cannot exist without one another. Our problem is that we see only the parts but do not see the whole.


 One very early memory comes back to me: I used to be taken to a park when about 3 or 4 years of age, and I remember my feelings of rapture at the sight of very green grass and very tall and stately trees [as they seemed then]. I did not know their names, but I could sense the wonder and mystery of their existence, a feeling that recurred later in life as a youth wandering through woodland, and that still comes in old age when I stop thinking about work, money, and what I need to get done in the near future, and just contemplate the present moment which is in a sense always miraculous – I am here now, alive and aware of the deep mystery of the universe…

We all have had this experience, but we lose it, except for the poet, composer and visionary who retain this ability to perceive the world “directly” and without any purpose other than to marvel at its very existence.

MJR 09/20