Millennia of collective dreams shattered

pilgrim

Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim (Harper Perennial Canada, 1999) has all the characteristics of a grand gesture, encompassing historical and fictional characters, psychology and art history, sexuality and sainthood, all in the direction of questions rather than answers.  The narration follows Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, while he deals with Mr. Pilgrim, a patient at the clinic for mentally ill patients. Pilgrim claims not only that he has lived numerous previous lives, but that he cannot die, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide a number of times. Pilgrim’s letters, interviews, diaries give us glimpses of Jung’s work with this patient who was an art historian by profession. Jung’s own growing demons of depression, his insight into collective unconscious, his attempts to help the inmates of the hospital by trying to understand their fixations and going along with their obsessions weave together a complex and heavy blanket of pessimism which covers human history. The novel’s multifaceted narration gives many characters a full treatment on account of their relationship to Jung and/or to Pilgrim, and  they receive detailed descriptions of their past, their amusements and dislikes, substantially enriching the plot. In what follows, three themes have been chosen to illustrate Findley’s craftsmanship: 1) the role of art in human experience; 2) the nature of relationship; 3) the meaning of madness. These exemplify some of the novel’s preoccupations, but, above all, they shed light on the most perplexing, contradictory and unexplainable characteristics of human behaviour, violence.

  1. The role of art in human experience

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the stained-glass window Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere of the Chartres Cathedral play a crucial role in the construction of  Pilgrim’s past lives: in fact, he asserts that one of his previous lives he lived as Elisabetta Gherardini (Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo), whose first encounter with Da Vinci ended with her being raped by him. The other meetings resulted in her portrait being painted (the painting which is now known as Mona Lisa). Findley’s description of Pilgrim’s experiences as a strong and decisive woman and Vinci’s violence add to Pilgrim’s sense of doom. In another life (the word incarnation is not preferred), Pilgrim lived as the stain-glass worker who actually put together the stained glass Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, with its beautiful blue hues. According to Pilgrim, this life was one of the most satisfying, as he remembers the hard work with his hands but also the gratification received from the final work. This particular area of the Cathedral was the only one which survived the great fire of 1194. Clearly, these two examples (Mona Lisa and the stained-glass work) show that there are hidden complexities behind any artistic product. But that is not all: Pilgrim questions whether art is really useful in transforming human experience and behaviour, which for him are full of injustices, violence, and abuse. In a letter, Pilgrim writes:

Looking back, I am sorry I was ever the advocate of any form of art – but music is the worst of them. … Bach and Mozart indeed! Bach inevitably makes me think of fish in a barrel! Round and round and round they go and nothing ever happens. Nothing! … As for Mozart, his emotions did not mature beyond the age of twelve. He never even achieved  adolescence, let alone puberty. … Beethoven – pompous; Chopin – sickly sweet and given to tantrums… And Wagner – a self-centered bore.  And this young Turk Stravinsky – the name says it all: discordant, rude and blows his music through his nose!                                                      There.                                                                                                                                                 Shall I go on?                                                                                                                          Literature. Will it put an end to war? War and Peace itself is nothing better than enticement to create new battlefields. […] Tolstoy himself was a soldier at Sevastopol and gloried in it – then he pretends to hate it – after which he ends his life as a mad proponent of world peace, for God’s sake, while he drives his wife away from his death bed. And I am crazy? Me?                                                                                                                                           Yes. So they tell me. (p. 437-438)

The question, then, is whether art is capable of putting an end to war. The answer is evident. And yet, Pilgrim insists on certain upper-class style of the good life, and he is not adverse to enjoying beautiful views. All is not gloom, perhaps only up to the very end when it is Pilgrim’s desire to destroy the painting and the stained-glass window.

2. The nature of relationships: human to human, human to god(s)

In one of the previous lives, Pilgrim was admitted into to circle of Oscar Wild’s lovers and admirers, taking a stance against those who would vilify Wild’s homosexuality, such as Whistler.

Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma comes to a sour point after Emma discovers his infidelity to her with an ex-patient of his, Toni (the second one Emma is aware of). The important consideration is that Emma has a different take on marriage from the opinion Jung expresses about it. She saw herself as his companion, researcher, mother of his children, and he was the light of her life. After her discovery, she still loves him, but does not like him any longer; they do not share the matrimonial bed and they do not spend time with their children together. To Freud, Carl Gustav expresses his idea that extra-marital relationships are crucial for a good marriage. Jung continues his relationship with Toni without regard to Emma’s feelings.

Doctor/nurse to patient rapport in the clinic clearly reflects the superiority of the medical staff who hold the keys to the mental patients’ real and metaphorical cages.

But the most intriguing liaison is between humans and their god(s): according to Pilgrim, humans, having abandoned their gods, cling to the one who does not see.

3. The meaning of madness

Pilgrim believes that he cannot die, that his previous lives are real and that he can account for them: he was in Troy during the war, at Chartres during the construction of the Cathedral, in Florence with Da Vinci, in Avila with Teresa (not yet saint),  in London with Oscar Wilde; he lived as a man and as a woman; as a beautiful rich woman (Madonna del Giocondo), and as a poor cripple shepherd Manolo, as a dandy in London. He does not remember any of his lives before the age of 18 (i.e. childhood is not accounted for). At the outset, Jung does not believe that anyone can have such detailed recollections of particular previous lives, a belief which inches him closer to elaborating his idea of collective unconscious.

Teresa of Avila, as all saints, showed abnormal behaviour, and surely her acting would have made her end up in an asylum in the early 1900s. Findley’s description of her quest is thought-provoking:

This was the pattern of Teresa’s beliefs. To find the Holy Grail, to sail with the great explorers to America and the Orient, to climb through the sky to find the Almighty or to dig through the earth and drag the Devil into the light of day.  She read poetry. She read novels. She dressed as Queen Isabella.  She affected the robes of the Carmelites. She experimented with theatrical, even whorish cosmetics – and had once dyed her hair with henna. But the discovery of self had not so much to do with one’s destination as with one’s capacity to achieve it. Clearly, for Teresa de Cepeda, God was at the far end of all these dreamings – but could one reach Him? (p. 340)

So what is madness exactly? Luigi Pirandello’s dictum and the title of one of his plays, Così è, se vi pare (“It is so if you think so/ Right you are if you think so”) gives an indication of the complexity of human psychological networks which the novel describes in such detail: each character has certain beliefs about herself/himself which are rarely reflected in the opinions of others. Jung’s strategy is to “indulge” in the beliefs of his patients by attempting to understand their view of themselves. But this is a vicious circle, since even he makes a cage for himself (he is right if he believes in his convictions) and he lives in it accordingly, all the more so when he persists in his own certainties. Findley’s philosophical stance in this novel, therefore, can be described as Pirandellian, since the characters do not believe each other’s certainties. Granted, Pilgrim is condemned on account of his sacrilege having seen the mating of the Sacred Serpents (yet another imaginary human invention).

In conclusion, at the core of all of Findley’s naturalistic descriptions of various settings and the in-depth treatment of each character is the quest for the value of literature in human lives. This art form does not prevent humans from unthinkable violence, but it points to another, more profound direction, that of imagination. If we invented our god(s), the invention itself is not enough. We have to abide by this creation. In Pilgrim’s words,

No wonder the gods are departing, he thought. We have driven them away. Once, every tree out there was holy – every tree and every strand of grass and clod of earth. The very stones were holy and everything that lived, no matter how small or large…every elephant and every ant – every man and every woman. All were holy. Everything – the sea – the sky – the sun – the moon – the wind – the rain – the fairest and the worst of days. … All of it gone and only one deaf God, who cannot see, remains – claiming all of creation as His own. If people would invest one hundredth of their devotion to this God on the living brothers and sisters amongst whom they stand, we might have a chance of surviving one another. As it is…       (p. 479.)

Both Pilgrim and Jung had dream premonitions of the coming of the Great War. This is where Findley’s novel’s ends: in pessimism.

It could be argued that perhaps it is time to work on a different creation by our psyche, one that for sure will not allow the atrocities that continue those of the 20th century. Alternatively, we are condemned to the cage of our collective unconscious, yet knowing this does not alter our behaviour.

 

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Fondness for and frustration with Dr. Pereira

It is a sure sign of a great writer when the reader’s heart is filled with fondness for a character just from the first 15 sentences or so of terse yet rich description. This is precisely what happened to me while reading the first page of Antonio Tabucchi’s  novel Sostiene Pereira (Feltrinelli, 1994; translated into English as either  Pereira Maintans or Pereira Declares – none of which I like, but that’s another story; I would have opted for Pereira’s Testimony). Some examples of Pereira’s being lovable are these: he converses with the photo of his departed wife (and therefore he brings this photo with him when he travels); as a good Catholic, he believes in the soul but does not believe in  the resurrection of the body since he is rather heavy and does not see the need to resurrect the “lard and sweat and all the breathlessness going up the stairs”. Furthermore, he does not create problems for others, he keeps to himself and that makes him lonely – but he never complains of loneliness. Above all,  there is more: as the novel progresses, the fondness for him becomes accompanied by stronger and stronger frustration. Why does he act as he does? What are his unspoken motives?  So at the end,  after closing the last page, I am left with a mountain of unresolved issues which surround the lovable yet aggravating Dr. Pereira.

sostienepereira

There is no doubt that the novel deals with some of the most troublesome problems facing (not only) Portugal in 1938: violence, police brutality, citizen apathy, political upheaval. It is small wonder that Dr. Pereira has death on his mind: but death for him is a philosophical matter, and linked to literature  through the passing of important literary figures. As the editor of the cultural page of a literary magazine, he wants to be prepared for deaths of famous poets, philosophers, novelists and he engages an unknown young man Monteiro Rossi to write obituaries, both in the form of anniversaries of death and of notices of passing.  The hold Monteiro Rossi has on Pereira is inexplicable (is it because if Pereira had had a son, he would have been of the same age?), and in terms of the plot development, the least tangible and most frustrating element. This young man, it turns out, brings complete upheaval into Pereira’s life, as well as a concrete and real presence of death. Pereira ends up doing what he knows how to do best: he writes the account of police brutality which would have surely gotten him arrested, and he leaves Portugal presumably for France.

Three ideas keep surfacing in my mind which Sostiene Pereira forefronts but really does not come to terms with. They are the following:

  1. Who is a hero? What is a hero? It could be surmised that by having his damning testimony of police brutality published, Pereira is a hero of sorts: his words are available for people to read, but his readership is minimal, so his verbal effort surely does not bring down the corrupt and hated political system.
  2. Is the pen mightier than the sword? It could be argued that the repressive political system is dead, but Pereira’s written testimony lives on. However, it is obvious that other repressive systems thrive, other abuses of power come to the surface, other types of violence are born. The final judgment as to the greater mightiness of the pen or the sword is still to be made.
  3. What is fiction good for? I heard some author state that “All fiction is a lie.” This statement is blatantly not true, as you cannot prove that Pereira lied in his testimony, that his life is a lie, that this journal article is a lie, etc. etc. Others say that fiction makes us more in tune with, more caring about our fellow beings, human or not. Still others claim that fiction helps us forget our sorrows and transports us to other realms where we forget our troubles. Rater than closing ourselves within a created world, it is more likely that this imaginary world allows us to open up to other possibilities and other lives, not to make ours more palatable, but to make it richer. I am grateful to Dr. Pereira for doing this for me and to Tabucchi for creatively elaborating a real flesh and blood journalist’s life.

There are many fictional protagonists for whom I feel a strong fondness, and there are others who swell up seas of frustration for me, but very few imaginary characters combine both fondness and frustration in a way that Pereira does.