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.

 

“Good Omens”: sublime and trite?

god omens

Good Omens is a novel which braids together a number of separate developing strands  whose ends meet one Saturday, the chosen day for the Apocalypse. One strand narrates why the end of the world does not happen,  since both the devil (Crawley – yes, there is nomen in omen!) and the angel (Aziraphale), having fallen in love with life on earth and wanting to appear to honor their respective duties, conspire to raise the Antichrist child (Adam) so that he does not obey what he was destined for. The trouble is that they raise the wrong child (Warlock), Adam having been exchanged in the hospital with another boy. The second strand forms the consequences of a book, of which only one copy exists, entitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,  Witch.  Agnes Nutter’s progeny, Anathema Nutter, possesses the detailed explanations of each prophesy written by the witch’s descendants through three hundred years of history. The third strand deals with the vicissitudes of witch-hunting by a descendant of the man who actually was responsible for Agnes Nutter’s  burning at the stake. Yet another strand brings us to the small village of Tadfield and the gang of four young children headed by Adam and including a converted Hell-hound.  The fifth strand follows the four symbols of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, Pollution)  embodied in four Bikers (Hell’s Angels, so to speak) who wreak havoc on London’s traffic and do not really destroy the world completely. Each of them is followed on their duties (for ex., War, embodied as a read-head, is involved in arms contraband).  The endearing parts of the book are surely the comical manner in which technology is made to exasperate humans (initially Crawley’s doing, but later perfected by humans); fun with Crawley and Aziraphale having lunch at the Ritz, both giving financial support to the Witch-finders Army, etc. There are the appealing traits of Crawley (for ex., he loves his Bentley); the ironic look at dieters (Famine has a hand in that), and many more unforgettable images which make reading this book so much fun.

Any book which attempts to come to terms with the Apocalypse/Revelation of St. John has to be both sublime and trite. Sublime since it must face/describe/conquer/critique the future as prophesied; trite since the end is really unknowable, so anything goes. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett collaborated to give the end of the world a different spin, a spin which makes us laugh, forces us to define good and evil, leads us to consider human beings for all they are: capable of evil which no devil can ever conjure up. However, the book is lacking in the parallel thought giving humans “goodness which not even an angel can construct”. In other words, as usual, evil is more interesting than good.  On the surface, there seems to be only evil and good. To make things more complex, the devil sometimes acts for the good, and the angel now and then does evil. Moreover, as Crawley’s internal monologue indicates (p. 93), matters are not so clear:

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

And, further on,

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

So, if humans are humans, what about concepts such as God, the divine plan, faith, belief in heaven and hell? Crawley’s answer is that he has to follow the plan and obey it (he is scared of remaining in hell for all eternity, as it is a boring place, as boring as heaven).  If pressed, Aziraphale has only one answer: “ineffable”. That is, whatever God is and wills, is ineffable, i.e. unutterable, as well as forbidden to be uttered. In other words, unknowable because humans don’t and can’t express it in words. Without language, we cannot know; with language, we create our conceptual toolbox. The trouble is that this toolbox is being modified constantly. The subtitle of the book is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. The word “nice” used to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless” (13c to 16c), then it meant “precise, careful”, then “agreeable, delightful” (18c); and now it means “kind, thoughtful” (1830 -today). Depending on your reading, then, Agnes’ prophecies may be foolish, or precise, or agreeable, or kind: you take your pick.

In Good Omens, Armageddon is nowhere near: the disaster has been averted by four children and a few adults, as well as by a devil and an angel. The four Bikers of the Apocalypse, however, did not perish, offering the possibility that the Revelation may as yet come true. As Aziraphale would have it, “it was all in the plan”, that is, if you believe in the ineffable plan. But how can you believe something that is ineffable? There is no answer to this question in the book, but the attempt at an answer is enjoyable.