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.

 

Praising oneself in public and getting accolades for it

I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so my comments on Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. A memoir (Two Roads, 2016) will strictly adhere to an analysis of the book’s language, and an account of the culture it reflects and promotes.

lovewarrior

It is almost given that the last 30 years or so are an era in which it is easy to flaunt shameless and public self-promotion, patting oneself on the back, and self-aggrandizing. The Italian linguist and cultural critic Raffaele Simone has called this “il trionfo del privato” (the triumph of the private life). It is a surprise, though, that a memoir which deals with one woman’s emancipation from her demons (alcoholism, bulimia, unfulfilled life) and a report of what is according to her less-than-perfect marriage would garner the accolades of The New York Times and find a spot on Oprah’s 2016 Selection. Clearly, the publishing world and its mass media machinations can make anything of a piece of writing, no matter how thin.

Without diminishing the real Glennon’s accomplishments, the book is a thorough disappointment. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The language is plain and outright simple, but not in a pleasant way. Certain crucial notions are used without depth. Specifically, the concepts “God”, “warrior”, “love”, and “hero” – the most obviously crucial hooks on which her account hinges –  do not receive even a minimal definition, and yet the phrases  “x is a proof that God loves me” ( “Craig is my proof that God loves me”) , “love warrior” (“I am a love warrior”) and “hero” (“I am my own damn hero”) are repeated a number of times. This attitude of using words without reflection illustrates the superficiality of  the conceptual world view offered. Although Glennon is a victim of the consumer society’s stereotyped image of what a woman should be, she is ecstatic when she self-defines herself as “hero”, using a notion that is masculine in its origin and effects. She does not even attempt to give these notions fuller meanings.
  2. In a memoir, the reader expects some context in which the narrated events are unfolding. Glennon’s recounting is devoid of any clear setting – be it geographical (until the very end), social, political, educational, religious, philosophical. Little is said of her parents’ style of raising their children; Glennon goes through high school and presumably some college without the content of the lectures, classes, classmates or profs ever having had any effect on her. One thing is clear: her higher middle-class standing allows her access to therapists, days in a posh hotel and yoga classes whenever she feels like it. She hints at “those people in the boardrooms” who feed consumers desires they do not need, but there ends her commitment to question consumerist society of which she is a perfect victim.
  3. It seems that Glennon is hiding something: on a number of occasions, she does what she thinks is expected of her or what she is supposed to do  (to be accepted in certain circles of her peers, marriage, belonging to certain church,  find true love, have good sex, etc.), rarely questioning the reasons behind her actions. Glennon sets up a “representative” of herself which she presents to the world and then  demands that the world be sincere with her; and all through this she yearns for acceptance and she is suffering from loneliness. She is playing hide and seek with herself: “There is no way to be as honest in spoken words as I can be in written words.” (p. 115).
  4.  Glennon is a perfect example of a character who follows Luigi Pirandello’s dictum così  è  se vi pare (“it is so if it seems to you so”). She thinks she needs to do certain things to be accepted and when she is not her world collapses. Childishly, she always needs to imitate someone, but above all, she needs someone to tell her what to do (right up until the end: in her 20s she followed the model of her peers, post 35 she needs a therapist). Then she realizes her error, but in a megalomaniac way: “The cage I built to protect myself from the world’s  toxins also stole my oxygen. I didn’t know I needed to be seen  and known like I needed air” (p.225).
  5. Social media exasperate her shallowness since she finds comfort in the number of “likes” on her blog: “My blog community is my sanctuary…” (p.114).
  6. The role reversal in sex seems to satisfy her desire for true love: “I need to be the one to initiate every new step” (p. 241), not realizing that she is simply doing to her husband the same thing  he used to do to her.  After her triumphant proclamation that she is her own hero and her husband is a hero,  they disappear into a cliche beach sunset, forgiving each other all the hurt and grief they caused.
  7. The title (Love Warrior) may be interpreted in two ways: 1. Glennon is a warrior who fights on the side of love (i.e., fighting against forces which do not promote love); 2. Glennon is a warrior who actively fights for love (i.e., on a quest for it). Unfortunately, neither of these expectations is realized in the writing.

The book is an impeccable instance of the unquestioning promotion of limited cultural horizons.  It contains a description of the life of an individual who needs to have her every act approved by others even after she heals herself (she is invited to speaking engagements which she accepts). It reinforces the need for a different definition of a middle-class woman’s life, but does not offer any suggestions, other than promoting more navel gazing. Furthermore, it is a commentary not only on loneliness and desperation of one individual but also on her self-imposed intellectual loneliness and cognitive limitation brought about by the milieu of arid cultural postmodernism.

The book is not a memoir, Glennon is not a hero. The cultural horizons are so limited that any comparison only demeans the work to which Love Warrior can be compared. The most obvious parallel would be St Augustine’s Confessions, but the depth of observation, the wide Weltanschauung, and the universal spiritual struggle the Bishop of Milan describes are light years away from Glennon’s considerations about her life. She describes herself as a hero (i.e. self-definition), he, a sinner (also a self-definition). Clearly, he must attempt to reach higher, whereas she hardly thinks of this possibility.

 

 

 

The “social” in social media

2014poster

The basic meaning of the word “social” leads to ideas of society, groups, communities, common goals, joys and experiences. Social media facilitate sharing of certain communal feelings and tendencies. Does this sharing translate into engaged activities in the political, religious, and gender spheres? Come and join us as researchers attempt to answer these questions at York University 8-9 May 2014 during the second international conference entitled Social Media: Implications for Politics, Religions, Gender. Registration and other information is available here: http://socmed14.info.yorku.ca/.