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From Barnes & NoblePilgrim's Progress
It is April 17, 1912, and an art historian named Pilgrim is pronounced dead after he hangs himself in his London garden. Five hours later, his heart begins to beat again. But as miraculous as it seems, it's not the first time this has happened. Pilgrim has lived forever, and it appears he cannot die. Acclaimed Canadian author Timothy Findley himself has worked nothing short of a miracle in Pilgrim, a provocative and intelligently crafted novel that succeeds in being every bit as entertaining as it is ambitious. And it is very, very ambitious. Told through many voices, real and imagined, in many times and places, Pilgrim is a powerful exploration of the nature of reality, our unconscious knowledge, the meaning of history, and our own humanity.
Revivified, but refusing to speak, Pilgrim is brought to the Bürgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich, where Carl Gustav Jung, now in his late 30s (and in spite of his disagreement with Freud on the sexual nature of the unconscious, a slave to his own libidinous passions), has already achieved some fame for his studies in schizophrenia. In Pilgrim, Jung sees a future prize patient: a man who has made multiple suicide attempts (each of which have failed under extraordinary circumstances) and who claims to be eternal—ageless, sexless, having lived many lives. Pilgrim believes he remembers the sum of humanity's experience, an unbearable and seemingly endless psychic burden of witness, and a fate he cannot escape, even in death. He believes himself "a voyager...denied my destination." Having seen the past, Pilgrim now claims to suffer phantasmagoric visions of the future, and he desperately believes, "[K]nowing what I know of the past, my discomfort with the future is a burden I think I cannot bear." His vision of the world is that of "[a]n abattoir, I fear, and we the sheep." But in a Europe on the verge of war, is this the outlook of a suicidal disenchanted with humanity, or the prescient dark knowledge of a visionary? Or, as his orderly (and former Bürgholzli patient), Kessler, believes, is Pilgrim an angel?
When Pilgrim refuses to speak (except in dreams, crying out in voices which are not his own), his lifelong friend Lady Quartermaine gives Pilgrim's journals to Jung, in the hope that he will begin to understand the nature of Pilgrim's "dread necessity of self—an identity whose burden he can no longer bear." More importantly, she encourages Jung to believe Pilgrim, as impossible as his tale appears. But nothing could have prepared him for Pilgrim's journals, which seem to contain the voices of people throughout the history of mankind—extraordinary eyewitness accounts of the lives of everyone, it seems, but the mysterious and silent middle-aged man in Jung's care. The voices are male and female, of all ages and stations in life—who have been friends with Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and St. Teresa of Avila, and witnessed the death of Hector in the Trojan War. Most remarkably, his journals include the account of a transvestite woman who, having disguised herself as her brother, is then brutally raped by her brother's lover (Leonardo da Vinci), only to sit before the artist years later, when she is immortalized as the subject of his "Mona Lisa."
All these events are recorded as "Dreams," and although he is puzzled by the vividness of the journal's entries, Jung is unsure of their nature—whether they are dreams, fictions, the rants of a schizophrenic, or the voices of channeled spirits. Jung wonders, "Had it all been a dream? All of it? Or was it that Pilgrim—if truly a medium—sometimes recovered his voices in what he called dreams? Calling them dreams, but meaning something else. Meaning conjurings—gleanings—messages. Disturbances. Other voices, not his own, intruding on his reality.... Like a house invaded by marauders, while the owner—helpless, watches, and listens."
In Pilgrim, Jung is faced with a patient who tries his own theories of the collective unconscious, challenges Jung's understanding of the nature of self, and ultimately, forces the doctor to confront his own "madness"—for Jung, too, is haunted by other voices, dreams, and visions, and a taunting conscience. But while Jung's theorizing provides a philosophical backbone for the tale, Pilgrim is aimed at the general reader. It is told through multiple points of view, alternately in Jung's thoughts; in the mind of his estranged wife and academic collaborator, Emma, as she reads and attempts to interpret Pilgrim's journals; and in glimpses through the eyes of countless others, each of whom is at odds with his or her own identity.
For Jung, in his approach to Pilgrim's disturbance, and for all the characters in Pilgrim, the goal is the individual's ultimate realization of self. But Findley poses the question of whether the essential "self" is the "owner," as Jung describes it—or is it the house, where many lives come to rest? Ironically, of all the characters in Findley's novel, it would appear that those who truly know themselves (or claim to) are deemed mad: a woman who believes she is a resident of the moon, a man who thinks he is a dog, and Pilgrim himself, who wishes only to escape his endless identity. Mad or not, like the woman who would become Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," each of Findley's characters struggles to reconcile the "I" by which they know themselves, in a world which knows them only by the masks they wear.
Pilgrim brings to mind the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But Findley points to a truth this statement overlooks: Sometimes, even those who can remember the past are condemned, for the fate of humanity is a shared responsibility. He knows that ultimately, "We none of us can be cured. Not of our lives." But as much as we bear the weight of the darkness of history and suffer from the inevitable blindnesses that lead us into the future, humanity also offers light. Findley reminds us that if the self—if life itself—is an incurable condition, it also offers—through art and imagination—the power to heal, to lift the spirit, to learn, and to one day find rescue.
Elise Vogel is a freelance writer living in New York City.