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 eternalageless, 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 selfan 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 mankindextraordinary 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 lifewho 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 naturewhether 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 Pilgrimif truly a mediumsometimes recovered his voices in what he called dreams? Calling them dreams, but meaning something else. Meaning conjuringsgleaningsmessages. Disturbances. Other voices, not his own, intruding on his reality.... Like a house invaded by marauders, while the ownerhelpless, 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 itor 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 selfif life itselfis an incurable condition, it also offersthrough art and imaginationthe 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.
Read an Excerpt
Inside the front doors of the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich, a nurse named Dora Henkel and an orderly whose name was Kessler were waiting to greet a new patient and his companion. Their arrival had been delayed by a heavy fall of snow.
To Kessler it seemed that two wind-blown angels had tumbled down from heaven and were moving towards the steps. The figures of these angels now stood in momentary disorientation, reaching out with helpless arms towards one another through windy clouds of snow, veils, shawls and scarves that altogether gave the appearance of large unfolded wings.
At last they caught hold of one another's hands and the female angel led the male, whose height was quite alarming, beneath the portico and up the steps. Dora Henkel and Kessler moved to open the doors to the vestibule, only to be greeted by a gale of what seemed to be perfumed snow. It was nothing of the kind, of course, but it seemed so. The female angelSybil, Lady Quartermainehad a well-known passion for scent. She would not have dreamt of calling it perfume. Flowers and spices are perfumed, she would say. Persons are scented.
For a moment, it seemed that her male companion might be blind. He stood in the vestibule staring blankly, still maintaining his angel imagesix-foot-six of drooping shoulders, lifeless arms and wings that at last had folded. His scarves and high-necked overcoat, pleated and damp, were hanging draped on his attenuated body as if at any moment they might sigh and slip to the marble floor.
Lady Quartermaine was younger than expectednot by any means the dowager Marchioness she had seemed in her rigid demands and almost military orders, issued by cablegrams five and six times a day, to be delivered by Consulate lackeys. In the flesh, she could not have been more than fortyif thatand was possessed of a presence that radiated charm and beauty with every word and gesture. Dora Henkel instantly fell in love with her and, in some confusion, had to turn away because Lady Quartermaine's beauty had made her blush. Turning back, she bobbed in the German fashion before she spoke.
"Most anxious we have been for your journey, Lady Quartermaine," she said, and smiledperhaps with too much ingratiation.
Kessler moved towards the inner doors and pulled them open, stepping aside to let the new arrivals pass. He would call this day forevermore the day the angels fell. He, too, had been smitten by Lady Quartermaine and her romantic entry with a giant in her wake.
In the entrance hall, an efficient figure in a white coat came forward.
"I am Doctor Furtwängler, Lady Quartermaine. How do you do?"
She offered her hand, over which he bowed. Josef Furtwängler prided himself on his "bedside manner"in all its connotations. His well-practised smile, while popular with his patients, was suspect amongst his colleagues.
Turning to the figure beside her, Lady Quartermaine said: "Herr Doktor, ich will Ihnen meinen Freund Herrn Pilgrim vorstellen."
Furtwängler saw the apprehension in his new patient's eyes. "Perhaps, Lady Quartermaine," he said, "for the sake of your friend, we should continue in English. You will find that most of us in the Burghölzli speak it fluentlyincluding many of the patients." He moved forward, smiling, with his hand extended. "Mister Pilgrim. Welcome."
Pilgrim stared at the proffered hand and rejected it. He said nothing.
Lady Quartermaine explained.
"He is silent, Herr Doktor. Mute. This has been so ever since ... he was found."
"Indeed. It is not unusual." The Doctor gave Pilgrim an even friendlier smile and said: "will you come into the reception room. There's a fire, and we will have some coffee."
Pilgrim glanced at Lady Quartermaine. She nodded and took his hand. "We would be delighted," she said to Furtwängler. "A cup of good Swiss coffee is just what the doctor ordered." She gave an amused shrug. "Which way do we go?"
"Please, come with me."
Furtwängler flicked his fingers at Dora Henkel, who scurried off to the dining-room across the entrance hall to arrange the refreshments while Kessler stood by, trying his best not to look like a bodyguard.
Lady Quartermaine led Pilgrim forward. "All is well," she told him. "All is well. We have safely arrived at our destination and soon you will rest." She slipped her arm through his. "How very glad I am to be with you, my dear. How very glad I am I came."
Pilgrim's physician had been discreet. Greene had arrived roughly five hours after the event, reaching Cheyne Walk by cab at 8:45 a.m. Forster had led him directly to the garden where Greene had established that Pilgrim had stopped breathing and his heart was no longer beating.
He took more than usual care in this examination, having experienced a previous attempt at suicide which Pilgrim had failed. On that occasion, his patient had apparently managed to drown himself in the Serpentine. In spite, however, of its being midwinter and ice having formed on the surface of the water, Pilgrim had survivedeven though, when he was found, all signs of life had disappeared. It had taken more than two hours of treatment and all of Greene's expertise to bring him around. The physician could hardly credit his success, since Pilgrim had remained seemingly dead for so long.
Over time, Greene had come to acknowledge not only the suicidal tendencies of his patient, but equally to be aware of his extraordinary resilienceas if there were a force inside him that refused to die, no matter what opportunities Pilgrim offered.
Once another hour had passed since his arrival at Cheyne Walk, Doctor Greene pronounced Pilgrim technically dead and began the process of making out the certificate of death which his profession demanded of him. Nonetheless, he called in the services of a second physician to verify his findings. The second physician, whose name was Hammond, happened to be one of London's foremost neurologists. The two men were well known to one another, having taken part together in a good number of autopsies performed on the corpses of suicides and murder victims.
When Doctor Hammond arrived, it was Mrs Matheson, the cook, who admitted him. She had been forced to assume "door duty" since Forster was otherwise engaged. By this time, Pilgrim's body had been brought into the house and laid out on his bed.
Greene explained the circumstances and described his previous experience with Pilgrim, saying that he was nervous of declaring death without the confirmation of a colleague. After a brief examination of the body, Hammond agreed that Pilgrim was indeed dead. Dead, as he said to Greene, as any man can be.
Having said so, he added his signature to the death certificate.
One half-hour later, Pilgrim's heart began to beatand shortly thereafter, he started to breathe again.
This, then, was the man Sybil Quartermaine had brought to the Burghölzli Clinica determined suicide who, by all appearances, was unable to die.
Having travelled by train via Paris and Strasbourg, Pilgrim and his escorts had arrived in Zürich on a clouded, windy day with squalls of snow in the air. A silver Daimler and driver had been hired to meet them. Phoebe Peebles, who was Lady Quartermaine's personal maid, and Forster, Pilgrim's valet-butler, had ridden with their employers as far as the Clinic, and were then driven on to the Hôtel Baur au Lacat that time, Zürich's most prestigious haven for foreigners.
Forster and Phoebe Peebles were at a loss, riding alone in the silver Daimler, to know quite how to behavebeyond maintaining their personal dignity.
There they were, seated in the rear of Her Ladyship's motor car without the benefit of protocol. Had the hired chauffeur become their chauffeur? Or were they all servants together on a single level?
Forster assumed, as the senior employee, that he had precedence. A valet-butler is, after all, the head of whatever household he belongs to, so long as the master has not deliberately established someone above him. On the other hand, now deprived of Mister Pilgrim's presence, Forster had to acknowledge that he was riding in Lady Quartermaine's motor car, not Mister Pilgrim'sand then what?
The chauffeur, being a hireling, was duty-bound only to the person who happened to be employing him at the momentin this case, Lady Quartermaine. It was all very difficult. Forster wondered if money should be offeredin the way it would be offered to servants in a house one had been visiting with one's master.
No, he decided. It was not his business. He would leave it all to Lady Quartermaine.
"Do you expect to end up along with Mister Pilgrim in the Clinictaking care of him there?" Phoebe asked.
"I should think," said Forster.
"I shouldn't want a life in a place where people have mental disturbances," said Phoebe. "Heaven knows what happens there. All them crazies ..."
"They are not crazies," said Forster. "They are ill. And their consignment to the Clinic is to make them wellsame as if they had the consumption and went to Davos."
Forster said this with overriding authority and Phoebe, never having heard of Davos, was suitably intimidated.
"I suppose so," she said. "But, still ..."
"You have journeyed thus far with Mister Pilgrim without complaint, Miss Peebles," Forster said, rather pompously. "On the train, did you feel for one moment endangered by his behaviour?"
"Then please consider that as your answer. I would happily follow him anywhere in order to continue my service to him."
"Yes, Mister Forster."
"Here we are, then. The Hôtel Baur au Lac."
The Daimler, enshrouded in snow, had pulled to a stop beneath a wide and impressive portico. The chauffeur got out and opened the rear door nearest Phoebe.
"What do I do?" she said to Forster.
"Get down," he told her. "Swing your legs to the right and get down."
Phoebe meekly swung her feet to the ground and stood to one side. Forster followed and greeted the concierge who had come to meet themalong with two young men in uniform who offered the protection of umbrellaswhich provided no protection at all, since the snow was blowing up from the ground on every side.
Forster said: "we are of Lady Quartermaine's party. I believe you are expecting us."
"But of course, Mister Forster," said the concierge, beaming. "If you will please follow me."
As they turned towards the steps, Phoebe Peebles leaned closer to Forster and whispered: "crikey! He even knows who you are. I mean, he even knows your name!"
Forster removed his bowler hat and banged it against his thigh. "Of course he does," he said. "It's his job."
Pilgrim is the story of a man who cannot die. Ageless, sexless, deathless and timeless, Pilgrim has inhabited endless lives and times. On 15 April, 1912 ironically, the date of the sinking of the Titanic Pilgrim fails, once again, to commit suicide, his heart miraculously beginning again, five hours after he is found hanging from a tree. Admitted to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich by his dear friend Lady Sybil Quartermaine, Pilgrim at first, stubbornly mute begins a battle of psyche and soul with Carl Jung, self-professed mystical scientist of the unconscious and slave to his own sexual appetites. Poring over Pilgrim's journals in his quest to penetrate his patient's armour of silence, Jung is both confounded and shaken by the extraordinary revelations of other existences.
Populated by a fascinating parade of historical and mythical characters, including Jung, Oscar Wilde, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry James and James McNeill Whistler, Pilgrim is a richly layered story of a man's search for his own destiny. Instantly engaging, superbly crafted, breathtaking in scope and brilliantly imagined, Pilgrim is Timothy Findley's masterwork.
Timothy Findley has written nine novels, three short story collections, two books of non-fiction and three plays. He is one of Canada's most popular and respected writers, and has won innumerable awards. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and, in France, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres. Timothy Findley divides his time between Ontario, Canada and the south of France.
I have lived many times, Doctor Jung. Who knows, as Leda I might have been the mother of Helen or, as Anne, the mother of Mary. I was Orion once, who lost his sight and regained it. I was also a crippled shepherd in thrall to Saint Teresa of Avila; an Irish stable boy and a maker of stained glass at Chartres. I stood on the ramparts of Troy and witnessed the death of Achilles. I saw the first performance of Hamlet and the last performance of Molière, the actor. I was a friend to Oscar Wilde and an enemy to Leonardo ... I am both male and female, I am ageless, and I have no access to death.