Nov 9, 2011

Jung and Novels: Pilgrim

Pilgrim is a man who cannot die. He hangs himself and a few hours later his heart begins to beat. He comes back to life.

He is a preposterous character in a literary work.

And yet he is a complicated and believable character in Timothy Findley's novel, Pilgrim. The curse is a brilliant foil for our modern obsession with everlasting youth. Here is a man who has lived for centuries and all he wants to do is die.

Pilgrim is one of three great novels that uses either C. G. Jung as a character or Jung's method (i.e. analytical psychology) as a narrative device. (The other two I'll post about later). I do not include the legions of writers and works influenced by Jung, writers like Herman Hesse and Frank Herbert.

While I was writing Powder Dreams, I began to see the difficulties of using analytical psychology in a narrative. It is easy for a writer to frame therapy as two people, an analyst and analysand (or doctor and patient), sitting across from each other and talking. I've not seen this approach done well, not even on television.

There are many moments in an analysis when the talk begins to collide with life all around and the two begin to interplay in a way that brings a kind of euphoric dream state. This is the trick. How do you portray the analysis in such a way that life is not only embraced and lived but in such a way that therapy is a sort of turbo charger or booster rocket?

In the case of Pilgrim, Timothy Findley pulls this off not once, but at least twice, because Pilgrim's analyst is C. G. Jung.

Now it takes some literary cojones to actually use Jung as a character in your novel and Findley does not flinch at the challenge. But he uses Jung not so much as a narrative device, but as a character with the full stature of Pilgrim. Their sessions are two heavy weights going at each other and a significant part of the story is what is happening to Jung during this period in his life. It is after his split with Freud, when Jung finally dropped through the floor and entered a place not many people go, a place not many people want to go.

And Pilgrim himself is formidable, knowing some of history's great secrets as a man who has lived for centuries would. Secrets like what the Mona Lisa smile is and a thoroughly disturbing view of the Bonfire of the Vanities, not the Tom Wolfe novel, but the ritual. Findley uses a very large canvas and goes deep into detail.