||The Mad Are Not Mad, Merely Different... But Not Different Enough
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman
In his introduction to Dinner Along the Amazon, a collection of short stories published in 1984, Timothy Findley self-deprecatingly recalls the moment when he first recognized his work to be marked by the same repeated images, stylistic flourishes, and thematic concerns. “In fact,” he writes, “I began to wonder if I should file A CATALOGUE OF PERSONAL OBSESSIONS.” According to Findley, this catalogue would include “evening lamplight... letters written on blue-tinted note paper... photographs in cardboard boxes...and a chair that is always falling over.” Any reader who is familiar with Findley’s body of work to date—nine novels, three collections of stories, four plays, and two non-fiction memoirs—will add the prophet Cassandra, characters who dress in blue and white, and rabbits (especially Peter Rabbit) to the list. With Pilgrim—his Giller-nominated tenth novel and the first since his move from Cannington, Ontario to residences in Stratford, Ontario and the south of France—Findley has once again returned to familiar territory. If one has any doubt as to whether or not one is in a Findley novel, that doubt is dispelled at the end of the very first page, when a chair falls over.
The sense of familiarity a reader experiences upon re-entering the world of Findley’s fiction has made him one of Canada’s most widely read and best-loved novelists, and Pilgrim is both energized and limited by the personal obsessions of its author. Two of his most enduring concerns are madness and art. Findley is drawn to the idea that those who are dismissed as “mad” by twentieth-century Western society in fact possess unique insight into the human condition. Unfortunately, as their responses to their environment are seen as deviations from the norm, they are labelled “mad”, excluded from their society, and their warnings—like those of Cassandra—go unheeded. In Pilgrim, Findley has created a unique and interesting character whose dilemma introduces some familiar concerns for the author: Pilgrim is a man who may or may not be immortal, who may or may not have been, in past lives, witness to some of the most significant creative acts of human history, and who may or may not be mad.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, a man named Pilgrim appears at the Bürgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich, and becomes the patient of Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. While Pilgrim is undergoing treatment, Jung and his wife, Emma, read his journals and discover the roles that he ostensibly has played in, among other historical episodes, the miracles of Saint Teresa of Avila, the painting of the Mona Lisa, and the creation of the stained glass windows at Chartres. Jung and Emma disagree as to the madness of Pilgrim: Jung invests much time, energy, and professional reputation into attempting to “cure” his patient by forcing him to confront reality, while Emma views him as a misunderstood prophet who attempts to enlighten humanity as to what it has become. The question of whether the protagonist is sane or mad is a familiar Findley convention, seen to varying degrees in The Last of the Crazy People, The Butterfly Plague, The Wars, Headhunter, and The Piano Man’s Daughter. As in those novels, the reader must make up his or her mind regarding Pilgrim. Is he insane, as Jung and the other clinic doctors believe? Is he, as the clinic’s orderly insists, an angel, as suggested by his odour and his strange birthmark? Or is he, as Emma comes to believe, precisely what he presents himself as: a seer and prophet on a mission to save the world?
Interestingly, in all his supposed past incarnations, Pilgrim has been either an artist or a witness to artistic creation. Findley has often written and spoken about the need to “pay attention” to the artistic representation of reality, in order to learn from humanity’s mistakes. In this novel’s most intriguing and original plot development, Pilgrim embarks on a quest to destroy the great works of art to whose creation he himself has been a party. He has become “an anarchist who has seen that he and he alone can save the world”, and has decided that the only way to force humanity to learn from the lessons of the past is through destroying the works that contain those lessons. As Emma realizes:
[A]ll that stood between an ominous present and a disastrous future was recognition of the true meaning of the past. In his writings, she had found again and again a plea for the innate integrity of art. PAY ATTENTION! he had shouted in capital letters, over and over. But no one had listened. Now, in order to draw attention to that integrity—and its double message of compassion and reconciliation—he was on a campaign to destroy the very presence of its most articulate voices.
The idea that art has become impotent through its reduction to artifact is an intriguing twist on the idea of the redemptive potential of art and the imagination.
For a novel that is highly critical of the reduction of art to artifice, it might seem odd that Findley pays meticulous attention to the accurate portrayal of surface detail, a particularly daunting task for a novel set in early twentieth-century Switzerland, eleventh-century France, fifteenth-century Florence, sixteenth-century Spain, and nineteenth-century England. Such close attention to gesture and setting is another of Findley’s obsessions, and one which he himself has attributed to his background in the theatre. As admirable as is Findley’s achievement here, the painstaking attention to detail has the unfortunate effect of draining emotion or urgency from the narrative. Consider, for example, the scene which occurs during Pilgrim’s escape from the asylum: “At Fontainebleu, they had taken a picnic basket organized by Forster into the woods, where they sat amidst ferns and wildflowers, eating breast of chicken sandwiches, pears, Boursault and assorted petits fours while consuming also two bottles of Montrachet.”
In those novels in which Findley is at his strongest, his own personal obsessions are subordinated to an overarching artistic vision, and the result is a tightly controlled narrative. In other novels—one thinks, for example, of The Butterfly Plague and Headhunter—these obsessions proliferate and multiply, overwhelming the narrative with overdetermined symbols, historical references, and characters, both real and imaginary. Unfortunately, Pilgrim falls into this second category. Findley even burdens this novel with many quotations and echoes from his own earlier works. For example: “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water” (The Wars); “Make your prayers against despair” (Not Wanted on the Voyage); a character searching for a “safe, good place” (The Piano Man’s Daughter); a pianist whose hands have taken on minds of their own (Headhunter); and the exhortation to “pay attention”, which appears in every Findley text.
Finally, the primary weakness of what has the potential to be a provocative and entertaining narrative is Findley’s recourse to expository prose. The most jarring example is the episode of “Robert Daniel Parsons”. In order to provide a context for understanding Jung’s attitude toward the ostensibly mad Pilgrim, Findley creates the entirely fictional character of Parsons, a psychologist who achieves notoriety in the early twentieth century for producing a manifesto entitled “In Defense of Dementia”, in which he argues that “the mad are not mad but merely different”. Rather than develop Parsons into a fully realized character and integrate him into the narrative, Findley establishes the view of madness which informs this novel—and, in fact, Findley’s entire body of work—by quoting a long passage from Parson’s manifesto:
There are some whose experience of life is so far removed from our own that we call them mad. This is mere convenience. We call them so in order to relieve ourselves of taking responsibility for their place in the human community. Thus, we relegate them to asylums, shutting them out of view and beyond calling distance behind locked doors... What we call visions and relegate to mystics—the miracles of Christ—the lives of the Saints—the apocalyptic revelations of John—are for them the stuff of common, everyday experience. In their view, there can be sanctity in trees and toads—living gods in fire and water—and a voice in the whirlwind to which, if only we would listen, they would direct our attention.
This is a device that Findley has used before, through the character of Nicholas Fagan, an essayist and literary critic who has appeared in his work as a mouthpiece for views on literature and the imagination. Findley has said in interviews that Fagan the critic is able to utter opinions that, if spoken in the voice of Findley the novelist, would ring false. In the case of Parsons, however, the tactic is much less successful.
This is not the first time that Findley has expressed the idea—reminiscent of the writings of R.D. Laing—that the mad see more clearly than the sane; however, in his more successful works, this belief is revealed gradually through speech, character, and action. As this provocative notion is central to Pilgrim, it seems to warrant a more subtle and imaginative treatment. The cliché that the most successful narratives are those in which the author shows rather than tells is, sadly, all too apt in this case.
The novel also includes numerous “confessional” moments in which characters reveal their thoughts and motives to each other or the reader. Such passages drain the novel of a great deal of its potential ambiguity, complexity, and interest. For all its weaknesses, however, Pilgrim is a provocative and highly entertaining novel by one of Canada’s most prolific and loved novelists, and will keep readers turning pages until the end.
Lisa Salem-Wiseman recently received her Ph.D. from York University, where she completed a dissertation on madness in the fiction of Timothy Findley. She currently teaches at York University and Humber College in Toronto.