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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conceived in the Restless

Two hundred years ago, poets and sages sought a back way out of the modern world through the wreckage of the Middle Ages. With the Postmodern Pilgrimage the medieval was revived again.
--p. 100 of John Doyle's The Stations

The Salon.

The Salon Postisme is an idea, was an idea; it was a vision and a dream. It was an opportunity to escape the reality of the mundane and trivial. The Salon became something different, entirely. In the end, it became an institution and a corporate entity. But in the beginning? In the beginning it was a portal into another dimension, a dimension of deeper humanness, consciousness. Something deeper, yes, but also an escape from the pull and the gravity of the deep.

John Doyle’s (aka ktismatics) novel The Stations is a discussion of pilgrimage. The Salon is the vision for the pilgrim. The Salon begins as a ratty sign on a door. There are no lights, no advertising media, no marketing, no distribution channels. Just a sign on a door. Stephen Hanley walks through the door. Something is restless. Something is unsettled. It isn’t just “an inner longing.” There’s something in the air, a mood, a collective sense. The sense that even though everything is efficient, secure, and “all is well with the world,” there is still an unrest in the atmosphere.

It is this unrest that moves the pilgrim. And yet before the pilgrim is moved, there is a connection with the unrest. The pilgrim senses something about the world that disturbs her sleep.

Stephen Hanley walks through the door and is handed the baton, he is the new Proprietor of The Salon, or you can just call him “Prop.” No training. Just the vision. Just ambiguity. There’s something that is not right with the world, something in the mood of the world. There will be pilgrims, those who begin to explore difference in a world of homogeneity and same-ness. That’s what Prop is here for, that’s what he wants to do:

“My job as I saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness; to have the client guide me into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that we could then explore together. What I really wanted, of course, was to become the client. I didn’t want to pull them out into my normalcy; I wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart.” p. 30

Prop is ready to climb into the madness. Their madness, their strangeness. Something is breaking through.

The film (1999) Fight Club opens with the line: “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.” The character speaking is the main character, but he remains nameless through the film. So, some of us call him “Jack.” And Tyler Durden? Tyler Durden is Jack, Jack’s subconscious breaking through. At the beginning of the film we only see Jack’s life. It’s a pathetic life. It’s mundane and trivial. “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time,” says Jack to himself as he boards another plane for another business trip for another corporate gig so that he can feed his slavery to “the Ikea nesting instinct.” “What diamond set defines me as a person?”

A pilgrim finds something, connects to something. There is a mood.

Jack can’t sleep. Something is restless. Ironically, it is insomnia that begins his awakening.

“How often had someone come to me wanting to stop being something, to stop doing something? They wanted to get away from their jobs, from their friends and families, from the world, from themselves. The Salon Postisme offered a way out….People often come to the Salon equipped with a sophisticated ambivalence, an ironic self-awareness, and a vague general disdain that masks an intense and personal frustration with the way life was turning out." p. 7

The pilgrim is finding something deeper within, but in another more real sense, they are not going deeper within the self but rather connecting with something in the world. It’s vague and indefinable. It seems to manifest itself as “an intense and personal frustration” with the way life is panning out. And somehow, conventional remedies don’t work.

The first instinct is to run, to get away. The first instinct isn’t always the best instinct…..of course, it isn’t always the worst move, either…..But it’s hard to put a finger on just what a pilgrim feels when the overwhelming sense is that “this world is not my home.”

The frustration grapples to latch onto something, call it “sophisticated ambivalence,” or “ironic self-awareness,” or “a vague general disdain.” These are the “masks” that express that which cannot be defined, that which should not be defined.

But this is the beginning of pilgrimage.

This is where it is conceived, where the possibility of new life begins.

The pilgrim has not yet taken her first steps. She has not even yet been formed in the womb.

There are any number of possibilities.

But this is the beginning.

[This post follows the prior post and begins our exploration of pilgrimage]


Tamie said...

This is an absolutely fantastic post. If I had a million dollars, I think I'd buy you plane tickets to the Camino.

It reminds me of an essay I wrote about the Camino, a few years ago, for the grad class I took. The essay began:

"I had hoped that when I arrived Santiago, after 500 miles of walking, I would have my act together. I hoped to shed my hobbling, bent self, and straighten up—into a me that would provoke adulation and envy, an enlightened me. Then, finally, I could live in peace. I would transcend addiction and despair, escape habit and circumstance, and find Answers, find God.
Discontent was the impetus for the journey. What but dissatisfaction propels us to change? But it did not end up quite as I’d imagined. Having wrestled with the angel, I limped into Santiago, silenced and stripped. I took three long baths and cut off all my hair."

john doyle said...

I like your emphasis on mood here, Erdman -- more a vague discontent or unrest, as you say, than a specific problem to be solved or goal to be attained. Mood shapes thoughts and feelings and action, like a medium you're immersed inside of. As you say, mood is in the air, in the atmosphere, something that surrounds and permeates you, transforming you from the outside in.

The juxtaposition with Fight Club is apt: it's driven by that same sense of unrest, of a permeating mood. And I think the fight club intervention is a sort of pilgrimage, a return to primal manliness, almost to the level of the brute beast, a means of stripping away the Ikea-veneer of civilization.

Tamie, it's telling that your first actions upon reaching the pilgrimage destination were to further strip yourself of veneers (dirt, hair). I read your piece about the things the pilgrims leave behind on the Camino, but it's still not enough. The mood isn't just contained in your stuff; it's clinging to your self. You need to clean it off, cut it off, beat it out of yourself, shoot your face off...

Jonathan Erdman said...


Fabulous essay. Wow. Very germane to the discussion.

"I limped into Santiago...."

One might question the status of a "pilgrim" if he was skipping into Santiago!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks. Yes, mood. Mood is why I like your novel (and also Fight Club), as opposed to the classic Pilgrim's Progress. In Bunyan's tale, the Pilgrim is restless, and it seems as though it is entirely an inner phenomenon. Pilgrim has a burden that he needs to get rid of.

But in The Stations and also in Fight Club, one gets the sense that the disconnect is connected to something. Ironic. The disconnect is actually a result of connecting with something real that everyone else senses but doesn't act on. So, that takes us into the next post, where I want to talk a bit about the Outlier, someone who breaks away from the pull to the center, who is able to resist the gravity that sucks everyone to the core.

tamie said...

Thanks, Jon!

Yeah--I wasn't the only one limping. Some people weren't as run down as I was by that point, but definitely no one was running or skipping!

What you said in response to John's note reminds me of that quote that says it is the most sane reaction to be dissatisfied and depressed by an insane world. Or something like that.

And, John....you're right, I wanted to cleanse myself more and more. You know, I have never understood completely why I cut off all my hair when I got there. I had long hair, and I shaved my head in Santiago. I've never fully understood that, I only knew it was what I had to do. But what you say definitely gets at something, though I haven't been able to articulate it quite like that. The need to get rid of everything, even (and especially) self. Many times I considered leaving my entire pack behind. I suppose a pilgrim could just about walk without a pack, actually. If you carried money and your passport in your pocket. Hm. Perhaps next year in Santiago, eh?

samlcarr said...

Great to see the start of your review of "The Stations".

"connecting with something in the world" is an interesting hypothesis for a root of the disaffection. Each individual needs something to get them started, and that could include things like curiosity, or even envy. I also think the desire to explore the unknown is itself a fundamental drive, some part of our primal makeup.

Kellsotr said...

Would it be possible to get a copy of The Stations? It sounds like a book I would very much like to read.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good point. The explorer's urge is certainly an important part of some people's pilgrimage.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Last I checked, The Stations was unpublished. I obtained my copy electronically, directly from John Doyle, the author.

I will let you know, though, if it is ever published.

john doyle said...


I'd be happy for you to read the online version. If you like, email me at portalic@gmail.com and I'll send you the book as an attachment.

aeyn said...

The idea of pilgrimage is a complex one... like many things, I find. Just as you did (sort of), in your previous posts and thoughts on being spiritually homeless, one can parse out various contextually-based definitions for a given term, and we could do that with pilgrimage. But that sort of linguistic analysis often, while seeming to get at something, lacks a larger sense of meaning that comes from allowing the term and its context to lead one where it may.

The concept of pilgrimage seems to work in a similar manner (to the way that words gain and retain a meaning within the given context and use of the term... and sometimes that can be different than one anticipates it to be), in my sense of it.

Doyle's Hanley, stating that his job is to "have the client guide me into other ways of seeing," is fundamentally phenomenological in nature: being open to letting the experience teach what it has.

Pilgrimage seems to be fundamentally about that, and it begins in the core of one's Being, before she even gets out of bed in the morning, brews a cup of tea, and listens to the morning birds chirp her a sweet hello.

A pilgrim does find something, yes. But it, oftentimes, is not what was expected. And that is the fundamental glory of the pilgrimage: that one is just willing to be lead down an unknown path, open to the sacred, as IT is what will lead, teach, hide, show, and ultimately, help the pilgrim grow.

What I find most inspiring about this notion of the pilgrimage is that what is learned, what is found, comes from the world at large and is offered up to the pilgrim. It is not that she creates the meaning or uncovers the truth (or even moreso, the Truth, ah!), but rather, that the world (used in a general sense here) opens up itself to her in new ways, such that she can now come to be more aware of the Sacred both within and outside of herself.

And Jon, I like how you mention the desire to latch on to meaning, and the frustration that arises with that. The pilgrimage for all of us teaches us that one will not gain "meaning" in the sense that many of us initially think as we start on our journeys.

Not only are there things that should not be defined, there are things that cannot be defined. It is in coming to acknowledge those ambiguities, those vaguarities, and those undefinable things that one comes to begin to accept the sacred. A life-long challenge, I believe. And one that continues to be a struggle sometimes.

But, as Helen Keller said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." So let the daring adventure begin, and continue to proceed, as it shall. And let us be open to the possibilities... wherever the path may lead us.

(And now I raises my cup of hot tea to the pilgrimage, and to you, Mr. Jon, up in Indiana. Thank you for the encouraging and worthwhile thoughts.)

Jonathan Erdman said...

And I raise my cup back to you, Aeyn, for being someone who has walked the unknown paths of the pilgrim with courage, perseverance, and joy.

Good thoughts about the phenomenological nature of the pilgrimage. An openness to let life open, to let things be uncovered before us. The a-letheia, or un-coveredness, that lets things become revealed (Heidegger).

This is surely a lifelong process, but it is interesting to ponder (in a phenomenological manner) the experience of the pilgrim when things begin to uncover themselves. For some, there is a moment (sometimes years, perhaps) where they stall or pull up short, unwilling to proceed. I think there could be many reasons for this: how will family react? how will I survive? how will I cope in a new context? Or, even perhaps being a certain naivety in thinking that things will get resolved or that the urge of the pilgrim will pass (e.g., "it's just a mid-life crisis.").

In Doyle's novel, there are masks: "People often come to the Salon equipped with a sophisticated ambivalence, an ironic self-awareness, and a vague general disdain that masks an intense and personal frustration with the way life was turning out." These masks hide who one is from others, but it also seems to me that the "sophisticated ambivalence," "ironic self-awareness," and "vague general disdain" are also masks that guard us from our own selves, that keep the pilgrim from seeing the fullness of their frustration or discontentment. Maybe some people never become pilgrims because they remain in this state for the whole of the lives: using these masks to guard themselves from themselves.

But this is where that idea of openness comes in, I think, the concept of letting things uncover. It can be terrifying for some. Exhillerating for others. And maybe a thousand different things for other pilgrims, or would-be pilgrims.

john doyle said...

I like what aeyn and Jonathan have to say about the open-ended journey. When I was writing the book I assumed the traditional distinction between pilgrimage and quest. A pilgrimage has a prescribed destination and often a specific pathway for getting there; e.g., the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, the Via Dolorosa of Jesus' walk to the cross. Going on a Pilgrimage is an act of veneration for the place and/or the person who did something significant there, with the intent of sharing vicariously in the specific blessings of that place or person or event. Someone who goes on a Quest might have some goal in mind but no prior knowledge of how to get there; e.g., the medieval quest for the Holy Grail, the European explorers' quest for a westward route to India.

I think a lot of people pursue both a goal in life (money, success, etc.) and a prescribed pathway for getting there (set goals and subgoals, make action plans and timelines, evaluate your progress regularly, etc.). Other more entrepreneurial or Rock Star types want to create their own paths toward similar goals, perhaps hoping that they'll become iconic figures attracting their own acolytes. So now what do you call it when you set out on a voyage knowing neither the goal nor the path?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doyle: So now what do you call it when you set out on a voyage knowing neither the goal nor the path?


Perhaps there is a sense, then, in which the pilgrimage being described here (in this post and in the comments) is a pilgrimage where (a) one is traveling a path that has been traveled before, (b) heading toward a goal that others have reached, but that paradoxically (c) both the destination and route are unknown to the pilgrim. As such, both the route and destination is the great unknown and mystery.

We could call it a quest, but it seems like others have embarked on this pilgrimage before. The "questing pilgrim"?

tamie said...

My dear Aeyn, I just now had a moment to read your comment. And I thank you. You write so beautifully! (I ponder how I've actually rarely *read* your words; mostly I've *heard* them.)

If someone were to ask you, "what is sacred to you?" or "what is The Sacred to you?" how would you respond?

I wonder, especially, how you would respond if this person couldn't speak English very well, and thus you had to explain in simple terms, or if the person asking was a child. When I was walking the pilgrimage, often people from various countries who did not speak much English would ask me very deep questions (like, "why did you get divorced?" or "what do you think about God?") and I would have to find ways to express such complex things in very simple language. It was a wonderful exercise.

tamie said...

Jon....I appreciated what you had to say about how some people don't ever go on pilgrimage, for all kinds of reasons. I wonder: do you think that *everyone* is called to go on a pilgrimage of some sort? Or are there people whose destiny it is to simply remain in the home where they have always lived?

Jonathan Erdman said...


It's a good question. A bit beyond me, but here's my thoughts.

It may have to do with what we mean by "called" or "destiny." I don't think I know much about our destiny, or if there is such a thing. I really don't. So, I don't know if people are destined to do certain things or be a certain way. Do genetics and environment dictate how we will act and who we are? Does God predetermine these things?

In terms of "calling," this sounds like an external thing to me: called from outside of one's self, or that someone calls out to me. So, in this sense of the word, yes, I think there is a general calling that goes out to everyone. "Deep calls to deep," as it were. The pilgrim seems called by something outside, something in the mood of the age, the sense that things are not right and that someone needs to move away from the herd and start walking into the unknown. If this is the case, then I think everyone (in theory) has the ability to tune into the mood. Obviously, most seem to gravitate to the herd......now I'm getting into the subject matter of next post's discussion! Excellent!

john doyle said...

Tamie, are you trying to get someone you know to shake the dust off his feet and get the hell out of Dodge? (lol)

tamie said...

Welllllllll.....um.....ahem....*nervous cough*.....

Perhaps we all ought to get the hell of Dodge, and meet up somewhere....I've always heard Spain was a cool meeting-up spot!

john doyle said...

Spain is good, though I've never been to Santiago. Have you ever thought about planning and arranging pilgrimages for groups/individuals? I'm sure somebody must do this sort of thing, and it might be great if you could keep from just being a travel agent and tour guide. In the book I imagined people stationed along the main pilgrimage routes throughout the world, providing spiritual and psychological services for the pilgrims passing through.

tamie said...

Funny that you mention it because I often wished, while on the Camino, that such guiding people were available. It felt crazy to me that we were all on this very difficult pilgrimage, but there weren't spiritual directors, or priests or whatever, around for our support. I suppose if I'd spoken Spanish, I could have asked for the priest in each town. But still. Seems like there should be those sorts of services for pilgrims. I think you're on the right track!

(And I'd love to be someone to help provide such services...)