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Friday, June 19, 2009

New Worlds: The Call of the Pilgrim

No really. The inner voice that’s telling you it wants six million dollars and a nice vacation villa in Tuscany – how do you know it’s really your true self, and not just another imposter taking his turn at the microphone? Besides, aren’t you a little suspicious that everyone’s true self wants pretty much the same things: chronic happiness, lots of money, good weather, universal admiration? Maybe everyone’s gone too deep. Maybe we’re all delving somewhere down below unique individuality into the universal subconscious, where everything is pure narcissism, will to power, and the longing for fabulousness. p. 34 of John Doyle’s novel The Stations

What is it that draws a pilgrim away from the gravity, the force that pulls everyone toward the same things, the same thoughts, the same ideas, the same life?

In our prior pilgrimage post, Conceived in the Restless, we saw that for the pilgrim, something stirs. It’s like the split personality of the main character in the film Fight Club: there is a violent break in the norm, Tyler is breaking through. It’s not just a purely “inner” compulsion. It’s more than just an urge to extract one’s self from all of humanity, take up residence in the nearest cave, and hang a sign at the front that says, “Local hermit, do not disturb.” No, there’s something in the air, there’s something that’s not right in the general atmosphere…..and it leaves the would-be pilgrim with deep frustration.

A pilgrim is conceived in the restless.

Ultimately, the task at hand is not to define pilgrim, or even to say “this is what a pilgrim looks like.”

“For me the pilgrimage constituted an assembly of various ideas and practices: the pieces could be taken apart, bundled with others extracted from apparently unrelated sources, then reconfigured in strange and unpredictable ways. For me the Salon’s signpost always pointed toward the unthought and the untried. No permanent trails would be laid down, because no one would come along behind to follow the pioneers. Each installation of the Salon sat at the crossroads of an infinite number of possible pathways, all leading into the unknown. The same point on a map can be the beginning of one journey and the end of another. Novices and journeymen require different gear, and the Salon would be outfitter to them all. Still, the Salon could never hope to fulfill itself. Of the road there are no masters.” Prop. Stephen Hanley, p. 100

In this series of posts, we just want to stir things up a bit. We want to explore the idea of pilgrimage but also let the idea of pilgrimage explore us. “Deep calls to deep.”

While exploring “pilgrimage” (and letting “pilgrimage” explore us), we are simultaneously engaging in a bit of exegesis. The text is John Doyle’s novel The Stations. In The Stations, Prop. (short for Proprietor) Stephen Hanley stirs things up. He’s the Prop. at the Salon. The Salon is about exploring “the unthought and the untried.” What it is will never be clear and should never be clear. What it is not is a bit easier. Despite the fact that the Salon seems to be going about the business of self-discovery and self-exploration, the Salon is not therapeutic. It is not self-improvement: “The people who walk through the Salon’s doors have been raised on self-improvement, so they’re ready to aim themselves toward other ends if someone plausible teaches them how.” p. 7

How does a pilgrim break free of the pull of gravity?

Or, why does a pilgrim break free?

What is this pull of gravity?

Nietzsche talked about the “herd” instinct. He criticized democracy as being an institution that silenced the voices of the few and muted the insights of the gifted. This put the state on the slow and senseless path of the herd.

Kierkegaard talks about “the crowd.”

“There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that ‘the crowd’ received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.

“The crowd is untruth. Therefore was Christ crucified, because he, even though he addressed himself to all, would not have to do with the crowd…would not found a party, or allow balloting, but would be what he was, the truth….. For to win a crowd is not so great a trick; one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little acquaintance with the human passions.

“And to honor every individual human being, unconditionally every human being, that is the truth and fear of God and love of ‘the neighbor’; but ethico-religiously viewed, to recognize ‘the crowd’ as the court of last resort in relation to ‘the truth,’ that is to deny God and cannot possibly be to love ‘the neighbor.’ And ‘the neighbor’ is the absolutely true expression for human equality; if everyone in truth loved the neighbor as himself, then would perfect human equality be unconditionally attained….But never have I read in the Holy Scriptures this command: You shall love the crowd….It is clear that to love the neighbor is self-denial, that to love the crowd or to act as if one loved it, to make it the court of last resort for ‘the truth’, that is the way to truly gain power, the way to all sorts of temporal and worldly advantage - yet it is untruth; for the crowd is untruth.” (from The Crowd is Untruth)

Martin Heidegger brings together the thoughts of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in his philosophy. There are original thinkers and artists who can somehow see beyond their world. They can envision new worlds, or appreciate new worlds.

Heidegger talks a good deal about “worlds.”

Terrence Malick is a Heideggerian philosopher turned filmmaker. In his filmmaking, Malick often explores “worlds.” This is particularly the case in his recent work, The New World (2005, with Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale). This stunning film shows the collision of two worlds at Jamestown: European conquerors and the native American peoples.

We cannot reduce pilgrimage to the drive for adventure.

The New World captures the Imperialistic drive of the Europeans. They arrive to explore new possibilities for humanity—their humanity, on their terms, for the sake of their religion, and without any regard for the native peoples. They will transplant their familiar, European world into the new American world, with a few upgrades. Call in Europe 2.0.

In the midst of this collision of cultures, the film creates two characters who rethink. One is a pilgrim, she is the Pocahontas character (unnamed in the film). She loves her people and her way of life, but she also loves John Smith, and she risks alienation by reaching out to the white Jamestown settlement. She is expelled from her people, held hostage by the whites, and abandoned by her love, John Smith.

A pilgrimage doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Smith is on the verge of pilgrimage. But he chooses adventure over the life of a pilgrim. He resigns his love for Pocahontas and her people to the world of “dream.” He takes on a commission from England to explore, to look for the West Indies. Malick, in his filmmaking genius, shows us that in looking for a new geographical space, Smith abandons the infinite spiritual possibilities that were opened before him if he would have explored the “world” of the native Americans. The world of the natives is more than just the land, it is a particular approach to the land. It is not just about transplanting humanity, it is a change of perception about being human.

Smith misses it. Deep calls to deep. But no one answers back.

A pilgrim answers the call and explores the new worlds--the new ideas, new perceptions, new possibilities.

“Entering an alternate reality is like going to a foreign country. You can visit as a tourist, always staying at the big American hotel chains, buffered from the foreignness of everything that surrounds you. You can march in as a conqueror, forcibly replacing the strange with the familiar. You can be a chameleon, at home anywhere, indistinguishable from the habitat. Or you can be a traveler. You equip yourself for transport, then wait to see what happens. Use the things you find around you to assemble a rudimentary shelter. Experiment with ways of distinguishing food from poison. Allow yourself to become a gill-breather. Experience moods that have no names. You become nonexistent; you become your own double.” p. 73 of The Stations

A pilgrim equips herself as a traveler, goes to the new worlds, and experiences “moods that have no names.”

How do we describe this force that draws us to “sameness”?

“On just about any dimension you can think of, humans tend to clump together. Go farther and farther away from the center and you see fewer and fewer people. It’s hard not to see evidence of some sort of force at work, pulling everybody toward the center. Maybe the force emanates from a particular point in the world, like gravity, pulling people in. Maybe it’s a force that’s embedded within individuals, impelling them to move toward each other.” p. 47

The force. It’s like gravity.

And then there are “the outliers.”

“But what about the outliers, the people who resist the pull to the center? Do the outliers lack the normalizing force within themselves? Do they try to huddle with the masses, only to find themselves drifting away? Do they float effortlessly above the pull of gravity? Or do they exert a counterforce that drives them out of orbit? Maybe the outliers are already moving toward what’s destined to become the new center of gravity, and the rest of us will eventually find ourselves being drawn toward them. For good or for ill.” p. 47

That’s a very Heideggerian thought: the outlier envisions new worlds, explores new worlds, and eventually their imagination and vision becomes the new center of gravity.

Let’s talk more about this.

What is it that is moving through the pilgrim?

The pilgrim is conceived in the restless. Gradually (or perhaps all at once!), the pilgrim begins to realize that something is moving through her. Or, as we have previously discussed, she is latching on to something outside of herself; it’s outside and inside. Inside out.

Doyle describes it simply, as difference.

When Stephen Hanley decides to become the Prop of the Salon, there are plenty of friends to question the point of pursuing difference.

“Among our friends the opinion was consistent: Why would anyone want to pursue difference as a goal? Happiness, yes, or at least relief from suffering. Adjustment, success, serenity, self-discovery, even self-discovery of prior lifetimes (‘Regression Therapy’ took up half a page in my progressive town’s yellow pages) – these were the things people looked for from a therapist. People wanted their lives to be better than they were, preferably better than other people’s lives too. They didn’t just want to ‘get different.’ No one would come to the Salon.” p. 39

So no one would come to the Salon. That’s the prediction. And it was true. No one came. So, he went back to the way the original Prop did things: just wait on difference.

“Of course my friends were right. No one came. No one called about the ads I placed in the local paper. No one attended the free discussion groups. So I stopped advertising, stopped reaching out. I decided to do it Prop Adamowicz’s way. The ratty sign by the doorbell stayed, and so did I. I didn’t replace the sign until a long time later, when the tape wouldn’t stick to it any more and half the words had become illegible.” p. 39

In Doyle’s novel, “difference” is what is moving around and through the pilgrim. The herd huddles together, people use “the crowd” as their measure of truth, and no one seems to be interested in venturing beyond the “world” of the familiar. The force of gravity pulls at the masses of humanity. But the pilgrim, conceived in the restless, must somehow begin to understand what difference means.

The philosopher Jaques Derrida created a term, différance. This term is a play on words, it combines “deferring” with “difference.” Try as we might, things just won’t stick. Words, ideology, definition, laws, and roles. They are never fixed in any absolute position. Things are always being deferred and differentiated.

Différance is the nameless name of this open-ended, uncontainable, generalizable play of traces.” Nutshell p. 105

This is something undefinable, and yet it is more than being different for the sake of being different. It is the calling out of something new, the voice that said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.” Deep calls to deep. The unknown stretches out endlessly on the horizon of possibility.

Difference is the voice that cannot speak. It calls the pilgrim to new worlds.

“Perhaps Yahweh’s great concern is the preservation of differences. Humans from gods. Humans from animals. Kin from non-kin. Men from women. Perhaps, finally, individual from individual. We’re all naked and afraid. We want to merge into something that will protect us. To become one flesh. Even if it means losing the very thing that makes each of us unique.” p. 125 of The Stations


john doyle said...

Well Erdman, it looks like you might be down to the remnant on this post. Kind of like the Salon: you put out advertisements and offer free workshops but nobody comes...

You've made the case previously that both the church and popular culture tend to be herdlike yet at the same time alienating and isolating. There are conflicting alternatives for resolving this sort of lose-lose situation: pursue closer intimacy with the herd, or break free of the herd and pursue one's own solitary path. Is any higher synthesis possible, something like a fellowship of the outliers? And is this an inherently elitist position?

We've also had discussions about the Spirit-led life. Law is an institutional system intended to enforce the conformity of the herd. If through Christ you are dead to Law, does the Spirit trace idiosyncratic trajectories through the world for each separate individual? Or is the Spirit moving everyone into an even tighter-knit herd than the Law could ever accomplish? Again the danger is a lose-lose situation: everyone doing their own thing, but that "thing" is predictable and herdlike -- like the marketplace.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Nice one. Yes, I need a ratty sign to tape up on my blog!

Ah! I just noticed that you started blogging again.....excellent!

I think something like a fellowship of the outliers is possible, whether or not it is elitist perhaps depends on how such a fellowship forms itself and the "culture" that such a fellowship develops. In my blogging on "the system," one of my points has been that one can oppose the system while still loving those (including one's self!) who are within the system. To do this, in my mind, requires that we view evil as something that is not essentially inside specific persons but something that is outside, like a pollutant in the air that we breath. Sure, we are "sick" from breathing the polluted air, but the point is to clean up the air, not to align ourselves against the sick.

In times of crisis, though, human beings (in the herd mentality) tend to expel the sick....the problem is that we so often wait until a problem is of a crisis proportion before acting on it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hhhhmmmmm......John, good question about the Spirit. Presumably, the work of the Spirit is to give individuals freedom and grace, opening them up to give and receive love. From my reading, New Testament transformation is through freedom and grace. It cannot be earned.

The early church in Acts lived out a communal living arrangement: people were selling their material possessions and living together in radical community. This seems to have to do with the biblical emphasis on the outcast, or the "other."

So, my guess is that the Spirit's work is to free us to love and to receive love, which would perhaps take us away from "the world" (or "the herd"), which is a collective that kind of connects itself based on self-interests. The Spirit takes us out of "the world" of non-love and directs us to the other or the outcast or toward others with similar self-less interests. The work of the spirit of love then begins to take on its own gravity, I think, and the broken, the hurting, and those transformed by the spirit kind of all form alternatives to "the world." This seems like the "new creation" of Paul: God chooses the things that are "despised" and "foolish" in the world to shame the wise. This is the "Kingdom" that Christ came to announce, a paradoxical, power-inverted kingdom with an absent, crucified king.

How does that resonate with your reading of the New Testament? And the work of the Spirit?

john doyle said...

In a comment on your Food post you say: "Jesus would be the paradigm embodiment of who I would want to imitate when it comes to taking down the system."

In light of this pilgrimage discussion and freedom in the Spirit, why imitate anyone?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good point.

One might wonder if Jesus himself would be a bit skeptical of the What Would Jesus Do movement. Perhaps he would say, "Dude. Get a life."

Jonathan Erdman said...

IF there is an "imitation," I would think it would be to imitate the manner in which someone like Jesus (or Ghandi or Sartre or Kierkegaard or Mandela or MLK Jr. or Malcom X, etc.) walked. That is, not imitating "what" they did but the way they did it, the way they explored difference in their respective homogenous and oppressive contexts.

john doyle said...

Agreed. There's an inescapable Dasein, a being-there in concrete places and times, that characterizes the human condition. And I think there is a kind of situational ethic that applies, though guided by some more general ethos or the contours of some alternate reality. Part of my thought experiment in The Stations was whether Prop should help facilitate everyone's attempts to "get different," even if those differences might result in danger to self (Miguel) or others (Karas). I.e., are all differences equal? I think that's the ethos of the marketplace. If that's not working for us, then what standards do we apply to distinguish good from bad difference? This is where your imitation of manner presumably comes in.

samlcarr said...

In "The Stations" the action centers around three persons (Prop, Miguel and Dervain) whom one could consider to be examples of 'true' pilgrims. Pilgrimage, more generally, is a commodity that is readily commercializable."By then Miguel found himself perpetually surrounded by the acolytes. They didn’t get it; they couldn’t do it. They read the books and attended the seminars, they aped the words, they traversed the trails. But Miguel could tell: it wasn’t working for them.
With speed and force, pilgrimage had moved from the side show to the big top. What was revealed under the canvas? Legerdemain and nostalgia. Travel agencies and iconic gift shops. Seekers after vicarious death. Money raining down like ash from a volcano. Legions of lost souls lining up for popcorn and cotton candy. Ticket takers deciding when to pull up stakes and beat it.
" (p. 83)
The vast majority of pilgrims choose to search in one or another of the readily available options or perhaps move from one to another, seeking but not finding.

The three main protagonists, on the other hand, have each moved through some route and have ended up in a similar but yet different 'place'.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hhhhmmmm.....yes, Sam.....and great quotation, too.

Very good.

Some "get it" and some "don't get it."

And yet, even of those who "get it," there's a good deal of difference and diversity.

Among those Pilgrims who "don't get it," there is homogeneity: everyone is kind of buying the same ticket for the same show.

Those who "get it" don't always appear to be the most well-adjusted. (As you are saying, Doyle: what of difference if it starts to threaten the subject?) And, in fact, it's difficult to discern what is actually the common factor, other than just the fact that each is letting difference kind of work its way through things in a free flowing way.

The way of the crowd is to kind of bottle up difference and sell it as the next remedy "for all that ails ya'."

Anonymous said...

I have logged onto your blog for the first time..the lone individual hero rising above the system/crowd is a very compelling and attractive picture to portay oneself as yet you sound somewhat elistist and superior


Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks for your comment.

A fair observation.

Those who exit the masses, who feel out of place amongst the crowd, will have a tendency to want to justify their place as a pilgrim by believing themselves to be superior to those whom they left.

This prompts many questions in my mind, one of which is whether or not superiority is unavoidable....I think it is, but it is by no means easy to determine why.

But much of the psychology of "superiority" seems to be a defense mechanisms to feelings of inferiority, which I think is the dominant mood of most pilgrims: the feeling of the reject who doesn't fit in because s/he is in some way defective.

Most people seem to have the instinctive reaction that being a part of the majority means that they are safe/right/true/okay, while being outside the majority means that they are unsafe/wrong/false/defective.

john doyle said...

Ambiguity is one of the things I like best about fiction. You don't have to state and defend a proposition; you can have different situations and characters embody different perspectives on a subject like elitism versus the herd. That fewer and fewer people read fiction these days suggests in part that collectively we've become less interested in exploring alternative realities.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Why do you say that fewer people read fiction these days? Do you have statistics on this? And do the statistics attempt to explain why people do not read fiction?

Do you think that the lack of interest in alternative realities is the sole reason for declining interest in fiction? I would be curious as to what you think about contemporary fiction writing. Has the writing itself become less interested in exploring alternative realities? Do you think there are fewer original and creative voices on the fiction scene? I'm not up on contemporary fiction, as a genre, so I'm curious as to your thoughts.