The metaphor of life as journey, a journey of trial and tribulation, of discovery and revelation, a journey in pursuit of self-knowledge and world-knowledge, a roller-coaster ride of contrasting delights and disappointments, a continual series of births, deaths and rebirths, an uncertain pilgrimage of sorts — is long established.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the world’s literature. Everywhere you look people are shaping stories about their lives and the lives of others, trying to give sense and structure to existence in the form of fiction, allegory and myth. The grail quest book (eg Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) or the German Bildungsroman (eg Goethe’s Wilhem Meister novels), in which the ‘hero’ undertakes a journey of self-realisation, are just two examples of this human and literary desire. Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Hesse’s Siddhartha, Fowles’s The Magus — all these works, and countless more, take us on a journey of the human body, mind, soul and spirit, a pilgrimage into the unknown.
In the distant past we were nomadic creatures — hunting and gathering, moving from one region to the next in search of food, fleeing deserts and glaciers and seeking more favourable climates. We were always on the move; our lives were actual journeys. Then we began to clear the forests, farm the land, domesticate animals — to settle down. We congregated together, created societies, cities, empires. Our fluid and orally-transmitted stories gradually became more fixed in manuscript, then in print, then in digital form. Culture, for better or worse, was born.
But our journeys continued — journeys into art and science and religion, journeys of exploration to exotic lands and inhospitable places. We were astonished by the Egyptian pyramids, by Greek and Roman architecture, by the Buddha and Jesus, by Galileo and Newton, by Leonardo and Michelangelo. We learnt the world was a sphere and we sailed around it. We opened up trade routes — the Silk Road, the Spice Route, the Northwest Passage. And we made dedicated trips to sacred sites and religious shrines — to Stonehenge, to Delphi, to Mecca, to Jerusalem, to Santiago de Compostela.
It seems that we humans have a need to travel, to explore, to find out — either physically or imaginatively or both. We go on journeys, on pilgrimages, both interior and exterior, both real and fictional, both spiritual and secular, because we have an urgent need to discover who we are and what the world is about.
We turn our lives into fictions and allegories, the stuff of the world into symbols — the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers, the trees.
Our outer world reflects our inner world and vice versa. We are microcosms within a macrocosmic universe, fractals within other fractals — our small but perfectly-formed bodies vast worlds of atoms, cells and molecules, our minds potentially limitless in their imaginative powers.
|Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man sketch.|
To be continued . . .