A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Pilgrim's Way (2): Inner and Outer Journeys

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, CervantesDon 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 . . .


George said...

Yes, as you say, "we have an urgent need to discover who we are and what the world is about." I wonder how many questers still have that urgent need — or at least significant parts of it — in the final days of their respective journeys. Is this not a situation in which we are always being pulled forward by the quest, never completely satisfied with what we've discovered? Isn't every pilgrim's discovery, in Tennyson's immortal words, " and arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and ever when I move."? I raise this point because I often wonder if I spend too much time and energy in search of answers which are elusive at best. Sometimes I think that we're lucky if we find nothing more that a few hints and glimpses.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I think that, particularly in later life, we are probably more realistic, and more resigned to accepting those few hints and glimpses, George — which is only the scant amount we really knew all along, if we were honest. The mystery, the mystery. Yet — what a great journey!

Nick said...

...and yet we truly only exist in the moment rather than a continuum of travel through time - a paradox n'est ce pas?

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it's a paradox. We have this traditional idea of time, of life, of a journey as linear, as something we progress along from A to B, experiencing things in a certain order and perhaps learning from them, accumulating knowledge, achieving goals then moving on, and so on.

Yet, from another viewpoint, and particularly from an Eastern perspective, there is no such thing as time, all experience and all existence is contained just in this moment, and that's the only thing we can be sure of, and this moment now is timeless and hence eternal. All we have is memory of the 'past' — and memory is an unreliable mechanism at best — and fears/hopes/expectations for the 'future', all pure imaginings.

It's like the difference between a classical symphony or sonata, with its structure and progression, and a modern free-jazz riff, which circles round a musical centre, with no clear beginning or ending.

It's the reason why they say that on the Camino the day-to-day, moment-to moment journey itself is the important thing, not the ostensible, physical goal (e.g. Santiago).

dritanje said...

Whatever these journeys are all about, I just know that sometimes - though not always, but sometimes - just feel so good when I'm walking, I can feel a sense of belonging that I used to think had to do with place of arrival. Nowadays I tend to feel that 'goal' is almost a pretext for setting out. And I so enjoy reading about other people's journeys. Thanks for writing about this always fascinating topic.

The Solitary Walker said...

'Whatever these journeys are all about, I just know that sometimes - though not always, but sometimes - just feel so good when I'm walking, I can feel a sense of belonging that I used to think had to do with place of arrival.'

Yes, Dritanje, I know exactly what you mean, a kind of rightness and belonging which comes from the walking, the process, rather than any destination. Love that you recognise this, and that we can share it.

'Not all those who wander are lost.' JRR TOLKIEN

'Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.' MATSUO BASHŌ

'Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place.' REBECCA SOLNIT