Reading John Bunyan’s `Pilgrim’s Progress’ made a tremendous impression on me at about the age of 13 – but then, for the four centuries since it was first published, it had been a perennial popular classic and read by goodness how many people. Bunyan occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to his great contemporary John Milton. Minimal education, a hard life in the lower echelons of society, and 12 years in prison for his non-conformist religious beliefs. But his book has arguably had as great an impact on public consciousness in the English speaking world as `Paradise Lost’.
Rereading it on a whim (in one of those moments of serendipity I was reading something else, it mentioned Bunyan’s book, and I looked up and there it was in my line of sight on the bookshelf opposite me) I can’t say it quite carries the mighty punch it did almost four decades ago. For one, the allegory is like a sledgehammer – which would have gone down well with me then, but what with the intervening complexities of life in between just sounds like a fairy tale now. And a fairy tale, alas, with a pre-determined happy ending. Where is the fun in that!?
Even so, the start of the book really did read completely unlike anything I remembered of it. I recall the Interpreter’s House, the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Death – and all these were very helpful metaphorical frameworks within which to see life at a Grammar School on the outskirts of London in Kent in the late 1970s! But the opening moments when Christian is described being stirred to leave his home, his family and his community and head off to the Celestial City sound awfully now like a perfect description of someone having a psychotic fit veering towards a nervous breakdown!
Christopher Hill in `The World Turned Upside Down’ put down in granular detail the historic context in which Bunyan was writing – a world of uneasiness, fervour, division, clashing ideologies. Britain in its history has had these moments of perplexity and crisis. The 1536 break with Rome and smashing of the monasteries, the 1648 revolution and the decade of the Commonwealth afterwards, and then the long trauma of the Industrial Revolution. Odd that a dominant image of British history is so often of it being one of imperial splendour and ever-forward marching progress and conservative placidity, till the calamity of the modern period. Bunyan’s protagonist shows a man pissed off with pretty much everything and striving to get out of it every bit as febrile as someone in a modern setting going into meltdown at the parlous state of the country today.
A recent reading of books by Freud and on psychology and psychotherapy did make the reading of the middle portions on Giant Despair and Doubting Castle have added piquancy. Bunyan’s Giant Despair is a great metaphor for dolorous and heavy spirits, and for the failing of mood. No medication for this pilgrim though – he hoodwinks the imprisoning Giant, and in the next book, Humility or Mercy or some such slays him. But as we are constantly reminded in the `Pilgrim’s Progress’, this is all a dream, even if, as Freud taught us, dreams do mean.