Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do thou the substance of my matter see

While we're on the topic of The Pilgrim's Progress: A student in one of my seminars, in which we're reading - among other things - John Bunyan's Puritan allegory, has pointed me towards a recent film version of the book.

The trailer confirms my worst fears: the film is an abominable piece of evangelical literalism run riot.

Could it be that transatlantic crossings do terrible things to your higher interpretive skills - such as annihilate the ability to distinguish allegory from realism (a genetic mutation subsequently passed onto your offspring home, home on the range)?

Even the semi-educated tinsmith Bunyan, in 1678, was aware of this distinction, which he was careful to refer to several times in The Pilgrim's Progress. Hence in the book, he tells us, he uses "types, shadows and metaphors", "figures and similitudes", "fancies", "dreams" and "parables" to bring across his deeper message.

This method not only has a Biblical precedent, as Bunyan points out, it also has a didactic effect - making things more plain to see:

I find that Holy Writ in many places
Hath semblance with this method, where the cases
Doth call for one thing to set forth another:
Use it I may then, and yet nothing smother
Truth's golden beams, nay, by this method may
Make it cast forth its rays as light as day.

So when, at the beginning of Book I of The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan describes his protagonist Christian as a man "with a great burden upon his back", he emphatically does not mean that he has a grimy heap of sackcloth tied across his shoulders, as the makers of this film do. He is simply, really, truly distressed about the sinfulness of the world.

How can this statement be sausaged into total absurdity? Wasn't the original text read, I wonder, prior to writing the script? Didn't people bother to heed the words of old-world Bishop Bunyan, who warns of exactly this simplistic one-to-one?

Put by the curtains, look within my veil;
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail:
There if thou seekest them such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.

In utter despair of my fellow men, I leave the final word to John Bunyan's reputed descendant, Carnaby Street pop chick Vashti Bunyan (there is, I think, a family resemblance):

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