John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (fragments)

Today I’ve got some serious philosophy, although the editors of the NAEL picked probably the most literary part of Locke’s Essay, that is “The Epistle to the Readers”. In this introduction Locke notices courteously that he hopes his readers are going to have at least half as much fun in reading it as he had in writing it. It’s not because he is so puffed up about its value, but because he really thinks the hunt for truth is a lot of fun, much more than the real hunting or hawking and much more profitable. He addresses his book to those who like to think for themselves and not to rely on the thoughts of others, but he also notices modestly that this book is not addressed  to those who already mastered the subject. He explains the origins of this project, which was apparently started by a discussion with a few friends on an unrelated subject and which was brought to a standstill. Locke and his nameless friends decide that before they discuss the subject, they have to “examine [their] own abilities, and see what objects [their[ understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” He noted down some hasty thoughts before their next meeting and worked on them on and off for many years before creating the final version of this test.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – “The River of Death and the Celestial City”

Before the start of the passage, Christian picked up two other pilgrim buddies, Hopeful and Ignorance, but Ignorance is lame (literally) and is left behind. Now their journey is near the end and the pilgrims are nearing the Celestial City, but it shines so much in the sun, its walls being made of pure gold, that they can’t look at it directly. They are approached by two men whose faces and clothes shine like the sun and the men ask them who they are and where they are coming from. After hearing the answers, they tell them two more obstacles on their way before they get to the Celestial City, but they have to overcome them on their own. They lead them to a deep river and tell them they have to cross it by themselves, as nobody except for Enoch and Elijah was spared crossing it and nobody ever will until the end of the world. The river is also of varied depth, depending on your faith you may find it deep or shallow. And indeed, when they step into it, Hopeful can hold his head above the water, while Christian is sinking. This is the allegory of the moment of death, where even pious Christians (as plenty of historical testimonies show) were oppressed not only by physical pain, but also psychological torment of doubting their own salvation, especially Calvinists, who could never be certain whether they were among “the elect”. Christian is not only sinking, but also sees the visions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, and in general he is sure he won’t make it to the other bank. Hopeful keeps his head above the water and tries to comfort him. When he reminds Christian about the promise of salvation made by Jesus, Christian finally regains his hope and immediately finds the ground under his feet. When they are on the firm ground, they are greeted by angels and taken to the city where they are asked to produce their certificates. The King reads the certificates and tells them to open the gates for them. Then they are given harps, crowns, general rejoicing etc. Then comes the real gloomy punchline: Ignorance comes hobbling late, and he gets through the river without any problems because he finds a ferryman called Vain Hope. But when he gets on the shore and the angels ask him to produce his certificate, he can’t find any, and he is thrown bound into a hole that leads to hell. “So I awoke”, ends Bunyan’s narrator blithely, completely accepting that somebody who is aware of Christian doctrine (because Ignorance says “I have eat and drank in the presence of the King”) and went through the journey can be still damned if he doesn’t know the right sort of Christianity and is not among the elect.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – “Vanity Fair”

Probably the most famous episode of The Pilgrim’s Progress, if only because it gave the name to a certain magazine. The pilgrims on their way to the Celestial City have to go through a town called Vanity, where an all-year-round fair is held (as opposed to the usual fairs, which were an annual occasion). At this point obviously Bunyan has to quote Ecclesiasticus (sorry, the authors of the New International Version, but “meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless” just does not sound as well). At the fair you can buy everything people care about in their lives: riches, job promotions, mistresses, spouses, children etc. Just like in regular fairs (and you can sometimes see the traces of it in the names of the streets in some historical towns) each nation has its own street, so there is the German Row, the French Row, but the most popular is the one dealing with the ware of Rome (meaning the Roman Catholic Church). The fair was established by devils when they realized all pilgrims had to pass through the town, all the better to tempt them. Also Jesus went through this town during his temptation in the desert. When the pilgrims come to town, they make a sensation because they dress and speak differently, so a lot of people mock them (just like Puritans were often mocked for their dress and what others perceived as affectation in speech). They also refuse to buy any of the goods on display. They are led to the governor of the town and although they tell him they mean no offense to the town, they just don’t want to buy anything, they are put in a cage where they can be taunted publicly.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (fragments – “The Slough of Despond”)

As Christian is running away, many of his neighbours come out to see what is going on or cry after him to return. The biblical reference to Jeremiah sends us to a dark passage in which the prophet complains about how his friends conspire against him. Two of his neighbours, Obstinate and Pliable follow him and when they catch up with him, they try to make him come back. He tells them that his town is bound to be destroyed and he is in search for eternal life and reward. Obstinate makes fun of it, but Pliable is convinced and decides to follow him. But on their way they reach a big marsh called the Slough of Despond. Pliable becomes quickly discouraged, because that’s not how he imagined the promised reward. He says to Christian “You can keep all the promised happiness to yourself”, manages to make his way to the bank closest to his house and goes home. Christian manages to reach the opposite bank, but the burden on his back is too big and he can’t get out. Fortunately he meets a man named Help who asks him what he is doing in there. Christian says he went in search of the wicker gate and fell into the bog. Help asks him why he didn’t look for the steps and Christian answers that he was running so fast because of his fear he didn’t look the out. Help then, true to his name, helps him to get out from the bog on the solid ground. The narrator (the man who has the dream, not Christian) asks Help why the road is not repaired if that’s the only way from the City of Destruction to the gate. Help explains that “it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run”; in other words the experience of conversion is inextricably connected with the realization of the grossness of one’s sins and the resulting depression.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (fragments)

After Samuel Pepys comes a man who in many respects is Pepys’s polar opposite: working-class, spent a big part of the Restoration years in jail, with apparently no time for theatres, chasing women or caring about his home decorations. But as we could see in the previous post, Pepys was in his own way a sincerely religious man, even though his flesh was notoriously weak. And only because Buyan did not describe his every hook-up in as much detail as Pepys did, can we assume he led a spotless life? Although taking into account how much time he spent in prison, he simply may not have had as much opportunity for sin. And Bunyan called himself “the chief of sinners” in the title of his autobiography, although that’s what every Puritan would have done, so we can’t really rely on that.

One characteristic feature of Bunyan’s writing is that he gives you book, chapter, verse for almost everything he writes. I don’t see that kind of intimacy with the Bible often nowadays outside of The Watchtower. Bunyan’s use of biblical allusions is also quite interesting: sometimes he just indicates where he lifted whole expressions from the Bible and put it in a different contexts, sometimes his text is like an illustration of the biblical passage, like when Christian is fleeing his sinful family and the biblical siglum sends us to the line in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples you have to hate your father and your mother to be his disciple.

But from the start: the text is a throwback to the classical medieval dream vision, which begins with the narrator falling asleep and relating to the readers the contents of his dream. He sees a man reading a book, with a burden on his back and a book in his hand. What he reads in the book apparently disconcerts him, because he sarts to cry and ask “What shall I do?” He goes home and tries to hide his sorrow from his family, but finally he can’t contain it any longer and he tells them he has it on good authority that their town is going to be destroyed and they together with it. They first think he is just “tired and emotional” and tell him to go to bed, but when the next day he doesn’t change his views, they start to make fun of him or ignore him. During one of his solitary walks in the fields he meets “a man named Evangelist” who asks his about the reasons of his distress. He tells him that he has learnt from the book that he is doomed to die and then come to judgment, and he is neither willing to do the former or able to do the latter. Evangelist asks him why he is not willing to die, and the yet nameless man (later identified as Christian) tells him that he is afraid that the burden upon his back is going to drag him to hell. Evangelist asks him whether he sees a wicket gate but he can’t. Evangelist then asks him whether he can see a shining light, and when answered in the affirmative, he tells him to follow the light which should lead him to the wicker gate, and there he will be told what to do next. So the man runs toward it, putting his fingers in his ears so that he can’t hear the cries of his wife and children.

Samuel Pepys – “The Diary” (fragments)

After yesterday’s post I checked the birth dates of Samuel Pepys and his wife, and I learnt that they were much younger than I thought. Somehow the portrait conventions, all these elaborate dresses and hairstyles, make people of the former eras always look “old”, while in fact Pepys wrote his diary between the ages of 27 and 37. His wife was seven years younger than him (she died, poor soul, of typhoid fever, when she was 29, just a few months after he ended writing his diary. The events described in this post took place when he was 35 and she was 28, so they were not a middle-aged bickering  couple, but quite young people. Heck, today they would just start considering “becoming exclusive”. (I just checked, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, Deb Willet at the time of these events was just 18.)

But in Pepys’s world, they “became exclusive” thirteen years ago, with of course the cultural assumption that faithfulness for a wife was obligatory, while for a husband it was just a nice ideal to aspire to. In fact, the cultural assumption was enshrined in English law, which stated that a husband could divorce his wife for adultery, while a wife could not. So the marital spats between Mr and Mrs Pepys, which AFAIR were a regular feature of their domestic life, make me rather sad. She could throw tantrums and make various threats and he could be all remorseful and swear never to cheat on her again (and perhaps even really mean it), but the truth of the matter is that at the back of their heads they both knew he had the upper hand in the conflict.

So the story is: Mrs Pepys does not want her husband to go out, because she is afraid he is going to search for Deb Willet, which he swears he won’t do, and of course as soon as he is out of door he heads to the place where he heard she might be staying. After a whole day spent in search of her (he sends somebody who thought knew somebody who worked as a porter for her landlord etc.), interspersed with popping in at his workplace now and then, he finally learns about her whereabouts and hires a coach to go to her, because by that time it got dark. She comes in the coach and he persuades her to give him a hand job (as usual, Pepys resorts to a mixture of Spanish and French words to describe the act), after which he gives her a sermon about how she needs to guard her honour. In Pepys’s curious definition, it means not doing it wtih any other man but him. It’s funny, but also I think what a great deal of men define as “a decent woman” nowadays, even if they don’t admit it. He gives her some money and the directions how to contact him secretly. He goes home, tells his wife some nice story about what kept him so late and goes to bed.

The next day Pepys works from home and he is in very good mood all morning, thinking he managed his affair with Deb just fine. When before the lunch he goes to see how the redecoration of one of their rooms goes on, he notices his wife’s sour face. She starts to accuse him of going to see Deb Willet yesterday, he first denies it, knowing that she can have no proof, but finally admits to ease her and his mind and also to relieve his conscience. (I think the cheaters who go all “see, I told you everything, I am so honest and have such a sensitive conscience” are not worse than plain cheaters.) Elizabeth makes various threats to slit Deb’s nose, and to leave her husband, and demands money of him to make her leave quietly instead of publicizing his affair. So she yells, he apologizes, and finally he decides to call in his clerk William Hewer, who by this time was pretty much his friend, and poor Hewer is forced to play the role of the child who cries and says “Mommy, don’t leave Daddy!” (The Pepyses didn’t have children; Pepys did live the last years of his life in Hewer’s house and made him the executor of his will, so I think the comparison is quite apt.) Finally Elizabeth makes Pepys swear he will never see or speak with Deb again. After that they have supper and pretty good make-up sex. In the middle of the night Pepys goes to his room to pray on his knees to God to give him strength to stop cheating on his wife, because he really hates when they quarrel, although he notices mournfully that “God knows I cannot yet [pray] heartily”, which sounds awfully like St Augustine’s prayer “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”. He is so depressed by the whole business that he cannot even enjoy the new upholstery in his room. As the Helpful Footnote points out, God didn’t send Pepys his grace and he did continue to pursue Deb, but apparently they never consummated their affair.

Samuel Pepys – “The Diary” (fragments)

Samuel Pepys was an inveterate womanizer and the next selection of fragments refers to his affair with the maid Deb Willet. At the end of what seems like a fairly ordinary Sunday (church, a visit from a friend etc.) he asked Deb to comb his hair and his wife walked on them when he was fingering her, which was the cause “of the greatest sorrow to me that i knew in this world”. It might be a bit of hyperbole, taking into account Pepys survived the Great Fire and also a surgery for kidney stones. Anyway, he can’t be sure how much she really saw because of the voluminous skirts then worn by women, but she definitely saw them being intimate and stood speechless. What follows is several days during which Pepys’s wife keeps on waking him up in the middle of the night, yelling at him, crying and threatening to convert to Roman Catholicism. All that happens during a rather nervous time at Pepys’s work, when Duke of York is accused of mismanaging the Navy and Pepys has to defend him. Still, knowing himself in the wrong, he tries to appease her and swears his love for her. But he is also worried about Deb’s future, because Mrs Pepys is sure to dismiss her. About two weeks later, when Deb is living, Pepys tries to hand her discreetly some money, but his wife keeps an eye on him and he doesn’t have a chance to do so. He goes to work with a heavy heart, not least because he thinks now he won’t be allowed to have sex with anybody else (which turned out not to be true), but on the other hand he also thinks that she will try to please him to keep him from straying, and he really wants to be a faithful husband, because she deserves it, but he also thinks its going to be hard for him to forget Deb. It’s a long sentence, but this is how Pepys’s mind works, and he does his best to note down all these conflicting emotions. At night he has sex with his wife and he observes they had more sex in the period since they quarrelled then in the whole previous year, and it seems like it gave his wife more pleasure than ever before. Was Mrs Pepys putting on a bit of Meg Ryan to keep her wayward husband with her? Or did the quarrel really re-ignite their passion? People. They are complicated.