“I was pleased to discover in myself an uncanny knack for interpreting the hermetic language of alchemy, as if my book learning had been but a preparation for decrypting enigmatic texts, reading meaning into that which, on the surface, seemed meaningless.”
So says the unnamed narrator of Charles Davis’ The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium, an obsessively researched and elaborately plotted parody of an historical romance. (Parody, as I understand the term, is best written by an author who actually loves his target, but who can put some ironic distance between himself and his subject.) The story is set in the abbey of the legendary Mont Michel in 1621, when the absence of roadway access meant visiting pilgrims had to make their way around quicksand between dangerously unpredictable tides. The landscape always plays an important and often symbolic role in Davis’ novels. The pilgrims must interpret the patterns in the sand to avoid sinking in the lise.
Ludibrium is a word, derived from Latin, for “plaything” or “practical joke.” In this novel, Davis is playing the part of an Alan Sokal pretending to be Dan Brown. The narrator, a young Jesuit priest, whom we have met already in Davis’ slim classic, Walk On, Bright Boy, receives a copy of “Lucifer’s Emblem” from a dying monk who instructs him to seek its meaning at Mont Michel, where he may discover the Philosopher’s Stone or the Holy Grail or eternal perfection or some other such reward, which are all confusingly the same thing, in some sense. At the abbey, he finds two eccentric priests, Dom Eugene—who has an unnatural distaste for the body and a fear of women—and Eugene’s foil Dom Robert, a fat, corrupt but charming jokester, who becomes the narrator’s true spiritual guide. Both Eugene and Robert practice alchemy. The former believes in the spiritual and symbolic (if not material or chemical) significance of the practice. The latter just thinks it’s fun. The narrator occupies a role between these two men. He is not fanatical like Eugene, nor is he cynical like Robert: he is dedicated to his calling as a priest, but he is also a naïve virgin who doesn’t understand what he is giving up to pursue a monastic life.
As Davis is a fellow writer in the same publishing house as I, I had the fortune of getting to know him and was able read the very funny and entertaining writing journals that he kept throughout the process, in which he claims the book was conceived to
“counter to the plethora of Dan Brownesque alternative history novels on the market (you know the sort of thing, take the name of a famous historical figure, prefix it with the definite article, then bung ‘code’, ‘riddle’, ‘matrix’, ‘enigma’, ‘cipher’, ‘key’ or some such on the end, to give ‘The Beethoven Cabal’, ‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy’, ‘The Scooby Doo Conundrum’ et al),”
Davis’ intention to remain aloof aside, when he threw himself into the research, as any good novelist will do, he soon came to worry that he was losing his mind, possibly even becoming the new Dan Brown.
“The problem was that I wanted to know a bit about everything that was happening in Europe at the time … The start of the Thirty Years War was easy enough. The Huguenot rebellion was OK, too. Picking up on royal politicking is never a problem, especially since this was the period when the bishop who became Cardinal Richelieu was busy insinuating his way into a position of power. The turmoil of the Protestant and Counter Reformations are also well documented and relatively easy to follow.
“I confess, French fiscal policy was pretty dull and pretty redundant, but I dutifully noted a paragraph or two. I was coping all right. Even when I dipped into the initial stirrings of Jansenism, played about with Molinism and semi-Pelagianism, and dug up a few clues about the persistence of Gnostic traditions, I still had a vague idea what I was doing. The peripatetic life of Giordiano Bruno, his infinite worlds theory, and the heliocentric debate weren’t entirely beyond me, either. But then –perhaps fatally– I began downloading shedloads of material on a subject for which St. Michael is, among other things, the patron saint: alchemy. To be honest, it all got rather out of hand.”
In the end, Davis fears were unfounded; he escapes the fate of being seduced by alchemy. The book is nothing like Brown. He writes a thoroughly authentic tale without cluttering it up with too many historically accurate decorations. He keeps the knowledge gleaned from the research in the background, where it provides tone and color, but not too many ponderous facts or trivia.
The plot of Pilgrim does not hinge upon decoding mysterious sacred riddles, it turns on the much more interesting idea that such riddles were invented by clever priests to attract tourists/pilgrims in order to sell them souvenirs. (Twain, in his European travel writings, remarks that if all the pieces of Christ’s cross were reassembled, it would be greater than Noah’s ark.) But the tale is not a straight Da Vinci Code parody either. On its serious and sincere side, of which there is much, the novel relates the personal journey of this Jesuit priest who is ostensibly trying to decode an alchemical riddle, but is actually teaching himself how to understand his role in life as a meaning-making human and lover of a woman, Marthe (or Tita, as he calls her). Tita is accused of being a witch, and our young priest wants to save and protect her, however obvious it may be that she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
The narrator’s personal search for meaning is authentically and gracefully portrayed as he grapples with the idea of perfection and hopes for something beyond this life. Eventually, he learns that the ultimate happiness is to accept life itself as its own reward.
“There is no good to be had of digging down too deep into things, looking for connections, patterns, a lost key that will explain the puzzling inconsistencies of life. Nor is there any benefit to dreaming up a mysterious cabal, malign or benign, like the Fraternity of the Rose Cross, that is capable of manipulating the world with its esoteric knowledge. These are false stories, the one searching for unity, for a return to what we were, a time before the Fall, the other looking to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the state of the world. They are elective illusions, ways of distracting ourselves from what we have become and what we will always be. That is the true grail, knowing that we are what we are and that there was no better world in the past to which we may still aspire.”
This is not a rejection of religion so much as a critique of fanaticism as well as a bit of an apology for corruption. The defrocked priest is, in the end, not lost; he receives the education he needs from his union with a woman in order to be closer to God. It’s not for nothing that Augustine had his concubine, I suppose.
Having never been afraid of women myself, I am not all that sympathetic to the Priest’s journey of discovery. But I don’t think that is where the real story is anyway. In this many-layered tale, there is interpretive material enough for any reader’s predilection.
What Davis does next is nothing short of genius. The “practical joke” riddle turns out, quite accidentally, to lead to mysterious treasure after all. It’s going to take a bit of explaining why this is, in my opinion, a deliciously literary plot twist.
First some background. Tita is a midwife and a general healer, and the locals think her a witch for the herbs she uses in her practice. In truth, Tita is plain speaking, has a lot of common sense and is the best “doctor” the people have. Although Paracelsus is not specified in the list of research interests, the 16th century alchemist, arguably one of the first modern doctors, seems strongly suggested by the character of Tita. Paracelsus famously claimed that a doctor must “seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveler. Knowledge is experience.” In fact Davis, himself also an accomplished writer of walking guides, may be identified with Paracelsus, the ever-wandering student, who famously crisscrossed his way throughout Europe and the Middle East.
It is the circuitous way in which Paracelsus made important scientific discoveries that is important to our literary plot twist. Alchemists like Paracelsus and Davis’ Eugene thought that the Book of Nature could be read like poetry, and that there was a divine meaning to be discovered in puns, etymologies, and virtually any coincidental similarity. Accordingly, Paracelsus reasoned that small doses of mercury could cure syphilis because it was caught “in the Market Place” so to speak (mercury and market come from the same root word). And he was right. Mercury does treat syphilis—but not because of the name. But who cares how we get there, as long as we arrive at a good place.
After thoroughly emptying the Lucifer Emblem and the Grail Riddle of any possible real meaning by revealing the fact that they are hoaxes devised by Dom Robert, Davis proceeds to reanimate the riddle. While there is no correct interpretation to the riddle because there is no actual intention—it’s only nonsense—the priest’s incorrect interpretation leads him to a hidden tunnel, a secret burial chamber with treasures and, possibly, even the coveted stone. I am reminded of Lem’s His Master’s Voice in which hundreds of scientists seek to decode an apparently random but repeating string of signals from deep space, and they all find something meaningful, from cures for the common cold to new kinds of energy. There is something very marvelous about misinterpretations that turn out to be true in unexpected ways. The American philosopher C. S. Peirce called this form of “logic” abduction, and it helps a thinker “leap” to new discoveries. Such accidental discoveries may be the driving force of all new creations under the sun. This, I contend, is the only true form of “magic” that exists in the world. It’s nature’s magic and it’s poetry.
Dom Robert says it well, “Words can conjure up all manner of wonders, you know. Which is why one should be careful about what one invents. You never know when it might come true. Besides, we look at the world, we listen, we make patterns. We do it despite ourselves. No matter how whimsical, some of them must have a bearing on reality. Or be so vague that they match whatever passes for reality. That’s all part of the game.” He later adds, “Learning has its limits, but imagination can encompass almost everything.”
In some ways, the alchemists were the first “literary” readers. They are responsible, perhaps, for what we call literary fiction. To them nothing was merely literal. Everything had an other meaning. This attitude toward the world and sacred texts later became the poetic imagination. Poetry is possible only in an atmosphere that encourages readers to wonder, for instance, what transcendental might have to do with dentistry (to repeat Nabokov, another great connoisseur of alchemical coincidence).
The Pilgrim of Love is a beautifully arranged meditation on the art of being human. The dialogue is a pleasure to read, always natural and clever, even when concerning the most profound philosophical issues. Davis evokes sympathy for all of the characters, even, or maybe even especially, for the “bad” or naïve ones—the mark of an excellent storyteller. I can hope we hear more from the wandering Jesuit.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015