Monday, June 8, 2009

Vanity Fair I

When I had finished rereading Thackeray’s novel, it occurred to me that I ought to take a look at the book that he was alluding to when he decided to call it “Vanity Fair”: John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. 

Part One, written in 1678, is an allegorical account of the life of a good Christian, or at any rate the life of a man who wants to be a good Christian and eventually, after various encounters that test his spirit, succeeds: having reached the river of death that separates the Heavenly City from the world, he and his friend Hopeful drown as they are crossing it, whereupon they (minus their mortal graments) are taken up by a welcoming committee on the other side and brought in triumph into the City (which is everything you’d expect it to be: gold streets, harps, the lot.)


Any such life--the life of a wayfaring Christian--must, according to Bunyan and Christian tradition generally, be a lonely and heroic pilgrimage, surrounded by people, (like Christian’s wife in the first instance) who don’t see the point or, if they do, don’t want you to succeed and despise you for trying; or, in the extrreme case, try to kill you.

The first thing Christian has to do is leave his wife (spiritually, at least). Then he has to deal with various people who are so stupid or casually immoral that they get in his way--people like Obstinate or Pliable or Talkative or Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. And then there are such permanent features of the human condition, like depression (The Slough of Despond), despair, doubt, or the fear of death, or the sinful temptations that any moral person encounters, all of which have well-known names. For all of these Christian is more or less prepared, with a little help from his friend and advisor, Evangelist. What he is not prepared for--though Evangelist tries--is outright persecution by an enraged mob in the city of Vanity (where the Fair never stops) who rightly see him and Faithful as subversives who threaten the foundations of their whole (immoral) way of life. 

The city of Vanity goes back to the very beginnings of human history (as Bunyan understood it). Here is what he has to say:

“This fair is no new erected business, but a thing of ancient standing; I will show you the original of it. Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are:  and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all year long; therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures and delights of all sorts, as harlots, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. [I like that “what not.”] And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood-red colour. . . .Now, as I have said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town where this lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this town, must needs ‘go out of the world.’”

Faithful is judicially murdered--brutally lynched, essentially--but Christian escapes, when Higher Powers intervene, and continues on his way accompanied by Hopeful, one of the few decent citizens of Vanity.

The town of Vanity, with its eternal fair and its loathesome inhabitants, is at the center of what Pilgrims Progress is all about: a timeless depiction of the Christian way of life as one of unrelenting struggle with an enemy that is both within us and without: not only sinful, unregenerate human nature in the mass, as in the city of Vanity, but within us as well. Vanity Fair is eternal; it preceded the coming of Christ, which it ignored, and it will still exist, unchanged, when the Christian message has been forgotten. That, at least, is the plain meaning of Part One; Part Two softens that hard truth.

You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate Bunyan’s intellectual and moral--and literary-- power: the human nature dramatized in this allegory is what it is regardless of one’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, which is why Pilgrims Progress is one of the greatest books of practical ethics and morality ever written for ordinary people. Bunyan is one of the great masters of plain, eloquent, unadorned English prose; anyone who could read and possessed any books at all during the next 200 years, and more, owned this book and the bible.

Part Two, published in 1684 is a very different book: where Part One is timeless, independent of history, Part Two is all about time and change and, believe it or not, progress in the modern sense of the word. First of all, Christian’s wife has a change of heart and decides to follow him, with her four sons, who grow up along the way, marry, and have children of their own. When they come to Vanity, they find that it too has had a change of heart and changed: shocked by their extaordinarily brutal persecution of Christian and Faithful, this sinful city has become just another ordinary town. Where Christian and Faithful (later, Hopeful) had had to fight their way, these prilgrims have a champion, Great Heart, who accompanies them every step of the way and fights their battles for them. Theirs  is a virtually triumphal ‘progress.’ 

The death of Christian, crossing the great divide, or river, is desperate and agonizing (Hopeful seems to have no trouble at all); when Christiana and her numerous progeny finally arrive at the river, those whose time has come go accross “by appointment” (as the Wikipedia article says); the others settle down by the banks of the great river and live out their days in peace.

What follows is a foot-note to Bunyan's description of the town of Vanity with its eternal fair. He was, as I have indicated, of two minds about its timelessness; and so am I. For the idea of an amoral place where everything and anything has a price and is for sale is modern and therefore historical. People have always known that money is power and that power corrupts but have held on to the idea that there are some things that money can't buy--in addition to life itself. So everyone knows, for instance, the famous (feel-good) definition of a cynic, as one who knows the price of everything and value of nothing, but not everyone understands that the size of the world economy is measured by illegal or immoral transactions as well legal ones: any transaction in which money changes hands. That is to say, there are very few things in the modern world that have value but no price. Such things as integrity, honor (not the boughten kind), courage, kindness, wisdom come to mind as possibly priceless goods, but that's about it. A cynic, like Shakespeare's Iago, is inclined to disbelieve in the disinterested practise of these or any other virtues; everyone, he thinks, has an angle, a price, and can be bought; it just depends on how much you are willing to pay. 

The world is now one huge market, or fair, and this is a modern phenomenon. That market, or fair, was beginning to take shape when Bunyan was writing Pilgrims Progress, in the late 17th century. Hobbes' definition of happiness or 'felicity' in Leviathan (1651) lays the intellectual and moral foundations of the modern world-wide market-place. (See my posting of 2/2/08, "Happiness According Hobbes"). I've no idea if Bunyan read Hobbes. He wouldn't have had to.

Having gone this far out on my lonely limb, I might as well go little further. So far the corrosive power of big money  and the world market in whatever the heart desires has been held at bay by the power of the state to maintain law and order. When the power of the state collapses, states fail. States are now failing faster than at any time since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Why? Religious extremism is one reason but the biggest reason of all is our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. I have no idea how large the U.S. market for drugs is right now but it is huge and growing--especially now in hard times. With that money comes power. The power of money (and guns) is irresistable in new states, or states with democratic institutions including the rule of law which have only recently and with difficulty been established, or states where the struggle for scarce resources in a time of rapid climate-change has already begun. The states just to the south of the U.S., and in Africa are failing fast. The southern half of Italy seems well on its way. Afghanistan is a failed state; will Pakistan and the other Stans soon follow? And what of Russia, where the state has never been anything but tyrannous and the rule of law weak or non-existent?


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