A previous blog post looked at Petrarch’s conversion experience while ascending Mount Ventoux in Provence. While Petrarch’s account of his spiritual awakening was dominated by his reading of Augustine’s Confessions I want to take a moment to think about the mountain.
Topography and terrain occupy an important place in stories of conversion, perhaps reaching their summit(!) with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in which the hapless Christian traverses a spiritual landscape reminiscent of the mythical lands occupied by the errant knights of romance. Movement through time and space is figured by both Petrarch and Bunyan as spiritual work or labour; for Bunyan this is purely allegorical but for Petrarch figurative and literal movement are combined. This is a common trope of conversion narratives, from Tobie Matthew’s journey to Rome where he converts to Catholicism, to James Wadsworth’s recount of his escape from continental Jesuits and his eventual return to English soil and the rejected Protestantism of his father. The accounts of sailors who escaped captivity and the allures of Islam in the Levant also mirror this Odysseus-like narrative of journey, toil and return: a narrative trope often read through the lens of the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
John Donne in his Satire 3 similarly describes the ‘hard deeds’ and the ‘body’s pains’ necessary in order to reach the hill of Truth:
…on a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;
Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will, implies delay, therefore now do:
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
The labour of climbing – whether it be a mountain or the metaphorical path towards God, or both – implies a material or bodily process of ascension (in both its secular and spiritual meaning). Why is it important that the body works alongside or concurrently with the soul? Is the extended metaphor of the journey necessary to the formation of a spiritual narrative? Does the conversion narrative’s reliance upon this metaphor in some way connect the ‘genre’ to the formation of ‘literary’ narrative?