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To blanch at the perceived notion that a 400-year-old book—few have heard of—could be
eloquently significant today might not be a rare reaction. However, Rev. Dr. Craig D. Atwood of Moravian University told me he uses Labyrinth of the World in his lectures. In his endorsement, on the back cover of the 2021 edition, he relates that his students “often express how contemporary (this book) feels.” Thus, I thought I would address this aspect.
Contemporary could take on any number of faces. But timelessness can be a form of contemporary appeal. The following examples are just a few of the many that I could cite from Labyrinth of the World. John Amos Comenius writes about life with such a keen understanding, you walk away feeling as though you had been listening to a prophet.
While trying to find my second artist, which I related in an earlier post, I talked to several others in an effort to find a fit concerning style and availability. One such candidate asked me to look at the manuscript. She sent me back the following section in utter amazement:
Awhile later, I saw some people who carried around mirrors with them. These constantly looked themselves over while chattering to others, or bickering with them. Those with mirrors didn’t just look at themselves from the front, but also from the back, and even from the side. They admired their beauty, figure, posture, and actions. They also handed their mirrors to others so they could peer into them as well.
The artist’s comment was in tones of utter shocked disbelief: “It feels like they are talking about smartphones and selfies.” In her initial response, it seemed that this book could not have a contemporary appeal. Yet the imagery in the book definitely spoke to her about her perceptions about smart phones and their effect/grip on people and society today. How many focus on what they are doing and how they are perceived through social media? Man’s search for significance has been placed on steroids in modern times. Labyrinth captures the real essence of this everyday modern problem.
Later in the book, Pilgrim, observing what he was allowed to see, always perceives the essence of the matter. Among many other aspects, Pilgrim watches people in an apothecary.
“Returning to the great hall once again, I took note of an
adjoining apothecary. Peering in, I noticed its dispensary shelving had ever increasing numbers of containers pressing in from all sides. I tried to see from whence it all came. I discovered to one side of it was an area behind a curtain. Entering thereupon, I observed tinners making pocket cases vying with another to offer the most ingenious and novel containers. I saw fancy cases covered in bone, wood, or mineral stone. The pill boxes were filled with everything from liniments
to powdered compounds or herbs, all for general application.”
This description is so today. One cannot go to any general merchandise retailer in America and not find a whole section dedicated to peddling supplements, vitamins, lotions, and powders. Yet what is more telling is the next bit Pilgrim shares of his perceptions in this venue.
I saw, however, the ineffectiveness of all these preparations, since such concoctions had multiplied to the point that everyone was awash in them. I therefore pitied some who could have relaxed in peace and genuineness instead gave themselves over to such quackery, even at risk to themselves and to whomever they distributed.”
Is this not a contemporary situation? People flock to supplements to better their lives, yet they remain measurably the same. The only real difference is their pockets are lighter, and someone else’s is heavier. I find this so modern, perhaps even more valid today on an industrial scale. People today want their lives bettered. But unfortunately, they mistakenly invest in the temporal and fleeting to seek that betterment.
Pilgrim observes another vista, that of the so-called immortal—those who have achieved either famously or infamously. So eloquent is this example that I shall let it speak for itself.
I then turned about to see painters sitting and gazing upon these men, the immortals, in order to portray them. I inquired as to why the painters were doing so.
Mr. Ubiquitous grandly responded, “So that their names do not gradually fade and disappear as with the sound of a voice. This way the memory of these people will endure.”
Then I gazed again. Each of those who had been painted, they themselves where thrown out into the outer darkness, just like all the rest of common men, while only their image remained. These images then were raised upon a pole to be seen by all.
Isn’t the illustration haunting. How lonely it is “at the top.” But the real kicker is what another character does with the images of those who have become immortal:
Meanwhile, Lady Fortune appeared and ordered some images, among them both old and faded but also fresh portraits, to be torn down. I took this to mean that this precious immortality was of no intrinsic worth, but rather its endurance depended entirely upon the capricious fickleness of Lady Fortune—for she admitted portraits at one point only to toss them later on.
What does this say about our day? Lady Fortune shines upon whoever today, but she turns to Lady Cancel-Culture, who grades on the curve that constantly changes. Or perhaps she turns to Lady Vogue, who is fickle to what is new and novel at the moment. How trivial a pursuit to which many subscribe is the contemporary take away from Mr. Comenius.
Comenius’s work is contemporary because it is timeless. Humankind will always be the same, except having invented more ways to be as we always have been. Comenius’s sardonic way helps us see truth, essence, and the fleetingness of significance sought in temporal pursuits and the efforts we spend so much effort in our day. This is the value of this book. It caricatures humanity’s efforts in futility. Comenius sets the reader up for The Paradise of the Heart, which will not disappoint. The second section of the book is not escapist or Pollyannaism.
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