The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart

In The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart the Czech theologian and educator Jan Amos Comenius gives a representation of his own life experiences in the 17th century. According to the Slavic scholar Dmitrij Tschizewskij (1972, p. 139) the book is one of the most beautiful works in Czech literature and an important work in world literature. I have used two translations, both are based on the edition of Jan V. Novák from 1910: Matthew Spinka's American translation from 1942, which tries to "modernize the diction and to approximate the original with modern idiom" (p. VI) and Milada Blekastad's poetic Norwegian version from 1955. Citations are given from Spinka's translation. References also show to the subdivisions of the chapters as indicated in Blekastad's version.

The book is an allegoric tale about a pilgrimage, written 50 years before John Bunyan's more famous The pilgrim's progress, and quite different from it. The pilgrim in Comenius' work starts in his own heart, thinking through the aims of the pilgrimage:

I finally concluded to test all human affairs under the sun, and afterwards, when I had intelligently compared one with another, to choose such a profession as would permit me to spend a peaceful life. ... choose such mode of life as involves the least amount of care and labor and affords the greatest degree of comfort, peace, and cheerfulness. (Chapter 1.5 and 1.2)

"Thereupon, I went out of myself ... [and I] left my home to wander about the world in order to gain experience."

He describes life as a labyrinth, a more difficult one than the classical Greek model (Chapter 2). The labyrinth is seen as a city. It "formed a circle, and was surrounded with walls and ramparts, but in place of moats there yawned a gloomy abyss, apparently boundless and bottomless. Light shone only above the city, while beyond the walls it was pitch dark." (Chapter 5.1). (The drawing is made by Comenius).

The entrance is our birth, the exit is our death. Both are blurred in darkness. People are moving towards the castle of Fortuna, moving towards Happiness seen as wealth, pleasures and honour (Chapter 5).

The castle of Happiness is the residence of the queen of the world: "Her Most Gracious Queen Wisdom", in Chapter 33.1 unveiled as Vanity, with painted, swollen face, a foul breath and a disgusting body.

The pilgrim in The Labyrinth gets two "helpers". The first is the inquisitive guide who finds out everything: "Searchall, called Ubiquitous" (Chapter 2). The second is the interpreter, who is named "Delusion" (Chapter 3). He blurs all problems with soothing words, so that the problems seem to be harmless. It is said to be difficult to find good translations of the Czech names on the two helpers. In German Klaus Schaller proposes "Fürwitz ... Überalldabei" and "Verblendung" (Schaller, 1962, p. 185 and 193). Both these guides are the Queen's men. The pilgrim is tempted by Searchall to a mania for novelty, a persistent tendency to make digressions, "ein ständiges Abspringung von der Sache" (Patocka, 1971, p. 12), which also may be interpreted as a restless transcending of all limits - an urge for perfect knowledge and power - to be like God (Schaller, 1962, p. 190-194). By Delusion he is tempted to resignation, to be satisfied by half-truths. However, he resists seduction by these helpers, thanks to his own personal view. He does not always look through the glasses they have given him, and therefore he is not led astray by superficial inquiry or the accumulated "wisdom" of the world.

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Jan Ámos Komenský

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