- Trauma and Transformation: The Political Progress of John Bunyan
Trauma and Transformation, a collection of essays from the third Triennial Conference of the International John Bunyan Society, has all of the makings of a truly remarkable volume: it includes essays by some of the finest seventeenth-century scholars on two continents, it takes its collective emphasis from an extremely timely and compelling question, and it contains three new essays on Bunyan and sex. This last reason alone gives us every reason to believe that this slim collection will soon be blazing its way up some academic equivalent to the New York Times bestseller list—if not the annals of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
The “timely and important question” that I allude to is, “How was Bunyan’s literary production shaped by the dramatic social upheaval that resulted in the execution of Charles I in 1649?” This is indeed a very important question. If writers are influenced at all by the cultures that produced them, then Bunyan must have been deeply affected by the Civil War, the Regicide, and the Restoration—all of which he experienced as a young man. To introduce this question, however, Trauma and Transformation starts off with some rather odd selections for a collection essays about John Bunyan: two essays—arranged as a direct debate—that do not say a word about John Bunyan. Peter Rudnytsky’s “Dissociation and Decapitation” is a powerful essay that attempts to recuperate T.S. Eliot’s theory of a “dissociation of sensibility”—soundly thrashed by Frank Kermode in Romantic Image—by attaching it to both Freudian psychoanalysis and the historical singularity of the Regicide. The killing of the king, Rudnytsky argues, was a moment of Oedipal violence for all of England, and its repressed trauma shows up in works by, among others, Milton and Marvell—both of whom carried around a load of unconscious guilt for their part in the killing of the symbolic father.
In the volume’s second essay, “A Response to Rudyntsky,” David Norbrook argues quite effectively that Rudnytsky’s dissociation theory overemphasizes both the coherence and the normalcy of pre-Regicide English culture and invokes an entirely [End Page 59] unnecessary Freudian-Eliotian superstructure to explain a historical disruption that can be studied much more productively as a historical disruption. It is not until the third essay in the volume—Vera Camden’s “Young Man Bunyan”—that Bunyan himself makes an entry into the volume that bears his name. Building on Rudnytsky’s analysis, Camden argues—intuitively but probably correctly—that Bunyan must have had some feelings about the traumatic times that he lived through in his early life. But she comes dangerously close to asserting that the absence of any clear reference to the Regicide by Bunyan constitutes evidence for her thesis of repression. Pointing out the sound diagnosis that the Bunyan who wrote Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners suffered from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Camden rushes headlong to the not-at-all sound Freudian/Elliotian/Rudnytskyian explanation for this condition: that the anxiety he feels is produced by an unresolved Oedipal complex at least partly attributable to suppressed guilt at the Regicide. While ingenious and subtle, this explanation ignores about 50 years of painstaking cognitive and behavioral research into the etiology of OCD.
The essays by Rudnytsky, Norbrook, and Camden form a nice introduction to a volume of essays devoted to understanding how the Regicide impacted Bunyan’s work. Sadly, however, this volume never appears. In the essays that follow, the Regicide—along with both the trauma and the transformation that it supposedly produced— drops completely out of sight. The next three essays, in fact, connect to their earlier counterparts only because they are about sex, and, therefore, within Freudian analysis’s general sphere of influences. All three essays are extremely useful, though, and well worth the price of the volume. Margaret M. Ezell’s “Bunyan’s Women, Women’s Bunyan” analyzes Bunyan’s views on gender, not by teasing them out of a few key...