Reconsiderations October 2017
A note on Robertson Davies
On the life and career of Robertson Davies.
Robertson Davies (1913–1995) was the foremost man of letters in Canada—and that by far—and if I knew enough of Canadian letters I would be tempted to argue that he is their greatest ever. In the event, his is the bar that anyone else must clear. Playwright and man of the theater, newspaperman, columnist, magazine editor, critic, and, above all, a novelist of great range and depth, prolific as ironist and humorist, as at home among ideas and with a variety of literatures as with manners, Davies was, in his spare time, headmaster (the first) of Massey College (University of Toronto, endowed in 1962 by the Massey Foundation—of the Massey family we know the actor Raymond best), and for twenty years a fellow of Trinity College in Toronto.
Davies’s bibliography begins in 1949 with a play, Fortune, My Foe, and an essay collection, Eros at Breakfast. His final novel was The Cunning Man (1994), one of two free-standing novels, the other being Murther and Walking Spirits (1991; recurring characters in both suggest that another trilogy might have been in the works). Then, in 1995, came A Gathering of Ghost Stories. Between these two poles came fifteen collections and three trilogies: Salterton, Deptford, and Cornish. The first consists of Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958), together making for a small-town parodic masterpiece—minor, maybe, but with no single false, unincisive, or ungenerous note.
The third, Cornish, consists of The Rebel Angels (1981), What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). Here Davies mines settings, manners, and, especially, characters close to Trinity College; it is comedy high and dark, packed with biting satire: art forgery and other treacheries, philanthropic malfeasance, erotic misbehavior, and (eventually) a ghost narrator. How Davies manages to keep these balls—not to mention his mix of volatile characters—in the air at one time is . . . magic (an art that fascinated Davies and that he explored in his novel World of Wonders).
The acknowledged masterpiece of world literature is the second, Deptford, trilogy.
The acknowledged masterpiece of world literature is the second, Deptford, trilogy, above all its first book, Fifth Business (1970), followed by The Manticore (1972), an excursion into Jungian psychology, especially its archetypal thinking, and the aforementioned World of Wonders (1975), wherein many mysteries are resolved yet Mystery beckons. But before discussing these, a digression is in order, for last year we had another Davies book, the only diary so far published1 and best read in the company of Judith Skelton Grant’s Robertson Davies: Man of Myth (1994).
In 1960, at age forty-seven, Davies suffered theatrical devastation: his play Love and Libel (a staging of Leaven of Malice) failed in New York, virtually ending his big-time theatrical career, though his very busy involvement as playwright and dramaturge continued in Canada. “What emerges is this: I am not successful as a playwright and I do rather well as a novelist, critic, and speaker . . . this chimes with my falling out of love with the theatre since Love and Libel. And two novels persist in getting notes made about themselves. [We know from Grant that by 1960 he had already made notes toward Fifth Business.] I must think carefully about this.”
A second motif is what passes for the quotidian: meetings (boring), academic planning, money talk, some disappointments, parties (with which he seems impatient), some conflict (with Davies as either spectator or mediator but rarely as participant), early worries over his writing, and . . . almost nothing about Fifth Business: fitful references only, with neither title nor discussion. His theatrical outings, of which there were many, were not always pleasant, and he could be biting in his criticism (though less so in public print than in private): “To the dress rehearsal of Macbeth: director Peter Coe. Macbeth, Chris Plummer. . . . Coe wanted to show a ‘classless society’ . . . . Result: there was no tragedy. . . . Plummer’s tricks were many: a high singing delivery . . . falling on his knees and gripping [Lady Macbeth’s] loins, kneading her buttocks while butting her in the vulva.” (Almost makes one sorry to have missed it. Almost.)
But what would keep him busy was an offer from Vincent Massey, a mover-and-shaker (and a man who would prove difficult) from a family of high achievement and great prominence: would Davies be the first master and, part and parcel, be deeply engaged in planning Massey College, the first residential post-graduate college in Canada? “I am tired of the detail work that is laid upon me: why do I have to discuss the teapots?” He’s not joking. This occupation is the third major motif of Davies’s diary.
His religious beliefs were not simple. Born a Presbyterian and confirmed into the Anglican church, he believed that each should reap as he has sown. Christ was not the Lover and Forgiver. If God were to be glorified, it would be by doing one’s best work and offering it to him. Grant quotes him as seeing life as “a sort of lonely pilgrimage . . . in search of God” by acquiring self-knowledge. But “it must be done alone . . . in the end, the approach will always be made alone.” Later he would conclude, though tentatively, that 1) an argument against the randomness of creation is “Art,” 2) Man’s destiny is in part undetermined, depending upon his ability to link with “elements of great power outside himself,” 3) not all goodness is the work of God nor is God’s goodness comprehensible by man, and 4) conventional belief and disbelief are “much alike in being dead to the spirit.” Eventually, under the influence of his deep study of Jung, he came to believe in “the existence of a power of good and a power of evil external to man, and working through him as an agency . . . infinitely greater than man can conceive.”
Born a Presbyterian and confirmed into the Anglican church, Davies believed that each should reap as he has sown.
From the beginning, uncertainty marks the diary: What genre is a diary? What should he include? In 1963 he wrote, “the chapel is a great friend to me; I go there and think and pray and am quieted and strengthened; as I grow older I know more and more that I cannot live without this awareness and invocation of the Other,” later on adding, when the prospect of a professorship looms, “I am anxious that I should not cease to be a writer.” That immediately followed, “I am glad to be in a society where I need not always talk below my weight, and watch my vocabulary lest some unfamiliar word offend. . . .” He is fifty years old. At this point (1963) a fan must wish he would just get on with it, and indeed he would.
Grant reports that in 1958 “an image began to float insistently to the surface of Davies’s mind,” an image that would become the basis of the Deptford Trilogy and the first scene of Fifth Business. That book introduces us to Dunstan Ramsay, a first-person narrator who, now retiring from decades of teaching, will tell his story to the headmaster in the form of a letter. His tale spans decades, addressing more than one great mystery of his life, solving a compelling puzzle, and finally settling the question of how his life was saved in battle during combat in World War One. Short answer: it was a saint, whom he recognized, and who propelled him to achieve great expertise in the field of hagiography. The trilogy thereafter spins into the compellingly flamboyant tale of Paul Dempster, the baby born prematurely as a result of Dunstan’s act when he was a boy. As it happens, Dunstan learns from Paul, now a world-famous magician, irresistibly charismatic but morally bereft, that he, Dunstan, had far less to do with events—either as an agent, catalyst, or cause—than he had supposed. He was merely “fifth business,” a plot tool “in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style”—a device and a definition, it turns out, entirely of Davies’s own invention!
Dunstan’s search is tightly interwoven with the life of Paul’s mother, Mary Dempster, weak and mentally unbalanced owing to having been hit by a snowball with a stone hidden within; it was meant for Dunstan, who had ducked without knowing that Mrs. Dempster was behind him. By the end of Fifth Business, Dunstan, who has searched his whole life for that certain saint who saved him on the battlefield, is on the brink—of mystery, or even of belief, but never of awe, let alone holiness. Instead he pursues pseudo-mystery first in the form of psychology then of magic, finally winding up with the anti–Mrs. Dempster, Liesl (Lieslotte Vitzliputzli[!], a giant troll of a woman). At the end of his days the most he can say is that the journey has not been about him. What the journey is about is a question he fails to ask, and except as a source of pedestrian, rather than of holy, mystery, Mary Dempster ceases to matter.
In fact, however, Mary is the genuine vehicle of awe and the numinous, and a genuine saint. One miracle was her saving the life of Dunstan’s brother, Willie, who by all signs was dead, until, inexplicably, she revived him. A second miracle was changing the life of a tramp who, after having sex with a willing Mary (“because he needed it so much”), becomes a beneficent, self-sacrificing street minister. The third miracle is the one having the most impact on Paul. Wounded and lost on the battlefield, he shelters in the ruin of a small church:
I thought of Mrs. Dempster. Particularly I thought of her parting words to me: “There’s just one thing to remember; whatever happens, it does no good to be afraid.” Mrs. Dempster, I said aloud, was a fool. I was afraid. . . . It was then that one of the things happened that make my life strange. . . . I saw . . . in a niche a statue of the Virgin and Child . . . the Immaculate Conception. . . . But what hit me worse than the blow of the shrapnel was the face was Mrs. Dempster’s. Years later . . . from time to time the little Madonna appeared and looked at me with friendly concern before removing herself; once or twice she spoke, but I did not know what she said and did not need to know.
The question here, I think, is how much of his own work Davies understood. Grant tells us that his notes show many shifts before Davies arrived at his final conception. Eventually he avowed that Fifth Business is autobiographical, “but not as young men do it . . . spiritual autobiography in fact . . . in what I must call a Jungian sense.”
Near the end of his life we’ve learned that Davies has become impatient with acclaim, especially with having been shortlisted for both the Nobel and Man Booker prizes (losing the former to Toni Morrison, the latter to Roddy Doyle). At the very end of her biography (which Davies disliked: overdone, he thought), Grant quotes from an article called “Jung and Heraldry.” Of the dragon Davies writes that it stands as
a reminder of the incalculability, the might and the chthonic force of the Unconscious. . . . His wings give him power to soar: he is no creeping thing. He is the Old Saurian who possessed the earth before the johnny-come-lately Man seized it. . . . The dragon says . . . do not fear to fly above the Earth, and Remember Me. The dragon frees the mind from the present, for he is old, and he frees the spirit from commonplace considerations, because he has wings. And the dragon, looked at in the light, is a dear companion indeed . . . a Counsellor that only a fool would neglect.
Davies is about to begin his final book, The Cunning Man, as crafty a self-portrait (of a shifty diagnostician) and with a title as eponymous as any author ever writ.
In his New York Times obituary (December 4, 1995), Peter B. Flint tells us that Davies rejected psychoanalysis in favor of “the creative maturity and wisdom” of Jung’s psychological thinking because the former was reductive (“getting you back to the womb and a lot of trouble”), and that he depicted self-discovery as expressions of free will exercised counter-conventionally but always avoided bringing pain to others. As an educator he believed “in encouragement. A great number of young people who are very brilliant come from very humble families, and they have to fight family criticism.” By the end of his life, Davies, whose work had been translated into seventeen languages, had received many awards and had become the first Canadian to be named a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In his Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl teaches that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” Well, Samuel Johnson taught us that “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed,” and Frankl’s lesson is the one of which Davies reminds us, and that consistent reminder is why we should be reminded of him.
1 A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist (1959–1963), by Robertson Davies, edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry; McClelland & Stewart, 400 pages, $32.95.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 39
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