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(William) Robertson Davies 1913–
(Also wrote under pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks) Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, and publisher.
An outstanding figure in Canadian letters, Davies satirizes Canadian provincialism and manners in his writings. Although he was a strong force in Canadian theater and journalism for many years, Davies's fame primarily rests on his novels. His Salterton trilogy (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties) is a caricature of a bourgeois Canadian university town. The Deptford trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders) which followed, focuses on the individual's need to accept the irrational, unconscious side of the self. In his recent novel, The Rebel Angels, Davies once again utilizes a university setting and academic characters to create a biting satire laced with his eclectic themes.
That Davies has been considerably influenced by the theories of Carl Jung is evident in the mystical, magical, and mythical themes which pervade his work. Because Davies's style reflects a wide range of intellectual interests and expertise, it is considered pedantic by some critics.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
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Marchbanks' Almanack, recorded once more by Samuel Marchbanks' devoted amanuensis, Robertson Davies, is just as funny, just as witty and just as wise as the Diary and the Table Talk were before.
Some readers may find their gorge rising at the names of Marchbanks' correspondents, others will find the plan of the book (an almanack filled out with health hints, meditations and so on) a little forced. But no reader can really argue with the spaciousness of mind, the wide range of human contact and the richness of general reading which distinguish this book. What other writer would on one page talk about the oiling of aspidistra leaves, the film Ivanhoe and the inscription on Strindberg's tomb?…
There is the delicious musing about a garter-belt found by Marchbanks as he shovels a load of sand out of his driveway: "Who, I wondered, could have discarded her garter-belt in a sand-pit, and why? Was I, all unwillingly, turning over the grave of some fleeting summer romance? And if so, was a sand pit not a somewhat gritty place for extramural amours?"
There is the incidental information that the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II, "the first man known to history to carry a piece of linen or silk, clean every day, for blowing his nose."…
To quote further would be to quote the whole book, for such gems occur on every page.
Marchbanks' Almanack is a tonic for the times, a draft of inventive purgation which could be taken at almost any season for that most persistent Canadian complaint, cultural constipation.
Arnold Edinborough, "Marchbanks Rides Again" (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 82, No. 11, November, 1967, p. 60.
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The assertion of Magnus Eisengrim near the conclusion of The Manticore, "I am what I have made myself," and Liesl's postulate in the same chapter that "the modern hero is the man who conquers in the inner struggle" crystallize the theme which underlies all five novels of Robertson Davies from Tempest-Tost (1951) to The Manticore (1972). It is the theme of psychological growth toward wholeness which is based on the existential struggle carried on in the interior spaces of the mind and culminates in the fulfilment of the "yearning for greater enlightenment through mystical experience." (Tempest-Tost)
This theme runs through the five novels in a three-fold manner. In its most obvious form it serves as the framework in which the events and the characters evolve and progress within the boundaries of each novel. Whether the inner growth of the principal characters is painfully slow and barely recognizable as in the early novels, or far-reaching and symbolically significant as in the later ones, it is embodied in a specific way in each of the five books.
The series of novels viewed as a whole reflects the same theme in the progression from its embryonic expression in the form of unrest and dissatisfaction and the "yearning for greater fulfilment" through various stages of development toward levels of insight and into realms of wisdom and serenity.
Thirdly, as manifestations of a creative consciousness as it has found expression in and through language, the novels reflect the existential struggle and growth not only of their principal characters but also, and more importantly, of the author himself….
Robertson Davies has posited in his novels the patterns and the essences of his life in ways which enable the reader to take part actively in the developmental processes of the author's consciousness and to follow his quest toward the realms of fulfilment, self-realization, and mystical revelation. (p. 59)
The processes of psychological growth are not directed toward definite goals which can be attained and directly comprehended, but rather into higher, more complete and more spiritual realms of awareness and wisdom which can be glimpsed in moments of fulfilment and totality.
Nor is it a quest for happiness, because happiness is a state of repose and therefore stagnation. Self-realization is a dynamic process which for ever reaches beyond itself in often painful struggles with the confines of existence. None of the main characters in the five novels ever achieves happiness. Those among the secondary figures who appear outwardly happy and securely complete function as foils for contrast and often satire because they have ceased to become and therefore to be alive in the truest sense of the word….
[Davies's] characters are never capable of any significant kind of insight or growth. The novels therefore never conclude with a "happy ending" because at the conclusion of each book the main characters who are involved in the struggle, and who live because they grow, have not come to the end of their road but rather to a new plateau which points to a new height and not to itself.
As they in turn focus on different aspects of the theme of growth and at their conclusion point to the next step, to another Chinese box inside itself, to a new struggle and a new attainment, the novels form an ascending succession of stages representative of the many levels of individual strife. From one novel to the next, the main theme becomes more and more pronounced, its treatment more and more complex and refined, its boundaries more clearly defined and its components more sophisticated. It is in this respect that they reflect the psychological growth of the author. Attainments which are merely hinted at in the early novels are realized through later protagonists, and themes sketched out for the Salterton characters become fully developed in the lives of Dunstan Ramsay and David Staunton.
The basic movement in the psychological growth process is the progression from "confident innocence through the bitterness of experience toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge" (A Mixture of Frailties), in which the task of the seeker is to fuse the temporal with the eternal so as to posit spirit and acquire true individuality. The initial experience of a growing consciousness on its road toward self-realization is extemporalized in the conflicts arising from the restrictions and obligations caused by the parent-child relationship. Filial predicament and the guilt caused by the struggles of the young to liberate themselves from the parental bondage permeate all of the novels. (p. 60)
All the variations of the parent-child relationship are utilized in the novels to initiate the struggle of the main characters after their leap from innocence into experience. For the protagonists in the earlier novels it is also their last significant act; they are incapable of moving on to higher levels of liberation. For the modern heroes in the later novels it is merely a beginning, the first though deeply significant link in a long chain of traps which have to be recognized and overcome. (p. 61)
The majority of the characters in all five novels are frozen into [a] kind of spiritual immobility. The figures representative of the negative forces in life are incapable of developing psychologically and experiencing any deep kind of change. They are the foils against which the struggles of the heroes take place, the trolls with whom they have to battle, the Shadow figures which they have left behind. The personifications of the positive forces are immobilized at relatively advanced levels of development as they are deemed sufficient for the immediate purposes. These are the influential archetypes who guide the heroes on their quests, provide cues for their movements, and represent sources of insight and revelations.
In the first two Salterton novels the latter types are only rudimentarily developed while the former ones constitute the main content. The main protagonists are not significantly differentiated from them as yet, so that the theme of psychological growth is practically non-existent except in a few isolated cases. Yet it is contained in both and foreshadows its greater development in the later novels.
In Tempest-Tost it finds expression in the form of the embryonic externalization of unrest and dissatisfaction in the main characters, coupled with a longing for something more, something beyond the fruitless battles with the trolls, a "consciousness of a destiny apart from these unhappy creatures" and a "seeking for means by which he might be delivered from his fate". The author is groping for a resolution of the conflict, for a liberation from the confines imposed upon the Salterton characters, but is not yet able to actualize the longing, and the yearning is not fulfilled.
The same inability pervades most of Leaven of Malice. The characters remain caught in the absurdity of existence and … [the struggle] continues without bringing relief. (pp. 61-2)
The questing figures can liberate themselves, but they cannot assist others in the struggle. This function is carried out by the Magus in his many forms, those higher figures who have already attained levels of insight and can therefore give advice and guidance. But these figures do not come into existence in an effective way until A Mixture of Frailties. (pp. 62-3)
The Magus comes to maturity and full effectiveness in the figure of Sir Benedict Domdaniel. This new character possesses the attributes of the Wise Man: his personality has a controlled forcefulness which is awe-inspiring to those around him, his hold on life is firm and determined, and his philosophy of life is a creative union of imaginative and materialistic forces which alone can lead toward self-knowledge and fulfilment.
Robertson Davies is not yet able to create "one of the tiny minority of mankind that can grapple with circumstance and give it a fall" to match the dominance of Domdaniel, but in the character of Domdaniel's pupil Monica Gall the capacities for intellectual quest and awareness have been sufficiently developed to make A Mixture of Frailties a successful novel of growth. The novel is still rooted in Salterton and peripherally continues the analysis of Solly's and Veronica's conflicts with their world, but the main focus is on the more mature and psychologically more successful Monica. By exchanging the local scene for the international and the individual for a more universal theme, it moves beyond the restriction of the first two novels into realms of genuine discovery. (pp. 63-4)
The patterns of growth in Fifth Business and The Manticore follow veins essentially identical to those in the Salterton novels. The basic obstacle is once again the parental bond which must be broken in order to move from innocence into experience….
With Monica's liberation from her mother's dominance, two important elements were introduced into the struggle: the concept of guilt as an inherent aspect of the loss of innocence, and the ability to come to terms with that guilt by recognizing and accepting its source and integrating the experience in its fullest. The narratives of Ramsay and Staunton are built on this pattern, though the treatment of the theme is considerably more complex and allegorical. (p. 65)
The externalizations of the Magus figures and of the lesser types of Troll, Shadow, Anima/Animus, Friend, and Mentor of A Mixture of Frailties appear again in Fifth Business and in the Manticore. Where the narrative of Monica's artistic and spiritual education gathered together the possibilities and latent patterns of the first two Salterton novels and gave them new significance in a strictly controlled and purposefully directed framework, the two psychological novels refine the externalizations of the psychic forces and elevate them into symbolic realms in two further variations on the theme. (p. 66)
The anguish of existence, which created the dominant atmosphere in Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice but which started to lose its threat in A Mixture of Frailties, is finally overcome by the highly introspective and psychologically astute maturation processes of the two protagonists as they move into the realms of enlightenment and fulfilment. The yearning posited in Tempest-Tost is fulfilled in the spiritual re-birth of Ramsay and Staunton as they realize the unity of the infinite and the finite which transcends existence and arrive at a deeper understanding of themselves and of their role in the totality of existence. Their leap yields "some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man" (Fifth Business) as they "learn to know (themselves) as fully human" and acquire "a fuller comprehension of (their) humanity" (The Manticore).
Robertson Davies has moved through the levels of externalization of the creative consciousness in the three Salterton novels, in the disguise of Actor, Editor, and Artist, and in that of Scholar and Initiate in the two psychological novels, in his search for the "flashes of insight (with which a great man) pierces through the nonsense of his time and gets at something that really matters" (Tempest-Tost). Over the course of five novels and a twenty-year process of growth, what really matters to him has clearly emerged and has found increasingly complex and sophisticated expression in the language of his books. It is the conquest of one's Self in the inner struggle and the knowledge of oneself as fully human. It is to be. (p. 67)
Peter Baltensperger, "Battles with the Trolls" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 71, Winter, 1976, pp. 59-67.
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Included [in One Half of Robertson Davies: Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics] are aspects of Davies' personal life and habits, beliefs and convictions, aims and intentions that had never been made clear through the person of Samuel Marchbanks, characters in the plays and novels, or the author's own published literary criticism. No totally unsuspected Robertson Davies steps out of these pages, however, and to suggest that these pieces weight equally with everything that he has published to date will arouse expectations that are not fulfilled.
Even stylistically there are few surprises. In the preface Davies says, "What is meant to be heard is necessarily more direct in expression, and perhaps more boldly coloured, than what is meant for the reader." But in the diversity of styles in which Davies has written for publication direct expression and bold colour have been constant features. Perhaps the most obvious difference between some of these speeches and published essays on similar topics are a less rigorous organization, and a more informal proportioning and linking of parts. Holding an audience with eye and voice, a speaker may indulge himself more readily with a telling personal anecdote, a lengthier plot summary, or more casual transitions than he would permit himself in writing for print.
Regardless of title and proposed distinctions, this collection justifies itself as an unusually varied, provocative, and impressive volume for readers…. For many readers these pieces will recall a bygone era. It is hard to believe that people still make speeches like these. The experience is constantly entertaining, heartwarming, and a little sad. There is much allusiveness, much lightly carried erudition and reasonableness, many memorable phrases, much interesting self-revelation. There is also much good advice, which may at times sound dangerously smug and opinionated despite the speaker's obvious efforts to be anything but….
Like John Milton, Robertson Davies is not just one of the boys, and the tension in his writings between attempts to be flamboyantly unique and to be perfectly ordinary is one of the qualities that make him so constantly interesting, so frequently annoying, so unavoidably important, and so difficult to categorize….
Davies gives us profound characterizations and evaluations of differing approaches to literature and literary scholarship, profound insights into the conscience of the writer and the relation between a writer's life and his art, convincing definitions of melodrama and the Victorian novel which account for the lasting significance of both genres, subtle distinctions between sentiment and sentimentality, and entertaining and lucid comments on a rich variety of authors and works, famous and forgotten, comments which make us envious of the speaker's insatiable catholicity of reading and determined to do something about the limitations of our own energies and the narrowness of our own preconceptions. (p. 25)
Much of what Davies says in this volume about Canadian nationalism, Canadian culture, and Canadian literature he has been saying since the days of Samuel Marchbanks, Tempest-Tost, and Leaven of Malice. Now he is more likely to be listened to because he says what he has to say more effectively and because through his own career he has demonstrated amply that he has the qualifications to say it. (pp. 25-6)
The lectures are bookish in every sense of the term, good and bad. The good dimensions are obvious in the delight in books and in language. The relation between books and life is movingly explored…. But the reader who has just been facing birth and death, good and evil in frightening confrontation in his own life may feel that some of Davies' discussions are literary indeed.
That is not to say that Davies is shallow. Much of what he has said is profound. But there are depths of human experience that his writings have not begun to penetrate. Perhaps another volume will reveal another of his many halves. (p. 26)
Walter E. Swayze, "Improper Fraction," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 675, October, 1977, pp. 25-6.
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[The] experience of reading One Half of Roberston Davies was enlightening—I was forced to realize how close, how astonishingly close, colossal vanity is to pristine innocence. (p. 24)
Of these 22 pieces perhaps five are worth preserving; the others, particularly a "satirical" poem on Hair, not to mention a coy, cute animal story written for children but included here because "several people" assured Davies it was really for adults, might have been tossed away without regret. The collection improves as it progresses, though this may be a consequence of Davies's choice of subject matter (Freud, Jung, Trollope, melodrama, ghost stories, Proust, etc.) rather than the actual quality of his writing…. On Dickens he writes knowledgeably, if without any particular genius; on Jung he is disappointingly simplistic, and makes statements I would challenge—"For Jung," Davies says, "God was a fact for which evidence existed in the mind of man." And is it true that "Jungians assert the existence of God"? The Jungian position as I understand it is that a God-experience of some kind is possible psychologically. But as an empiricist Jung would hardly make the claim that God exists apart from the human psyche.
The collection ends with four conversational lectures on the problems of evil in literature, and one of those essays most Canadian writers have felt compelled to write in recent years, "The Canada of Myth and Reality." In this essay Davies repeats what many have said—that Canada … is apt to feel self-righteous as a consequence of virtual powerlessness, and to blame the United States for its own problems. I am not altogether convinced, however, that Davies knows, or really cares, where Canada is, or who comprises its population. In his speeches he is careful never to mention the name of any distinguished Canadian contemporary of his, out of indifference—or simply ignorance—or perhaps envy. He speaks as if "the writer" must show Canada to Canadians—as if no writers have yet done so? He will speak learnedly of the supernatural in literature, and confine himself to English writers, ignoring Canadian writers—like Howard O'Hagan, for instance, whose Tay John alone is worth the windy rhetorical conventions of all of Davies's books. (pp. 24-5)
It is grossly misleading to bill Davies as Canada's "leading man of letters," and he should certainly not be taken, by non-Canadians, as a "great" Canadian writer. He is, depending upon your taste, a genial storytelling moralizing conservative; or a pompous but charming Tory; or a narrow, exasperating reactionary; or a curmudgeon of the old school whose spite, anger, and vanity have been successfully—or nearly so—hidden behind a persona of bemused old-fashioned courtliness. I read him as possibly the very last image in Canada's collective dream of an older English tradition: a Floating Head whose allegiance is with the Queen (that is, the one who died in 1901), a symbol of all that younger Canadian writers and artists have been struggling to accommodate, or repudiate, or transcend, or forget. (p. 25)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Books Considered: 'One Half of Robertson Davies'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 15, April 15, 1978, pp. 22-5.
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In The Rebel Angels, morality and hilarity contribute in about equal parts to a story of theft and murder set in the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (Spook, to its familiars) on the campus of a large Canadian university. Careful readers of Davies will not be surprised by the simplicity of the story-line, the adept management of narrative structure, the lively characterisation, the re-emergence of familiar themes, the acerbic commentary on academic and other forms of life, and the flurry of esoteric information. (p. 578)
The narrative takes the form of two linked first-person accounts, one by Simon Darcourt and one by Maria Theotoky, alternating through the novel…. The distinction between them is so neat as to appear almost over-contrived, yet is is thematically appropriate as well as structurally useful, for each of them represents a psychic element of the other which must be reckoned with. Darcourt [an Anglican priest] must come to terms with his physical self, particularly in the form of erotic love and a tendency to put on weight. Maria, whom he loves, must come to terms with her Gypsy inheritance while living in a gadje (non-Gypsy) society, represented at its best by Darcourt.
Although Darcourt is an interesting and well-realized character, it is Maria who really occupies the center of the novel, for she is one of Davies' most engaging characters, and certainly his most interesting female character. The female characters of a male writer often attract, not always justifiably, both amusement and abuse from feminist readers. Maria should escape both, for Davies in presenting her shows himself to be informed on the interests and issues of feminism, although not necessarily in agreement with all of it. Maria holds aloof from the women's movement, therefore, and does not have much use for liberation, at least not in the standard definition of the term. But in spite of her unrequited affection for Hollier, a marriage ceremony in which she agrees to obey her husband, and her adoption of two senior males (Darcourt and Hollier) as mentors, Maria manages to be completely herself. (pp. 578-79)
In his presentation of Maria as the development of a feminine personality, Davies is of course re-engaging an earlier theme, in this case the theme of A Mixture of Frailties. Other earlier themes and ideas also emerge, notably Jungian psychological theory. If this is not immediately apparent, it is because Davies has moved beyond the now familiar theory of the archetypes, to the more esoteric involvement with the relationship between psychology and alchemy which occupied Jung for many years. In the person of Ozias Froats, the biologist with his shining stainless-steel laboratories and specially designed "buckets" for human excrement, conscientiously deploying statistical methods and microphotographic techniques to the categorization of fecal samples in search of a clue to the temperaments associated with certain categories of sample. Davies explicitly recreates the mediaeval alchemist in modern guise, and through him examines the issue, common to both the alchemist and the modern biologist, of the relationship between soma and psyche. But the mediaeval alchemists, although the hazards of their lives were numerous and varied, did not have to contend with crusading MLAs calling for their funding to be withdrawn ("Get the Shit Out of Our Varsity") as Froats does. Confronting Froats with this particular hazard is just one of the ways in which Davies displays his talent for impeccably accurate satiric observation on academic life. (pp. 579-80)
In addition to some rich exhibitions of humour, Davies in each of his novels provides his readers with a display of esoteric knowledge. In The Rebel Angels, he offers two. The first is a display of Gypsy life, history, and lore, complete with a sinister Tarot reading and a curse that misfires. But, however esoteric it may seem, this is Maria's inheritance, an inheritance which she must learn to reconcile with the academic world of scholarship into which she has worked her way. Consequently, it forms an important part of the novel's thematic structure. This importance is shared by the novel's other display of esoteric knowledge: the exposition of W. H. Sheldon's constitutional theory of personality, which is at the back of Froats' research, and through which Davies continues to pursue his search for the understanding of human nature. Neither of them is present merely to allow Davies to show off.
The Rebel Angels does not mark a radical change in Davies' development as a writer. Morality and hilarity are still directed to understanding human nature as this presents itself to him. There is some shift in the thrust of his exploration, in that for the first time he seems to be taking an interest in the effects of ethnic and physical factors on human personality. Since Davies seems to work in threes (as witnessed by the Salterton trilogy and the Deptford trilogy), and since it is rumoured that another novel related to The Rebel Angels is already on the way, perhaps we should be looking forward to the Spook trilogy. Certainly, The Rebel Angels, opening with one death, ending with two more, and packing between them a study of human nature at once hilarious and deeply serious, enjoyable and thought-provoking, is an enticing beginning. (p. 580)
Patricia Monk, "Book Reviews: 'The Rebel Angels'," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 61, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 578-80.
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Discussions of Davies' first three novels—the so-called Salterton trilogy—tend to emphasize his comic and satiric vision. By contrast, criticism and discussion of the Deptford trilogy—[Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders] …—have focussed on the psychological and religious dimensions of the novels and Davies' substantial debt to the thought of the Swiss analytical psychologist C. G. Jung. Filaments of continuity are evident between the two trilogies but there is no doubt that Davies' reputation as well as his almost unchallenged status as a serious thinker, sage or pundit … depends on the later body of work. In this case the common view is at least partly right since there's little doubt that Fifth Business is Davies' masterpiece and together with The Stone Angel, The Scorched-Wood People and Coming Through Slaughter, among the handful of Canadian novels that count. (p. 30)
Davies' concern in his later work has been with man's need to acknowledge the emotional, the irrational and the unconscious side of the self…. The central figures of Fifth Business and The Manticore suffer from an excessive dependence on conscious or rational modes of being, and the action of each novel moves towards a moment of recognition in which we witness the return of what has been repressed/suppressed and the consequent development of an integrated self…. Up to a point, the second and third novels repeat, with many entertaining variations, the pattern of Fifth Business; each is in the form of a confession, each has essentially the same theme and each borrows its images and symbols from a common store of relatively arcane lore.
In fact, much of the pleasure … one gets from reading these later novels, including The Rebel Angels derives from the sense of déja vu experienced from novel to novel, from the elements of predictability in the whole enterprise. Davies' learning may be arcane and exotic but we expect this from him just as we expect his narrators to explain it in detail, whether dealing with fool-saints (Fifth Business), the Jungian anima (The Manticore), or body types and the shit cure (The Rebel Angels). Similarly the issues posed by, explored and explained in these novels are constant from work to work: the unconscious side of life, the integrated self, the unlived life, and "the over-developed mind and the under-developed heart." As well these novels are accessible, even comfortable, in a way that the major works of modernism and post-modernism aren't. To read John Barth is to confront a conjuror doing several illusions simultaneously; Davies, in contrast, is the scholarly and avuncular magician and story-teller who is willing to explain every trick. Even the ostensibly opaque elements in his fiction are ultimately rendered translucent, and therefore knowable and safe.
Yet if the reader derives pleasure from Davies' writing and rewriting of his one story and one story only, there is also the other side of predictability and familiarity, tedium. Fifth Business worked because we saw Dunstan Ramsay again and developing page by page, and because Davies managed to integrate into the theme, style and structure Ramsay's interest in hagiography. The tedium increases between The Manticore and The Rebel Angels because the novels become increasingly static, cluttered with the flotsam of Davies' store of learning and, surprising in a drama scholar and critic, less dramatic. After Fifth Business the scholar-didact has prevailed over the novelist in Davies' fiction.
More than its immediate predecessors The Rebel Angels creaks under an excess of intellectual baggage, this time drawn from Rabelais, Paracelsus and gypsy lore. A combination of a murder-mystery novel and comic love story, The Rebel Angels is set at a Canadian university and has three related concerns: the search for and recovery of a previously unpublished manuscript and three letters by Rabelais showing him to have been interested in the kabbala and alchemy; Maria Theotoky's desire to acknowledge and understand her gypsy past (her intuitive and emotional side); and the philosopher John Parlabane's return to St. John's College, and his attempt to publish a novel….
The novel's main weakness is that Maria is just too static and undeveloped a character to sustain a novel structurally and thematically dependent on her. Unlike Monica Gall, the appealing heroine of A Mixture of Frailties, she never convinces us to take her emotional turmoil, her anxieties, seriously. Her gypsy past is finally just so much costume and scenery…. (p. 31)
Much more interesting and more fully realized is the reprobate John Parlabane who specializes in various forms of debauchery and in "the history of skepticism: the impossibility of real knowledge—no certainty of truth." Parlabane is the true rebel angel in that he embodies and exemplifies the repressed-suppressed aspects of the self talked about in the rest of the novel. He is the "Wild Man" whose life and learning can be paradoxically and disturbingly exemplary; while Maria talks about gypsies and studies Rabelais, John Parlabane lives a Rabelaisian life.
Not surprisingly the novel only comes alive when Parlabane is present, as if Davies' imagination responds to his contradictory qualities with a depth and complexity of realization notably lacking in his more staid academic figures; with Parlabane we have the stench of brimstone, with Hollier and Darcourt the grey mustiness of the university common room. Like all of Davies' characters Parlabane talks too much but unlike most of them he doesn't treat living and talking as synonymous terms. His words and actions are the closest Davies has yet come to giving adequate fictional expression to his sense of preconscious or pre-rational modes of being. In the earlier novels we rarely experience the shudder of recognition that should attend an encounter, direct or mediated, with the unknown, the irrational or, in Fifth Business, the numinous. Davies' treatment of the emotions, the unconscious, and the religious dimensions in life (often they are identical) is usually unconvincing because it fails to evoke the sense or ambience of the irrational and the unknown. This is partly a matter of an overly controlled even repressive style, partly of characters too obviously intended to represent or symbolize attitudes and modes of being, and partly of a comic mode that may not be a suitable medium for a certain kind of subject.
As a result, Davies' pronouncements on the self and religion tend to sound like good news for modern man, secular (because psychologized) assurances about vaguely spiritual matters. The reader, entertained by an often lively and engaging story, also finds himself sitting through a painless, often entertaining and witty, lecture or sermon. The obvious contrast is with a disturbing novel like Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell in which the encounter with the repressed side of life is made palpable because the style, imagery and plot compel the reader into as direct a confrontation as possible; we experience the novel's reality, whereas in Davies we all too often sense that we have been told about it. The telling has been witty, elegant and informed, and the vehicle has been often absorbing and entertaining but there remains a rupture between the potentially disruptive subject matter and the orderly and restrained telling. (pp. 31, 47)
What we have then in The Rebel Angels, as in its predecessors, is both an enjoyable novel from a writer who knows how to tell a story in a highly polished style, and another reminder of the extent to which Davies' fiction is seriously divided against itself. (p. 47)
Sam Solecki, "The Other Half of Robertson Davies," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 714, December-January, 1981–82, pp. 30-1, 47.
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In the main, the heroes and heroines of Robertson Davies' novels, the characters through whom he chooses to tell his stories, are scholars. They are also pedants. They have many opinions, whereas scholars in the strict sense have only a few, closely related to their disciplines. In the course of their conversations and meditations. Davies' heroes and heroines express their opinions expansively and with wide-ranging references to history and literature. Furthermore, since the habit of forming opinions extends most easily into matters of human behavior (politics and propriety), Davies' opinionated scholars are inclined to priggishness. They editorialize extensively and gratuitously on hygiene, university budgets, women's lib, wisdom, contemporary music, and a thousand other subjects.
It's hard to deny a writer his turf, and pedants and prigs are certainly fit subjects for fiction. However, a pedant who remains a pedant can't very easily be a hero and a convincing narrative voice. In a novel, characters and events must seem real…. Against the backdrop of real life, in the context of a convincing plot, pedantry must look pathetic. Successful pedantry must look unreal.
Unfortunately, Davies' pedants are eminently successful. They may learn many things, but they are always confirmed in their pedantry and priggishness. They claim to understand the peace that passeth understanding, and they are supported in their claim by events in the stories. The reader begins to realize that the jury is rigged, that the opinions expressed by the characters are meant to be taken as a doctrine, that the novel is really some kind of extended editorial. (pp. 112-13)
Rebel Angels provides alarming evidence that the prig in Davies is still alive and far too strong. In his latest novel, Davies makes the obvious error of permitting the analysis and defense of intellect to proceed almost entirely on the intellect's own terms. The story is told by scholars and they speak retrospectively. That is normal for Davies—but it is a style that he should, perhaps, reconsider. It makes editorializing too easy; since the characters are scholars, and their thoughts and actions are not being presented as they occur but only as they are remembered, the detached, authoritative tone is possible. Rebel Angels pushes this event further. All the other characters in the story are scholars, so that even the dialogue is standardized. Furthermore, the narrators do not participate very extensively in the main action; they comment from a distance. In Fifth Business the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, is at the centre of the action. We see his pedantic tendencies develop naturally out of his background and experience, which are representative: life in a small town, the war, etc. We can grasp the deep-rooted emotional needs that are satisfied by his scholarship. There is no such perspective in Rebel Angels. Only the intellect gets to take the stand, and the rational analysis and defense of intellect are about as convincing as a police investigation of police corruption.
Davies, I think, was tempted into this story by a desire to explore the superego and to register certain changes that have recently taken place in our social attitudes. But to understand this, and thus to put Rebel Angels into its place in the Davies canon and render it more useful and slightly less irritating, we need to examine the theme that Davies has, with some authority, made his own.
I find that I can understand Davies' theme better when I apply basic Freudian concepts. The conscious mind (the intellect or ego) is mysteriously the product of (and has the task of regulating) the two power (emotion) sources of the id (primal wants, traditional evil) and the superego (the social conditioning we all receive from the first day of our lives, traditional good). (pp. 113-14)
As Davies sees the situation, our present "conditioning" is too permissive of emotion in general, but particularly of superego emotions. We are conscience and value-ridden. Of course, this condition only sets the stage for its reversal—the manipulation of the superego by the id that results in so much rationalized, ideological violence in the modern world. Davies is worried that, if this permissiveness ever becomes a fixed passion of the superego, then all hell will, quite literally, break loose.
All hell doesn't break loose in Rebel Angels, as it does in Fifth Business and that is just the problem. The story is told by two characters, both of whom talk extensively…. These narrators are maddeningly detached from the action; the balance beams of their egos are never seriously threatened by id or superego upheaval. The discerning reader will wonder how this could be the case with characters in whom the superego is so obviously on the ascendant. (p. 114)
Maria [Theotoky, a graduate research assistant,] thinks she is in love with her thesis supervisor, Professor Clement Hollier, and indeed, in a flush of scholarly excitement over Maria's revelation of her [family's gypsy] background and her mother's activities in resuscitating old violins (which sets him on the track of new discoveries concerning "fifth therapy"), he has, to her great joy, "had" her on the sofa in his office. But Hollier is not interested in Maria, and by way of assuaging his guilt feelings about her, he promises her a valuable manuscript which she can edit. This will establish her reputation in the academic world, a consummation that she greatly desires….
Darcourt is the other narrator of Rebel Angels, the hero of the story. He is a rather attractive but preponderantly placid figure, an Anglican priest and student of the Apocrypha. He records much of the action; in fact, he is writing a book about the university and is actively collecting information throughout the story. He plays a subsidiary role in the action, however, and experiences no personal revelations in the course of the story….
The real action involves another character—an old friend of Darcourt's and Hollier's recently returned to campus—John Parlabane. (p. 115)
Parlabane is the only interesting character in Rebel Angels, the only character who might legitimately be considered a "rebel." He is left in caricature, however; we can hope that, in another novel, Davies will get into his head and then we are likely to experience another story like Fifth Business, for Parlabane is a character who has truly plumbed the depths of depravity and despair and (apparently) fought his way back into the world with great heroism. Parlabane is impressive in the first half of the book; his accounts (to Maria) of his adventures are truly fascinating. Maria is fascinated by him, and he generates powerful responses in her that come straight from the depths of the id. He is her real teacher, as she finally admits …; he promises her the "orgasm of mind" that the rebel angels, in the Apocrypha, provide to "the daughters of men."… But Parlabane gets a job from Hollier and a suit from Darcourt and disappears halfway through the story. All we know is that he is working on a novel and has turned into a hopeful bore about it. (p. 116)
Maria talks endlessly about her rejection of her gypsy heritage and consequent immersion in scholarly life. She ostensibly comes to recognize that this is the reason for her infatuation with Hollier. She is then convinced by Parlabane that her background (root) is her strength (crown). But finally she marries a man who, while he says he agrees with Parlabane's comment, represents the epitome of Anglo-Saxon respectability—a self-educated commercial aristocrat who talks pompously about everything from patronage to love. Even Darcourt has some reservations about marrying this couple—"these two were a little too articulate for my satisfaction" …, he says. It takes one to know one. There are obviously some spectacular id fireworks to come from Maria and Arthur in the near future—the basis of a "Massey College" trilogy of novels, perhaps.
One can hope that Davies will change his style before this happens. The editorial voice kills any subtlety of characterization…. Darcourt, Parlabane, Maria … but really, Marchbanks. And who is Marchbanks but the weak half of Robertson Davies? He is a bit of an ornament in the classroom, on the platform, at the head table, and in the pages of the Peterborough Examiner—in all of which circumstances he sometimes masquerades as Robertson Davies. In book form he is a bore. He is certainly not a novelist. Perhaps the rejection of the retrospective mode would drive this squeaky spirit out, so that the novelist in Davies can live again. (pp. 116-17)
John Harris, "A Voice from the Priggery: Exorcising Davies' Rebel Angel," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), No. 33, 1981–82, pp. 112-17.
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Davies is a fine writer—deft, resourceful, diverse and, as noted, very funny. But his claim to distinction is his imagination, which he supports by an extraordinary range of wholly unpredictable information. (p. 7)
Fitzgerald, Hemingway and even Faulkner dealt with a world to which the reader feels some connection. Similarly located and circumstanced, one might see what they see. Davies deals with matters far beyond the experiences of his readers; yet, you find yourself taking his word for it, according him full faith and credit. Even if he invents the way a magician practices his art, you have to believe that the invention is at least the equal of the original.
The new novel, "The Rebel Angels" … yields to none of the others in either diverse and esoteric knowledge or complexity of theme….
The story is told in alternating chapters by Maria Theotoky and Simon Darcourt, and the device allows two different accounts and perceptions of the same flow of events. It is less confusing, once one becomes accustomed to it, than might be expected; in fact, it serves exceedingly well….
There is a convention that, in describing a novel, one should not give away the plot. But the attraction here for me is in the style of the story, the fun, and in the truly massive array of information which the book, like its predecessors, conveys….
It is fair to say that one does not ever come into close proximity with Davies's characters. Maria Theotoky is exceedingly beautiful—so one is repeatedly told. And sexually very compelling. But the reader must take the author's word for it; her beauty and sexuality do not otherwise emerge. And with the others on the stage the reader in the audience is never deeply involved. I do not offer this as a criticism; for me at least it is pleasant to read of people who are immensely knowledgeable and interesting whom I am not impelled either to love or to hate.
Not all of the events in a Davies novel, as distinct from the information, are plausible….
But again, if all novels excluded the unlikely, the production of them would drop rather more severely than new housing starts….
[Davies's novels] will be recognized with the very best work of this century. And they will last. (p. 30)
John Kenneth Galbraith, "The World of Wonders of Robertson Davies," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1982, pp. 7, 30.
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Davies' work reveals a progressive attempt to define human identity in the fullest possible sense. In the development of his work from Shakespeare's Boy Actors to World of Wonders, he can be seen to examine the possibilities of role-playing, the second self, the autonomous personality of the artist, the Jungian self, the romance hero, and the Magian soul, and to assess each as a possible mythologem of the completed human identity. His exploration of these possibilities is rooted in his deep and long-lasting affinity with Jung, and, for the most part, is carried out within a frame of reference firmly based on Jung's ideas. Nevertheless, Davies eventually moves beyond his affinity with Jung to a more impartial assessment of Jungianism as simply one way of looking at the universe, one myth among a number of others, and finally he is able to present the Jungian self as only one among several concepts of complete human identity.
Each step of his exploration of human identity involves incursions into what Jung calls 'the smaller infinity' …, for a definition of human identity can be formulated only in terms of the inner reality of human beings. It is this inner reality which Davies describes as the 'enchanted landscape.' His inner world is not, however, 'the cosy nursery retreat of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is a tough world, and it only seems irrational or unreal to those who have not grasped some hints of its remorseless, irreversible, and often cruel logic. It is a world in which God is not mocked, and in which a man reaps—only too obviously—what he has sown.' It is clear that his concept of the 'enchanted landscape' is broad enough to include not only Jungianism but also the romance myth of the hero and the concept of the Magian soul. It is also easy to see in it a specific analogue of Jung's view of the inner reality, the 'indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.'… Consequently, Jungianism provides an interpretative approach to his enchanted landscape and to Davies' experience of it.
What Jung says of those who undertake the long process of individuation by exploration of their inner landscapes may equally be applied to the writer in search of a myth: 'Nevertheless it may be that for sufficient reasons a man feels that he must set out on his own feet along the road to wider realms. It may be that in all the garbs, shapes, forms, modes, and manners of life offered to him he does not find what is peculiarly necessary for him.'… Clearly, what is 'peculiarly necessary' for a writer is the myth which produces the psychosymbolic structures of his or her work…. This is to be found in the wider realms of the inner reality, through personal experience of the unconscious within, and because every individual is unique that experience of the inner reality and the symbolic embodiment of it will also be unique. To remain unique, however, the self must emerge from one individual's experience only, uncontaminated by another's vision. Although Jung speaks of observing an 'untrodden, untreadable' region in many men of importance, both The Manticore and World of Wonders suggest that such a region exists in every human being. Consequently, with the exception of one particular group of people, experience of the inner reality is private to the individual and 'untreadable' ground to outsiders. The exception is, of course, the group of those we call artists, all of whom have in one way or another the particular gift of being able to share their experiences of the private inner reality with others through the medium of their art…. Davies as a writer is an individual who objectifies his own individual experience of the inner reality by relating it to general Jungian psychological theory. He can do this because, although each individual human being is unique, all human beings are members of the human race, and hence to a very large extent similar: their inner reality consequently will have common features. Any objectification of that inner reality by a writer in which the common features are described may, therefore, provide a map of the territory by which anyone who enters his or her own reality may roughly by guided.
It is this role of literary art as a map of inner reality, and the corresponding role of a writer as a map-maker, which prompt Davies, I believe, to describe himself as a moralist: 'I seem to have emerged as a moralist; my novels are a moralist's novels.' He seems to be using the term in a sense which includes, among other elements, a great deal of the Jungian psychological revision of good and evil: personal responsibility for the examination of human conduct (self-examination, it is implied, being the prerequisite for the examination of others), and a Jungian respect for the integrity of the self in others (demonstrated by the refusal to instruct or judge). Hence, the moralist is a map-maker…. His work, therefore, is not prescriptive but descriptive—just as a map is descriptive.
It is as a moralist, however, that Davies issues a warning about maps of the inner reality. The map, he insists, is not the territory: Davies' personal experience, however illuminating and significant for his readers in its form of 'a moralist's novels,' remains his personal experience. Just as, in World of Wonders, he refuses to substitute Jung's ideas for his own, his readers also must refuse to substitute Davies' experience of inner reality for their own. In moving beyond Jungianism so decisively in this novel, therefore, Davies unambiguously declares that it is the territory we must concern ourselves with, not the map.
The exploration of the 'smaller infinity' which Davies began in his earliest work has, by the end of the Deptford trilogy, reached maturity. It is not finished, and it cannot be finished, precisely because it is the exploration of infinity. Davies has not defined human identity because it is indefinable; he has divined it, because it is, in its true form, that which Jung calls the imago Dei, divine. (pp. 182-84)
Patricia Monk, in her The Smaller Infinity: The Jungian Self in the Novels of Robertson Davies (© University of Toronto Press 1982), University of Toronto Press, 1982, 214 p.
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