Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Then I would go on trying to discover how Mary Magdalene had been accepted as the same Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and if this pair of sisters, one representing the housewifely woman and the other the sensual woman, had any real counterparts in pagan belief, and sometimes — O, idler and jackass! — if their rich father was anywhere described as being like the rich men I met at Boy Staunton’s dinner parties. If he were, who would be surprised if his daughter went to the bad?

Despite these afternoon misgivings and self-reproaches I clung to my notion, ill defined though it was, that a serious study of any important body of human knowledge, or theory, or belief, if undertaken with a critical but not a cruel mind, would in the end yield some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man. My path was certainly an odd one for a Deptford lad, raised as a Protestant, but fate had pushed me in this direction so firmly that to resist would be dangerous defiance. For I was, as you have already guessed, a collaborator with Destiny, not one who put a pistol to its head and demanded particular treasures. The only thing for me to do was to keep on keeping on, to have faith in my whim, and remember that for me, as for the saints, illumination when it came would probably come from some unexpected source.

The Jesuits of the Societe des Bollandistes were not so numerous that I did not, in time, get on speaking terms with most of them, and a very agreeable, courteous group they were. I now realize that, although I thought I had purged my mind of nonsense about Jesuits, some dregs of mistrust remained. I thought, for instance, that they were going to be preternaturally subtle and that in conversation I would have to be very careful — about what, I did not know. Certainly if they possessed any extraordinary gifts of subtlety they did not waste them on me. I suspected too that they would smell the black Protestant blood in my veins, and I would never gain their trust. On the contrary, my Protestantism made me a curiosity and something of a pet. It was still a time when the use of index cards for making notes was not universal, and they were curious about mine; most of them made notes on scraps of paper, which they kept in order with a virtuosity that astonished me. But though they used me well in every way, I knew that I would always be a guest in this courteous, out-of-the-world domain, and I quickly discovered that the Society of Jesus discouraged its members from being on terms of intimacy with anyone, including other Jesuits. I was used to living without intimate friends, but I had a sneaking hope that here, among men whose preoccupation I shared, things might be different.

All the more reason to be flattered, therefore, when, at the conclusion of one of the two or three conversations I had with Pere Delehaye, the principal editor of the Analecta, he said, “Our journal, as you will have observed, publishes material provided by the Bollandists and their friends; I hope you will correspond with us often, and come here when you can, for certainly we think of you now as one of our friends.”

This was by way of leave-taking, for I was setting off the next day for Vienna, and I was travelling with an elderly Bollandist. Padre Ignacio Blazon.

Padre Blazon was the only oddity I had met at the College de Saint-Michel. He more than made up for the placidly unremarkable appearance and behaviour of the others, and I think they may have been a little ashamed of him. He was so obviously, indeed theatrically, a priest, which is contrary to Jesuit custom. He wore his soutane all the time indoors, and sometimes even in the streets, which was not regarded with favour. His battered black hat suggested that it might have begun long ago as part of Don Basilio’s costume in The Barber of Seville, and had lost caste and shape since then. He wore a velvet skullcap, now green with whitened seams, indoors, and under his hat when outdoors. Most of the priests smoked, moderately, but he took snuff immoderately, from a large horn box. His spectacles were mended with dirty string. His hair needed, not cutting, but mowing. His nose was large, red, and bulbous. He had few teeth, so that his chaps were caved in. He was, indeed, so farcical in appearance that no theatre director with a scrap of taste would have permitted him on the stage in such a make-up. Yet here he was, a reality, shuffling about the Bollandist library, humming to himself, snuffing noisily, and peeping over people’s shoulders to see what they were doing.

He was tolerated, I soon found out, for his great learning and for what was believed to be his great age. He spoke English eloquently, with little trace of foreign accent, and he jumped from language to language with a virtuosity that astonished everybody and obviously delighted himself. When I first noticed him he was chatting happily to an Irish monk in Erse, heedless of discreet shushings and murmurs of “Tacete” from the librarian on duty. When he first noticed me he tried to lummox me by addressing me in Latin, but I was equal to that dodge, and after a few commonplaces we changed to English. It was not long before I discovered that one of his enthusiasms was food, and after that we dined together often.

“I am one of Nature’s guests,” he said, “and if you will take care of the bill I shall be happy to recompense you with information about the saints you will certainly not find in our library. If, on the contrary, you insist that I should take my turn as host, I shall expect you to divert me — and I am not an easy man to amuse, Monsieur Ramezay. As a host I am exigent, rebarbative, unaccommodating. As a guest — ah, quite another set of false teeth, I assure you.”

So I was always host, and we visited several of the good restaurants in Brussels. Padre Blazon was more than true to his word.

“You Protestants, if you think of saints at all, regard them with quite the wrong sort of veneration,” he said to me at our first dinner. “I think you must be deceived by our cheap religious statuary. All those pink and blue dolls, you know, are for people who think them beautiful. St. Dominic, so pretty and pink-cheeked, with his lily, is a peasant woman’s idea of a good man — the precise contrary of the man she is married to, who stinks of sweat and punches her in the breast and puts his cold feet on her backside in the winter nights. But St. Dominic himself — and this is a Jesuit speaking, Ramezay — was no confectionary doll. Do you know that before he was born his mother dreamed she would give birth to a dog with a lighted torch in its mouth? And that was what he was — fierce and persistent in carrying the flame of faith. But show the peasant woman a dog with a torch and she will not care for it; she wants a St. Dominic who can see the beautiful soul in her, and that would be a man without passions or desires — a sort of high-minded eunuch.

“But she is too much herself to want that all the time. She would not take it in exchange for her smelly man. She gives her saints another life, and some very strange concerns, that we Bollandists have to know about but do not advertise. St. Joseph, now — what is his sphere of patronage, Ramezay?”

“Carpenters, the dying, the family, married couples, and people looking for houses.”

“Yes, and in Naples, of confectioners; don’t ask me why. But what else? Come now, put your mind to it. What made Joseph famous?” “The earthly father of Christ?”

“Oho, you nice Protestant boy! Joseph is history’s most celebrated cuckold. Did not God usurp Joseph’s function, reputedly by impregnating his wife through her ear? Do not nasty little seminarians still refer to a woman’s sine qua non as auricula — the ear? And is not Joseph known throughout Italy as Tio Pepe — Uncle Joe — and invoked by husbands who are getting worried? St. Joseph hears more prayers about cuckoldry than he does about house-hunting or confectionery, I can assure you. Indeed, in the underworld hagiology of which I promised to tell you, it is whispered that the Virgin herself, who was born to Joachim and Anna through God’s personal intervention, was a divine daughter as well as a divine mate; the Greeks could hardly improve on that, could they? And popular legend has it that Mary’s parents were very rich, which makes an oddity of the Church’s respect for poverty but is quite in keeping with the general respect for money. And do you know the scandal that makes it necessary to keep apart the statues of Mary and those of St. John –“

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Categories: Davies, Robertson