Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Can it be the Spring

That seems to bring —

No, not since Bidwell parodied it the other day in the Union dining-room:

Can it be the breeze

That seems to sneeze

Its germs right into my room?

Oh no, it isn’t the breeze —

It’s Love in Bloom!

A parody can shake a trifle like that, but it has no strength against anything of real worth. . . . Do I want a drink? Daren’t. Old Min measures the decanters, I swear she does. Old snooper. If I want a drink I have to get some rye from the government store and drink it with Bidwell in his boarding-house room. Half a bottle. A Baby Bear. Drunk out of tooth glasses with water from the tap. Not for the refined palate, but what the hell. How awful those student boarding-houses are! And what sharks the landladies are. They shouldn’t be called boarding-houses. They are rooming-houses. They provide no food. Students who aren’t able to live at home, like me, room in a rooming-house and eat at the Union. Donkey’s liver fricassee, and orange Jell-O to top off. When Dad was a young printer he lived in boarding-houses, in Toronto and for a while in New York. Three-fifty a week for a room and three meals a day. Laundry extra. Sheets changed fortnightly. He says the food wasn’t too bad but apt to be monotonous.

There is a boarding-house

Far, far away,

Where they have ham and eggs

Three times a day.

Oh, how the boarders yell

When the ham and eggs they smell

Oh, how the boarders yell

Three times a day.

Another parody. Of a hymn. How those sanctimonious Vic­torians loved parodies of what they were supposed to hold in respect. Boarding-house songs. There was —

If you don’t make love

To the landlady’s daughter

You will never get a second piece of pie.

Dad says he never saw a landlady’s daughter in all his experi­ence that offered a pennyworth of temptation. Characteristic that after all these years in Canada he still says “penny­worth.”. . . Of course he’s never really lived here. Not in his heart, he hasn’t. It’s always Wales. The Land of Lost Content. Does everybody have one? With Professor JPWF it’s Har­vard, where he did his doctoral work. With Professor Jimmy King it’s Edinburgh, where he seems to have lived contem­poraneously with Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and Byron dropping in now and then on his way to Newstead. And Mother — I know where her Land of Lost Content is. Her days as a “business girl” and the first years of her marriage, before everything seemed to go amiss, and Dad somehow got away from her. He has the adventurous mind, you would think, but sometimes I wonder about her. Something got lost, or destroyed, by the way. . . . If not a drink it must be more music. Tchaikovsky. The received wisdom of the moment is that he’s second-rate. Ah, critics! How unforgiv­ing they are toward anything that isn’t, in some special way, known only to them, absolutely first-rate. Do they ever guess, I wonder, how much energy and guts and sheer talent it takes to be second-rate? Which Tchaikovsky? The Sixth, I suppose. The good old Adagio lamentoso. Look at this stuff included in the album! “His music, with its strange combina­tion of the sublime and the platitudinous, will always touch the average hearer to whom music is more a matter of feeling than of thought.” Christ have mercy! And this: “As long as the world holds temperaments akin to his own, as long as pessimism and torturing doubt overshadow mortal pearls and find their cry re-echoed in the intensely subjective, the deeply human music of this poet who weeps as he sings and embodies so much of the spirit of his age — its weariness, its disenchantment, its vibrant sympathy and morbid regretfulness — Tchaikovsky’s music will survive.” What wizen-scrotumed ninnyhammer wrote that, I wonder. He probably thinks that’s very classy prose. . . . The Sixth begins with a groan. Very properly. I often groan. Seventeenth-century writers often say they “groan in spirit,” and that’s what I do when it would just make trouble to groan aloud. I groaned in Introductory Psychology when Martin invited us to bring him our dreams. Oh, not for revelation in class! No, no. Just so that he might, in his office, explain the dream process and the dream work a la Freud, and of course in complete confidence. But how can it be confidential when Martin knows it, and has mauled it over, and made God knows what of it? He’s no psychoanalyst. Just a junior prof, not yet thirty, and nervous as a cat. Repressed sex, I suppose. Wants to and daren’t. Anxious to get on intimate terms with the girls, obviously, and I suppose some of them will fall for it. I expected Intro Psych to be about a few basic things — theory of learning, and whatnot — but he makes it a half-baked exploration of anything and everything. Would I take him a dream? Not for any money. I don’t want him sticking his nicotine-stained fingers into my mind. . . . Now we’ve stopped groaning and are getting into the Allegro non troppo. My dream. Last week. A gleaming snow scene, and the time dusk, closing in toward night. I am in a wood, through which runs a narrow track. I stand beside a bare tree, and hear sleigh-bells. Up comes the sleigh, and who are in it but Mother and Julia, together and very affectionate. They are dressed in magnificent furs. The driver, on the box, is also in heavy furs, a la russe; he is impassive. The sleigh stops and both women smile with affectionate warmth at me. I step forward toward them, and as I do so Julia opens her fine fur cloak and she is totally naked, and as lovely as I have ever seen her. Mother smiles approvingly, seems to bless us. Julia draws her wraps about her, the whip cracks and the sleigh moves on. I am left with an intense feeling of rapture and fulfilment. . . . Why has this dream so strong a Russian atmosphere, and why does it seem to belong in the nineteenth century, although all the people in it are of today? The intensely northern atmosphere of Canada, I suppose. We have hot summers and resplendent autumns, but it is winter that establishes the character of our country and our psychology. The Canadian mood. Canadian love, not cold but certainly not Mediterranean, as so many people expect love to be. Is it because I have been reading so many Russian novels and found myself in them as I never do in novels about the south? That’s the kind of psychology that I want to learn about, and I don’t suppose Prof Martin would understand a word I was saying. Who would? Jimmy King, I think, the old Scots romantic. . . . That day in class, when he was lecturing on Byron; he paused for a full two minutes. A long time for a pause, but he stood staring out of the window into the snowy campus, playing with the plastic acorn on the end of the blind-cord. Then he turned to us and said, in a terribly sad voice: “I don’t suppose that one of you mutts has understood a word I’ve said.” Everybody came to with a start. Now that was real education! He woke us up to a sense of our insufficiency. But — Byron and probably Pushkin, strained through the Scots-wool sensibility and life experi­ence of Professor James Alexander King, late of Edinburgh, were made real to me, and I think I undoubtedly understood what he was saying, mutt though I freely admit that I am. . . . Would I tell Prof Jimmy my dream? No need to do so. He has been there himself, and he would have the sense to leave what is inexplicable unexplained. Romance can’t be laid on the table and carved up like a cadaver, to see what once made it live. . . . Here’s the second movement. Allegro congrazia. One of Tchaikovsky’s amazing waltzes, speaking of elegant mel­ancholy, refined sensibility, love and everything that goes with it turned into a dance. The sort of thing ballet does, when it goes past the technicality of hopping about on tippy-toe. Ballerinas always looks so unapproachable, yet infinitely desirable. Because they are abstractions, of course. Abstrac­tions of what a beloved woman looks like to her lover. . . . Says Prof JPWF: “All great art is an abstraction from life, a purging of superfluities.” Yes, a purging from all that can-you-get-the-car-tonight and let’s-make-it-a-date and no-I’ve got-to-stay-home-and-study-and-anyhow-I’m-getting-the-Curse and God-you’re-an-awful-dancer-you-were-born-with-two-left-feet. This waltz is an abstraction moving into nobility of aspiration and tender feeling. Tender, not soft. Nobility is not a characteristic of the modern world or of student life, but how are we to live at our best without it? Without nobility the love-path is inevitably downward toward something that can become very mean and grubby. . . . She is driving me mad with desire. Not just for the lay — God what a word for it! — That means nothing unless it is the counterpart of an emotional coming-together. But if she won’t have it, why does she keep teasing with it, like somebody teasing a dog with a scrap of raw meat? She allows me every familiarity, every intimate knowledge and caress except the final one, because that would be conquest and to her the idea of conquest is unbearable. She plays with me dangerously. That night when I almost strangled her — but of course I’m not a strangler and didn’t finish the job. The look in her eyes before I let her go. Fear. I couldn’t bear the thought that she was afraid of me. But it was a near thing. Should I have raped her? That would have been the end of everything. I’ve never been quite so much off my head as that. But I can endure a surprising amount of midnight tor­ment without being absent from class sharp at nine the next day. I suppose that marks me as something not quite up to the Byronic standard. Not enough steam in the boiler?. . . Mad­ness in that family. Everybody hints at it without ever saying it full out. The old grandfather. Once an admired professor. Now a prisoner in his own house, and begs that he be not left alone for fear he might attack the housemaid. At his age! That night we were having a party in his house, where Julia was acting as keeper. I suppose we were making so much noise we penetrated even his extraordinary deafness. Perhaps he sensed something he didn’t really hear. Appeared in the arch leading into the drawing-room, like mad Lear, white hair and beard wild and tumbled, and his dressing-gown hanging open so that we saw his ancient body, yes and even his withered parts, like the sons of Noah beholding their father’s nakedness. Staring at us with blind eyes, the cataracts seem­ing to give off a blue light.”Have these young men taken up their permanent abode here?” he asked, with astonishing authority in such an apparition. We scampered. Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, as Bidwell said later. Always ready with the neat quote. And there are others. Grandfather is just the obvious one. But that hint of madness is the wormwood in the gin. The subtle, dangerous, irresistible savour. I may lack the steam but I have the dangerous imagination of the romantic. And where does it come from? . . . I wish it wasn’t necessary to change these records so often. But it can be done without breaking the mood. Now for the Allegro molto vivace. Is that madness in the music, that skittering, undignified disorder, resolving itself now into a determined theme that suggests doom? A procession? Not an obvious one like the Symphonie Fantastique, but surely those trumpets are urging the listener on toward — what? Not a gallows, surely, but a rejection. A rejection by what is dearest in life. Astonishing. The drag of the music until now has all been downward. Themes that seem to pull toward an abyss. But now it is all upward chromaticism, furious and unnerving. But of course. It’s the famous manic-depressive temperament, about which Martin chatters and explains so shallowly, as though every­body above the level of a turnip didn’t have some experience of it. Down, down, down — then upward suddenly, bringing on mental seasickness. And so to the final movement, the Adagio lamentoso. . . . Here it comes. Can I bear it? Of course you can bear it, you jackass. You’ve invited it. You could smash these records if they were really unbearable, but instead you’ve suborned the dead composer to ravage your feelings, and you’re enjoying every minute of it. The pain that is all but a pleasure is changing to the pleasure that’s all but pain, as the cranky old cynic tells you. Was he a cynic? I rather suspect that in him the cynicism was the crutch of the lamed romantic. But this music — Abjection before the Beloved. Does romanticism offer a more wretched, more ignominious state of soul? Manhood in abeyance. Manhood in chains. What is Tchaikovsky talking about? Resignation, and that laudanum of the romantic spirit, Renunciation. But not quite. There is protest against Resignation in what I hear. And then, defeat and the final succumbing to Destiny. Amor Fati. The final throwing in of the towel. . . . Then what? For the true romantic it’s the dagger or the poison bowl. But sodden and disordered by romance as I am, I’m not quite ready for that. What would it look like? Like the feeblest, wildest folly, and even those who understood some part of it would think I’d crazily overbid my hand. They would say she wasn’t worth it. Is she? Is she worth a life? . . . Am I crazy to see the Sphinx in a Canadian university girl? The Sphinx, nobly breasted, with the haunches of a lioness and a smile of maddening tender­ness on lips that ask the great question. But what question? That’s what I shrink from. There is no question on the lips of the Julia-Sphinx. Whatever question there may be is my own; I ask it myself, and pretend it is hers. And if I killed myself, would it be for her or for the answer to a question I had posed myself? In the end, though I love her as much as I could love anyone, it all comes down to myself. And that’s why all this Hamlet-like nonsense about suicide is self-indulgence and I am simply playing dangerously on my own feelings. Like all romantics, I suppose, I stand alone, and see Julia in a light that I give off. Men have died, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. . . . A quotation again. I feed my fires with quotations. Nobody else’s life is worth my life, and that’s that. I am too anxious to see what happens next to apply an arbitrary closure. Better to suffer and live, and taste the full bitterness of suffering, than to hop the twig — for what? Julia would be wretched for a week, and later in her life I would be a sad incident and perhaps, if she saw it that way, a scalp at her saddle-bow or a notch on her rifle. But Mother and Dad would be desolated. I know that. The bystanders get most of the splashed blood. Deep — deep inside me, there is something that says No to that. I want to see what comes next, whatever the cost.

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