Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

My soul, sit thou a patient looker-on;

Judge not the play before the play is done:

Her plot hath many changes; every day

Speaks a new scene: the last act crowns the play.

There’s the satisfaction of Eng-Lang-and-Lit; somebody else has said everything for you, and said it better. Is it living at second hand, then? No, you must feel things for yourself or you can’t truly understand what the Great Ones have said before you. It’s only the easy acceptance of literature that reduces it to a triviality and a self-indulgence. Literature is an essence, not a piquant sauce. . . . One o’clock! My God, and I have an early class! Hungry. It’s humbling, and salutary as well, that emotion and reflection beget hunger, and the flesh and bone and lymph and blood that are partners and partak­ers of emotion must be allowed their say. . . . Plato said the soul sets its seal upon the body; isn’t it time we recognized the seal the body sets on the soul? My soul cries, Die for Julia, but my liver and lights say, No, live for me, and I will reveal what I have for you. The body is no fool. . . . Put the screen in front of the fire. God, it’s close in this room. Then the kitchen. Feed the animal. My animal. Bed. And after Tchaikovsky and a snack I shall soon sleep.


So, for the moment I have seen the last of my father. My father! I never thought of him in this way. But then, who really knows his father, or his mother? In our personal dramas they play older, supporting roles, and we are always centre stage, in the limelight. And Professor James Pliny Whitney Frost, who is cast as Polonius in this provincial, Canadian Hamlet — probably a very differ­ent creature, if one knew more about him. Polonius must once have loved, before he became a wise counsellor to King Claudius and so an old ass to the Prince. After all, he begot the fair Ophelia.

On this amazing screen I have seen the Sphinx-smile that torments young Brochwel, and I have seen that identical smile on the lips of a dozen young women. Saw it, now and then, when Esme smiled in just that way. What does it mean? A comprehension beyond the wit of the protesting lover, or simply nothing at all, or What on earth does he think he is talking about? There is a gap of understanding that the extremest achievements of Feminism will never bridge. Women love, too, and love deeply and often bitterly. Women under­stand the body better than men do. Men bully it or neglect it, but women take it into full partnership. So, when a woman is simply the screen on which a man throws some fantastic image from within himself, what has the woman to do with it, and what is she to make of it? Julia — a pretty girl, and no fool — is to be pitied, I think. She has to carry a burden which she has not asked for, but which she cannot quite bring herself to thrust aside, because her body, too, makes its demands, and love is very flattering. Not a goddess or a cock-teaser, as Brocky sees her, but another creature, locked in another life.

St. Helen’s sleeps by the water. Not so the household in Scenes from a Marriage which the Sniffer is watching and which I now glimpse from the corner of my eye. In that film the couple are at it hammer and tongs, rolling on the floor, punching and jabbing like gutter children. Decidedly not my couple. Not Rhodri and Malvina, who have never exchanged blows in all their married days and would be horrified at the thought of descending to such rough-house. Am I mistaken or has physical violence come up the social ladder? Every day one reads in the papers of well-placed people who have fought with fists and flying crockery over some marital point of difference. In St. Helen’s Rhodri and Malvina are asleep in their separate rooms, for Auntie Min has a bed with Malvina, who might need her in the night, and Rhodri’s habit of waking at three o’clock to read and drink milk and eat arrow­root biscuits would certainly be disturbing.

How unlike themselves people look when they sleep. Or do they look like their real selves, or the selves they do not exhibit when awake? The merry man who sleeps with a fixed scowl, the beauty who pouts discontentedly — surely there is some truth in their sleeping faces? Is it the body’s memory, surely as real as the mind’s, that reveals itself in sleep? Is it the chaos of the dream world, upon the surface of which some buried recollection rises, then sinks again? Rhodri, as I see him in his big bed, looks not successful, not the lecturer of the improvident Jimmy King, but a wistful man, rather like the boy who passed those wretched days on the Courier. Malvina looks noble, which astonishes me; her high arched nose, without its accustomed pince-nez, is almost eagle-like. Auntie Min is, quite simply, a baby; a sad baby, quite unlike the fatly smiling, covertly snooping, jealous, biddable Min of the daylight hours. And Brochwel sleeps like a youth not quite twenty-one, wearing no signs of a breaking heart.

Is his pain, therefore, nothing but romantic affectation? No, but I sense that in Brocky there is much of the survivor, something of the spirit of Anna Vermuelen, who will not be downed by misfortune, however painful.

Is his aching desire for Julia an illusion? Not in the least. It is quite real, but it is not altogether what he thinks it is. It is a rite of passage, an introduction to full manhood, just as surely as if in some primitive society he was obliged to go through a brutal circumcision with a stone knife, or in the classical world to endure an alarming death-and-revival cere­mony that would make him a partaker of one of the ancient mystery cults.

Brochwel was my father and, although I never knew him any better than any man knows his father, I see now what it was that made him a successful professor, and a man with a reputation based not on The Faerie Queen, with its wondrous assemblage of noble knights, cruel temptresses and impossi­ble loves, but on the works of Robert Browning, the great poet of the ambiguities of human experience. Do the ances­tors, fleeting and heavily cloaked, visit us in sleep and speak in voices partly understood?


The Land of Lost Content

These films are becoming uncomfortably personal. I am not unstirred by what has gone before. I felt anger and danger and anxiety with Anna Gage; I was saddened by the vicissitudes of the Gilmartins, for every rags-to-riches tale is a new one, and the later drop from riches to rags is always deflating; the bitterness of William and Vir­ginia McOmish woke my pity. William — that wretched crea­ture, a soured idealist. Virginia, that hater of Venus, what would she have been in our more liberal age? But these tales wore the softening garb of distance, of “period costumes,” of folk unknown, though I understood now how powerfully they lived — or had lived until the Sniffer pulled his bludgeon out of its elegant casing — in me. But Malvina was my grand­mother, and to think that she had once been thirty, and had felt the awful approach of Old Maidery so keenly that she had even been prepared to lie — no, not quite lie — to hint — about the necessity for getting married, seemed to me to violate every­thing I had ever felt about her, or about grandmothers in general. A grandmother ought to be a monument of probity, and a doubtful grandmother is almost like a counterfeit coin — certainly was so in the WASP world of my childhood. And Rhodri — how well I remember my eighth birthday, when he gave me a five-dollar bill, and shook me by the hand; until then he had always kissed me when we met, and that hand­shake marked an important step in my journey toward man­hood; I was now too big a boy to be kissed by my grandfather. Could this confident old man, who wore such fine clothes and smelled of French toilet-water, have been the unhappy boy who suffered a descent into Hell when he became an appren­tice at the Courier? Had that deep, still musical voice in which he spoke once been the silvery tenor that went straight to the heart of Malvina, secretary to Mr. Yeigh, and seemingly so impregnable behind her silver pince-nez?

Quite the most troublesome figure was my father. That the man I knew as wise should once have been so confused, so bamboozled by Cupid, so befooled by a girl, so dominated by his instructors, so wanting in self-determination, was unbearable. What had given him strength? What had hard­ened this seeming putty into steel? Was I to learn?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson