Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

No, I am not Prince Hamlet. . . A literary tag, highly appropriate for the young professor.

If I survive this war, thinks Brochwel, I shall still be standing on the doorstep of my life and my career, whatever that may prove to be. What sort of world have these smashers and destroyers made for me?

A world without faith. Or so everybody says. The cen­tury past has been a great age of the God-killer. Nietzsche, who was as mad as a hatter, but had some arresting madman’s ideas, and without our splendid madmen our culture would be a pretty arid affair. Freud, who asserted with the persua­sive cunning of a powerfully gifted literary man that all faith, all belief, is an illusion, bred of childhood fears. Bertrand Russell, who has no time for faith, but all the time in the world for a variety of Noble Causes, and innocently believes that their nobility resides wholly in their usefulness to man­kind. They all want to bring everything down to that — to Man.

Can one blame these greatly gifted, persuasive people, if they were sick to death of the faith that has sustained a large and influential portion of the human race for nearly two thousand years? How does it show itself? Is not Christianity edging close to senility? Christianity: an essentially Oriental and Mediterranean structure of belief that begins to spring at the rivets when it is stretched around the globe among people in cold climates. A belief that cannot be reconciled to any workable system of government, or economics, but which others say has none the less revolutionized our notions of a just society, and brought compassion into a world that pos­sessed only the scantiest notion of any such thing. Argument along these lines can go on forever.

One thing, however, is radiantly clear to Brochwel: if he gets out of this mess with a whole skin he cannot embrace the reductive spirit of his age. The reductive spirit that shows itself so trivially in trivial people, and has made some of the most persuasive thinkers of the past century embrace a man-centred world, will not do for him. He does not want a world that prates solemnly about Science, without any understand­ing of the doubts that haunt great scientists. Science, which seems to offer certainty, is the superstition of ignorant multi­tudes, who think it means toothpaste and tampons. The hun­gry sheep look up, and are fed foul air and poisonous garbage. Eng-Lang-and-Lit, the joy of his life, never grew in that soil. What can he believe?


The Manichees had an idea that was by no means absurd. Theirs was a world that lived under the heaven of the Warring Brothers, Ormuzd and Ahriman, or call it God and Satan, if that pleases you better. The brothers were of wavering but almost equal power, and they slugged it out for the domination of our world. Some­times Ormuzd the Light One seemed to have the advantage, but never for long, because Ahriman the Dark One would gain a fresh hold, and all the splendours of Light were endan­gered and some were extinguished.

Of course Christianity wanted nothing to do with such an idea and condemned it as a heresy. Christianity rested firmly on the idea that the Right must always triumph, and Christianity knew beyond any doubt what Right was. But these awful, wrenching wars in which we embroil ourselves are far more easily understood in the Manichean figuration than in the socially concerned sentimentality into which Christianity appears to have fallen. Christianity, now too much a kingdom of this world.

Am I a Manichee, Brochwel asks himself. Thank God I don’t have to answer that question. I take refuge in what I believe to be the Shakespearean world-outlook: credulity about everything, tempered by scepticism about everything. Credulity and Scepticism, my Warring Brothers.

I, the patient looker-on, I, Connor Gilmartin, son of this young man whom I now see at a time in his life which far antedates his begetting of myself, find that I am laughing. Yes, laughing for the first time in all this Festival of deeply personal films. Laughing for the first time since my funeral. How can I help it? Brocky — I feel that I may call this young man Brocky, since he is not yet my father — is no philosopher, and certainly no theologian, but is he not the better for that? He is open to contradiction on just about every point in his reflections that I have overheard, and seen projected as images on the screen that is the correlative of his mind. He is really not much more than a boy, and loaded as he is with Eng-Lang-and-Lit he has had small experience of life, although this war is maturing him rapidly and roughly. But I like him — love him, indeed — as I never did when I knew him simply as my father. He is not the slave of his intellect; he has a heart and — what am I saying — a soul.

Has death and my personal Film Festival brought me to a belief in souls? I cannot recall ever having thought much about souls before, for when I lived I was undoubtedly one of the people Brocky has been thinking about — the spiritual illiterates. Though my body is unquestionably gone — cremated — everything that drove the engine and steered the course seems still to be with me, and I can’t think of a better word for it than soul. We live and learn, yes. But we die and learn, too, it appears.

For how long? Surely I am not to go on forever, looking at recreations of my nearer forebears in all their variety and vicissitude? An eternity of movies — I can’t face it. Stupid thought: I have no choice in the matter.

There seems to be an interval in the Maxim Trilogy, the masterpiece of Leonid Trauberg that the living audience is watching. They have had Youth of Maxim, and Return of Maxim, and now there is a pause before The Vyborg Side. The Sniffer is walking toward the foyer, where he will exchange guarded commonplaces with his fellow critics. They never talk about the film they are watching. Somebody might snatch a precious idea or simply a good phrase. They eat dry sandwiches and drink the thin white wine that seems to be bottled solely for such occasions. They retire to the rest-rooms and I recall that in Shakespeare’s day such an interval was frankly called “a pissing while.” Now the critics return morosely to their seats, and the Sniffer sits sighing at my side.


That is my father, cer­tainly. But not the young soldier. No, this is a professor, forty perhaps. And who is that melancholy-looking man with whom he is talking across a table?

Of course, I know that room. It is the library at Belem Manor, my grandfather’s Welsh home, where I once spent a weekend as a boy of twelve, on my first trip to the Old Land where my parents were doing some research in the British Museum. How well I recall my astonishment at how big it was! It was on a quite un-Canadian style of amplitude.

What a change this is from the crowded little house in Trailwm, where I saw grandfather as a boy; the stuffy quar­ters above the tailor’s shop, where so many Gilmartins and Jenkinses somehow found places to rest their heads. This room — how shall I describe it — is so handsomely got up with fine upholstery, linenfold panelling, velvet curtains, antique furniture and a heavily carved marble fireplace that it pro­vokes an aesthetic indigestion. Its presentation cannot be described in terms of interior decoration; it is the spirit of a very rich fruitcake, made habitable. Or so it was when my grandfather lived in it. Now, as the two men sit on either side of the big desk, it seems diminished, and the room is not bright, although there is full autumn sunshine outside.

“How exactly would you wish us to describe the house, Mr. Gilmartin?” says the melancholy man.

“Victorian Gothic, I suppose,” says Brochwel.

“I should recommend something else,” says the man.”That is not a term we like to use. The associations are, let us say, unfortunate.”

“But that’s what it is,” says Brocky.”We think the archi­tect was Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament, you know.”

“Well — that’s not the best association, either,” says the man.”Not many people would care to live in the Houses of Parliament. Except the Speaker, of course. He does so rent-free.”

He smiles a wan smile at his little joke.

“This isn’t the original house, of course,” says Brocky.”It’s on a very old site. Used to be an old black-and-white manor, some of it dating from the time of Robert de Beleme.”

“Aha. Historical interest. That’s a bit better. Roger de –?”

“Robert de Beleme. He was Master of Horse to Henry II.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson