The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Revised Edition (1966) by Robertson Davies

Thursday: Circumstances have made a movie fan out of me this week. On the Late Movie tonight saw Gypsy Rose Lee in a drama which told of the reclamation of a crook by a tavern entertainer who held him in lubricious thrall; this palsied theme, handled with pleasant irony, made good entertainment. . . I was especially impressed by Gypsy Rose Lee, and hereby publicly announce that she is my movie queen and, in my view, the most lovely and accomplished of all Hollywood’s lallapaloozas. She has elegance, wit and a charming voice, and if I were a younger man I should write to Hollywood and offer her a half-interest in my chicken farm. . . It was a similar upsurge of emotion which led my uncle, the Rev. Hengist Marchbanks (author of the popular theological work Scatology and Eschatology), to offer marriage to Miss Lottie Gilson, known professionally as “The Little Magnet,” in 1888. Needless to say she refused him, but he kept a picture of her (in red silk tights) pasted in the front of his copy of Cruden’s Concordance until he was called to his long rest in 1902.

Friday: I see that the French are abandoning the guillotine as an instrument of execution, and are going to use electric chairs just as soon as they can generate enough electric power to fry a yegg. This depresses me. The guillotine had one great virtue in my eyes; it was picturesque. . . As long as we maintain the essentially barbarous custom of capital punishment we might as well perform it in the most barbarous ways. Hanging is disgusting enough for anybody; the guillotine is deliciously messy: these methods of public vengeance have a kind of noble savagery about them. But frizzling a man in a chair until he looks like a piece of toast and the fillings in his teeth hum like tiny radios is just modern gadget-worship gone wild. Why not burn a criminal at the stake, if you want to give him a roasting?

Saturday: Painted a fence today. Passersby greeted me with remarks like, “Doing a little painting, eh?” or “Well, I see you are painting your fence.” A short-tempered man might have replied, “Oh, you’re quite mistaken; I’m making a fretwork watch cosy for my Aunt Minnie,” but I am not short-tempered. Such remarks, stressing what is obvious, are not meant to be taken literally. They are what psychologists call “phatic communion” — that is to say, talk intended to establish a sense of fellowship rather than to convey any intelligent meaning. . . There are a lot of people whose entire conversation is composed of phatic communion; carried to excess it earns them a reputation for phatheadedness.


Sunday: A sticky dull day; I awoke with the bedclothes sticking to me, my clothes stuck to me all day, and whenever I arose from a varnished chair there was an audible sound as my trousers tore themselves from the seat. Bathing and fanning were futile; the only thing to do was to keep still and suffer, but this palled during the afternoon and I climbed a hill and looked down over the town; steam rose from it and here and there church spires and factories rose shadow-like above the vapour bath. . . What I always say about the Canadian climate is that it saves us millions of dollars in travel; we can freeze with the Esquimau, or sweat with the Zulu, or parch with the Arab, or drench with the Briton, and all in our own front gardens. Sometimes we even have some really beautiful weather, but not often enough to spoil us.

Monday: To the movies this evening and saw a double feature — the first part of which was good, and the second part so bad as to be hugely entertaining. It contained, among other things, the briefest conversion ever witnessed on stage or screen; a priestess of the Sky Goddess (who performed her religious duties by wriggling her caboose in a provocative manner and tossing gardenias to handsome strangers) was told about the Fatherhood of God by an aged beachcomber in 30 seconds; she immediately rushed to her co-religionists, who were preparing to roast the hero, and shouted “Big-Ju-Ju him say no kill,” and at once all the amateur cooks knelt, while a shower of rain fell and put out the sacrificial fire. I laughed myself into a serious state of debility during this exhibition, which involved the services of some of the worst actors to be seen anywhere, even on television.

Tuesday: A man was asking me for information about Dr. Guillotin. I know little about him, except that he was a physician; that he was 51 when he came into prominence in 1789, and that he persuaded the French Constituent Assembly to adopt the killing-machine which we connect with the Revolution. “My machine will take off a head in a twinkling, and the victim will feel nothing but a sense of refreshing coolness,” he said to that body. Contrast the humanity of Guillotin with the malignity of the inventor of the electric chair, who causes his victim a sudden sense of intolerable heat; rightly is the chair called “the hot squat.”. . . Death by the guillotine was not immediate, by the way; several of the bodies struggled and attempted to rise after the knife had fallen, and there is a horrifying and well-authenticated account of the head of one nobleman which was seen to wink as it lay in the basket. . . A Russian scientist, I see, has had great success in reviving men who have been dead for some time; this is going to mean a serious revision of our notions about death and the hereafter.

Wednesday: A day of intense heat and demanding work coincided, reducing me to a condition of dripping exhaustion, and furious rebellion against the clothes the male is expected to wear under such circumstances. I am forced to the conclusion that ours is a Lost Age, a period of transition between one great historical epoch and another, and that one of the surest proofs of our moral, spiritual and aesthetic inadequacy is the sartorial thralldom in which men are held. Women — the fattest, oldest and most repulsive — strip for the heat; men — however emancipated they may be in other ways — continue to wear a collection of hot, foolish and ugly garments, designed to bind and chafe at every possible point. These are mad, bad, degenerate days, and no good will come of them, mark my words.

Thursday: Hullabaloo today about the results of the British General Election, which is interpreted in some circles as a mighty triumph for the Common Man. I confess that I find the modern enthusiasm for the Common Man rather hard to follow. I know a lot of Common Men myself, and as works of God they are admittedly wonderful; their hearts beat, their digestions turn pie and beef into blood and bone, and they defy gravity by walking upright instead of going on all fours; these are marvels in themselves, but I have not found that they imply any genius for government or any wisdom which is not given to Uncommon Men. . . In fact, I suspect that the talk about the Common Man is popular cant; in order to get anywhere or be anything a man must still possess some qualities above the ordinary. But talk about the Common Man gives the yahoo element in the population a mighty conceit of itself, which may or may not be a good thing for democracy which, by the way, was the result of some uncommon thinking by some very uncommon men.

Friday: Papers full of the British election. For the first time, so far as I know, mention is made of the new Prime Minister’s “attractive, blue-eyed, youthful wife.” It is a continual source of astonishment to me that prominent men always seem to be married to exceptional and attractive women. I recall how attractive Mrs. Baldwin seemed to be to the press when Honest Stan went to Downing Street; Mrs. Chamberlain, also, was a woman in a thousand. The charitable conclusion, of course, is that these wonderful women make their husbands great, and keep in the background while the simpleminded fellow enjoys all the fun. . . I wonder if the day will ever come when the wife of a new prime minister or president is described thus: “Mrs. Blank is a dumpy, unattractive woman, who dresses in the worst possible taste, and has frequently embarrassed her husband by her inept remarks in public places; it is generally recognized that he would have achieved office years ago if she had not put her foot in it on so many important occasions.”. . . But no: it is a cherished legend than the wives of eminent men are composed of equal parts of Venus and Juno.

Saturday: To a picnic this afternoon, and had a lot of fun with an echo. There is nothing to compare with an echo for making a man feel god-like; he shouts to the skies, and a great voice returns from the distant hills. But do men ever shout god-like remarks at echoes? No! They shout “Phooey!” and “Boob!” and such-like vulgarities. Once, when I was a mere youth, I belonged to a choral society which rendered an echo-song by Orlando di Lasso, dating from the 16th century, and which consisted wholly of one part of the choir shouting Italian equivalents of Phooey and Boob at the other, with an occasional Ha Ha thrown in to give an air of gaiety. Man’s treatment of echoes is continued in his treatment of television; having conquered the air to a point where the precepts of the great prophets, and the music of the supreme musicians, might flow over the whole earth, man devotes his invention to elaborations upon the Phooey and Boob theme, with an occasional mention of breakfast food and soap. I dread the day when the First Cause, disgusted with man, will Itself shout Phooey and Boob, and throw our whole Universe down some cosmic drain.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson