The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

–I’m no hero, Liesl.

–Oh, how modest and rueful that sounds! And you expect me to think, isn’t he splendid to accept his limitations so manfully. But I don’t think that. All that personal modesty is part of the cop-out personality of our time. You don’t know whether or not you are a hero, and you’re bloody well determined not to find out, because you’re scared of the burden if you are and scared of the certainty if you’re not.

–Just a minute. Dr. von Haller, of whom you think so little, once suggested that I was rather inclined toward heroic measures in dealing with myself.

–Good for Jo! But she didn’t encourage you in it, did she? Ramsay says you are very much the hero in court — voice of the mute, hope of the hopeless, last resort of those society has condemned. But of course that’s a public personality. Why do you put yourself on this footing with a lot of riff-raff, by the way?

–I told Dr. von Haller that I liked living on the lip of a volcano.

–A good, romantic answer. But do you know the name of the volcano? That’s what you have to find out.

–What are you suggesting? That I go home and take up my practice and Alpha and Castor and see what I can do to wriggle crooks like Matey Quelch off the hooks on which they have been caught? And at night, sit down quietly and try to think my way out of all my problems, and try to make some sort of sense of my life?

–Think your way out. . . Davey, what did Jo say was wrong with you? Obviously you have a screw loose somewhere; everybody has. What did she find at the root of most of your trouble? –Why should I tell you?

–Because I’ve asked, and I truly want to know. I’m not just a gossip or a chatterer, and I like you very much. So tell me.

–It’s nothing dreadful. She just kept coming back to the point that I am rather strongly developed in Thinking, and seem to be a bit weak in Feeling.

–I guessed that was it.

–But honestly I don’t know what’s wrong with thinking. Surely it’s what everybody is trying to do?

–Oh yes; very fine work, thinking. But it is also the greatest bolt-hole and escape hatch of our time. It’s supposed to excuse everything. . . “I think this. . . I thought that. . . You haven’t really thought about it. . . Think, for God’s sake. . . The thinking of the meeting (or the committee, or God help us, the symposium) was that. . .” But so much of this thinking is just mental masturbation, not intended, to beget anything. . . So you are weak in feeling, eh? I wonder why?

–Because of Dr. von Haller, I can tell you. In my life feeling has not been very handsomely rewarded. It has hurt like hell.

–Nothing unusual in that. It always does. But you could try. Do you remember the fairy-tale about the boy who couldn’t shudder and was so proud of it? Nobody much likes shuddering, but it’s better than existing without it, I can assure you.

–I seem to have a natural disposition to think rather than feel, and Dr. von Haller has helped me a good deal there. But I am not ambitious to be a great feeler. Wouldn’t suit my style of life at all, Liesl.

–If you don’t feel, how are you going to discover whether or not you are a hero?

–I don’t want to be a hero.

–So? It isn’t everybody who is triumphantly the hero of his own romance, and when we meet one he is likely to be a fascinating monster, like my dear Eisengrim. But just because you are not a roaring egotist, you needn’t fall for the fashionable modern twaddle of the anti-hero and the mini-soul. That is what we might call the Shadow of democracy; it makes it so laudable, so cosy and right and easy to be a spiritual runt and lean on all the other runts for support and applause in a splendid apotheosis of runtdom. Thinking runts, of course — oh, yes, thinking away as hard as a runt can without getting into danger. But there are heroes, still. The modern hero is the man who conquers in the inner struggle. How do you know you aren’t that kind of hero? –You are as uncomfortable company as an old friend of mine who asked for spiritual heroism in another way. “God is here and Christ is now,” he would say, and ask you to live as if it were true.

–It is true. But it’s equally true to say “Odin is here and Loki is now.” The heroic world is all around us, waiting to be known.

–But we don’t live like that, now.

–Who says so? A few do. Be the hero of your own epic. If others will not, are you to blame? One of the great follies of our time is this belief in some levelling of destiny, some democracy of Wyrd.

–And you think I should go it alone?

–I don’t think: I feel that you ought at least to consider the possibility, and not cling to Jo like a sailor clinging to a lifebelt.

–I wouldn’t know how to start.

–Perhaps if you felt something powerfully enough it would set you on the path.

–But what?

–Awe is a very unfashionable, powerful feeling. When did you last feel awe in the presence of anything?

–God, I can’t remember ever feeling what I suppose you mean by awe.

–Poor Davey! How you have starved! A real little work-house boy, an Oliver Twist of the spirit! Well, you’re rather old to begin.

–Dr. von Haller says not. I can begin the second part of this exploration with her, if I choose. But what is it? Do you know, Liesl?

–Yes, but it isn’t easily explained. It’s a thing one experiences — feels, if you like. It’s learning to know oneself as fully human. A kind of rebirth.

–I was told a lot about that in my boyhood days, when I thought I was a Christian. I never understood it.

–Christians seem to have got it mixed up, somehow. It’s certainly not crawling back into your mother’s womb; it’s more a re-entry and return from the womb of mankind. A fuller comprehension of one’s humanity.

–That doesn’t convey much to me.

–I suppose not. It’s not a thinker’s thing.

–Yet you suggest I go it alone?

–I don’t know. I’m not as sure as I was. You might manage it. Perhaps some large experience, or even a good, sharp shock, might put you on the track. Perhaps you are wrong even to listen to me.

–Then why do you talk so much, and throw out so many dangerous suggestions?

–It’s my metier. You thinkers drive me to shake you up.

Maddening woman!

Dec. 24, Wed. and Christmas Eve: Was this the worst day of my life, or the best? Both.

Liesl insisted this morning that I go on an expedition with her. You will see the mountains at their best, she said; it is too cold for the tourists with their sandwiches, and there is not enough snow for skiers. So we drove for about half an hour, uphill all the way, and at last came to one of those cable-car affairs and swayed and joggled dizzily through the air toward the far-off shoulder of a mountain. When we got out of it at last, I found I was panting.

–We are about seven thousand feet up now. Does it bother you? You’ll soon get used to it. Come on. I want to show you something. –Surely the view elsewhere is the same as it is here?

–Lazy! What I want to show you isn’t a view.

It was a cave; large, extremely cold as soon as we penetrated a few yards out of the range of the sun, but not damp. I couldn’t see much of it, and although it is the first cave I have ever visited it convinced me that I don’t like caves. But Liesl was enthusiastic, because it is apparently quite famous since somebody, whose name I did not catch, proved conclusively in the nineties that primitive men had lived here. All the sharpened flints, bits of carbon, and other evidence had been removed, but there were a few scratches on the walls which appear to be very significant, though they looked like nothing more than scratches to me.

–Can’t you imagine them, crouching here in the cold as the sun sank, with nothing to warm them but a small fire and a few skins? But enduring, enduring, enduring! They were heroes, Davey.

–I don’t suppose they conceived of anything better. They can’t have been much more than animals.

–They were our ancestors. They were more like us than they were like any animal.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson