The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Let’s see, where were we — ah, yes, Group Therapy. Know what that is? Well, you get together with a group of your peers, and you rap together about your problems, and you are free to say anything you like, about yourself or anybody else who feels like talking, and it’s all immensely therapeutic. Gets it all out of your system. Real psychological high jinks. Blood all over the walls. Of course I had some private sessions with a shrink, but the Group Therapy was the big magic.

The only trouble was, I wasn’t with a group of my peers. Who are my peers? Brilliant philosophers, stuffed with everything from Plato to the latest whiz-kids of the philosophical world — Logical Positivists, and such intellectual grandees. And there I was with a dismal coven of repentant soaks — a car salesman who had fallen from the creed of Kiwanis, and a Jewish woman whose family misunderstood her attempts to put them straight on everything, and a couple of schoolteachers who can’t ever have taught anything except Civics, and some business men whose god was Mammon, and a truck-driver who was included, I gather, to keep our eyes on the road and our discussions hitched to reality. Whose reality? Certainly not mine. So the imp of per­versity prompted me to make pretty patterns of our discussions together, and screw the poor boozers up worse than they’d been screwed up before. For the first time in years, I was having a really good time.

The group protested, and the shrink told me I must show compassion to my fellow-creatures. His idea of compassion was allowing every indefensible statement to pass unchallenged and sugary self-indulgence to pass as insight. He was a boob — a boob with a technique, but still a boob. When I told him so, he was indignant. Let me give you a tip, Maria: never get yourself into the hands of a shrink who is less intelligent than you are, and if that should mean enduring misery without outside help, it will be better for you in the long run. Shrinks aren’t all bright, and they are certainly not priests. I was beginning to think that a priest was what I needed, when finally they told me that the Foundation had done all it could for me, and I must re-enter the world. Threw me out, in fact.

Where does one look for a good priest? I tried a few, because we all have streaks of sentimentality in us and I still believed that there must be holy men somewhere whose goodness would help me. Oh, God! As soon as they found out how highly educated I was, how swift in argument, how ready with authority, they began to lean on me, and tell me their troubles, and expect answers. Some of them wanted to defect and get married. What was I to do? Get out! Get out! But where was I to go?

I had a little money, now, because my parents had died and although their last, long illnesses had gobbled up a lot of the family substance, I had enough money to go travelling, and where did I go? To Capri! Yes, Capri, that cliche of wickedness, although it is now so overrun with tourists that the wicked can hardly find room to get on with their sin; the great days of Norman Douglas have utterly departed. So, eastward to the Isles of Greece, where burning Sappho loved and sung but has been edged out of the limelight now by the beautiful fisher-boys who will share a seaside place with you for a substantial price, plus gifts, and who may turn ugly and beat you up now and then, just for kicks. One of them put me in the hospital for six weeks, one bad springtime. Am I shocking you, Maria?

Certainly not by telling me you’re one of the Gays.

Ah, but I’m not, you see; I’m one of the Sads, and one of the Uglies. The Gays make me laugh; they’re so middle class and political about the whole thing. They’ll destroy it all with their clamour about Gay Lib and alternative life-styles, and all love is holy, and ‘both partners must be squeaky clean’. That’s putting the old game on a level with No-Cal pop or decaffeinated coffee — appearance without reality. Strip it of its darkness and danger and what is left? An eccentricity, as if I stuck this spaghetti into my ear instead of into my mouth. Now that would be an alternative life-style, and undoubtedly a perversion, but who would care? No: let my sin be Sin or it loses all stature.

If you prefer men to women, what’s it to me?

I don’t, except for one form of satisfaction. No, I want no truck with ‘homo-eroticism’ and the awful, treacherous, gold-digging little queens you get stuck with in that caper: I want no truck with Gay Liberation or hokum about alternative life-styles: I want neither the love that dare not speak its name nor the love that blats its name to every grievance committee. Gnosce teipsum says the Oracle at Delphi; know thyself, and I do. I’m just a gross old bugger and I like it rough — I like the mess and I like the stink. But don’t ask me to like the people. They aren’t my kind.

From what you tell me, Brother John, not many people seem to be your kind.

I’m not impossibly choosy: I just ask for a high level of intelligence and honesty about things that really matter.

That’s choosy enough to exclude most of us. But something must have happened to get you out of Greece and into that robe.

You mistrust the robe?

Not entirely, but it makes me cautious. You know what Rabelais says — Never trust those who look through the hole of a hood.

Well, he looked through that hole for much of his life, so he ought to know. You’ve never told me, Maria, what brings you to devote so much of your time to that dirty-minded, anti-feminist old renegade monk. Could he have been one of my persuasion, do you suppose?

No. He didn’t like women much, though he seems to have liked one of them enough to have a couple of children by her, and he certainly loved the son. Maybe he didn’t meet the right kind of women. Peasant women, and women at court, but did he meet any intelligent, educated women? They must have been rarities in his experience. He couldn’t have been like you, Brother John, because he loved greatly, and he rejoiced greatly, and he certainly wasn’t a university hanger-on, which is what you are now. He loved learning, and didn’t use it as a way of beating other people to their knees, which seems to be your game. No, no; don’t put yourself on the same shelf as Master François Rabelais. But the monk — come on, how did you become a monk?

Aha, here’s the zabaglione, which should just see us through. Excuse me for a moment, while I retire to the gentlemen’s room. I wish you could come with me; it is always good sport to see the look on the faces of the other gentlemen when a monk strides up to the urinal and hoists his robe. And how they peep! They want to know what a monk wears underneath. Just a cleanish pair of boxer shorts, I assure you.

Off he went, rather unsteadily, and when people at other tables stared at him, he gave them a beaming smile, so unctuous that they turned to their plates as fast as they could.

That’s better! Well now — the robe, said Parlabane, when he returned. That’s quite a tale in itself. You see, I had somewhat dropped in caste, during my stay in Greece; people who had known me were beginning to avoid me, and my adventures on the beaches — because my days of hiring even a humble cottage had passed by — were what I suppose must be called notorious, even in an easy-going society. A bad reputation without money to sweeten it is a heavy burden. Then one day, when I dropped in at the Consulate to ask if they had any mail for me — which they rarely had, but sometimes I could touch somebody for a little money — there actually was a letter for me. And — I can still feel the ecstasy of that recognition — it was from Henry. It was a long letter; first of all, he thought he had treated me badly, and begged my pardon. Next, he had run through whatever there was to run through in very much the kind of life I had been leading (only in his case it was cushioned with a good deal of money) and he had found something else. That something else was religion, and he was determined to yoke himself to a religious life with a brother­hood that worked among wretched people. God, it was a wonder­ful letter! And to top off the whole thing he offered to send me my fare, if I needed it, to join him and decide whether or not I wanted to accept that yoke as well.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson