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

It’s just unusual, I suppose.

Indeed it is unusual, in the sense that I’m talking about. But there have been such people.

I scurried around in my mind for an example.

Like Diaghilev?

Yes, but not in the way you probably mean. Everybody now thinks of him as an exotic; no, no, he was hard as nails and began life as a lawyer. But Christie at Glyndebourne wasn’t exotic at all and perhaps he achieved more than Diaghilev.

It all seems a bit — hard to find a word that won’t make you angry — but a bit grandiose.

We’ll see. Or I’ll see, at any rate. But I don’t want to be an art miser, like Uncle Frank; I want to show the world what I’ve made and what I am.

Good luck to you, Arthur.

Thanks. I can be sure of the power, but without luck, it’s not worth a damn. — Now it’s time we were going. Do you want to meet Egressy afterwards? I know him fairly well.


I did not much like the first part of the concert, which included a Festival Overture by Dohnanyi and something by Kodaly; the conductor was giving us a Hungarian night. When Egressy appeared on the platform to play the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 I felt hostile towards him. I turned off my ears, as I had said I would, but if you really like music you cannot do that completely, any more than you can turn off the dreadful Muzak in a public building. You try not to be drawn into it. But when, during the second part of the programme, Egressy played the last three Hungarian Rhapsodies, I could not turn off my ears. Not to hear demanded an effort, a negation of spirit, that was utterly beyond me. During the fifteenth, in which the Rakoczy March appears in so many guises, I became a wreck, emotion­ally and to some degree physically, for I wept and wept beyond the power of my handkerchief to staunch my tears.

Of course Arthur knew that I was weeping; people on all sides knew it, though I made no noise. The remarkable thing was that he did nothing about it; no solicitous proffering of large white handkerchief, no patting of the arm, no murmur of There, there. Yet I knew he respected my weeping, knew it was private, knew it was beyond anything he could do to repair, knew it had to be. When he took me home afterwards — he said nothing more about meeting Egressy — neither of us spoke about it.

Why had I wept? Because I had behaved like a fool at dinner, for one thing, speaking of my Gypsy blood as if it were a social embarrassment, instead of a glory and a curse. How bourgeois, how mean of spirit, how gadjo! What ailed me, to speak so to a stranger about something I never discussed with anybody? As a child I had thought innocently that it was fun to be part Gypsy, but my schoolmates soon put me straight on that matter. Gypsies were dirty, they were thieves, they knew mean tricks. The parents of several children would not allow me to play with them; I was the strange child.

True enough, I was a little strange, for I had thoughts that do not belong to childhood. I wondered what it was like to be one of those smiling, pale-skinned, and often pale-eyed Canadian mothers, whose outward pleasantness so often enclosed a hard and narrow spirit. They lived again in their pale children, who thought me strange because I was not pale, but had red cheeks and black eyes and black hair; not even the Canadian winters could bleach me down to the prevailing skin-colour, which was like that of an arrowroot biscuit.

Wondering what it was like to be in their skins, it was a short step to doing whatever I could to get into their skins. I used to imitate their walks and postures and their hard, high voices, but most of all their facial expressions. This was not taking them off as some of the girls at the convent school took off the nuns and the Old Supe; it was putting them on like a cloak, to find out what it felt like, as a way of knowing them. When I was fourteen I called it the Theotoky Theory of Exchangeable Per­sonalities, and took huge delight in it. And indeed it taught me a surprising amount; walk like somebody, stand like her, try to discover how she produces her voice, and often astonishing things become clear.

A strange child, perhaps, but I wouldn’t give a pinch of dust for a child who was not strange. Is not every child strange, by adult accounting, if we could only learn to know it? If it has no strangeness, what is the use of it? To grow up into another humanoid turnip? But I was stranger than the others. They were proud of being of Scots descent, or French, or Irish, or whatever it was. But Gypsy blood was not a thing to be proud of — unless one happened to have it oneself, and knew what Gypsy pride was like. Not the assertive pride of the boastful Celts and Teutons and Anglo-Saxons, but something akin to the pride of the Jews, a sense of being different and special.

The Jews, so cruelly used by the National Socialists in Ger­many, so bullied, tortured and tormented, starved and done to death in every way from the most sophisticated to the most brutal, have the small comfort of knowing that the civilized world feels for them; they have themselves declared that the world will never be allowed to forget their sufferings. But the Jews, for all their pride of ancestry, are a modern people in command of all the modern world holds, and so they know how to make their voices heard. The Gypsies have no such arts, and the Gypsies too were victims of the Nazi madness.

What happened to them has that strange tinge of reason­ableness that deceived so much of the world when it heard what the Nazis were doing. At first the Fuehrer himself professed an interest in the Gypsies; they were fascinating relics of the Indo-Germanic race, and to preserve their way of life in its purity was a scientifically desirable end. They must be gathered together, and they must be numbered and their names recorded. Scholars must study them, and there is a terrible humour in the fact that they were declared to be, living creatures as they were, under the protection of the Department of Historical Monuments. So they were herded together, and then it was discovered by the same scientists who had acclaimed them that they were an impure ethnic group, and a threat to the purity of the Master Race; the obvious solution to their problem was to sterilize them, bringing an end to their tainted heritage, and the inveterate criminality it fostered. But as Germany gained power over much of Europe it was found simpler to kill them.

Being skilled in escape and evasion, great numbers of Gypsies ran away, and took refuge in the countryside that had always been so kind to them. That was when the greatest horror began; troops hunted them through the woods like animals, and shot on sight. Those who could not escape were in the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the exterminators, and they were gassed. The Gypsies are not a numerous people, and so the statistics concerning their extermination are unimpressive, if you are impressed chiefly by numbers: there were just a few less than half a million who died thus, but when one human creature dies a whole world of hope and memory and feeling dies with him. To be robbed of the dignity of a natural death is a terrible deprivation.

It was these souls I thought of, Canadian as I am by birth, but half-Gypsy by blood, as I listened to Liszt’s three final Hungarian Rhapsodies, all in minor keys, and all speaking the melancholy defiance of a medieval people, living in a modern world, in which their inveterate criminally expresses itself in robbing clothes-lines and face-to-face cheating of gadje who want their fortunes told by a people who seem to have the old wisdom they themselves have lost in their complex world of gadjo ingenuity, where the cheats and rogueries are institutionalized.

Half a million Gypsies dead, at the command of this gadjo world; who weeps for them? I do, sometimes.

I do.


So: my bad child has told you about the bomari?

Very little; nothing that would give me a clue to what it really is. But enough to rouse great curiosity.

Why do you want to know? What has it to do with you?

Well, Madame Laoutaro, I had better explain as briefly as I can. I am an historian, not of wars or governments, not of art or science — at least not science as people think of it now — but of beliefs. I try to recapture not simply the fact that people at one time believed something-or-other, but the reasons and the logic behind their belief. It doesn’t matter if the belief was wrong, or seems wrong to us today: it is the fact of the belief that concerns me. You see, I don’t think people are foolish and believe wholly stupid things; they may believe what is untrue, but they have a need to believe the untruth — it fills a gap in the fabric of what they want to know, or think they ought to know. We often throw such beliefs aside without having truly understood them. If an army is approaching on foot nowadays, the information reaches us by radio, or perhaps by army telephone; but long ago every army had men who could hear the approach of an enemy by putting their heads to the ground. That wouldn’t do now, because armies move faster, and we attack them before we can see them, but it worked very well for several thousand years. That is a simple example; I don’t want to bore you with complexities. But the kind of sensitivity that made it possible for a man to hear an army marching several miles away without any kind of artificial aid has almost disappeared from the earth. The recognition of oneself as a part of nature, and reliance on natural things, are disappearing for hundreds of millions of people who do not know that anything is being lost. I am not digging into such things because I think the old ways are necessarily better than the new ways, but I think there may be some of the old ways that we would be wise to look into before all knowledge of them disap­pears from the earth — the knowledge and the kind of thinking that lay behind it. And the little I have heard about your bomari suggests that it may be very important in my research. Do I make any sense to you?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson