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

But I like explaining, said Penny. People have such nutty ideas about universities and the people who work in them. Did you see the obituary that appeared of poor Ellerman? You wouldn’t have known it was the same man we knew. The facts were more or less right, but they gave no sense of what he had been, and he was damned good. If they’d wanted to crucify him, of course, it would have been easy. That crack-brained continu­ous romance he wrote, which was supposed to be such a secret and which he kept confiding in everybody about; a sort of Dream-Woman he invented for his private delectation, and made love to in quasi-Elizabethan prose. If anybody got hold of that —

They won’t, said Professor Stromwell, from across the table; it’s gone forever.

Really? said Penny. What happened?

I burned it myself, said Stromwell. Ellerman wanted it out of the way.

But oughtn’t it to have gone to Archives?

In my opinion, too much goes to Archives, and anything that is in Archives gains a wholly ridiculous importance because of it. Judge a man by what he publishes, not by what he hides in a bottom drawer.

Was it as raunchy as he hinted?

I don’t know. He asked me not to read it, and I didn’t.

And thus another great romance is lost, said Penny. He may have been a considerable artist in pornography.

No, not a man who was so devoted to the university ideal as Ellerman, said Professor Hitzig. If he had been an artist pri­marily he would not have been so happy here. The characteristic of the artist is discontent. Universities may produce fine critics, but not artists. We are wonderful people, we university people, but we are apt to forget the limitations of learning, which cannot create or beget.

Oh, come on! said Penny; That’s going too far. I could name you lots of artists who have lived in universities.

For every one you name, I’ll name you a score who didn’t, said Hitzig. Scientists are what universities produce best and oftenest. Science is discovery and revelation, and that is not art.

Aha! The reverent inquiry into nature, said Penny.

Finding a gaping hole in exact knowledge and plugging it, to the world’s great benefit, said Gyllenborg.

Then what do you call the Humanities? said Penny. Civili­zation, I suppose.

Civilization rests on two things, said Hitzig; the discovery that fermentation produces alcohol, and voluntary ability to in­hibit defecation. And I put it to you, where would this splendidly civilized occasion be without both?

Fermentation is undoubtedly science, said Gyllenborg; but voluntary inhibition must be psychology, and if anybody sug­gests that psychology is a science I shall scream.

No, no; you are on my ground now, said Stromwell; inhibi­tion of defecation is in essence a theological matter, and un­questionably one of the effects of the Fall of Man. And that, as everybody now recognizes, means the dawn of personal con­sciousness, the separation of the individual from the tribe, or mass. Animals have no such power of inhibition, as every stage-manager who has to get a horse on and offstage without a mishap will assure you. Animals know themselves but dimly — even more dimly than we, the masters of the world. When Man ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge he became aware of himself as something other than a portion of his surroundings, and he dropped his last, carefree turd, as he, with wandering steps and slow, from Eden took his solitary way. After that he had, literally, to mind his step, not to speak of his Ps and Qs.

‘His solitary way’, said Penny Raven. Just like Milton, the old sour-belly! What about Eve?

Every child repeats the experience of recognizing himself as unique, said Hitzig, ignoring the feminist outburst.

Every child repeats the whole history of life, beginning as a fish, before he begins to experience inhibition, said Gyllenborg.

Every child repeats the Fall of Man, quits the Paradise of the womb, and is launched into the painful world, said Strom­well. Sub-Warden, have those people up the way completely forgotten that decanters are supposed to be passed?

I tore myself away from a disquisition by Arthur Cornish on loan-sharking — of which of course he disapproved, although it fascinated him — and made another tour of the table to see that everyone was all right, and speed the decanters on their way. They had come to rest in front of Professor Mukadassi, who did not drink wine, and seemed absorbed in the talk of Hollier. I was glad Clem was enjoying himself, because he is not really a clubbable man.

What I call cultural fossils, he was saying, are parts of human belief or behaviour that have become so imbedded in the sur­rounding life that nobody questions them. I remember going to church with some English relatives when I was a boy, and noticing that a lot of the country women, as they came in, made a tiny curtsy to a blank wall. When I asked why, nobody knew, but my cousin inquired of the vicar, and he said that before the Reformation a statue of the Virgin had stood there, and although Cromwell’s men had destroyed it, they could not destroy the local habit, as evinced in the women’s behaviour. Years ago I paid a brief call at Pitcairn Island, and it was like stepping back into the earliest days of the nineteenth century; the last immigrants to that island were soldiers from Welling­ton’s troops, and their descendants still spoke the authentic speech of Sam Weller, and said Veil, sir , and Werry good . When my Father was a boy every well-brought-up Canadian child learned that herb was pronounced without the h ; you still hear it now and again, and modern Englishmen think it’s ignorance, though it’s really cultural history. These things are trifles, but among races that keep much to themselves, like some of the nomads of the East, or our surviving real Gypsies, all kinds of ideas persist, that are worth investigating. We tend to think of human knowledge as progressive; because we know more and more, our parents and grandparents are back numbers. But a contrary theory is possible — that we simply recognize different things at different times and in different ways. Which throws a new light on the whole business of mythology; the myths are not dead, just different in understanding and applica­tion. Perhaps superstition is just myth, dimly perceived and unthinkingly revered. If you think superstition is dead, visit one of our examination halls, and count the fetishes and ju-jus that the students bring in with them.

You don’t take that seriously? said Boys.

Quite seriously, said Hollier.

You speak of one of the great gaps in understanding between East and West, said Mukadassi. In India we know that men every bit as good as we believed things that the advanced members of society look on as absurdities. But I agree with you, Pro­fessor; our task is not to scorn them but to try to discover what they meant and where they thought they were going. The pride of Science encourages us to this terrible folly and darkness of scorning the past. But we in the East take much more account of Nature in our daily life than you do. Perhaps it is because we are able to be out-of-doors more than you. But if I may say it — and you must not think I would wound your susceptibilities, Professor — no, no, not for the world — but your Christianity is not helpful about Nature. None the less, Nature will have her say, and even that Human Nature that Christianity so often deplores. I hope I do not give offence?

Hollier was not offended; Mukadassi exaggerated the hold Christianity had on him. One of my favourite cultural fossils, said he, is the garden gnome. You have observed them? Very cute objects; very cute indeed. But do people want them simply for cuteness? I don’t believe it. The gnomes provide some of that sugar in the drink of belief that Western religion no longer offers, and which the watered-down humanitarianism that passes with so many people for religion offers even less. The gnomes speak of a longing, unrecognized but all the stronger for its invisibility, for the garden-god, the image of the earth-spirit, the kobold, the kabir, the guardian of the household. Dreadful as they are, they have a truth you won’t find in the bird-bath and the sundial.

Professor Durdle was airing a grievance to Elsa Czermak, who had been complaining about an economic weekend of seminars she had been attending at a sister university. But at least you talk about your subject, said he; you don’t have to listen to atmospheric burble.

Don’t we? said Elsa; that shows how much you know about it.

Can one burble about economics? I wouldn’t have thought it possible. But surely you don’t have to put up with the kind of thing I was listening to this afternoon. A Big Bloomsbury Man is visiting us, you know? And his message to the world about the mighty past of which he was a tiny part was chiefly this sort of thing: ‘Of course in Bloomsbury in the great days we were all absolutely mad. The servants were mad. You might go to sit down and find a plate of food on youah chah. Because the maids were simply mad. . . We had a red doah. There were lots of green doahs and blue doahs and brown doahs, but ours was a red doah. Completely MAD!’ It is quite extraordinary what charity uni­versities extend towards people who have known the great. It’s a form of romanticism, I suppose. Any wandering Englishman who remembers Virginia Woolf, or Wyndham Lewis, or E. M. Forster can pick up a fee and eat and drink himself paralytic in any university on this continent. Medieval, really; taking in jugglers and sword-swallowers who are on the tramp. And the American cadgers are just as bad though they are usually poets and minnesingers who want to show that they are very close to the young. It’s this constant arse-creeping to youth that kills me, because it isn’t the youth who pay them. God, you should have heard that fatuous jackass this afternoon! ‘I shall nevah forget the night Virginia stripped absolutely naked and wrapped herself in a bath-towel and did Arnold Bennett dictating in the Turkish bath. We simply screamed! Mad! MAD!’

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Categories: Davies, Robertson