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

We have our own lunatic raconteurs, said Elsa. Haven’t you ever heard Deloney telling about the Principal at St. Brendan’s who had the mynah bird that could talk Latin? It could say Liber librum aperit and a few classical nifties of that sort, but it had had a rough background, and was likely to shout ‘Gimme a drink, you old bugger’ when the Principal was ticking off a naughty student. I must say Deloney does it very well, but if he ever goes out as a touring lecturer I can see it developing into a star turn. Economists are just the same; long tales about Keynes not being able to make change for taxis, and that sort of thing. Universities are great repositories of trivia. You need a sabbatical, Jim, you’re getting sour.

Perhaps so, said Durdle. As a matter of fact, I’m working up a turn of my own about the last Canada Council ‘site visit’ I was mixed up in. You know how they work? It’s really like an episcopal visitation in the Middle Ages. You spend months preparing all the material for an application for money to carry on some special piece of work, and then when everything’s in order they send a committee of six or seven to meet your committee of six or seven, and you wine them and dine them and laugh at their jokes, and tell them everything you’ve already told them all over again, and treat them as friends — even equals. Then they go back to Ottawa and write to you that they really don’t think your plan is quite strong enough to merit their assistance. Overpaid, over-pensioned running dogs of bourgeois philistinism!

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens, said Erzenberger.

Translation, please, said Elsa.

The gods themselves struggle vainly with stupidity, said Erzenberger and could not keep a note of pity out of his voice as he added, Schiller.

Elsa ignored the pity and turned again to Durdle. Well, when you go begging you must sometimes expect to have the door slammed, or the dogs loosed on you. Scholars are mendi­cants. Always have been, and always will be — or so I hope. God help us all if they ever got control of any real money.

Oh Christ, Elsa, don’t be so po-faced! It’s those damned cigars you smoke; they breed resignation. Every academic worth his salt wants to be a Philosopher King, but that takes a lot of money. I wish I had a small independent income; I’d get away from everything and write.

No you wouldn’t, Jim. The University has you in its grip forever. Academicism runs in the blood like syphilis.

Nobody gets drunk at a Guest Night. The wine performs its ancient magic of making the drinkers more themselves, and what is in the fabric of their natures appears more clearly. Ludlow, the law don, was being legalistic and Mrs. Skeldergate, whose pre­occupation was with society, was trying to arouse his indignation, or his pity, or something other than his cool judgematical obser­vation of the degradation she knew about in our city.

It’s the children, of course, that we must think of, because so many of the older people are beyond reclaim. The children, and the young. One of the hardest things I had to learn when I began the sort of work I am doing now is that many women have no concern for their children whatever. And the children are in a world of which they have no comprehension. A little girl told me last week that an old man came to their house and he and her mother fought on the bed. Of course she did not recognize sexual intercourse. What will she be when she does — which must be soon? A child prostitute, one of the saddest things in the world, surely. I have been trying to do something about another child, who cannot speak. Nothing wrong with her speech organs, but neglect has made her dumb. She doesn’t know the commonest words. Her buttocks are covered with triangular burns; her mother’s lover touches the child up with the iron, to cure her stupidity. Another child dares not speak; he lives in mute terror and his tortured, placatory grimace makes his mother hit him.

You describe a dreadful, Dostoevskian world, said Ludlow, and it is grim to know that it exists not more than two miles from where we sit, in circumstances of comfort — indeed, of luxury. But what do you propose to do?

I don’t know, but something must be done. We can’t shut our eyes to it. Have you people no suggestions? It used to be thought that education was the answer.

University life makes it amply clear that education is not an answer to anything, unless it is united to some basic endowment of common sense, goodness of heart, and recognition of the brotherhood of mankind, said Ludlow.

And the Fatherhood of God, said the Warden.

You must allow me to withhold my opinion about that, Warden, said Ludlow. Wrangling about God is not for lawyers, like me, but for philosophers like you, and priests like Darcourt. Mrs. Skeldergate and I have to come to grips with the actualities of society, she in her social work and I in the courts; we have to deal with what society gives us. And although I do not in the least underestimate the problems you attribute to poverty and ignor­ance, Mrs. Skeldergate, some rough-and-tumble court work has convinced me that much the same sort of thing comes under the consideration of the law from parts of society that are not poor and not, in the ordinary sense, ignorant. Inhumanity, cruelty, and criminal self-seeking are not the exclusive property of the poor. You can find lots of that sort of thing right here in the University.

Oh, come, Ludlow, you are simply talking for effect, said the Warden.

Not at all, Warden. Every senior person in the University world knows how much thieving, for instance, goes on in that world, and everybody conspires to keep quiet about it. Probably the conspiracy is a wise one, because there would be a row if it ever became a matter of public knowledge. But what are you to expect? A university like this is a community of fifty thousand people; if you lived in a town of fifty thousand, wouldn’t you expect some of them to be thieves? What is stolen? Everything from trifles to costly equipment, from knives and forks to whole sets of Communion vessels from the chapels, which are whisked off to South America, I happen to know. It is stupid to pretend that students have no part in it, and probably members of faculty, if we knew. There are explanations: all institutions arouse the larceny in the human heart, and pinching something from the Alma Mater is a revenge taken on behalf of some unacknow­ledged part of the human spirit, for the Bounteous Mother’s superiority of pretension. Not for nothing were students known to our ancestors as St. Nicholas’s clerks — learned and thievish alike. Good God, Warden, have you forgotten that only three years ago a visiting professor who stayed in this College tried to get away with the curtains off his windows? He was a learned man, but he was also in the grip of the universal desire to steal.

Come now, Ludlow, you don’t expect me to admit any such universal desire.

Warden, I put it to you: have you never stolen anything in your life? No, I’ll retract that; your position is such that you are, by definition, honest; the Warden of a college does not steal, though the man under the Warden’s gown might do so. I won’t ask the man. But you, Mrs. Skeldergate — have you never stolen?

I wish I could say I haven’t, said Mrs. Skeldergate with a smile, but I have. Not very seriously, but a book from a college library. I’ve tried to make restitution — quite a bit more than restitution. But I can’t deny it.

The soul of mankind is incurably larcenous, said Ludlow, in the olive-groves of Academe as well as anywhere else; and thefts of books and property by students, servants, and faculty, and betrayal of trust by trusted persons must be expected to continue. A world without corruption would be a strange world indeed –and a damned bad world for lawyers, let me say.

You talk as if you believed in the Devil, said the Warden.

The Devil, like God, lies outside the legal sphere, Warden. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never seen God, but twice I’ve caught a glimpse of the Devil in court, once in the dock, and once on the Bench.

McVarish and Roberta Burns were at it, hammer and tongs, across the body of Lamotte, who seemed not to relish their conversation.

It’s no good talking to a zoologist about love as if you meant sex, said Professor Burns. We see sex as it works among the humbler creation — If they are humbler — and you can count on the fingers of two hands the species that seem to show any tenderness for their mates. With the others it’s just compulsion.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson