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

And what about mankind? said Lamotte. Do you agree with the terrible Strindberg that love is a farce invented by Nature to fool men and women into propagating their species?

No, I don’t, said Roberta. Not a farce at all. Mankind did plenty of propagation before the notion of love had any place in his world, or we shouldn’t be here. My point is that love and sex needn’t be lumped together. You see it among students; some are sick with love and some are roasting with sex; some are both.

I had a student once who wanted to be a devil with the girls, said Urky, and he was taking some muck he got from a quack — a sort of soup made of bull’s balls. Did him no good, really, but he thought it did, which was probably effective, but don’t let Gyllenborg know I said so. At the same time I had another student who was mooning over a ballerina he hadn’t a chance of ap­proaching, but he beggared himself sending her an orchid every time she danced. Both silly, of course. But really, Roberta, do you mean to separate love from the old houghmagandy? Isn’t that going too far?

The old houghmagandy, as you call it, is all very well in its way, but don’t take it as a measure of love, or I’ll go scientific on you and point out that the greatest lover in Nature is the boar, statistically speaking; he ejects eighty-five billion sperms at every copulation; even a stallion can only rise to thirteen billions or so. So where does man rank, with his measly dribble of a hundred and twenty-five millions? But man knows love, whereas the boar and the stallion hardly look at their mates, once they’ve done the trick.

I am glad I have not had a scientific education, said Lamotte; I have always thought, and shall continue to think, of woman as a miracle of Nature.

Of course she’s a miracle, said Roberta, but you don’t appreciate how much of a miracle. You’re too spiritual. Look at a splendid girl — is she a spirit? Of course she is, but she’s a lot of other things that are absolutely galvanizing, they are so miracu­lous. Look at me, even, though I assure you I’m not parading my middle-aged charms; yet here I sit, ears waxing, snots hardening, spit gurgling, tears at the ready, and after a dinner like this one, what miracles within! Gall and pancreas hard at it, faeces effi­ciently kneaded into nubbins, kidneys at their wondrous work, bladder filling up, and my sphincters — you have no idea what the whole concept of womankind owes to sphincters! Love takes all that for granted, like a greedy child that sees only the icing on the splendid cake!

I can manage very happily with the icing, said Lamotte. To think of a woman as a walking butcher’s shop revolts me.

And the icing is so various that it is a life study in itself, said McVarish. The tricks women get up to! I know a hairdresser who tells me that women come to the manicurist-and-superfluous-hair lady in his salon, and the things they ask for! The pubic hair plucked and shaped into hearts, or darts, and they will endure any amount of hot-wax treatment to get the desired result. Then they want it hennaed! ‘There’s fire down below’, as the sailors sing — certainly as they sing when they behold the result!

They needn’t bother, said Roberta. People will put up with anything for the old houghmagandy. Or rather, Nature gently assists them to do so. Intercourse brings about a considerable loss of perceptive capacity; sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell are all dulled, whatever the sex-technique books pretend to the contrary. The plain lover looks handsome for the moment; the broken veins and the red nose are scarcely perceptible, the grunt­ing is not comic, bad breath is hardly noticed. And that’s not love, René, but Nature coming to the rescue of love. And man is the only creature to know love as a complex emotion: man is also, in the whole of Nature, the only creature to turn sex into a hobby. Oh, it’s a complex study, let me tell you.

‘Love not as do the flesh-imprisoned men,’ said Lamotte, pretending to stop his ears. I’ll bet neither of you can continue the sonnet.

It was getting on for the time when I should suggest to the Warden that we rise for coffee and cognac, if anybody wanted it. I had some trouble getting his attention because he and Mrs. Skeldergate and Ludlow were still hard at it about the nature of a university.

Ludlow talks about the university as a town, said the Warden, but I’m not so sure that’s the right definition.

Surely a university is a city of youth, said Mrs. Skeldergate.

Not a bit of it, said the Warden. Lots of youth in a univer­sity, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an insti­tution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned men; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded; and as Ludlow points out we have our scoundrels and our thieves — St. Nicholas’s clerks, indeed. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

But he was not permitted to leave it at that, for in universities nobody is ever fully satisfied with somebody else’s definition. Deloney spoke: Not just a city, I think, Warden; more like an Empire, in a large university like this, composed of so many colleges that were once independent, and which still retain a measure of independence under the federation of the University itself. The President is an Emperor, presiding over a multitude of realms, each of which has its ruler, and the Principals, Rectors, Wardens, and so forth are very like the great dukes and rulers of mighty fiefdoms, with here and there a Prince Bishop, like the head of St. Brendan’s, or a mitred abbot, like the Rector of Spook; all jealous of their own powers, but all subject to the Emperor. Universities were creations of the Middle Ages, and much of the Middle Ages still clings to them, not only in their gowns and official trappings, but deep in their hearts.

When you speak of ‘learned men’, Warden, don’t you think you should say ‘and women’, to avoid any injustice? said Mrs. Skeldergate.

As the Warden’s legal counsellor I can assure you that when­ever he says ‘men’ the word ‘women’ is also to be understood, said Ludlow.

And neuter, to avoid any discrimination or hurt feelings in a university community, said the Warden, who was not wholly without humour.

Will you take coffee, Warden? said I, in the approved for­mula. The Warden rose, and the table broke up, and for the last few minutes of the evening, new groups formed.

Arthur Cornish approached me. I haven’t had a chance to tell you how much I appreciate what you did this afternoon, he said. Of course everybody assumes that I have inherited enormously from Uncle Frank, but in the complexity of a big family business it becomes impersonal, and I wanted something to remember him by. We were more alike than you might suppose. He got away young and devoted himself to his art collections; I think he pretended to be more impractical than he was to escape the burdens of business. He was extraordinarily sharp, you know, after a bargain. Steal a dead fly from a blind spider, he would, when he was among dealers. But he was kind to lots of painters, as well, so I suppose it cancels out, in a sort of way. But tell me, how did you know I was interested in musical manuscripts?

A friend of yours, and a friend of mine, told me: Miss Theotoky. We were talking one day after class about methods of musical notation in the early Middle Ages, and she spoke of it.

I remember mentioning it to her once, but I didn’t think she was paying much attention.

She was. She told me everything you said.

I’m glad to hear that. Her taste in music and mine aren’t very close.

She’s interested in medieval music, and in trying to find out what she can about earlier music. It’s very mysterious; we know Nero fiddled, but what precisely did he fiddle? When Jesus and the Apostles had sung an hymn, they went up into the Mount of Olives; but what was the hymn? If we heard it now, would we be appalled to hear the Saviour of Mankind whining and yowling through his nose? It’s only in the past few hundred years that music of the past has been recoverable, yet music is the key to feeling, very often. Something Hollier ought to be interested in.

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