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

Happy! Happy!! Happy!!!

Second Paradise V

Parlabane had become a fixture in my life and I had accepted him, without joy but with philosophy, if I may be allowed to use that word. I cannot be sure, because deeper acquaintance with Parlabane made it clear that philosophy was not a word to be used loosely. It was his academic discipline; he was a professional philosopher, in comparison with whom most people were ill-disciplined muddlers as soon as they turned their minds to large questions. But if I may be allowed to use philosophy merely to mean rueful resignation in the face of the inevitable, I accepted his presence in Hollier’s rooms, almost every day for the space of an hour or two, with philosophy.

He had dropped the manner, half-obsequious and half-contemptuous, which went with his monk’s robe. He was no longer the begging friar who secretly scorned those from whom he asked alms. He had his knitting with him, however; he carried it in a brown-paper shopping-bag with a few books, and what looked like a dirty towel. As I remember what he said, I hear the click of the needles as an accompaniment to every word. He was now teaching philosophy in what used to be called Exten­sion Courses, now Continuing Studies, lecturing at night to people who were doing their work for a degree slowly, and in bits. What he was teaching them I fear to think, because what he said to me from time to time almost froze the marrow in my bones.

I am one of the very few genuine sceptical philosophers in the world, Molly. Oh, there are people who teach scepticism, but their lives prove that they don’t believe what they teach. They love their families, give to the Cancer Fund, and listen with tolerance and sometimes with approval to the boloney that makes up most of the talk about politics, society, culture, and whatnot even in a university.

The real sceptic, however, lives in a constant atmosphere of carefully balanced dubiety about everything; he will not accept that there are any satisfactory grounds for acquiescence in any statement or proposition whatever. Of course if some fool tells him that it is a fine day he will probably nod because he hasn’t time to haggle with the fool over what he means by a word like ‘fine’. But in all important things he reserves his judge­ment.

Doesn’t he admit that some things are good and some bad? Some things desirable and some undesirable?

Those would be decisions in ethics, and his aim in matters of ethics is to deflate all pretension; the kind of judgement you speak of is pretentious because it rests on some sort of meta­physics. Metaphysics is gibble-gabble, though admittedly often fascinating. Scepticism strives to assist every metaphysic to destroy itself — to hang itself in its own garters, so to speak.

But that leaves you without anything at all!

Not quite. It leaves you with a cautious recognition that the contradictory of any general proposition may be asserted with as much claim to belief as the proposition itself.

Oh, come on, Parlabane! Only a few weeks ago you were swanning around here dressed up as a monk. Had you no religious belief? Was it just cynical masquerade?

By no means. You are making the vulgar assumption that scepticism and cynicism are related. Cynicism is cheap goods, and the cynic is usually a grouchy sentimentalist. Christianity, or perhaps any intellectually respectable faith, is acceptable to the sceptic because he doubts the power of purely human reason to explain or justify anything: but Christianity teaches that it was Man’s Fall that brought doubt into the world. Beyond this world of doubt and sorrow lies Truth, and the Faith points the way to it because it is based on the existence of something above human knowledge and experience. Scepticism is of this world, my darling, but God is not of this world.

Oh God!

Precisely. So my faith did not, and does not, debar me from being a sceptic about all the things of this world. Without God the sceptic is in a vacuum and his doubt, which is his crowning achievement, is also his tragedy. The tragedy of man without God is so dreadful that I cannot keep my mind on it for more than a minute or two at a time. The Fall of Man was a much greater calamity than most men are prepared to face.

Nothing is certain except God?

Five words. Allow me five hundred thousand and I would put it for you more convincingly than your Reader’s Digest summary can achieve.

Don’t trouble yourself. You haven’t convinced me.

Dearest Molly, I am not an old friend, but I hope I am a friend, so allow me to speak frankly: I am not trying to con­vince you of anything. Because your mind is as it is, and your age and state of health as they are, and your sex a factor which it is now fashionable to discount in intellectual argument, it is most unlikely that I should ever succeed in convincing you of the likelihood of what it has taken me something more than thirty years to decide, with great anguish of mind, for myself. I am not interested in converting you to scepticism. I am not interested in converting anybody. But I am paid rather poorly by this University to say what I believe to be the truth to an odd assortment of students, and that is what I do.

But if it blasts them? No truth, no certainty anywhere?

Then it blasts them. They will be no worse off than millions of others who have been blasted by far less elegant agencies than my philosophical teaching. Of course I tell them what I have just told you: when human reason refuses to admit vassalage to anything other than itself, life becomes tragedy. God is the factor that banishes that tragedy. But very often my students have turned to philosophy to get away from God — some peanut God, usually of their parents’ devising. Like so many would-be intellec­tuals, they have trivial minds and adore tragedy and complexity.

That was one Parlabane. But there was at least one other known to me, quite apart from the Parlabane who stodged pasta and guzzled coarse wine and talked dirtily in The Rude Plenty, and the Parlabane who borrowed money almost every week. This Parlabane was by no means the sceptical philosopher.

You wouldn’t expect me to live always on such dizzy intellec­tual heights, would you, Molly? I should certainly be the wildest sort of fake if I did, and many philosophers have come to grief that way. For example that high-minded romantic Nietzsche. He never let himself off the chain. Of course he believed im­plicitly in his nonsense, whereas I, as a sceptic, am committed to non-belief in everything, including my most cherished philo­sophical ideas. Nietzsche once said that there could be no gods, because he could not endure it if there were gods and he were not one of them himself. Which is as good as saying that nothing can be true if it does not put Friedrich Nietzsche at the top of the tree. I am not like that; I recognize that a tree has a bottom as well as a top, a root as well as a crown. That is to say, I assume it to be so for practical purposes, because I have never seen or heard of a tree that did not fit that description.

I have thought a good deal about trees; I like them. They speak eloquently of the balanced dubiety which I told you was the sceptical attitude. No splendid crown without the strong root that works in the dark, drawing its nourishment among the rocks, the soil, hidden waters, and all the little, burrowing things. A man is like that; his splendours and his fruits are to be seen, to win him love and admiration. But what about the root?

Have you ever seen a bulldozer clearing land? It advances upon a great tree and shoves and pushes inexorably until the tree is down and thrust out of the way, and all of that effort is accompanied by a screaming and wrenching sound from the tree as the great roots are torn from the ground. It is a particularly distressing kind of death. And when the tree is upturned, the root proves to be as big as the crown.

What is the root of man? All sorts of things that nourish his visible part, but the deepest root of all, the tap-root, is that child he once was, of which I spoke to you when I was amusing you with the story of my life. That is the root which goes deepest because it is reaching downward towards the ancestors.

The ancestors — how grand it sounds! But the root does not go back to those old stuffed shirts with white wigs whose portraits people display so proudly, but to our unseen depths — which means the messy stuff of life from which the real creation and achievement takes its nourishment. The root is far more like a large placenta than it is like those family trees that are all branches.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson