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

You talk like Ozias Froats.

The Turd-Skinner? Do you know him? I wish you’d intro­duce me.

I certainly won’t if you talk of him as the Turd-Skinner. I think he’s a Paracelsian magus; he has a bigger view of things than any of us — except Professor Hollier, perhaps. Truth lies in the hidden and unacknowledged.

Yes: shit. But what does he think is hidden in it?

He won’t say, and I don’t expect I’d understand his terms if he did say. But I think it’s some sort of individual stamp, and maybe it changes significantly with states of health and mental health; a new measure of — I don’t think I know what, but something like personality or individuality. I shouldn’t make guesses.

I know; it’s not your field.

But if he’s right, it’s everybody’s field, because everybody will be the greater for what Ozias Froats has discovered.

Well, I wish him luck. But as a sceptic I am dubious about science as about everything else, unless the scientist is himself a sceptic, and few of them are. The stench of formaldehyde may be as potent as the whiff of incense in stimulating a naturally idolatrous understanding.

I was beginning to recognize Parlabane as something very much more important than the weighty nuisance I had thought him at first. He carried his own atmosphere about with him, and after he had sat for five minutes on Hollier’s old sofa it was the dominating spirit in the room. It would be silly to say it was hypnotic, but it was limiting; it inclined me to agree with him while he was present, only to realize that I had admitted to many things I did not really believe as soon as he was gone. It was that duality of his; when he was the philosopher he had to have his way because he could out-argue me any day in the week, and when he was the other man who talked about the roots of the tree of selfhood he was so outrageous and ingenious that I could not keep up with him.

His outward man was going from bad to worse. As a monk he had looked odd, in the Canadian setting — even in Spook — but now he looked like a sinister bum. The suit somebody had given him was of good grey English cloth, but it had never been a fit and now it was a baggy, food-stained mess. The trousers were too long, and he could no longer endure having them braced up, so now he belted them with what looked like an old necktie, and they dragged at his heels, the bottoms dirty and frayed. His shirt was always dirty, and it occurred to me that perhaps advanced scepticism made ordinary cleanliness seem a folly. He had a bad smell; not just dirty clothes, but a living, heavy stench. As the cold weather came on Hollier gave him an overcoat of his own, already terribly worn; it was what I called his animal coat because it had collar and cuffs of some fur that had become matted and mangy; with it went a fur cap that was too big for Parlabane, and gave the impression of a neglected wig; from under it his untrimmed hair hung over the back of his collar.

A bum, certainly, but nothing like the bums who haunted the campus, hoping to mooch a dollar from some kindly pro­fessor. They were destroyed men, from whose faces no mind shone forth — only confusion and despair. Parlabane looked somehow important; the blurred, scarred face was impressive, and through the thick spectacles his eyes swam with a trans­fixing stare.

His attitude towards me was much as Hollier had said it would be. He could not leave me alone, and although he apparently thought I was a female nitwit, amusing herself by acquiring a doctorate at the University (don’t imagine there is any con­tradiction here; nitwits can do it), he plainly wanted to be near me, to talk with me, to bamboozle me intellectually. This was no novelty to me; around universities there is always some female-molesting or harassment or whatever the fashionable word may be, but there is a great deal more of intellectual mauling and pawing by people who don’t even know that what they are doing is sexy. Parlabane was different; his intellectual seduction was on a grander scale and vastly more amusing than that of the average run of academics. I certainly didn’t like him, but it was fun to play with him, on this level. Sexual thrills are not all physical, and although Parlabane was an un­likely seducer, even on the intellectual plane, it was clear that his desire was, by this prolonged tickling, to bring me to an orgasm of the mind.

Late November can be a romantic time of year in Canada; the bare trees, the frosty air and whirling winds, the eerie light which sometimes persists for the whole of the day and then sinks, shortly after four, into steely darkness, dispose me to Gothic thoughts. In Spook, so Gothic in architecture, it was tempting to indulge northern fantasies, and I found myself wondering if in such a frame of mind I was not working under the eye of Doctor Faustus himself, for Hollier had the intensity of Faust and much of his questing appearance. But then, no Faust without Mephistopheles, and there was Parlabane, as slippery-tongued, as entertaining, and sometimes as frightening as the Devil him­self. Of course in Goethe’s play the Devil appears handsomely dressed as a travelling scholar; Parlabane was at the other end of the scale, but in his command of any conversation he had with me, and his ability under all circumstances to make the worse seem the better thing, he was acceptable as Mephistopheles.

I have no use for a woman who doesn’t want to try conclu­sions with the Devil at some time in her life. I am no village simpleton, like poor Gretchen whom the Devil delivered over to Faust, for his pleasure; I am my own woman and even if I gained what I desired, and Hollier declared his love for me and suggested marriage or an affair, I would not expect to be subsumed in him. I know this is a bold word, for better women than I have been devoured by love, but I would hope to keep something of myself for myself, even if only to have one more thing in my power to give. In love I do not want to play the old, submissive game, nor have I any use for the ultra-modern maybe-I-will-and-maybe-I-won’t-and-anyhow-you-watch-your-step game; Tadeusz’s daughter and a girl part Gypsy had no time for such thin, sour finagling. Parlabane was trying to seduce me intellectually, to put me with my back on the floor and leave me gasping and rumpled, and all with words. I decided to see what luck I would have in discombobulating him.

Brother John, I said one November afternoon when the light in Hollier’s outer room was beginning to fade, I’m going to give you a cup of tea, and a question to answer. You have been telling me about the world of philosophical scepticism, and God as the only escape from a world blighted by tragic ambiguity. But I spend my time working with the writings of men who thought otherwise, and I find them strongly persuasive. I mean Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and my own dear François Rabelais.

Spleeny Lutherans, every one of them, said Parlabane.

Heretics, probably, but not Lutherans, I said. How could such soaring spirits agree with the man who declared that society is a prison filled with sinners, in which order has to be main­tained by force? You see, I know something of Luther, too. But don’t try to sidetrack me with Luther. I want to talk about Rabelais, who said that a free human creature finds his rule of conduct in his sense of honour —

Just a minute; he didn’t say ‘a free human creature’, he said men — ‘men that are free, well born, well-bred, and con­versant in honest companies’.

You don’t have to give it to me in English; I know it in French — ‘gens libres, bien nés, bien instruits, conversant en compagnies honnêtes’ and if you can prove to me that gens means Men Only I should like to hear you do it. It means people . You have the common idea of Rabelais as a woman-hater, because you have only read that gassy translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart —

As a matter of fact I have been rereading it because Urquhart McVarish has lent me a copy —

I’ll lend you a French copy, and in it you’ll discover that where Rabelais sets out the plan for his ideal community — one might almost call it a university — he includes lots of women.

For entertainment, one assumes.

Don’t assume. Read — and in French.

Molly, what a horrible old academic scissorbill you are getting to be.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson