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

It’s a quotation from one of her favourite writers. Paracelsus. She persuaded Parlabane to read some of Paracelsus and Johnny stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum. Paracelsus said, Alterins non sit, qui suus esse potest; Be not another if thou canst be thyself.

I know Latin too, Clem.

I suppose you must. Well, that’s what it comes from. Rotten, if you ask me, but he thinks it will look well on the title-page, in italic. A hint to the reader that something fine is in store.

I suppose it is a good title, if you look at it understandingly. Certainly Parlabane is very much himself.

I wish people weren’t so set on being themselves, when that means being a bastard. I’m surer than ever that McVarish has that manuscript you didn’t dig out of him. I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s becoming an obsession. Have you any idea what an obsession is?

Yes, I had a very good idea what an obsession is. Maria.



I’ve been seeing something of that girl who was here last time you visited me, said Ozy Froats. You know the one — Maria.

Indeed I know the one. And what was she doing in Ozy’s lab? Not bringing him a daily bucket for analysis, surely?

She’s been introducing me to Paracelsus. He’s a lot more interesting than I would have suspected. Some extraordinary insights, but of course without any way of verifying them. Still, it’s amazing how far he got by guesswork.

You won’t yield an inch to the intuition of a great man, will you Ozy?

Not a millimetre. No, I guess I have to hedge on that. Every scientist has intuitions and they scare the hell out of him till he can test them. Great men are rare, you see.

But you’re one. This award has lifted you right above the clutch of Murray Brown, hasn’t it?

The Kober Medal, you mean? Not bad. Not bad at all.

Puts you in the Nobel class, they tell me.

Oh, these awards — I’m very pleased, of course — but you have to be careful not to mistake them for real achievement. I’m glad to be noticed. I have to give a lecture when I get it, you know. That’s when I’ll find out what the boys really think, by the way they take it. But I haven’t shown all I want to show, by any means.

Ozy, the modesty of you great men is sickening to those of us who just plug along, doing the best we can and knowing it isn’t very much. The American College of Physicians gives you the best thing they have, and you demur and grovel. It isn’t modesty; it’s masochism. You like suffering and running yourself down. You make me sick. I suppose it’s your Sheldonian type.

It’s a Mennonite upbringing, Simon. Beware of pride. You people are all so nice to me, I have to watch out I don’t begin patting myself on the back too much. Maria, now, she insists I’m a magus.

I suppose you are one, in her terms.

She wrote me a sweet letter. A quotation from Paracelsus, mostly. I carry it around, which is a sign of weakness. But listen to the quote: ‘The natural saints, who are called magi, are given powers over the energies and faculties of nature. For there are holy men in God who serve the beatific life; they are called saints. But there are also holy men who serve the forces of nature, and they are called magi. . . What others are incapable of doing they can do, because it has been conferred upon them as a special gift.’ If a man started thinking of himself in those terms, he’d be finished as a scientist. Doubt, doubt, and still more doubt, until you’re dead sure. That’s the only way.

If Maria wrote to me like that, I’d believe her.


I think she knows. She has extraordinary intuition about people.

Do you think so? She sent me a very queer fish, and he’s certainly an oddity in Sheldonian terms, so I’ve put him on the bucket. An interesting contributor, but only about once a week.

Anybody I know?

Now Simon, you know I couldn’t tell you his name. Not ethical at all. Sometimes we talk about doubt. He’s a great doubter. Used to be a monk. The interesting thing about him is his Sheldonian type. Very rare; a 376. You follow? Very intel­lectual and nervy, but a fantastic physique. A dangerous man, I’d say, with a makeup like that. Could get very rough. He’s abused his body just about every way that’s possible and from the whiff of his buckets I think he’s well into drugs right now, but although he’s on the small side he’s fantastically muscular and strong. He wants the money, but he isn’t a big producer. Plugged. That’s drugs. I don’t like him, but he’s a rarity, so I put up with him.

For Maria’s sake?

No. For my sake. Listen, you don’t think I’m soft about Maria, do you? She’s a nice girl right enough, but that’s all.

Not an interesting type?

Not from my point of view. Too well balanced.

No chance she might turn out to be a Pyknic Practical Joke?

Never. She’ll age well. Be a fine woman. Slumped, pro­bably; that’s inherent in the female build. But she’ll be sturdy, right up to the end.

Ozy, about these Sheldonian types; are they irrevocable?

How do you mean?

Last time I talked to you, you were very frank about me, and my tendency towards fat. Do you remember?

Yes; that was the first time Maria came here. What I said about you wasn’t the result of an examination, of course. Just a guess. But I’d put you down as a 425 — soft, chunky, abundant energy. Big gut.

The literary gut, I think you said.

Lots of literary people have it. You can have a big gut without being literary, of course.

Don’t rob me of the one consolation you offered! But what I want to know is this: couldn’t somebody of that type moderate his physique, by the right kind of diet and exercise, and general care?

To some extent. Not without more trouble than it would pro­bably be worth. That’s what’s wrong with all these diets and body-building courses and so forth. You can go against your type, and probably achieve a good deal as long as you keep at it. Look at these Hollywood stars — they starve themselves and get surgeons to carve them into better shapes and all that because it’s their livelihood. Every now and then one of them can’t stand it any more, then it’s the overdose. The body is the inescapable factor, you see. You can keep in good shape for what you are, but radical change is impossible. Health isn’t making everybody into a Greek ideal; it’s living out the destiny of the body. If you’re thinking about yourself, I guess you could knock off twenty-five pounds to advantage, but that wouldn’t make you a thin man; it’d make you a neater fat man. What the cost would be to your nerves, I couldn’t even guess.

In short, be not another if thou canst be thyself.

What’s that?

More Paracelsus.

He’s dead right. But it isn’t simple, being yourself. You have to know yourself physiologically and people don’t want to believe the truth about themselves. They get some mental picture of themselves and then they devil the poor old body, trying to make it like the picture. When it won’t obey — can’t obey, of course — they are mad at it, and live in it as if it were an unsatisfactory house they were hoping to move out of. A lot of illness comes from that.

You make it sound like physiological predestination.

Don’t quote me on that. Not my field at all. I have my problem and it’s all I can take care of.

Discovering the value that lies in what is despised and rejected.

That’s what Maria says. But wouldn’t I look stupid if I announced that as the theme of my Kober Lecture?

‘This is the stone which was set at naught of your builders, which is become the head of the corner.’

You don’t talk that way to scientists, Simon.

Then tell them it is the lapis exilis, the Philosopher’s Stone of their spiritual ancestors, the alchemists.

Oh, get away, get away, get away!

Laughing, I got away.


I set to work to become a neater fat man, as that seemed to be the best I could hope for, and sank rapidly into the ill-nature that overcomes me when I deny myself a reasonable amount of rich food and creamy desserts. I thought sourly of Ozy, and great man though he might be, I reflected that I could give a better Kober Lecture than he, fattening out my scientific information with plums from Paracelsus and giving it a persuasive humanistic gloss that would wake up the audience from the puritan stupor of their scientific attitude. Whereupon I im­mediately reproached myself for vanity. What did I know about Ozy’s work? What was I but a silly fat ass whose pudgy body was the conning-tower from which a thin and acerbic soul peered out at the world? No: that wouldn’t do either. I wasn’t as fat as that suggested, nor was my spirit really sour when I allowed myself enough to eat. I wasted a lot of time in this sort of foolish inner wrangling, and the measure of my abjection is that once or twice — besotted lover as I was — I wondered if Maria were really worth all this trouble.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson