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

Please call me Brother John; I put aside all my academic pomps long ago, when I fell in the world and discovered that my only salvation lay in humility. Yes, I’m a Canadian. I’m a child of this great city, and also a child of this great university, and a child of Spook. You know why it’s called Spook?

It’s the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost. Spook’s the Holy Ghost.

Sometimes used as a put-down; sometimes, as I told you, affectionately. But you know the reference, surely? Mark one, verse eight: I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. So the college is truly an Alma Mater, a Bounteous Mother, and from one breast she gives her children the milk of knowledge and from the other the milk of salvation and good doctrine. In other words, water without which no man can live, and the Holy Ghost without which no man can live well. But the nasty little brats get Ma’s boobs so mixed up they don’t know which is which. I only discovered salvation and good doctrine after I had been brought very low in the world.

How did that happen?

Perhaps some day I’ll tell you.

Well, you can’t expect to ask all the questions, Brother John. I’ve been told you had an exceptionally brilliant academic career.

And so I did. Oh, yes indeed, I was a meteor in the world of the intellect when I still knew nothing about mankind, and noth­ing whatever about myself.

That was the knowledge that brought you down?

It was my failure to combine those two kinds of knowledge that brought me down.

I decided I would bounce Brother John a bit, and see if I could get something out of him beside all this sparring. Too much intellect and too little character — was that it?

That did it. That is wholly unworthy of you, Maria Magdalena Theotoky. If you were some narrow Canadian girl who had known nothing but the life of Toronto and Georgian Bay, such a remark might seem perceptive. But you have drunk at better springs than that. What do you mean by character?

Guts. A good strong will to balance all the book-learning. An understanding of how many beans make five.

And an understanding of how to get a good academic appoint­ment, and then tenure, and become a full professor without ever guessing what you’re really full of, and then soar to a Dis­tinguished Professor who can bully the President into giving you a whopping salary because otherwise you might slip away to Harvard? You don’t mean that, Maria. That’s some fool talking out of your past. You’d better corner whatever fool it is and tell him this: the kind of character you talk about is all rubbish. What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you — that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can’t get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, Doesn’t he look peaceful? It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.

So — I had bounced him. And have you found that child, Wee Jackie Parlabane?

I think so. And rather a battered baby he has proved to be. But do you believe what I’ve said?

Yes, I do. Hollier says the same thing, in a different way. He says that people don’t by any means all live in what we call the present; the psychic structure of modern man lurches and yaws over a span of at least ten thousand years. And everybody knows that children are primitives.

Have you ever known any primitives?

Had I! This was a time to hold my tongue. So I nodded.

What’s Hollier really up to? Don’t say paleo-psychology again. Tell me in terms a simple philosopher can understand.

A philosopher? Hollier is rather like Heidegger, if you want a philosopher. He tries to recover the mentality of the earliest thinkers; but not just the great thinkers — the ordinary people, some of whom didn’t hold precisely ordinary positions. Kings and priests, some of them, because they have left their mark on the history of the development of the mind, by tradition and custom and folk-belief. He just wants to find out. He wants to comprehend those earlier modes of thought without criticizing them. He’s deep in the Middle Ages because they really are middle — between the far past, and the post-Renaissance think­ing of today. So he can stand in the middle and look both ways. He hunts for fossil ideas, and tries to discover something about the way the mind has functioned from them.

I had ordered another bottle of Chianti, and Parlabane had drunk most of it, because two glasses is my limit. He had had four Stregas, as well, and another asphyxiating cigar, but drunks and stinks are no strangers to me. He had begun to talk loudly, and sometimes talked through a belch, raising his voice as if to quell the interruption from within.

You know, when we were at Spook together I wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for Hollier’s chances of being anything but a good, tenured professor. He’s come on a lot.

Yes, he’s one of the Distinguished Professors you were sneer­ing at. Not long ago, in a press interview, the President called him one of the ornaments of the university.

Have mercy, God! Old Clem! A late-bloomer. And of course he’s got you.

I am his student. A good student, too.

Balls! You’re his soror mystica. A child could see it. Anyhow, that extremely gifted, all-desiring Wee Johnnie Parlabane can see it, long before it reaches the bleared eyes of the grown-ups. He encloses you. He engulfs you. You are completely wrapped up in him.

Don’t shout so. People are looking.

Now he was really shouting. ‘Don’t shout, I can hear you perfectly. I have the Morley Phone which fits in the ear and cannot be seen. Ends deafness instantly.’ — Do you remember that old advertisement? No, of course you don’t; you know too much and you aren’t old enough to remember anything. Now Parlabane squeaked in a falsetto: ‘Don’t shout so; people are looking!’ Who gives a damn, you stupid twat? Let ’em look! You love him. Worse you’re subsumed in him, and he doesn’t know it. Oh, shame on stupid Professor Hollier!

But he does know it! Would I have let him take me on the sofa five months ago if I wasn’t sure he knew I loved him? No! Don’t ask that question. I can’t be sure of the answer now.

The proprietor of The Rude Plenty was hovering. I gave him a beseeching glance, and he helped me get Parlabane to his feet and towards the door. The monk was as strong as a bull, and it was a tussle. Parlabane began to sing in a very loud and surpris­ingly melodious voice —

Let the world slide, let the world go,

A fig for care and a fig for woe!

If I can’t pay, why I can owe,

And death makes equal the high and the low.

At last I got him into the street, and steered him back to the front door of Spook, where the night porter, an old friend of mine, took him in charge.

As I walked back to the subway station I thought: that’s what comes of trying to understand Parlabane; a loud scene in The Rude Plenty. Would I go on? Yes, I thought I would.

The initiative was taken out of my hands. When I arrived at Hollier’s outer room the following morning there was a note for me, placed beside a bouquet of flowers — salvia — which had too obviously been culled from the garden outside the Rector’s Lodging. The note read:

Dearest and Most Understanding of Created Beings:

Sorry about last night. Some time since I had a really good swig at anything. Shall I say it will not happen again? Not with any degree of sincerity. But I must make reparation. So ask me to dinner again soon, and, I shall tell you the Story Of My Life, which is well worth whatever it may cost you.

Your crawling slave,



To become a Ph.D. you must take a few courses relating to your special theme before you get down to work on your thesis. I had done almost all that was necessary, but Hollier suggested that I do two courses this year, one with Professor Urquhart McVarish in Renaissance European Culture and the other in New Testament Greek with Professor the Reverend Simon Darcourt. McVarish lectured dully; his stuff was good but he was too much the scholar to make it interesting, lest somebody should accuse him of popularization . He was a fussy little man who was forever dabbing at his long red nose with a handker­chief he kept tucked up in his left sleeve. Somebody told me that this was a sign that he had once been an officer in a first-class British regiment. About twenty people attended the lectures.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson