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

Prof. the Rev. was different, a roly-poly parson, as pink as a baby, who did not lecture, but conducted seminars, in which everybody present was expected to speak up and have an opinion, or at least ask questions. There were only five of us: myself and three young men and one middle-aged man, all studying for the ministry. Two of the young men were modern and messy, long-haired and fashionably dirty; they were heading for advanced evangelical church work, and in their spare time assisted in services with rock music, where people like them­selves danced away Evil, and embraced one another in tears when the show was over. They were taking the course in hopes, I think, of discovering from the original texts that Jesus was also a great dancer and guitar-player. The other young man was very High Church Anglican, and addressed Darcourt as Father and wore a dark grey suit to which he obviously hoped, very soon, to add a clerical collar. The middle-aged man had given up his job selling insurance to become a parson, and worked like a galley-slave, because he had a wife and two children and had to get him­self ordained as fast as he could. Altogether, they were not an inspiring lot. God had presumably called all four to His service, but surely in a fit of absent-mindedness or perhaps as some complicated Jewish joke.

Luckily, Prof. the Rev. was far better than I could have hoped. What do you expect from this seminar? he asked, right away. I’m not going to teach you a language; I suppose you all know classical Greek? I did, but the four men looked unconfident, and admitted slowly that they had done a bit of it, or crammed some during summer courses. If you know Greek, it may be assumed that you also know Latin, said Prof. the Rev., and this was received in glum silence. But was he down­hearted? No!

Let’s find out how good you are, he said. I’m going to write a short passage on the blackboard, and in a few minutes I’ll ask you for a translation. Widespread discomfort, and one of the long-haired ones murmured that he hadn’t brought a Latin dic­tionary with him. You won’t need it, said Darcourt; this is easy.

He wrote: Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros duciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari. Then he sat down and beamed at us over his half-glasses. That’s the motto, the groundwork for what we shall do in this seminar during the year before us; that’s the spirit in which we shall work. Now let’s have a rendering in English. Who’ll translate?

There followed that awful hush that falls on a room when several people are trying to make themselves invisible. Talk together, laugh together, do good to each other — murmured the spiky youth, and fell silent. The hairy pair looked as if they hated Darcourt already.

Ladies first, said Darcourt, smiling at me. So in I plunged.

Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions, said I.

I could see he was pleased. Admirable. Now somebody else tell me where it comes from. Come on, you’ve all read the book, even if only in translation. You ought to know it well; the author ought to be a close friend.

But nobody would speak and I suspect nobody knew. Shall I make myself hated, I thought. I might as well; I’ve been doing it in classes all my life.

It’s Saint Augustine’s Confessions, I said. The two hairy ones looked at me with loathing, the spiky one with sick envy. The middle-aged one was making a careful note; he was going to conquer this stuff or die; he owed it to the wife and kids.

Thank you, Miss Theotoky. You gentlemen must learn not to be so shy, he said with what seemed to be a hint of irony. That’s what we’re going to attempt here; talk and jokes — I hope — rising out of the reading of the New Testament. Not that it’s a great book for jokes, though Christ once made a pun on Peter’s new name that he had given him: Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church . Of course Peter is petras, a stone, in Greek. If that were translated Thou art Rocky and upon this rock I will build my church, people would get the point, but it would hardly be worth it. Wouldn’t have church-goers rolling in the aisles two thousand years later. Of course I suppose Christ went on calling him Cephas, which is Stone in Aramaic, but the pun suggests that Our Lord knew some Greek — perhaps quite a lot of it. And so should you, if you want to serve Him.

It seemed to me that Darcourt was being mischievous; he saw that the hairy ones did not like the line he was taking, and he was getting at them.

This study can lead in all sorts of directions, he said, and of course deep into the Middle Ages when the sort of Greek we are going to study was hardly known in Europe, and wasn’t in the least encouraged by the Church. But there were some rum people who knew some of it — alchemists and detrimentals of that sort — and the tradition of it persisted in the Near East, where Greek was making its long journey towards the language we know as Modern Greek. Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Spanish and Italian, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in these degenerate tongues — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams. Received Standard English has had it; even American English, that once seemed such an impertinent johnny-come-lately in literature, is fusty stuff compared with what you will hear in Africa, which is where the action is, in our day. But I am indulging myself — a bad professorial habit. You must check me when you see it coming on. To work, then. May I assume that you all know the Greek alphabet, and therefore can count to ten in Greek? Good. Then let’s begin with changes there.

I knew I was going to like Prof. The Rev. Darcourt. He seemed to think that learning could be amusing, and that heavy people needed stirring up. Like Rabelais, of whom even educated people like Parlabane had such a stupid opinion. Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning’s best justification. Not the only one, but the best.

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form — though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, Sorry, there’s no call for it. But if you ask for Wisdom — God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

That was what chained me to Hollier; I thought that in him I saw Wisdom. And as Paracelsus said — that Paracelsus with whom I had to be acquainted because he was part of my study of Rabelais: The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.

With Hollier I truly thought that I would have the second paradise, and the first as well.

The New Aubrey II

Is it ever a kindness to appoint someone an executor? It is evidence of trust, certainly, but it may become a tedious servi­tude. Hollier and I were swept more and more into concern with Cornish’s affairs, at cost of time and energy that we needed for our own work. There was a note in the will that when everything was dealt with each of the advisers or sub-executors might choose ‘some object that especially pleases him, provided it has not been designated as a bequest or portion of a bequest elsewhere . But this made our work more vexatious, because we were continually coming upon things we would like to have and finding that they had been earmarked for somebody else. And young Cornish’s lawyers told us that we might not choose or remove anything until all bequests had been dealt with. We were like poor relatives at the Christmas Tree of rich children.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson