Questioning the academic enterprise. . .

Here’s Robertson Davies from an interview in Conversations with Robertson Davies:

There are a lot of things in that book [by Elspeth Buitenhuis; the work in question is not named, though it discusses Davies] that I never said and don’t agree with but she must say what she thinks. There’s a lady at McGill who teaches Fifth Business in a course on Canadian literature and she says that the stone which Ramsay carried all his life and which Boy Staunton had in his mouth when he died is the stone of judgment out of the Talmud. I have never read the Talmud. I don’t know anything about the stone of judgment, but when you fall into the hands of academics you’re a gone goose. They will interpret and say what they think and there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t really very much matter unless we take it too seriously.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to pull the stunt Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

If what literary academics are doing “doesn’t really very much matter,” the question becomes, what then are we doing?

The Deptford Trilogy

I mentioned The Deptford Trilogy in relation to Brian Evanson, but the novels are worth an independent post. I have a bit of trouble with whether I should write “a novel” or just “novels,” because although they were published separately, their thematic and structural links means that severing one from the whole—though any one could stand alone—would lessen their combined power, which is greater than the sum of their parts.

Those parts are fabulous: finishing the trilogy leaves one with a sense of completeness, like finishing an excellent meal but not gorging. The books are realistic and yet steeped in the mythological. If this sounds like a difficult to feat, that’s because it is. And yet the blending of myth and commentary on myth into life is so smooth that the mythic overlay is never ostentatious. It is made explicit at times, but not in a way that seems like a lecture or, worse yet, a dissertation.

The books—though I do think of them as a single book than as parts—explain thought without being didactic, and their powerful story—they do tell a single story—allows the many quotable sections to flow without damming the work.

The skeptical but not cynical Dunstan Ramsay narrates and is the subject of, Fifth Business, but only narrates the third, World of Wonders. He is, among many other things, a teacher of the sort it would have been marvelous to have; Ramsay is never fanatical about anything but inquisitiveness, is serious and yet self-effacing, and possesses the quiet and stern humor mastered by the British, but perhaps also understood by their Canadian cousins. He felt a little like a provincial Gandalf stripped of overt manifestations of power but still possessing his wisdom—only Ramsay’s is infused with irony.

Ramsay takes himself seriously enough not to be a fool but laughs at himself enough to know his own limitations. That’s probably the sanest way to go through life without being as utterly ridiculous as so many of us are.

The irony keeps him from being a joiner or true believer. It is impossible to assign Ramsay a conventional political point of view, for what he knows best is human nature, and political views are most often adapted to whatever is most convenient for their holders. The holders, meanwhile, are often unable to perceive themselves, and instead leave to the marginal characters of a society to speak, if not the truth, something close to it:

… like so many idealists, [radical party members] did not understand money, and after a meeting where they had lambasted Boy and others like him and threatened to confiscate their wealth at the first opportunity, they would adjourn to cheap restaurants, where they drank his sugar, and ate his sugar, and smoked cigarettes which, had they known it, benefited some other monster they sought to destroy.

This reminds me of someone I knew who would type his anti-corporate screeds on a Dell computer and defend his choice of a Volvo station wagon as being “less commercial.” He did not perceive the webs that made him, like all of us, complicit in the schemes we disagree with. I do not approve of China’s record on human rights, yet I write this on a computer manufactured there, and I no doubt own clothes made there. China has benefited me—but I do understand the webs that the radical party members do not, and Ramsay, though he doesn’t say as much, probably does.

As such, Ramsay is not easy to co-opt. Ursula K. Le Guin, in receiving a recent Washington State Book Award , said: “most governments dislike [literature], justly suspecting that all their power and glory will soon be forgotten unless some wretched, powerless liberal in the basement is writing it down.” Governments dislike literature and idealists dislike money: Ramsay could believe both things and avoid being a fool by being observant.

That is his chief value as a speaker: the power of observation combined with self-reflection. David Staunton, fierce lawyer and uncertain man, narrates The Manticore, is also observant, but lacks Ramsay’s inner ballast. Still, his therapy sessions illuminate much beyond his inner self, or even the lives of the principal characters from Deptford. As Dr. von Haller says: “The patterns of human feeling do not change as much as many people suppose.”

So they don’t: we read The Odyssey and see the pattern it set—or noticed—in many lives, whether our own odyssey is conquering nanotech or just getting to work in the morning. We see it today as we did then, just as our own history is seldom so exceptional as we might wish it. Much of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which synthesizes his lifetime of studying Western culture, focuses on history’s repetition (or rhyming). The similarity of so much of human existence is more astonishing than the differences.

For one thing, the capacity for self-deception seems eternal. As David’s therapist observes in The Manticore:

DR. VON HALLER: Yes, I think that would be best. You have got into your swing, and done all the proper lawyer-like things. So now let us get on.”

MYSELF: What do you mean, exactly, by “the proper lawyer-like things”?

DR. VON HALLER: Expressed the highest regard for the person you are going to destroy. Declaring that you have no real feeling in the matter and are quite objective. Suggesting that something is cool and dry which by its nature is hot and steamy. Very good. Continue, please.

In other words, the way one wants to appear and present oneself is perpendicular to the way one is, and we accept the deception as a way of continuing to function despite contradiction. It’s much like accepting mythic narrative: the specifics of any life or story will not completely conform to the arc, but the arc remains nonetheless. Dr. von Haller specifically talks about lawyers, but she could just as easily discuss a myriad of professions, occupations, or people.


The best part of the book is the language itself, which is so rich that I could post a quote of the highest quality for a month and still have more. I find it odd that I’ve never heard about Robertson Davies in newspapers, blogs or school. For all I know Davies is relatively famous, although this seems unlikely because I’ve seldom seen any reference. I wonder if literary politics explain why I hadn’t heard of Davies before pulling Deptford off the shelf of a bookstore. The school issue is understandable—Canadians are a tough lot for American schools: the “big” authors like Shakespeare and Joyce have to be covered, as do big American authors like Hawthorn, Emerson, and the like. Curriculums need some minority voices as well, which usually get covered by Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, and whoever wrote Bless Me, Ultima. Then, if there’s room, they want a few European writers not from Britain and maybe even an author or two from the third world. The Canadians, meanwhile, are close enough to not to count as foreign or exotic but not actually part of the U.S., so their important authors don’t get stuck in the American lit sections. Therefore, they don’t get read, although if I recall correctly Margaret Atwood is Canadian, which would make her an exception. Australians are in a similar boat: they’re of British descent and mostly white, which means they don’t get minority points, and they’re not sufficiently foreign to make it in under the third world rubric.I’d like to think that’s a view Ramsay could hold about his author’s own relative lack of fame.

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