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Robertson Davies: Shaking Hands with the Devil

by Peter S. Hawkins

Peter S. Hawkins taught religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, and is now professor of religion at Boston University. professor of religion at Boston University, where he also directs the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford University Press). He and Paula Carlson are editors of the series Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 12-28, 1986, p. 515. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at
www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While packing my bags for a summer vacation not long ago, I decided to bring along Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business. Friends had recommended the novelist to me, saying that he was a Canadian, a master storyteller on the spellbinding order of Iris Murdoch, and sufficiently engaged with religion to make the likes of me less guilty about reading him. It seemed a good time to give this unknown writer a chance and Canada its due.

I didn’t have to read far before I was caught. In the opening pages of the novel, a peevish ten-year-old boy conceals a stone inside a snowball and throws it in anger at another, who ducks, so that the snowball goes on to hit an unintended victim, a pregnant woman who is thereby brought prematurely into labor. It is a moment that joins hatred and innocence, intention and accident; it also occasions a "fall" whose effects ripple outward for 60 years and almost 300 pages. Nor is Fifth Business (1970) the end of it. In two successive novels, The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975) , Davies continues to explore the implications of this single moment, which forces a variety of characters to confront their own compound of good and evil. Together the three novels form the "Deptford trilogy," named for the Ontario village where the snowball first was thrown and which remains, despite the European settings of much of the action, the chief point of reference in all three books.

Although I had come prepared to read only one of these interlocking stories, a well-stocked bookseller supplied the other Deptford volumes, as well as some very welcome information: there were seven Davies novels already in print, and another volume was due out shortly. I resolved to make up for lost time when I got home.

What I found, in addition to more wonderful reading, was a writer who had lived in many of the worlds evoked by his fiction. Born in 1913, in a small Ontario town where his father was editor of the local newspaper, Davies went on to university both in Canada and at Balliol College, Oxford. After an initial career in theater, at the Old Vic, he returned to Canada where he became editor (and later publisher) of the Peterborough Examiner. During the ‘50s he wrote a number of plays and published a few novels, including A Mixture of Frailties (1958) , later made into a film. In 1961 Davies became master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a position from which he has only recently retired. It was in that university setting that he produced the Deptford trilogy, and a more recent pair of interconnected novels, Rebel Angels (1982) and What’s Bred in the Bone (1985) ; Viking Press informs us that a third related volume is on the way. One hopes that a fourth may follow -- with luck, something on the order of a Toronto quartet may be in store.

What’s Bred in the Bone, as the most recent working-out of preoccupations that have been with Davies for 15 years, provides us with a good vantage point for surveying his work. Opening shortly after the protagonist’s death, the novel tells the life story of Francis Cornish from a variety of posthumous perspectives. The biography begins, however, two generations before Cornish’s actual birth, thus demonstrating the truth of the proverb that what is bred in the bone (or inherited from the past) will be borne out in the flesh. The product of a family that is a characteristic Canadian melange of Catholic and Protestant, French and English, Cornish makes his way out of the narrow confines of small-town Ontario to discover not only the wider world of England and the Continent but also the complex vocation of his own life as a keeper of secrets and a maker of myth. Rather than simply emphasizing his rejection of straitened provincialism, however, the novel shows how what was "bred in the bone" provides the material of a lifetime. As in the Deptford trilogy, it is Davies’s genius to show us the degree to which the shape of a childhood provides a haunting pattern of apparently unending richness, at least for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

This project is what an earlier age would have called the coincidentia oppositorum, the reconciliation of opposites. And it is precisely to this end that Davies’s Canadian Everyman works out his salvation with fear and trembling, revealing in his quite singular struggle a quest of far wider implications. Indeed, his story might be ours as well. For what Davies seems to be doing in this book, and in all his fiction since Fifth Business, is catching the reader’s attention through marvels of storytelling to bring him or her to the point of undertaking a similar journey toward individuation. He invites each of us, in other words, to our own "wedding."

What’s Bred in the Bone makes it clear, however, that this reconciliation of opposites is not easily achieved. Religion and myth should be its handmaids, opening the individual to the mysterious depths of human existence, as well as providing our culture with a shared vision of those things unseen which Davies believes are what largely govern us. But as Cornish’s experience demonstrates, Christianity no longer seems up to this task. To be sure, there is the "hot, sweet Catholicism" of his aunt, the "stern and unyielding Calvinism" of the Presbyterian cook, the lukewarm Anglicanism of his boarding school ("a religion that ‘Never Went Too Far") -- all part of the warmed-over stew of a divided Christendom long past its prime, of which only the "warm gravy of Catholicism retains a little flavor.

Aside from the exhaustion of a Christian faith that no longer seems able to provide institutional nourishment for personal growth, there is the fact that the old theology has been replaced by something new, a "theology of our time" that knows nothing of mystery or the imagination of the fullness of life. Identified as "science," it stands over against (rather than fostering) the integration that Davies sees as the chief end of humanity. As Simon Harcourt, Cornish’s would-be biographer, says at the beginning of the novel, in words that seem very much Davies’s own despite their placement in the mouth of an Anglican theologian:

What gripes my gut is that science has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer us -- to the humble laity -- for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have a concrete existence. . . The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he -- because he usually doesn’t know any Greek -- can’t pronounce. . . It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination [p. 16].

There ends the diatribe against scientism, and in particular against the impoverishing arrogance of its reductio ad absurdum. However, the aspect of modernity that this novel really takes to task is not science but rather modern art itself, together with the psychological bias that seems to inform it. Having rejected the "old map of religion" and the world it described, art since the Renaissance has retreated into a private universe of self-reference, a universe in which there is no other God but the reductive and vainglorious Freud. "[Modern painters] are sick of what they suppose to be God," Cornish is told by his artistic mentor, Tancred Saraceni, "and they find something in their inner vision that is so personal that to most people it looks like chaos. But it isn’t simply chaos. It’s raw gobbets of the psyche displayed on the canvas (p. 227).

Cornish’s journey as a religious artist in the modern age takes him to an extraordinary act of personal creation: a visionary wedding of his whole psychic life, unachieved in the actual living of it, but nonetheless capable of being imagined. Choosing as his subject the biblical account of the marriage at Cana, he takes the Scripture’s "sustaining myth" and transforms it (in the style of the 15th-century Old Masters) into a mythic self-portrait. The painting, as Saraceni notes, "solicits the Unconscious"; it tells a profoundly intimate story, but does so in the iconographic terms of past theology, in a shared and traditional language. Cornish puts new wine into old skins in an attempt, to make a resonantly contemporary statement of self.

Although haunted by the fear of fakery, of artistic fancy dress, he simply cannot express his "here and now" in the terms of his own era; he knows himself to be one untimely born. And so he reanimates the religious vocabulary of the past in order to live with something like wholeness in the present. Surely it is one of the sharpest ironies of this particular divine comedy that by telling the truth in such a way, he will come in later years to be thought of as a forger of old paintings -- a counterfeiter of truth.

Urged by his godfather to follow his nose -- what another character speaks of as obeying his instincts -- Cornish learns that to do so is to find himself moving in some "very unmodern and unfashionable directions." One might make the same observation about Robertson Davies himself, whose nose has lead him up the unlikely paths of sainthood and miracles (Fifth Business) , Jungian analysis (The Manticore) , magic and mystery (World of Wonders) , gypsy lore, alchemy and demonism (Rebel Angels). In every case, he is satirizing the peculiar obscurantism of the 20th century, pushing past its assumptions about what matters (or does not) in an effort to open us to our own depths. His novels reveal the essential human value of what has been discarded as useless or outmoded -- that is, the value of almost two millennia of Christian civilization, especially its darker nooks and crannies. What he shows us through the medium of his fiction, in other words, are forgotten things about ourselves: the "muddle of eras" that even the most up-to-date modern incarnates; the richness of human meaning which, lacking myth, we no longer have full access to; the reality of God as a transcendent authority both within and above us.

The reality of God. From a variety of statements scattered throughout his nonfictional writing -- One Half of Robertson Davies (1977) and The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979) -- we know that the author has confessed himself a Christian believer without nailing down the nature of that belief. Although he was confirmed as an Anglican while studying at Oxford, his religion seems to have been most nurtured by the thought of Carl Jung, whose insistence on God as a psychological fact of human nature -- a fact avoided at enormous peril to ourselves -- is echoed throughout Davies’s fiction. And yet Davies’s religion is no mere Christianity. Indeed, he might well claim the realization of Francis Cornish as his personal testimony: "Somehow I’ve drifted into a world where religion, but not orthodoxy, is the fountain of everything that makes sense" (p. 378).

What that religion is, and how it branches out from Christian orthodoxy, is perhaps most fully explored in Rebel Angels, through the reflections of a winsome Anglican divine, Simon Darcourt, whose scholarly pursuit is, significantly enough, New Testament apocrypha. Darcourt says at the end of the novel that while he considers the essentials of Christianity, when rightly understood, to form the best possible foundation for life, he holds that this orthodox basis is in genuine need of "farcing out." He goes on to explain the striking choice of vocabulary: "I use the word as cooks do, to mean the extending and amplifying of a dish with other, complementary elements. . . One cannot live on essences" (p. 314).

Along with humor and a lightness of touch that both Darcourt and Blazon identify as among the missing elements in Christianity, a frank allowance for the body is needed -- an allowance, that is, for "the unknown factor, the depths from which arise the unforeseen and uncontrollable in the human spirit" (Rebel Angels, p. 111) Everywhere in Davies’s fiction we are made to see that it is a serious mistake to subdue our physicality or to strive (as the ascetic ideal would have it) for an exclusively spiritual purity at the body’s expense. To do so is to sever the self from its roots and thus to dwarf it. More ominously still, it is to court the revenge of what has been repressed -- a revenge that is disastrous for both the individual and society.

Instead of purity, Darcourt (and certainly Davies behind him) proposes another ideal altogether: a wholeness that joins root to crown, the light and glory of the spirit to the dark earth, Christ to Satan. This latter inclusion is Davies’s most radical departure from Christian orthodoxy and reveals most strikingly his debt to Jung, who argued that vice and virtue are mutually interdependent -- always in contention, but never entirely to be factored out one from the other. Time after time in his novels Davies recommends nothing less than shaking hands with the devil, acknowledging him as Christ’s "brother" and, as the shadow of light, the necessary "other side" of what Christianity has celebrated as God. As a wonderfully demonic character in Fifth Business says, "The Devil knows corners of us all of which Christ Himself is ignorant. Indeed, I am sure Christ learned a great deal that was salutary about Himself when He met the Devil in the wilderness" (p. 249). What Satan knows is not only the inexplicable and irrational; it is also knowledge itself, together with whatever mysterious forces enable us to make art. "It is he," says Cornish’s mentor in What’s Bred in the Bone, "who understands and ministers to man’s carnal and intellectual self, and art is carnal and intellectual" (p. 328).

Davies cannot be accused of diabolism in any common sense of the term, any more than he can be said (even in his own Jungian terms) to be of the devil’s party. To be of any one part would be to stop short of the wholeness that is the clear goal of his entire work, that merging of apparent opposites in human experience to produce what he has spoken of in four lectures titled "Masks of Satan" as the new element still waiting to be born in us: "a wider sensibility, a greater wisdom, and an enlarged charity" (One Half of Robertson Davies, p. 263). Orthodox Christianity would seem to Davies ample enough to support this new life, but, whether through understandable caution or unthinking fear, it has always been indisposed to accept any notion of fullness that asks us not to cut off or pluck out what we identify as evil, but rather to know it wholly -- as part of life, as part of holiness, as part even of God.

For purposes of classification, therefore, it would perhaps be most accurate to think of Davies as a writer of Christian apocrypha: a novelist who finds himself uncomfortably restrained by the canon of Christian thought, but who is not, on the other hand, a heretic; a self-proclaimed moralist who holds that while we reap what we sow, it is often difficult to know the nature of the seed or the outcome of the harvest. Like his character Simon Darcourt, he believes the Creed; but he also believes a good many things that are not in it. "It’s shorthand, you know. Just what’s necessary. But I don’t live merely by what is necessary" (Rebel Angels, p. 120).

When Francis Cornish is being initiated into the mystery of art -- an initiation that will bear fruit in his religious self-portrait, "The Marriage at Cana" -- he is told by his mentor that the purpose of a picture is to give pleasure, and not only pleasure but "awe, or religious intimations, or simply a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life" (p. 293). There can be no doubt that the author of these words also had in mind the purpose of a novel, perhaps one that would help break the spell of current assumptions in order to surprise us with the complicated truth about ourselves -- with more dreams than we have dared to dream in what passes for our philosophy. In any case, these words about painting are a fitting description of Davies’s own narrative art, provocative in its "farcing out" of Christian tradition and powerful in its evocation of our human depth and variety.


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