Friday, December 9, 2011

The Hidden Things of Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels, which was itself hidden from my eyes until a couple of months ago, has a lot to say about hidden things. Ancestry, for instance, plays a big part in Maria’s story: her Gypsy ancestry isn’t apparent to everyone she meets, partly because she doesn’t make it apparent. And ancestry only provides one part of the mysterious, hard-to-define heritage that shapes each character: heritage also includes cultural and institutional traditions, wisdom in the literature one has read, and spiritual forces. In one of the recurring motifs of the novel, this hidden heritage is compared to the root system of a tree: what we know of each other is only the crown of the tree, but the roots that feed the crown define each of us and constitute our identity.

Several characters in the book search for hidden treasures. All the academics study either objects or documents as part of their research programs. But other treasure troves come into play. Three of the main characters, for instance, search through the uncatalogued possessions of a deceased collector, hoping to find rare manuscripts or early works by famous artists.

The subject of despised things provides a related theme in the book. A Gypsy woman poignantly explains that since the Nazis exterminated “only” a half-million Gypsies, one-twelfth the number of Jews, the world ignores the tragedy: her people don’t get the dignity of public outrage over their own Holocaust. The improbably named Prof. Ozy Froats studies human waste, and naturally his Congressman makes his work the emblematic object of his attack on what he sees as worthless research.

Linking these two themes is the constant discovery of treasures in even the humblest of places. Maria finds strength and depth in her Gypsy ancestry, and the fecal discoveries of Prof. Froats put him in the running for a Nobel prize. These two events play rather prominent parts in the story. But dropped in seemingly casually in the middle of a conversation, the Anglican priest Darcourt refers to what I consider the Source and Type of all examples of hidden treasures when he quotes Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”

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