Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Robertson Davies

With its eloquent characters brimming with conflicting spiritual ideas and its constant hinting that mundane objects and events have significance also in an ethereal realm, Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels persistently brought to my mind the novels of Charles Williams, so much so that as I read, I constantly expected the world of mystery to break through the veil and manifest itself on any given page. In fact, something supernatural may take place about halfway through the book: Maria’s Gypsy mother gives two characters Tarot readings that seem to come true. Davies doesn’t specify whether the cards truly serve as a conduit of insight from another world or whether Maria’s mother simply played a psychological trick, but that ambiguity itself contributes to the mysterious aura of the novel.

Several of the characters have personal mysteries, as well. What does Maria Magdalena Theotoky draw from the rich Christian heritage residing in her names? Does she bear seven devils, or as a bearer of God, have the devils been driven out of her? Or is a name just a name? Why does Arthur Cornish insist on an orthodox Christian wedding? What spiritual benefit does he think he will draw from having the words of the 1706 edition of the Prayer Book spoken at the service, complete with its stern public warnings against fornication?

The most mysterious character is Parlabane. His name suggests that his words carry death, and one character describes him as an outright evil person. He belches, lies, sponges off his acquaintances, and sings bawdy songs – loudly – at public restaurants. He claims to be a complete skeptic about every proposition dealing with anything in the natural world. But he believes that the glory of God lies beyond skepticism, and he argues with Maria about the inadequacy of codes of honour as ethical systems. A code of honour is, he says, “no bigger than the man – or woman, if you are going to be pernickety – who possesses it. And the honour of a fool, or a pygmy-in-spirit, or a redneck, or a High Tory, or a convinced democrat are all wholly different things and any one of them, under the right circumstances, could send you to the stake, or stop your wages, or just push you out into the cold. Honour is a matter of personal limitation. God is not.” That little speech implies unskeptical belief in several propositions. At the end of the book, Parlabane asks for a special Christian ceremony for himself. So does he believe? I can fault Davies for the inconsistency only as long as I ignore the fact that every Christian believer I know (including myself) sometimes contradicts his confessional words by his committed actions.

Mystery religions show up in the book in the form of Gnostic gospels and kabbala and other heterodox traditions. The title of the book refers to a story of two angels who, without casting in their lot with Satan, come to earth to share God’s knowledge with humanity. I’m not sure how that agenda separates them from Satan since the sharing of divine knowledge seems to have been the chief rebel angel’s first ploy against mankind. In any case, the claim that their gift not only influenced Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus but also led to the institution of universities has me thinking about the possible motivations for intellectual research.

Having read all of Charles Williams’s novels and having enjoyed all but one of them, I was fully prepared to take the Tarot and the Gnostic gospels as literary devices that convey the mystery of the supernatural with a blunt force that scriptural quotations don’t always have for Christians inured with Biblical language. But near the end of the book, I started to suspect that Davies was trying to claim orthodox Christianity insufficient even outside the world of his novel. Arthur Cornish may want an orthodox wedding at the climax of the story, but Darcourt, the presiding clergyman and one of the two first-person narrators, questions the wisdom of living within strict orthodoxy. I’m also happy with a book that leaves spiritual questions open, but details kept goading me into thinking that Davies was closing the question with an answer I’m not so happy with. So right now, the biggest mystery for me is Davies himself. I started my adventure with Robertson Davies with one Google search, and I finished my reading of The Rebel Angels with another. Just after finishing the novel, I read online that the author once characterized himself as “not a card-carrying Christian.” Suitable, since mysteries can only be defined, not by what they are, but by what they are not.

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