Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business, Philistinism, Robertson Davies, the Manticore, World of Wonders
A contemporary conversazione between Prof. David Wright and Dr. Phil Stein, two well-respected academics, about Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy.
Prof. Wright: The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies is a first-rate literary masterpiece, a unique accomplishment in the annals of Canadian literature. It is a strong testament to the power of both magic and wonder. It reminds us of the vitality of sensory experience over cold rationality, and it’s a convincing argument against history as merely a subjectively reconstructed document made of paper. The psychological insights continually bowl us over–the Jungian especially–and even the dismissals of Freud are well laid out broadsides. The dialogue sparkles and crackles like the magic of Magnus Eisengrim.
Dr. Stein: Robertson Davies has a natural place in the canon of Eurocentric, patronizing dead white male authors. But surely Davies, the world-class elitist, would have considered this a tremendous compliment. All the psychological talk talk talk and not even one positive reference to a gay character. Only coerced child buggery. The latent homophobia was palpable. What’s the author afraid of?
Prof. Wright: Davies isn’t scared of homosexuality, he’s just more interested in the myriad ways our inner lives fall into patterns or archetypes. Especially in the trilogy’s second book, the Manticore, psychologist Dr. Von Haller applies Jungian ideas, even some Adler, to unpeel the universal consciousness and lay it bare before the reader.
Dr. Stein: Yes yes, and after examination, or even well before, what do we find? A spoiled Anglo-Saxon brat given to cavalier dismissals of prideful, small Canadian towns as parochial backwater. We find a class war monger. A parasitic capitalist and unabashed colonialist. Best of all, the whole thing takes place behind the backdrop of a splendid castle in Zurich Switzerland, gained by inheritance no less. The whole thing is a bourgeois Marxist nightmare, and we hardly need a prescient psychologist to understand the character’s pathologies. This is the great Canadian writer?
Prof. Wright: I’m afraid you’re missing the point.
Dr. Stein: Oh yes, the rural bashing was too subtle, “villages as rotten with vice…incest, sodomy, bestiality, sadism, masochism.” David Staunton has adult problems because growing up his servants were sooo inadequate, wah wah wah. Do you know how many people in this city live below the poverty line?
Prof. Wright: Are we going to talk about the book?
Dr. Stein: How can we, when great chunks of our population have no access to medicare?
Prof. Wright: Well, In Dr. Von Haller’s words, when your unsophisticated feeling is aroused you talk like that. I wonder, what woman inside you talks that way? Can I help you find your anima?
Dr. Stein: You’re a priggish snob.
Prof. Wright: Come come now! We’re making progress. You go through life with an awareness of others, their wants and needs. You’re a sensitive man! But your antennae is only used for negative purposes.
Dr. Stein: You think social justice is negative? Are you a monster?
Prof. Wright: You’re projecting your pet cause on whatever comes before you. A distortion, no matter how compassionate its origin, is a distortion nonetheless. Reducing a writer, a vast thinker like Davies, to existing only on your fetishized level is false: You can’t read a piece of art with the critical lens you’d apply to a Marxist pamphlet.
Dr. Stein: “Critical lens”…the pomposity of the learned! Education is a great shield against experience.
Prof. Wright: I know you’re quoting Davies there, confirming you’ve actually read the book, making your brutal interpretation yet more enigmatic and perverse, but I’m not apologizing for my education. And your sneer seems out of place for a man holding a doctorate.
Dr. Stein: Distract all you want. How are you missing the focus on class structures?
Prof. Wright: Hardly any book can avoid mentioning class concern, but it’s not what spurned the writing. You’re applying inorganic criterion. You’re judging apples using the standards you’d apply to judge oranges. This is literature, not politics. You’re in the wrong field, sir.
Dr. Stein: Now I’ve spent my life moving in the wrong direction?
Prof. Wright: I can’t get through to this guy. It’s hopeless. There’s nothing more I can do.
Dr. Stein: Egoist!