The Long View: Island of the Day Before

The accurate measurement of longitude was a driving force of much of science during the Age of Exploration. A hell of a lot of good research came out of nations competing to do this faster and better, in search of filthy lucre. This is one of the foundational elements of my cocktail party theory of progress in science.

This book review from 1996 is the ultimate source of my characterization of hard science fiction [as opposed to space opera] as a way of introducing the reader to some useful concept in story form. In addition to the importance of measuring longitude, the baseless self-referential system of symbols that dominated the thought of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is on display here.


The Island of the Day Before

 

by Umberto Eco
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995
(trans. 1995 by William Weaver)
$25.00, 515 pp.
ISBN: 0-15-100151-0

The Memory-Scow of Fr. Wanderdrossel, S.J.

No matter how complicated a novel's plot or how subtle its message, all reviews of novels should start by telling you what the book is about. This novel is perfectly simple. Boy grows up during the Thirty Years' War. Boy goes on quest in order to find a way to determine longitude. Boy finds Jesuit. Boy goes mad and drowns. Everything else is a digression. Which is the problem.

If you believe you live in a world where getting there is not just half the fun but the only fun you are likely to have, novels should be written as a garland of digressions. Doubtless there has to be some unifying thread of plot to keep the whole thing together, but the treasure chest the characters have been seeking must always turn out to be empty. Of course, it would not do to have the characters ever quite realize just how much they are wasting their time. The author and the reader can know that the world, or at any rate the story, is meaningless; the characters' job is to try to find meaning and to fail in the attempt.

Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, has written this kind of novel more than once. The trick is to use the book as a lecture room in which to instruct the reader in the milieu of some historical period or social setting, but without waxing tediously didactic. This, of course, is the method of good "hard" science fiction, which leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western. Eco does this very well. In "The Name of the Rose," we learned a great deal about late medieval ecclesiastical politics in the course of a story that did not pretend to be anything more than a merry parody of a Sherlock Holmes adventure. In "Foucault's Pendulum," we became much the wiser about the subsidy publishing business while following what I for one think was a slightly superior occult conspiracy. (Of course, Eco's occult conspiracy was not as good as the one in Theodore Roszak's underappreciated novel, "Flicker," but you can't have everything.)

"The Island of the Day Before" is even more ambitious, since we are treated to nothing less than a tour of the episteme of the 17th century. If you believe Foucault (the twentieth century deconstructionist, not a man after whom any type of pendulum is named), the eighteenth century was a time of logical, schematic knowledge. As exemplified by Linnaeus's system of biological classification, the Enlightenment mind was a-historical, given to discerning timeless formal patterns. The episteme of the nineteenth century, in contrast, was evolutionary in its view of both the physical world and of society. Together, these two epistemes constitute the mind of modernity. As a way, perhaps, to discerning the characteristics of the postmodern era, Eco tries to give us a sense of the European mind on the eve of modernity, before the epistemes of the modern era overwhelmed other ways of understanding the world.

People in that age did not expect the world, or their own lives, to make much sense as a linear narrative. It was not that they were suspicious of such narratives; as with Eco's plots, there was always one handy to tie things together. Rather, their first instinct was to look for subtle connections between particular and particular. Their politics and their science, and not least their prose, were complex, obscure, allusive. One did not try to understand the world by extrapolating from first principles. Rather, they lived in a world of signs and symbols. There was no high road to understanding. An education meant going from book to book, ancient and modern, in order to understand obscure allusions made by others, and as preparation to make a few of your own.

Most symbols were obviously of human manufacture. It was a great age for emblems and crests and heraldic devices, from which a suitably informed person might be able to deduce a great deal about the user's history and philosophy. Since they also thought that the natural world worked in much the same way, natural knowledge was a catalogue of the hidden sympathies between metals and birds and plants and planets. Medicine was an understanding of how the humors and parts of the body fit into this dense web of sympathies and pointers. I have long suspected that the Hermetic tradition fascinated Yeats because it provided a language in which things and not just words could rhyme. In the period in question, all sophisticated people thought like that.

All of this sounds as text-driven as recent schools of literary criticism, and maybe in practice it was. However, the big difference between late premodernity and early postmodernity was that the former was not incredulous of the possibility of certainty, of reliable foundations for thought and belief. Europe in the first half of the 17th century was clearly in a transitional state. Western Christendom had broken up politically and confessionally into divisions that could not yet acknowledge each other's legitimacy. Traditional Ptolemaic cosmology was no longer acceptable, but no alternative was available that was consistent with contemporary physics. Europe had become aware of the size of the planet and how alien many of the societies on it were, but as yet had no idea how to fit this new information into received ideas about history and providence. Of course, in another few decades, all these questions would be answered in what seemed to be a perfectly satisfactory manner. The connecting theme of this book, however, is a search for certainty that failed. The search was cartographical, the search for a method to determine longitude.

An extended discussion of this most interesting problem in the history of applied science is perhaps out of place here; readers who want a full account are referred to Dava Sobel's excellent recent book, "Longitude." Basically, the chief problem faced by early oceanic navigators was that, while it is not hard to tell how far north or south of the equator you are (the measure of latitude), there is no comparably simple way to tell how far east or west you are (the measure of longitude). You can determine latitude, for instance, by measuring how far the sun rises above the horizon at noon. It is a natural quantity, produced by the fact the earth is a sphere that spins on its axis. Longitude, however, is a relative, artificial concept. You must pick an arbitrary line that runs north and south all around the earth, through both poles, and then try to figure how far east or west of this line you are. (Today, of course, this line, called the prime meridian, is the meridian of Greenwich in England.) If you know the difference between your local time and the time at the baseline, you can easily determine how far east or west of the line you are, since every hour's difference means 15 degrees difference in longitude. If you have an astronomical observatory and the leisure to make certain very fine astronomical measurements, such as the relative position of the moon to the fixed stars, you can determine what time it is at the prime meridian. However, such measurements are hard to do aboard ship. It took until John Harrison's invention in 1761 of a spring-regulated clock, suitable for use aboard ship, to finally solve the problem. Until then, the ambiguity of longitude created a doubt about one's position in the world that seemed almost ontological, or so Eco would have us believe.

Supposedly, we know about the story in this novel because the author acquired the papers of one Roberto della Griva. Born in 1614, he was a member of a minor noble family of northern Italy, self-described vassals of the marquis of Monferrato. This memoir-romance-love letter collection was written while the author was cast away on an abandoned ship, whose whole company save one had been eaten by cannibals. The ship was anchored off an island in the south Pacific, located on a meridian which Roberto believed to be the natural prime meridian. (For reasons which still make a fair amount of sense, many people of the time thought the prime meridian should run through the Canary Islands.) He thus believed that he was on the west side of what today we would call the international date line, the island on the east side. When he looked at the island, he was therefore looking at the day before. As I said, the book is simple.

As a child, Roberto conceived the notion that he had a wicked brother, kept secret by the family, to whom Roberto ascribes all his own bad actions. Roberto believes, with varying degrees of seriousness, that he goes through life being punished for his brother's misdeeds. This imaginary brother, named Ferrante, serves not so much to relieve Roberto of moral responsibility as to explain Roberto's bad luck. If something bad happens to Roberto, it is Ferrante's fault, one way or another. Roberto finds the putative existence of Ferrante ever less comforting with the passage of time.

Roberto's experience of the homicidal meaninglessness of life begins at age 16 at the siege of Casale, whose fortress is key to the frontier between France and Italy. Eco explains with great lucidity the dispute which caused the French and their Italian allies, including Roberto and his father, to defend the city against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. Even after the explanation, the siege still makes little sense. None of the participants was acting irrationally; logic simply worsened the tangle. The siege eventually degenerates into a truce whereby the Spanish occupy the town and the French the citadel. Finally the whole thing is settled by negotiation. Roberto's father is killed early on, to no particular purpose. Roberto returns to his ancestral land only long enough to arrange for an income for himself, and then travels to France.

The early 1640s find him in Paris, at the moment of the transition between the regime of Cardinal Richelieu and that of Cardinal Mazarin. Roberto does not really have a philosophical mind, but he is interested in scientific and metaphysical questions, so he frequents salons attended by astronomers and philosophers. We thus learn a great deal about what the early 17th century thought about the plurality of worlds and the possibility of a vacuum. The young Pascal puts in an appearance, and one character gets a letter from an officer serving in Holland whom are not told is named Descartes. Roberto sees a successful application of a substance called the "powder of sympathy." This is used to treat wounds, not by application to the wound itself, but by application to the weapon that caused it. He becomes something of an expert on sympathetic medicine, with grave consequences for his future. He also becomes infatuated with one of the great ladies of the salons. He believes, through a fanciful interpretation of the available information, that she is equally infatuated with him. He starts writing her self-revealing letters, a practice he continues even when there is no way to deliver them. This habit eventually produced Eco's holographic manuscript.

These pleasant years in Paris are ended when Cardinal Mazarin dragoons Roberto for a machination. (Roberto blames Ferrante for the misunderstanding that puts Roberto into the Cardinal's power.) Mazarin, like the leaders of other maritime states of his time, was much interested in the longitude question. He was particularly concerned that the English might find a solution before France did. Learning that the English were about to conduct experiments using the principle of the powder of sympathy to transmit the time to ships at sea, the Cardinal blackmails Roberto to take passage on the Amaryllis, a Dutch vessel on which the experiments would be made. Since Roberto is being sent to act as Mazarin's spy, the Cardinal gives him a good measure of sound advice about human nature and the ways of the world, such as one might expect from a contemporary of Baltasar Gracian, author of "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." (Actually, Mazarin's instructions also sound like Elrond's farewell address to the Fellowship of the Ring in the "Lord of the Rings," or at least what Elrond would have sounded like, had he been a pompous ass.)

Both the Dutch and the English being too stupid not to take paying passengers on a secret mission, Roberto has no trouble booking passage on the Amaryllis and sailing to the south seas. He also has no trouble finding out what the English are up to. A dog had been wounded with sword and brought on board, where an appalling English physician kept the wound from closing. The sword remained in London. At set times in the day, the sword was heated, which was supposed to make the dog howl and whimper. Noting when the dog exhibited acute distress, its tormentors on the Amaryllis believed that they could tell exactly what the time was in London. Happily, the ship sank in a storm. Roberto was the only survivor. He could not swim, but he had sense enough to grab a plank.

Roberto washes up, not on a deserted island, but on a deserted ship. This is the Daphne, another Dutch ship, also obviously on some kind of scientific expedition. There is a roomful of all manner of time pieces. There are a garden and an aviary. There is unending succession of storerooms filled with remarkable stuff. Indeed, one of these cubbyholes turns out to contain Father Caspar Wanderdrossel of the Society of Jesus. It should be mentioned that the first third or so of the book consists of Roberto's recollections incited by one or another of the chambers of the Daphne. To me, at least, this procedure is reminiscent of "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," Jonathan Spence's biography of the great missionary to China. The book was much concerned with Ricci's science of mnemonics, which works by creating associations between facts you want to remember and an imaginary structure you know well. I could be wrong. Roberto had also been exploring the Amaryllis's seeming endless stores of aqua vitae, so it is hard to say. ("Aqua vitae" is Latin for the Irish "uisce beatha," which of course is whiskey. Did 17th century Dutch ships carry barrels of whiskey? Rum maybe? The question is irrelevant, but in keeping with the spirit of the book.)

Fr. Wanderdrossel was himself looking for a way to determine longitude (hence the roomful of clocks), but only to help prove a larger thesis about the origin of the waters of the Great Flood. The priest believed that the excess water arose physically from submarine fissures in the antipodes, and then was magnified temporally by being passed from one day to another across the international date line. At least, this is what I think he said. Fr. Wanderdrossel had spent many years in Rome, but unfortunately he spent most of his time there speaking Latin to other Jesuits. His talk is therefore a jargon of Latin and German and such English (doubtless meant to represent the Italian of the original) as used to be found in the comic strip, the "Kaztenjammer Kids." The result is unlovely, yet his dialogues with Roberto go on for pages and pages. However, the content of their discussions, which dealt in large part with the structure of the solar system, are very interesting. Roberto defended the Copernican system, whereas Fr. Wanderdrossel endorsed the more moderate hypothesis of Tycho Brahe, which had the sun and moon orbiting the Earth and the planets orbiting the sun. The remarkable thing is that, absent Newton's laws of motion, Tycho Brahe has the better of the argument.

For reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, the crew had abandoned Fr. Wanderdrossel and taken the Daphne's only boat to the island, where the cannibals got them. Despite the cannibals, Roberto and the priest look for a way to reach the island. The priest cannot swim either, so he tries to teach Roberto how to swim. Despairing of the young man's progress, he brings a remarkable machine out of storage, a sort of diving bell with an open bottom that would let the occupant walk to shore over the sea floor. Roberto lowers him over the side, and he is never seen again. Roberto considers the possibility that the floors of all the seas are covered with hidden Jesuits.

Roberto thereafter divides his time among swimming practice, the aqua vitae, and his increasingly fanciful writings. The latter come to deal almost exclusively with the wicked deeds of his brother, Ferrante. By and by, Roberto describes how Ferrante himself sets out in search of the prime meridian. When Ferrante reaches it, he uses its time-travelling capacity to sail back to the time of Christ, whom he kidnaps from the Garden of Gesthemane and imprisons on the Island of the Day Before. The Redemption never having taken place, the whole human race is damned. Roberto does devise a fitting end for Ferrante, however. Not long after, Roberto drowns, leaving his papers to astonish a later world.

There is nothing wrong in principle with a story that has no particular point, or whose point is that there is no point. Unfortunately, none of this was really as much fun as it should have been. A pessimist, or a professor of semiotics, might say the same about life. However, books are supposed to be better than life.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Daemonimania

John major emphasis was millennialism. I think he had a minor emphasis in the occult as well, insofar as these two things have a tendency to overlap. His book reviews of occult fiction are especially good.


Daemonomania

by John Crowley

Bantam Books, 2000

451 Pages, US$24.00

ISBN 0-553-10004-1

This book is the third of the projected four in John Crowley’s major novelistic treatment of gnosticism and hermeticism. As in the two prior books, “Aegypt” (1987) and “Love & Sleep” (1994), “Daemonomania” is held together, rather loosely, through the character of Pierce Moffet, a young historian living on a publisher’s advance. We meet him in the first book as he settles down in the Upstate New York town of Blackbury Jambs in the 1970s, to write a hermetic interpretation of history. (Inevitably, the working title of the manuscript is “Aegypt.”) Through Moffet’s friends and lovers, we are introduced to a local mystery that, in this third volume, builds to a climax of universal significance. His researches link this mystery to a parallel story that encompasses Dr. John Dee (Elizabeth I’s favorite magus), Giordano Bruno and the uncanny Prague of Emperor Rudolph von Habsburg. The series makes use of the latest research about werewolves and witchhunts, ancient and modern. Readers interested in the academic study of the occult will love all this. The author is generous with bibliographical information.  

“Daemonomania” has the distinction of being one of the few books in which the world ends twice, once in 1588 and again in 1979. The author’s notion of apocalypse works like this:   

“When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn’t come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse’s skin. The coming of the end might at first lift and shake just one county, one neighborhood, and not the others around it; might feelably ripple beneath the feet of these churchgoers and not of those tavern-goers down the street, shatter only the peace of this street, this family, this child of this family who at that moment lifts her eyes from the Sunday comics and knows for certain that nothing will ever be the same again.”

A recurring theme is that “there is more than one history of the world.” Each new age not only looks forward to a different future but remembers a different past. The “Aegypt” of hermetic wisdom that was known to the scholars of the Renaissance had only a few points of contact with the “Egypt” of modern archeology. The difference is not just a matter of more and better information, but of distinct conceptual universes. What seems to us to be a continuous history of ideas is really divided into “dispensations” in which people have quite different conceptions about what is reasonable and possible.

This way of looking at history is familiar to us from, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s notion of successive “scientific revolutions,” and from Michel Foucault’s proposal that different “epistemes” governed different regions of the past. At least for the purposes of this series, however, the author goes beyond intellectual history to suggest that not just the sense of the possible, but the possible itself may change as one age fades into another.

The “Aegypt” series is about an archetypical story that is enacted during such transitions. In 17th century Prague, the Emperor Rudolph hoped to begin a new golden age by acquiring the power to make gold. He subsidized a cottage industry of alchemists, one of whom, in “Daemonomania,” succeeds. In 20th century New York State, there was a wealthy old man, one Boney Rasmussen, who was terrified of death. He subsidized a writer named Fellowes Kraft to ferret out the emperor’s secret, which is also the secret of immortality. Moffet takes up their work after they become unobtrusive ghosts. The closest we come to a resolution of the story so far is this explanation:

“’Well you know the basic idea...Kraft’s idea...[t]hat the world -- you know, reality, all this -- goes through changes. Every now and then it enters a sort of period of indeterminism, anything is possible; and it stays in that passage time until, well, until...a certain thing is found. A certain thing that only exists, or comes to be, in that time. It’s the stone, or the elixir, or the thing that Boney wanted found. If it’s not found the world stops changing, or never stops changing, and dies. But it’s always found so far.”

In the 20th century part of the series, the myth takes the form of the rescue of a little girl with the ability to see dead people. (At the risk of stating the obvious, this rescue recapitulates the gnostic myth of the rescue of the Divine Sophia from the world of matter.) The people the little girl needs to be rescued from belong to a Christian cult called “The Powerhouse,” which specializes in therapy through exorcism.

The whole “Aegypt” series is anti-Christian, but anti-Christian in a way that I have never seen in fiction before. Consider this remarkable passage from “Love and Sleep”:

“Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...”

In a way, this is an argument from process theology: Christianity may have been true in the past, or at least effective. However, it will not be so in the coming age.

That insight is far from the final truth. In a book as relentlessly post-modern as “Daemonomania,” it is hard to know exactly what we should take as a joke, as metaphor or as the author’s considered opinion. Still, it is fairly clear that the author does take seriously the gnostic hypothesis that the world is a hoax. We come from beyond the world, but are trapped in it by a succession of frauds perpetrated by powers that do not have our best interest at heart:

“O the traps the gods have prepared for us, their worshippers; how long and well they’ve worked. We are older than they, far older than the oldest of them; we have come from farther away, way back beyond where they were born: but we don’t know that, we have forgotten it -- and they know we have forgotten it. And that’s why they can do with us what they like most of the time, especially when we think we have escaped them. That’s why, in other words, the world has lasted so long, and why we are still here.”

Despite the commercials for the Old Time Gnosis, however, the “Aegypt” series is not primarily an indictment of Christianity or an exercise in cosmic paranoia. The Moffet character, a ferociously lapsed Catholic, is suspicious of Christianity in general. However, Crowley uses what he depicts as the provincialism and self-regard of the Powerhouse chiefly as a way to indict Moffet’s own sense of spiritual superiority. Moffet knows that the Powerhouse is right about the nature of magic, because he is a magician himself, in his own small way. (He uses it chiefly on his girl friend.) When this brings disaster, he realizes that “the greater error was the one that had tempted Pierce himself, to believe that we ourselves are the authors of the tales we live within. That’s the ultimate arrogance of power, the arrogance of the gods: for all gods believe themselves self-created, and believe themselves to be issuing their own strong stories, news to us.”

There are some self-referential gimmicks in the series that are more ingenious than entertaining. We have seen, for instance, that the “Aegypt” series is nominally about the writing of a book called “Aegypt.” Crowley even allows himself this authorial soliloquy, put in the mouth of the producer of a failed amateur production of “Faust”:

“I so much wanted to *knit*...[p]ast and present, then and now. The story of the thing lost, and how it was found. More than anything I wanted it to *resolve*. And all it does is *ramify*.”

Indeed it does, so much so that it is not obvious that anything remains to be said after this third volume. The world has already ended twice, after all. Nonetheless, the publisher assures me that a fourth book is planned. Some hints in “Daemonomania” suggest that a further book might deal with the near future, as did Crowley’s novella, “Beasts” (1976).

Despite these criticisms, Crowley’s blend of magic, blasphemy and postmodernism works very well as fiction. He can create uncanny affect better than anyone since Arthur Machen. Unlike Machen, he also has the sense to confine most manifestations of the supernatural to dreams and coincidences. The hermetic twilight has rarely been made to seem so plausible.

Will the series persuade many people to its view of the world? Probably not, but that may be the measure of its success. The merit of these books is that they express the indeterminacy of a time of transition. The nature of twilight, however, is to resolve into either day or night.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

This review originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of First Things

Nota bene: John reviewed the fourth book in this series, Endless Things, in 2007

 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: The Cunning Man

This is why I do this. Coming back to this barely remembered book review after many, many years is much like reuiniting with an old friend. I can see in these paragraphs things I have said, and things I have thought, forgetting their true source. This post is a rich vein of the insights that I have applied over the years.

John liked Robertson Davies for the same reason I like Tim Powers, he was an author you could use to cleanse your palate after reading some modern drivel. There is something disheartening about so much modern fiction, that it is a real joy to read a book that doesn't drag you down. John notes that while Davies was never opposed to modern culture as such, Davies managed to avoid modernity's worst excesses by looking beyond modernity to what is inevitably to come.

Davies' novel is grouped where it is in John's blog because it is thematically related to Tradition, the political embodiment of the perennial philosophy. You could read John's post as an indictment of Tradition, but mostly I think he wanted to draw attention to something that possesses latent power, and his review of The Cunning Man seeks to draw out the good there is to be found in the perennial philosophy, much as Davies looked for the good in modernity.

John felt that the perennial philosophy at its best was far from the worst possible world, but probably also not capable of achieving the best. Graceful despair was how he characterized it, perhaps most memorably embodied in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. However, John clearly also felt that the hermeticism of the perennial philosophy could conjure a world that none [or almost none] of us really want.

Searching for the even better alternative was John's ultimate purpose, and by extension it is now mine.

The Cunning Man

by Robertson Davies

Viking Publishers, 1995
$23.95, 469 pp.
ISBN 0-670-85911-7

 

The Breath of Coming Winter

 

Some years ago, for reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, I read Doris Lessing's great novel, "The Golden Notebook." The novel takes the form of a long, agonized memoir by a progressive young woman in the middle of the 20th century, in which the protagonist tries to come to grips with the political and sexual struggles of her time. This really is a great book. It succeeds like few other works in conveying to the reader the dismay and self-disgust of the modern mind. Then I happened to read Robertson Davies' novel, "The Lyre of Orpheus," the first of his books I had ever encountered. Reading it was like being cured of an abscessed tooth. Since then, I have been reading everything by him I could find.

I don't think that my reaction to Davies is altogether unique. Many people find his prose to have the same curative effect. His books breathe compassion and an intelligent sense of history. In contrast to so much of what goes on in fiction these days, his vision seems to capture the light of sanity. In his latest book, "The Cunning Man," he puts a fittingly old name to this light: the perennial philosophy. (This term has been variously defined, but perhaps Aldous Huxley's book, "The Perennial Philosophy," comes closest to an extended exposition of what Davies means.) Today, many people speak of the end of the modern era, and some even say it has already ended. They call our time "the postmodern age." This is nonsense, of course. Postmodernism is merely a satirical epilogue to modernity. Robertson Davies, though often accounted a somewhat old-fashioned author, shows us in his books one of the spiritual regimes that could actually succeed modernity when it does end. If so, it will be better than we deserve. Even now, however, with modernity still largely undismantled, it is not too early to begin to understand that the perennial philosophy is in essence a form of graceful despair.

"The Cunning Man" consists of a series of reflections and character sketches, held together by a loose account of the life and times of one Dr. Jon Hullah, master diagnostic physician of the city of Toronto. There are three stories here: Hullah's school life and professional career, the growth of the cultural life of Toronto to world-class status, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of orthodox religion. The doctor, like so many other characters in Davies' books, is a wizardly man, a bachelor and a bit of a misanthrope with some odd intellectual interests. After a boyhood in the Canadian north and a tough-but-fair elite boys' prep school, he has an early infatuation with Freudian theory when it was still new and not particularly respectable, at least in Canada. He has some occasion to put this interest into practice while treating "friendly fire" casualties during World War II. Back in civilian life, the doctor develops into a physician in the tradition of Paracelsus. This means that, in practice, he learned the value of just listening. He is, of course, perfectly expert in scientific medicine, but he tends to take his science as a metaphor. There are genuine mysteries in the case histories of his patients. To illustrate this, he has a bas relief of a caduceus on the wall of his waiting room. Its two intertwining snakes symbolize empirical science and "wisdom" respectively, while above both is written the Greek word for "fate."

The health of every individual, the doctor believes, is as unique as each soul, and so is every disease. The point is not that all diseases are psychosomatic; they aren't. However, the conditions to which the body is prone are usually expressions of the mind, and the patient's state of mind is of critical importance to the success of any therapy. Dr. Hullah acquires a quiet but wide reputation as a "diagnostician of last resort," a physician whose results other doctors cannot quite explain and which they usually have the sense not to ask about. His clinic, it happens, is located in a building in close proximity to a high episcopal church.

At the time of the main action of the story, St. Aidan's was a very high episcopal church indeed, with a congregation that provided a good social cross-section of Toronto. In those glory days, its pastor was the saintly Father Hobbes, a man who literally went hungry to feed the poor. We meet him as he sinks in his last years into a pious and well-beloved dotage. Though the pastor was willing to accommodate elaborate ritual practice, the church's splendid liturgies during the late period of his tenure were the work of the parish's sophisticated music directors, and even more so of the curate, Fr. Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's old schoolmates. The artistic life of the church was greatly enriched by, indeed it really only reflected, what went on next door in Glebe House. This old mansion had once been parish property, but came into possession of two representatives of another stock type in Davies' books, the Lovable Lesbian Artists. Called the Ladies, they were friends with their tenant Hullah (his clinic is located in a building that had been Glebe House's formidable stone stable). Starting first with artistically-inclined people at St. Aidan's, they came to host a weekly salon that attracted most of the musicians and plastic artists of the nascent artistic world of Toronto at midcentury. (The Ladies invited few writers, since writers proved to drink too much.)

Lest anyone miss the moral, this arrangement is supposed to illustrate the fruitful relationship that art can have with religion. The artists themselves are in large part infidels and persons whose private lives do not bear close scrutiny, yet their community is created by the need of the church for music and vestments and sculpture. Once assembled, they develop their art according to its own needs, but the church continues to benefit from the new creations it has neither the funds nor the imagination to produce itself. During the Golden Age of St. Aidan's, faithful parishioners like the Ladies and Dr. Hullah do not of course believe in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. They are attracted to the church because they intuit that there is a dimension of Being beyond the material. They see that the Good is often the occasion for the Beautiful, as illustrated by the beautiful ceremonies presided over by the genuinely admirable Fr. Hobbes. They are, however, too sophisticated to believe that the Good must also be linked to the True. The Gospel taught at St. Aidan's is a kind of significant poetry. To think otherwise is a bit of naivete that might be tolerated in simple people, but which leads to disastrous results in the hands of men with intellect and imagination.

Such, unfortunately, was Fr. Iredale. Everyone agreed that the pastor was a saintly man. His curate, however, inspired by private visions he could not dismiss, came to regard Fr. Hobbes as a living saint in the most literal sense. The book is in small part also a murder mystery, so it would not be appropriate to set out here just what steps the curate took to prepare the pastor for canonization. Fr. Iredale wanted nothing less than that for the late Fr. Hobbes: a shrine, a cult, and finally official recognition of sainthood by the whole Anglican communion. The cult of Fr. Hobbes was to save not only Toronto, but the whole of North America. The problem, the curate soon found, was that the enthusiasm he had whipped up could not be kept within church walls. One of Dr. Hullah's truly psychosomatic patients declared herself cured by the lately deceased saint's miraculous intervention, and began preaching in the little graveyard by Glebe House where he was buried. She attracted dangerous crowds of those whom Fr. Hobbes had helped in life, street crazies, thieves and invincible alcoholics. (The Unworthy Poor are another staple of Davies' fiction. Here they take the Orwellian name of "God's People.") The bishop of Toronto, alarmed at the disorder and credulity at St. Aidan's, sends his favorite hench-cleric to preach on the dangers of ritualism. Fr. Iredale is banished to a parish in the farthest north. There he must listen to the private revelations of his landlady and try to adapt to a poor rural congregation (actually six small ones at various widely-separated churches). He takes to drink and becomes himself one of God's People, eventually dying in Dr. Hullah's care.

We learn of all this as Dr. Hullah explains it many years later to his godson's wife, an investigative reporter in Toronto. (Newspaper journalism, like the theater and the academy, is yet another stock feature of Davies' fiction. He has, after all, had significant careers in all three professions.) Thus, we get to look at these events from their aftermath. One Lady has died and the other moved away. In any event, the artistic life of the city has become too large and too commercial to fit into one of their artistic evenings. St. Aidan's has become a parish of the rich and tonedeaf. Dr. Hullah has stopped accepting new patients. We see him planning a great literary study for his retirement, a compendium of medical diagnoses of the great characters from literature, based on their spiritual conditions as set out in the texts.

We are given various hints that these personal things are not all that is ending. The doctor's indispensable nurse-therapist, for instance, is a great reader of Toynbee and Spengler, especially the latter. The era of classical modern culture with which the doctor literally grew up seems to be drawing to a close with his career. As a doctor, he has less and less faith in contemporary science, even as metaphor. AIDS and cancer research go on and on, costing ever more but yielding few results. Even the old diseases he thought conquered as a young man are staging comebacks. The suspicion grows that the whole business of research is just that, a business, perhaps finally a bit of a racket. One of his old friends discourages him from making a bequest to a university unless he attaches strict conditions. Otherwise, the greedy scientists will eat it up without licking their lips. Like the monasteries of Henry VIII's time, the laboratories have become bloated and corrupt. The time is coming for a cleaning out.

Robertson Davies has never set his face against the trends of the modern world. Insofar as modern culture has had a strong psychoanalytical component, his novel "The Manticore," which deals with a course of Jungian analysis, may someday be seen as one of the key texts. His novel "The Lyre of Orpheus," which deals with a university production of an original opera about King Arthur, is open to the possibility that there may be worth in today's experimental musical styles. In "The Cunning Man," he even manages a few kind words for feminism, of a sort. Though he clearly prefers some cultural usages of previous periods to those of the twentieth century, he has always been willing to acknowledge whatever good the world has on offer. Still, he suggests that modern culture, at least as it has been known in Canada, is drawing to a close. There is no Spenglerian gloom associated with this development. Empires may crumble and the arts go into hibernation, but the wise do not despair. Every historical era is equally far from God, but the perennial philosophy is there to console us in each.

Davies' idea of enlightenment seems to bear a certain family resemblance to that of the English novelist and former Oxford philosopher, Iris Murdoch, who has been promoting a brand of moderate Platonism for years. The reference point of Murdoch's philosophy is not a personal God, but the abstract Good. The Good, of course, issues no orders, but informs every choice we make, even those that deliberately contravene it. It does, if you will, set the agenda. It does not punish, but reality exacts a price from those who do not seek the Good, which is also the ultimately Real. Popular religion provides a form of the Good that can be understood even by people without a philosophical education. For the mass of mankind, the search for the Good can be reduced to a set of crude injunctions. This is at least sufficient for the purpose of maintaining social order. Sophisticated minds, however, will usually find that, as they climb the ladder of moral perfection, they will eventually no longer need a personal God in order to understand the Good. They need not then abandon God, but may continue to cherish Him as a metaphor. Indeed, Murdoch is a great promoter of High Church practices. As limited beings, we need symbols to help compose our minds to higher things. Ritual links us to the past and so to each other; it helps constitute society. Murdoch is the kind of Anglican who cares little whether her priest believes in God, but a great deal whether he reads from a Bible other than the Authorized Version.

There are a number of flaws one might find with an idealism so chilly. For one thing, a lot of people with expensive philosophical educations, such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, found that the Good was a steppingstone to God and not the other way around. In any event, Davies' philosophy (to the extent it can be derived from his novels) is much less desiccated than Murdoch's. Davies has, for one thing, a strong taste for the merely uncanny. Although there is little actual magic in his books, there is great deal of talk about astrology, alchemical philosophy, and archetypes of one kind or another. These factors are hardly an impediment to sales in today's intellectual climate. He does favor his readers with significant coincidences, effective curses, the odd ghost (his last novel, "Murther and Walking Spirits," was a posthumous narrative by a murdered man) and one memorable case of the Evil Eye. One way of looking at the supernatural is that it is just a plot device that got out of hand, but one of Davies' attractions is that his use of it makes his fiction feel more realistic. Some people all their lives, and others during one or more vivid passages, sense a purpose or presence behind everyday life. Modernity, unlike most cultural periods, has been dedicated to dismissing this intuition as an illusion, or to explaining it in material terms. Davies' kind of realism does not do this. His vision, which perhaps reached its clearest expression in his deservedly-best selling book, "What's Bred in the Bone," can claim the designation "perennial" with some justice.

A taste for the uncanny is a long way from a religious perspective, of course. The uncanny can be a source of bad as well as good, of horror as well as illumination. If you believe in C.G Jung's idea of luck, the "synchronous event," then you must believe in the possibility of bad luck and inescapable ill-fortune. The ultimate that we sometimes sense beneath the surface of our lives is not necessarily friendly. Those characters who seek to understand it, like the diabolical old Jesuit in Davies' "Fifth Business," may be merely entertaining. On the other hand, like the nihilist monk Parlebane (another Anglican ritualist) in "The Rebel Angels," they can become formidable monsters. This view is not a kind of Manicheanism, the idea that there are independent and roughly equal forces of Good and Evil in the universe, each perhaps with its own god. Rather, it is the suspicion that God is both good and evil, that He and the devil are the same thing as seen from different angles. A God of this kind might be respected, and probably should be placated. However, it just presents another problem for human life, it is not a solution to anything.

All of this, Evil Eyes and intuitions of Being and so on, may be gross superstition. For that matter, maybe the Good and the cult of the Authorized Version are subtle superstition. The fact is, however, that educated people in most times and places who did not accept the formal theology of a major religion believed something like this. Even the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was suffused with "hermetic" ideas of this type. They are, if you will, the "default position" for the sophisticated human mind, a kind of historically-informed skepticism that gives no special priority to materialism. For over two hundred years, the progress of scientific theory (and only secondarily of the technology incorporating it) has kept these ideas at bay. Today, one may argue, this perennial philosophy is returning. The problem is not that science has failed. It has almost succeeded in everything it set out to do. We understand much of the chemical aspects of biology. Even the progress of cancer research is not quite the shell-game Davies seems to think it is. We may soon have a Unified Field Theory short enough to write on T-shirt. Even before we have complete solutions to these problems, however, we know that they will not be enough.

What is true of physics is also true of morality. Nietzsche promised us a thorough-going reexamination of all values, and damned if we did not get it. Today, the experiments have all been run, and it is pretty clear to all but the most obtuse observer that the only alternative to something like the traditional systems of ethics is no human life at all. The alternatives will simply kill any society that tries to adopt them. We know what we set out to discover, and now it remains only to implement our findings. To this extent, perhaps, the future is not problematical.

What is problematical is the atmosphere in which this reconstruction will occur. It is easy to imagine a transition in which "secularism" gradually ceases to mean materialism and comes to mean something very like the perennial philosophy. This would make sense. The excitement of modernity being over, it only follows that the more relaxed "default" position would kick in. It would not be the worst thing that could happen, but one can't help but wonder whether it would really be the best. The perennial philosophy is, after all, not really very optimistic about the world or about mankind. It is not ambitious to do things that has not been achieved before. Its highest value is order. Of course, in the terminal stages of modernity, order is nothing to be sneezed at. In the final analysis, however, I think that we will finally come to see that order is not enough, either.


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