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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 35

Robertson Davies


  I WENT TO SEE A play last evening—a play which contained a measure of profanity. Not the rich, refreshing, imaginative profanity of Shakespeare, but just ordinary swearing. I noticed several members of the audience swallowing their Adam’s apples and distending their nostrils at this, but as the play was a highly moral work, directed against divorce, they made no serious complaint…. This caused me to ponder on the crying modern need for new and more ferocious oaths. The few tattered old rags of blasphemy and obscenity which we have inherited from our church-going ancestors are insufficient to deck out the tremendous angers of the Atomic Age. An era of new terrors, amplified treachery, vastly extended political cynicism, and starvation on an undreamed-of scale surely demands an extended gamut of objurgation to cope with it. But our age is uncongenial to poetry, and swearing, at its best, is a kind of diabolic poetry.


  I WENT TO SEE AN English movie last night, called The Notorious Gentleman which was very good indeed. In Britain it was called The Rake’s Progress, and when I asked why the name had been changed I was told that it was done to prevent unsophisticated audiences from imagining that the film depicted the evolution of the popular garden tool. But I don’t believe any such thing. I think it was to spare our movie theatre employees the distasteful task of spelling out a dubious word like “rake” in electric lights. In movie circles on this continent they have a rooted objection to calling things by their right names. In the newsreels, for instance, Eva Braun is referred to as Hitler’s “good friend,” although everybody knows that she was his mistress, and later (for a few nasty moments) Mrs. H. But “mistress” is a Dirty Word, and may not sully the chaste lips of a newsreel commentator, or befoul the antiseptic ears of a movie audience. What will be the result of this nonsense? In a few years the words “good friend” will have achieved a lewd secondary significance, and will be unusable by those who do not wish to be misunderstood. “Do you love John?” the Canadian Mama will enquire of her Innocent Daughter. “No, Mumsie, I am merely his Good Friend,” the I.D. will reply, and will then be surprised when Mama locks her in her room with bread and water, shrieking the house down as she does it. Nothing but evil comes from mealiness of mouth.


  FROM TIME TO TIME I hear a word or an expression which I mentally resolve never to use myself—not if entreated to do so by wild horses on their bended knees. Today, for instance, I heard a man refer to a motor car as a “transportation unit.” A vile phrase! It might mean anything. A horse is also a transportation unit, and so is my wheelbarrow. Even my degraded old carpet slippers are transportation units…. Could a romance between Civil Servants blossom in an immobilized transportation unit, possibly resulting in a little vital statistic?


  PRE-HOLIDAY PROSTRATION has overtaken me. Today I tidied my desk, mowed the lawn, hid the hose, collected my shirts, packed my bags, shot the iceman, poisoned the bread-man, drowned the milkman, ripped out the telephone, pushed chewing gum in the keyholes, broke the electricity meter open with an axe, and hid the silver in a hollow tree. To frighten away robbers I have prepared two cunning wax images of myself, and have laid one of them in a deck chair on the verandah, and posed the other one over the garbage box at the rear door. Having thereby complied with all the newspaper advice to people about to go on vacation, I am waiting for the dawn to break, and my yearly respite from slavery to begin.1


  EVERYBODY I MEET these days seems to be suffering from one or more of the Four Doldrums which are guaranteed by our Canadian Way of Life2—Doldrum from Want, Doldrum from Fear, Doldrum of Religion and Doldrum of Speech. A great many of them are still victims of post-vacation coma; they have been out in the sun too much and their brains have dried up. I am no better myself; I have been dull at many periods of my life, but never so dull as now. My dullness is so complete and all-embracing that it constitutes a kind of mystical experience—the merging of the Null with the Void. Shall I found a new religion? A Cult of Blaa? So much of modern religion is imbued with a busy dullness that the world might welcome a nice, passively dull faith, specifically designed for the poor in spirit.


  AMAN MENTIONED casually to me this afternoon that his brother was in a hospital, having his appendix removed. This operation is now undertaken without qualm; surgeons regard it as a pastime, something to keep the hands busy, like knitting or eating salted nuts. But I can remember the day when a man whose brother was undergoing such an ordeal would have been at the hospital himself, probably accompanied by a robed choir and two or three powerful evangelists. When my brother Fairchild had his appendix out, in the early days of anaesthesia and antisepsis, it was customary to refuse water to those recently relieved of their appendices, and the poor fellow was reduced to drinking from the flower vases near his bed. When he left the hospital, he was given his appendix in a jar of alcohol, and after a few months as a mantel ornament this relic was thrown out. Dogs drank the alcohol and cats ate the appendix, and so for a night Fairchild brought joy to the animal world.

  1 His hatred of such holiday preparations gave rise to one of Marchbanks’ most brilliant Thwarted Inventions. Visiting a friend in the U.S.—a gentleman famous for growing rare specimen trees—he learned that one of the arboriculturist’s great problems was to keep the deer who were numerous in the district from devouring his tender seedlings. This he overcame by bringing in tiger’s dung from a nearby zoo and sprinkling it in the plantation; the deer, sensing the presence of a fierce predator and enemy, kept their distance. In a flash Marchbanks conceived the ultimate protection for his household and its treasures; he would secure and sprinkle R.C.M.P. dung (human, not equine) around the Towers, thereby scaring off thieves. But the whole plan was negated by the R.C.M.P. who, though sympathetic in principle, proved to be inexplicably prudish, and utterly refused to co-operate, blushing as red as their famous tunics. Thus, once again, Science was defeated.

  2 During the 1939-45 war we were assured by our Leaders that the struggle was to ensure the Four Freedoms which were also, strangely enough, the Four Doldrums in cheerful guise.



  DESPERATE FOR Christmas gifts I have been driven to giving subscriptions to magazines this year to many of my friends who deserve something better. The tragedy of magazines is that nobody has any time to read them; only those who are condemned to lonely vigils in doctors’ waiting-rooms are able to wade through those pungent comments on world affairs, those brilliant disquisitions on married happiness, those tales of adventure, for which magazine publishers pay so much. But most of us like to have a few magazines coming to the house, if only to proclaim our intellectual status. Thus readers of the New Yorker and the Atlantic curl the lip at those whose living-room tables boast only Life, Time and the Reader’s Digest; and these too are given the sneer of contumely by readers of Horizon and Partisan Review; and all of the foregoing suffer embarrassment in those homes where Country Life, The Tatler and Punch lie beside the chairs, though I cannot quite explain why. So all week I have been tearing those hard little cards out of magazines, and accepting the Special Offer whereby I can give subscriptions at bargain rates. It is a coward’s way out, but what am I to do?


  I HAD A TOOTH filled today. My dentist wears a tasteful white smock with a high collar; I can remember the first dentist whom I visited in my childhood, who wore a morning coat, and worked his drill with a foot pedal. His operating room was as dark as a church, and he had not been trained to stand any nonsense from children; my recollection is that he knelt on my prone form while drilling, and that every now and then he drilled a piece out of my tongue, just to learn me…. In odd corners of the world strange dentists still lurk; an Irish friend of mine told me recently of vi
siting a dentist on the West Coast of Ireland who had no running water, and bade his patients to spit into a potted fern which was conveniently placed by the chair…. The fanciest job of dentistry I ever saw was done on a Welsh farmer; a travelling dentist pulled all his teeth in the kitchen one afternoon, and sold him a false set to be inserted at once. The total service cost just under five dollars. The man was wearing the teeth when I met him, and there was a rugged grandeur about the lower part of his face which suggested the Sabre Tooth Tiger in the Royal Ontario Museum.


  EVERY YEAR, about this time, I take a vacation, as a result of social pressure. I do not really like vacations; I much prefer an occasional day off when I do not feel like working. When I am confronted with a whole week in which I have nothing to do but enjoy myself I do not know where to begin. To me, enjoyment comes fleetingly and unheralded; I cannot determinedly enjoy myself for a whole week at a time. A day’s work when everything goes smoothly, or an evening when I am thoroughly happy and at ease, or an unexpected stroke of luck—these are the things which I enjoy. But when I go after the coy nymph Pleasure with a blunderbuss, determined to make her my mistress for a whole week, she vanishes into her fastnesses, and hurls ordure and makes rude noises at me whenever I approach.


  MY HAY FEVER continues unabated. Several people have told me that I should go to the seaside—useless advice for I have no money for gallivanting. I am toying, however, with a new invention, Marchbanks’ Maritime Mask. It will be a respirator, filled with sea water, and worn over the face and mouth like a dog muzzle; every breath the wearer takes will be filtered through the sea water, and thus he will have all the benefits of the seaside, while living inland.

  As I wept, sneezed and coughed my way through my day’s work, I reflected that the world judges disease by unjust standards. Anyone who has a migraine headache, for instance, receives the keenest sympathy, for his ailment is heroic and—this is important—silent. But a man who has hives is a joke, though hives are desperately painful. Similarly it is heroic to suffer with one’s sinus, but a man who has catarrh, and who, in consequence, hawks, hoots, snorts, roars, gags and spits is thought to be making a great and disgusting fuss about nothing. The healthy can endure invalids only when the latter are quiet and motionless. Let them but cough or scratch, and sympathy flies out of the window.


  WHEN I AWOKE this morning there was a smell of burning in the air, and for a moment I wondered if the northern bush fires had crept up during the night, in the hope of engulfing me and my neighbours. While dressing I wondered what I would do in such an emergency: would I form a firebreak by chopping down the puny hedge of Marchbanks Towers, order my dependants to go and stand waist-deep in the nearest lake, and take up a menacing position on the lawn with a soda syphon; or would I phone the fire department, shrieking, “Save me! Save me!”? Like all men whose work consists of dreaming, word-spinning and prophesying, I like to torture myself with these problems; nothing so entrances a man of words as to imagine himself in a situation in which words are powerless. It is this which keeps him humble. Men of action, I notice, are rarely humble, even in situations where action of any kind is a great mistake, and masterly inaction is called for.


  I SAT ON MY verandah last evening, reading Winston Churchill’s new book, which I do very slowly, because I seem to hear that wonderful phlegmy voice declaiming every word. How many people, I wonder, hear voices as they read? I always do. I read American books with an American accent, and English books with an English accent, and Canadian books in the voice of a friend of mine who speaks the best Canadian I have heard. People have told me that I would be able to read much faster if I gave up this indulgence, and clutched groups of words and whole paragraphs with my greedy eyes, but I pay no attention to them. My method is the one I like, and it is an infallible touchstone for judging a writer’s style. The man who writes only for the eye generally writes badly; the man who writes to be heard will write with some eloquence, some regard for the music of words, and will reach nearer to his reader’s heart and mind. Of course, fools and clods will write like fools and clods, whatever means they use…. No, madam, I do not read the works of foreign writers in broken English.


  I REFRESHED MYSELF today by reading a few chapters of Peck’s Bad Boy,1 a book which delighted my childhood. I wonder if children read it now. Rereading with the eye of bawdy eld supplanting that of dewy innocence, I was astonished to discover what a suggestive work it is. George W. Peck, who wrote it, was a Milwaukee journalist, and he became so popular as a funnyman that he was elected mayor of that city, the first and last time in history that any city ever elected a consciously funny man to be its chief magistrate. He scaled even dizzier heights, however, and was Governor of Wisconsin before he died. Let this be a lesson to our Canadian politicians; wit and politics are not mutually exclusive.


  THE MEDICAL profession had some fun with me this afternoon. They extracted blood from me at various strategic points, and did strange things with such of my by-products as they could obtain. They took pictures of my insides, and put me in a machine which rendered me transparent. They gouged and banged me to see if I would scream, but I remembered that I had once been a Wolf Cub, and kept a stiff upper lip (though why I should have done this when my underlip was trembling like a blancmange in an earthquake I cannot say). But the final injustice came when they decided to weigh me. I craftily left off my coat, hoping thereby to gain a slight advantge, but the doctor who had just used the fluoroscope to see through me saw through me again and ordered me sternly to put it on. This I did, and consequently the weight of two books which I had in my pocket, as well as $2.35 in silver, was entered on the charge-sheet against me. This is the kind of unfairness which drives men to rash acts. However, it will be easy for me to make a good impression next time I visit my doctor, for I shall simply leave my books and money at home, and he will think that I am losing weight.


  YES, THANK YOU, my cold is improving. I went to the movies last night; they always cheer me when I have a cold although I expect that I spread germs in a thoroughly antisocial manner. The film was Anna Karenina, and I liked it greatly. Some girls sitting near me appeared to find it funny. Will any of them, I wonder, ever discover themselves in a situation comparable to that of the heroine? Often I look at women on the streets, or in restaurants, and wonder if anybody has ever loved them to distraction, or if they have ever wrecked a man’s life. Most of them have not done so, of course, but a few must have lived out some passionate story, or will do so before they die. The curious thing, of course, is that it is by no means always the beautiful or attractive ones who have caused these upheavals. Little mousy women, or fat, cow-like women have often inspired ill-fated romances, driving men to suicide or murder, or simply to that living death which is worse than either. Statistical records show that women commit suicide rarely, as compared with men; are they more philosophic, or merely more stupid and unfeeling?


  ALL THIS WEEK I have had a cold. At least, I hope it is a cold. My head feels like a pumpkin, and when I breathe my left lung makes a noise as though a kitten were playing in a basketful of crumpled paper. I dare not go to my doctor, for he will send me to bed, and I want to save my usual Autumn holiday-in-bed for later on, when the weather is not so fine. But the man who occasionally sells me a little benzine with which to clean my clothes diagnosed my case today. “You’ve got muck in your bronikkles,” he said, as I gave an agonizing cough. “There’s only one thing that’ll do you any good and that’s mustard tea. Just get a pint of stout, heat it nearly to the boil, and put a couple of good tablespoons of mustard in it and drink it off quick. That’ll fix you!” I thanked him and went away, thinking t
hat it would fix me indeed, and probably for good. I suppose in the dear dead days beyond recall, when doctors were scarce, thousands of people were killed every year by wholesome home remedies given to them by sadistic old creatures with a taste for experiment.

  I have suffered from extreme stupidity all day, which I attribute to my cold. I would begin a piece of work, and twenty minutes later would recover consciousness to discover that I was staring into space with my mouth open, making a noise like a sleeping bulldog—snuffle, snuffle, glrrk, woof, snuffle. Is this sort of Hypnosis by the Common Cold well known to medical science, or will I get my name into the medical books under some such heading as “Marchbanks Symptom (Hypnogogia Marchbankensis)”? … Very well, madam, if you are not interested, let us talk of something else. Is that all your own hair?


  A YOUNG WOMAN whom I know, who is just learning to read, kindly undertook to read me a story from her schoolbook today. It was one of those pieces about a king who promises his daughter’s hand to any man who can make her laugh. It is this sort of promise which makes me wonder about the psychological make-up of fairy-tale characters; they seem to be ready to marry their daughters to anyone at all, for the most extraordinary reasons. I have never known a Canadian father who would permit a young man to marry his daughter, merely because he could make her laugh. (And I may say in passing that to make a really well brought up Canadian girl laugh is no easy task.) Canadian fathers don’t care whether their sons-in-law are funny or not; all they want to know about is their prospects and how much money they have in the bank, and whether they drink. In fact, I have received the impression that Canadian fathers prefer sons-in-law who do not laugh. No doubt this attitude explains why Canada has no body of native fairy-tales. Many a Canadian father might justly say: “If you can get a laugh out of this sourpuss, you can have her.” But he doesn’t.