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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 53

Robertson Davies


  I SEE BY THE PAPER that Rhythmic Arithmetic has been abandoned in the schools. I never understood what it was, though much time was wasted by adult educators explaining it to me, and I never met a child who could explain it. But I have long recognized that I have no mathematical facility whatever. Plato, who was a brainy fellow, said that “innocent, light-minded men who know no mathematics will become birds after death”; I rather look forward to being a bird, and taking a bird’s revenge on all my enemies. Plato also thought that men who had no philosophy would become animals after death; really stupid people would continue their existence as fish; “cowardly and unrighteous men,” he asserted, would find that in the next world they had been turned into women. Plato had a poor opinion of women, which would make life difficult for him if he were born again in this century;52 he also thought little of the professional educators of his day, an attitude which would make it utterly impossible for him to get a certificate to teach in a one-room country school in Twentieth-Century Canada.


  WAS TALKING TO a musical person who informed me that a celebrated pianist would “concertize” in Toronto next month. This remark nearly caused me to swallow my pipe, for though I have seen the vile word “concertize” in print for several years this was the first time I had ever heard anyone use it in conversation. I was taken aback as if my hostess had said, “Won’t you climax your meal with another cup of coffee?” Such words fill me with an urge to seize the person who uses them in a commando grip and twist him (more often the offender is a she) until I have broken every bone. Then their broken-boned walking would be appropriate to their broken-boned speech. O Mighty Music! Did David concertize before Saul, or Bach before Frederick the Great? Did Beethoven concertize? (In the time, of course, when they were not composerizing.) No, apes and dung-beetles, they PLAYED!


  TO A CONCERT given by a group of choir boys from Vienna. It was an admirable evening’s entertainment, which was more than I had expected for I am not an enthusiastic admirer of the Human Boy. In my reckoning boys range from Good Boys—that is, boys who can pass the Towers without upsetting garbage cans and throwing rubbish on the lawn—to the lowest dregs of humanity, depraved slubberdegullions who do the above things, and worse. But these Viennese boys were quite unusual in several respects: they were clean; they were well-behaved; their hair was brushed; they looked as though they might be trusted with whole rows of garbage cans…. This was the first time I have ever heard choir boys who were not trained in the English tradition of fruity hooting; an English choir boy sounds like a lovesick owl, and although it is a pretty sound it moves me to a gentle melancholy—a kind of Sunday-night-and-another-week’s-work-starts-tomorrow feeling…. Sometimes people say to me: Were you never a boy yourself, Mr. Marchbanks? Answer: Yes, for several years I was a noble, dutiful, clean, respectful Super-Boy.


  (dropped at my door by an escaped prisoner)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  You got any old magazines, Marchbanks? Magazines in jail awful. Sent here after long hard life in dentist office. All girl pictures got bustles. Educated fellow in jail read story out loud other day. Good story about detective. Name Sherlock Holmes. Magazine say this first story about him ever. But last page gone. Doctor leave magazine bundle here yesterday. Magazine all about how have babies. We know that already. Anyway that squaw work. You got magazines tell us what we don’t know?

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.


  I WAS LOOKING at some records today, belonging to a friend who collects oddities for the gramophone, and was interested in a series called Immortal Voices and History Making Events. It was an odd jumble, but I found a record of Sarah Bernhardt reciting a Prayer for Our Enemies, and put it on. Amid the rustling and scratching inseparable from old recordings there was barely audible a passionate, female voice, speaking—or to be exact, howling—in French. In the descriptive note which went with the thing Sarah Bernhardt was described as “a great lady of the American stage,” and thus France was robbed of one of its glories. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. between them are dividing not only the earth, but the past thereof.

  • ORGY •

  TO A MOVIE called Faust and the Devil, made in Italy, which I enjoyed greatly, and particularly an Orgy scene, where Faust made genteel and ineffective plays for several girls in filmy frocks. The Devil, meanwhile, sat at a table loaded with goodies, but ate nothing save a few grapes. Watching his weight, I suppose. Have not seen an Orgy in a movie since the days of the silent film; they often had Orgies, and they always took the form of a light meal, eaten in the company of jolly girls in peek-a-boo nighties. I have never been at an Orgy, though I suppose my garbage this morning filled the neighbourhood with dark suspicion.


  TO OTTAWA TO ATTEND a performance of a play by my old friend Apollo Fishorn, the Canadian playwright. Fishorn got on the train at Smith’s Falls, with a live hen in a net, and a basket of fresh eggs, which he said he was taking to the actors, who appreciate these little comforts from the farm. He also had a carpetbag with a bad catch, which kept falling open and revealing the sorriest pair of pyjamas I have ever seen…. I liked the play, but joining a party of knowledgeable persons in the lobby at one of the intervals, I learned that there was too much talk in it, and not enough action. Now this puzzles me. There are only a very few kinds of action which can be shown on the stage. Love is a great theme of playwrights, but if they try to develop it as action rather than as talk, the censor cracks down.53 Murder is good, but if you murder more than one person an act, people think you are trying to be Shakespeare, and complain. I mentioned this criticism to Fishorn, and he sighed, and said: “Yes, but life is 99 per cent talk. Look at the people who want more action in my play; what are they doing? Talking! What are you doing? Talking!” And sure enough when I caught sight of myself in a mirror, he was right.


  FOR YEARS PEOPLE have belaboured me about what they consider to be my disrelish for dogs; not only do they love dogs—I must love them too. But recently a philosopher friend (well, as much a friend as any real philosopher ever permits himself to be, for fear of accidents) took up the fight. “Dogs relate us to the chthonic realm,” said he, “and without some measure of chthonicity you are an imperfect human being.” He thought to bamboozle me with his fancy Greek word, but I already knew it, and what is more, I pronounce the initial “ch” which is more than he could do because he always has catarrh. It just means “of the lower world,” and the lower world is much in fashion these days. But I know dogs. They are aware that they belong to a lower world, and are trying to improve themselves by begging upper-world food, lolling in upper-world chairs, and snuffling wetly at upper-world ankles (from which they proceed upward until outraged modesty demands that I give them a kick in the slats). Dogs are trying to take over, and I know it. Not that a dogocracy could be much worse than what we have now.


  SINCE CHILDHOOD’S happy hour I have been the possessor of a particularly loud sneeze. It is not the loudest in the world; an Irishman I have known for many years has a super-sneeze which he heralds with a plaintive cry, somewhat like that of an epileptic just before a seizure, and beside him I am but a child in sternutation.54 But I am a pretty good sneezer, and kindly people say “God bless you” in awed voices, after they have crawled from under the tables where they have taken shelter. This custom of blessing a sneezer is said to have originated with Saint Gregory the Great, though the Romans said “Absit Omen,” which is as near as a Roman ever got to blessing anybody. My Jewish friends, of course, say “Gesundheit” and one of them explained to me that it is an old Jewish belief, traceable to the Cabbala, that when a man sneezes his soul flies out of his mouth for an instant (pr
esumably on an elastic) and in that fateful twinkling a demon may rush into his body, cut the elastic, and take charge. I know a good many people whose general hatefulness, contrariety and all-round objectionableness may well be the result of a sneeze during which the blessing was forgotten.


  Dear Mr. Noseigh:

  No no; I am not in the least offended by your letter asking about my sex life. I fully realize that no study of an author, living or dead, is of any value without this sort of saucy exploration. And my disenchantment has undoubtedly had more effect on literature than anything since Henry James had his mysterious misadventure.55

  Like every Canadian of my generation, I picked up my knowledge of Sex in the gutter. I well remember the day I did so. There it was, a torn scrap of print, fluttering on the very edge of a manhole. I picked it up, and studied it with care. So far as I could make out, much of it was in foreign languages—squiggly scripts that meant nothing to me; but there was a little left of the English section, and from it I discerned that headaches, a furred tongue, and occasional spots before the eyes were signs of—the fragment was torn at that point, but it was obviously Sex.

  From that time forward I made discreet enquiries of every attractive girl I met about her headaches; they never had any. Once I reached a point of intimacy where I was able to ask a marvellous girl to show me her tongue; it was as clean as could be, so obviously I had been misled about her feelings for me, and broke off the affair with a heavy heart.

  Years later I discovered that what I had found in the gutter was part of the literature that comes wrapped around bottles of Eno’s Fruit Salts.

  Such are the tragedies that maim the lives of millions.

  Yours in total disillusion,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Fribble:

  During the last few days I have received a horrifying number of invitations and supplications from people who want me to join or support something new. They all appear to want to create something which has never been known on earth before. But not me. I am sick of novelties—or what pass for novelties among easily satisfied people. And for that reason I am organizing a one-man Society for the Resurrection and Preservation of Words which Have Been Permitted to Lapse into Unmerited Disuse. Let’s deal with something old, for a change.

  There are many such words, and from time to time I may issue bulletins about them. But for the time being these will do:

  (1) HUZZA: an excellent word which has been dropped in favour of “hurrah.” But huzza has a nice, genteel air about it; it expresses enthusiasm, but not too much. It is the ideal word to use when, for instance, somebody suggests that you go for a good long tramp in the country, just as you have settled down for a nap in your chair. It is a good word to shout, in a well-controlled voice, when unpopular officials pass you in a procession. My typewriter ribbon has just broken, and luckily I have another, which I shall have to put in the machine myself, getting my hands dirty and abrading my temper. Huzza!

  (2) HOSANNA: another useful word of praise, expressing goodwill without overdoing it. It has hardly been used in ordinary speech since the following dirty limerick was current, around 1905:

  There was a young maiden named Anna

  Who sang as a High Church soprana;

  When she fell in the aisle

  The Dean said with a smile,

  “We have heard, now we see, your hosanna!”

  (3) HEYDAY: the dictionary calls this “an exclamation of gaiety or surprise.” Yes, but not of ecstatic gaiety or complete surprise. This seems to me to be just the word to use when unwrapping a gift of handkerchiefs, which has been presented to you by somebody who always give you handkerchiefs.

  Words for the expression of limited emotion are not common in our language. The three I have listed above should not be allowed to die, and so far as I am concerned, they shan’t.


  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  It is with a heavy heart, Mr. Marchbanks, sir, that I write to tell you that your lawsuit against Richard Dandiprat finally came to court on Tuesday last, and that you have lost it. It was a most unhappy chance that brought a case of such delicacy to the attention of the judge the day after his birthday. His Honour had obviously been keeping the festival in the great tradition, and as soon as he took his place on the bench it was plain that his mind was occupied with old, unhappy, far-off things. Our Mr. Cicero Forcemeat was also somewhat indisposed, having been called to the bar repeatedly the day before; the lustre of his eloquence was, shall we say, dimmed. Dandiprat’s lawyers, Craven and Raven, were in like case, and the court presented an hapless picture. Nobody could hear anybody else; everybody was drinking bromoseltzer; the janitor had neglected to turn on the heat. The trial occupied precisely seven and one-half minutes. The judge was annoyed that you were not present, and has fined you $100 for contempt of court.56 This, with the costs of the suit, will amount to a rather larger figure than you have probably anticipated. But without the Unforeseen, Mr. Marchbanks, life would be intolerable and the law would be an exact science, instead of the tantalizing jade that she is.

  A complete statement is enclosed, and prompt payment will be appreciated by

  Your most faithful,

  Mordecai Mouseman,

  (for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


  Well, Sammy Old Pal:

  The trial is now over, and no hard feelings, eh? All good pals as before. Drop in any time, and bring your own bottle with you. Like I say to the Little Woman—“No use getting mad at Marchbanks; it takes all kinds to make a world; so let’s be big about this thing, Goo-Ball, and forgive him for all the hard things he has thought about us; after all, like the fellow says, he’s probably an eight-ulcer man in a four-ulcer job.”

  By the way, one day when you were out I borrowed your wheelbarrow, and it just came apart in my hands. You can have the pieces back any time, but you’d be better off to get a new one.

  All the best for neighbourly relations,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  Dear Mr. Noseigh:

  Your last question is a humdinger. “When did you first decide to be a humorist; who were your chief humorous influences; how do you define humour?”—you ask, just like that.

  I never decided to be a humorist; if I am one, I was born one, but I have never really given the matter much thought. I was once given a medal for humour, but it makes me nervous; I have tried to lose it, but I am too superstitious to throw it away. Men who bother their heads too much about being something particular—a Humorist, or a Philosopher, or a Social Being, or a Scientist, or a Humanist, or whatever—quickly cease to be men and become animated attitudes.

  I suppose some of the humorists I have read have influenced me, because I think of them with affection, but never as people to be copied. I have read others, greatly praised as funny-men, who simply disgusted me. If I had to name a favourite, I suppose it would have to be François Rabelais, but I do not give him my whole heart; he had a golden touch with giants and pedants, but he thought ignobly of women.

  Don’t you know what humour is? Universities re-define wit and satire every few years; surely it is time they nailed down humour for us? I don’t know what it is, though I suspect that it is an attribute of everything, and the substance of nothing, so if I had to define a sense of humour I would say it lay in the perception of shadows.

  Sorry to be so disappointing,

  Samuel Marchbanks.



  So you are astonished that a man of my apparent good sense should believe in Astrology, are you? My good woman, if you knew more of my history, you would be astonished that my good sense is still apparent.

  You have heard of th
e Wandering Jew, who roams the earth till Judgement Day? I am his cousin, the Wandering Celt, and my branch of the family is the elder. Therefore I have a had good deal of experience in belief.

  In my early days I was invited by learned men to believe in the Triple Goddess, and a very good goddess she was. But when I was Christianized I was commanded to believe in a Trinity that was also a Unity, and a goddess who looked and behaved remarkably like my Triple Goddess, though I was assured she was somebody much more up-to-date and important. Then a man named Calvin demanded that I believe in Strength through Misery, and I did till a man named Wesley told me to believe in Personal Revelation and Ecstasy, and I did. During a brief spell in New England Emerson told me to believe in a Unity that had nothing to do with a Trinity, and was itself of doubtful existence, and I did. But then I was told by people calling themselves scientists to believe in Phrenology, Animal Magnetism, the Germ Theory, Psycho-Analysis, Sociology, Relativity, Atomic Energy, Space Travel, God-is-Dead, Quasars, Spiral Time and so many new faiths that I could not keep up with them, though I tried.

  Until I wearied and went back to the Triple Goddess, with Astrology thrown in for fun.

  Because as a Celt, you see, I am at once credulous of everything and sceptical of everything, and not a whole-hogger, who rushes from the Mother of God to Mary Baker Eddy, and from her to LSD, expecting some revelation that will settle everything. I don’t want everything settled. I enjoy the mess.