Acerbic appeals to authority

The Merry Heart
March 27, 1998

Near the end of this posthumous volume of lectures, speeches and articles mainly on literary topics, Robertson Davies offers an alarm-ing description of critics: they tend, in his view, to be "crotch-bound, frightened people who fear that if they abandon themselves to the Dionysian excess of a great artist they may never again be able to retreat to their cosy nests". Davies would not have pretended that these occasional pieces show him operating at such a pitch of Dionysian power. Even so, his prospective reviewer winces.

Davies's periodic aggression here towards critics occurs as he insists on his sense of the irreducible strangeness and mystery of literature. He argues repeatedly that academic forms of attention have had a disastrously limiting effect on perceptions of the literary text. Thus Davies develops, in opposition, the persona of the resilient generalist, the well-equipped amateur. There is, however, little about this collection that feels embattled. Against the small minds occupying English departments, Davies confidently sets not only his long, distinguished career as a writer of fiction, but also the weight of a truly daunting - if rather traditional - range of literary reading.

The professional critic might usefully be driven to a new self-consciousness by moments in The Merry Heart. Davies is acute at times about the bureaucratic domestication of texts. He also nags away provocatively at the issue of whether there is an intransigent difficulty in literature that disqualifies it as an object of democratic study. Yet in the end it is impossible to imagine any discursive ground that might be held in common by his belles-lettres, on the one hand, and the academic discipline of English on the other. Partly this is a matter of Davies's prevailing tone: he is interested less in conversation than in dogmatic reiteration of his perspectives. More seriously, however, Davies's approach will fail to convince professional critics because it is unable to generate sufficiently interesting and varied readings of the texts that it considers. In short, the book suffers from precisely that interpretative sameness and reductionism which it is eager to diagnose in institutional literary criticism.

Where English study now is firmly secular in its orientations, Davies seeks to defend a religious, ahistorical account of literature. He comes close to historicism only in an attractive address on A Christmas Carol, which reads Dickens's text in the light of popular Victorian theatrical forms.

Otherwise, in chapter after chapter, Davies values literature for its putatively timeless qualities: for its validation of a number of biblical sayings, for its confirmation of archetypes, its evocations of the Jungian "collective unconscious". Indeed, the volume's consistent choosing of Jung over Freud is one symptom of its resort to rather vaporous generalisation in preference to a rigorously materialist form of analysis. Davies acknowledges, in fleeting moments, that his preferred terminology may now raise difficulties. He notes, for example, that "soul" is "one of the four-letter words that even the people who write dirty words in spray paint on walls hesitate to use".

Yet the problem may lie less with the determinate status that Davies gives to religion, than with his somewhat untheorised, unadapted sense of what the religious is now. While continuing to insist on the reality of soul, spirit, God, and the devil, he does not acknowledge the degree to which his preferred metaphysical language has itself been open to influences from that very post-structuralism, indeed, from theory as such, which he would like to banish from literary criticism.

Readers of Davies's fiction will treat this volume as a convenient supplement. He throws out many hints to the thesis-pursuing student, such as describing his work in terms of Mannerist painting. There is, however, in these pieces a lack of properly essayistic exploration and surprise: they tend to foreclose on difficulty by repeating the same clinching observations by Browning, Nabokov, and others invested with authority on literary art.

Curiously, given that so many chapters began as public addresses, they also appear rather disembodied. The success of the several autobiographical fragments here is thus precisely because they show the entanglement of thought with concrete circumstance. In Davies's fiction, this complex struggle between body and soul, between secular motivation and other-worldliness, is of course generated by settings such as the university campus. He is acknowledging such interfusion when he writes in The Merry Heart that "truth is cloaked in the muddy vesture of everyday life". The sadness of the collection, however, is that, unlike the novels, it feels airy to the detriment of earthiness.

Andrew Dix is temporary part-time lecturer in English, University of Loughborough.

The Merry Heart

Author - Robertson Davies
ISBN - 0 670 87366 7
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 385

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