Wit Wisdom

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was born on this day in 1913. Davies’s Fifth Business, ranked No. 40 on the Modern Library reader’s list of the century’s top 100 novels, is set in the sort of small Ontario town in which the author grew up. Davies said in interviews that the novel was autobiographical, though “rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield — a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much rearranged — a spiritual autobiography in fact, and not a sweating account of the first time I backed a girl into a corner.”

Spiritual life, or its antagonists, was a recurring concern for Davies. In his essays and speeches, the context was sometimes national: “I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.” In Fifth Business, the hero’s wandering’s take him to a shrine in Mexico, where he observes the difference between the “squinnying, lip-biting, calculating faces of the art lovers” who gather at such places and the faces of the peasant believers who come to kneel and pray:

These petitioners had no conception of art; to them a picture was a symbol of something else, and very readily the symbol became the reality. They were untouched by modern education, but their government was striving with might and main to procure this inestimable benefit for them; anticlericalism and American bustle would soon free them from belief in miracles and holy likenesses. But where, I ask myself, will mercy and divine compassion come from then? Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we shall have to pay for it, and in what coin.

But the wondering is never over-earnest, as cautioned by the town philosopher of Tempest-Tost,the first of Davies’s dozen novels:

“I am full of holy joy and free booze,” said Cobbler. “I feel moved to sing. It is very wrong to resist an impulse to sing; to hold back a natural evacuation of joy is as injurious as to hold back any other natural issue. It makes a man spiritually costive, and plugs him up with hard, caked, thwarted merriment. This, in the course of time, poisons his whole system and is likely to turn him into that most detestable of beings, a Dry Wit. God grant that I may never be a Dry Wit. Let me ever be a Wet Wit! Let me pour forth what mirth I have until I am utterly empty — a Nit Wit.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.