Saturday, January 27, 2007

Over the Abbey Wall II: Review of The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

Grade: A

You have to love those Renaissance-era scholars. I mean they were just so cute. They had all the brains, but (saving Aristotle and his buds, a Roman or two, and a double handful of carefully ignored Arab luminaries) a shortage of giants with big shoulders--so much of the arrogance they had, but so little of the being right about stuff. So the unfortunate (or comical, depending on your disposition) aspect of all that scientific awakening was that real empirical theory had to go through its requisite hocus-pocus phase. You couldn't keep the alchemy, the Hermeticism, the astrology--and certainly not the accepted mystical dogma of the Roman Catholic Church--out of the more legitimate scientific pursuits. You may want to ask a real historian, but there can be no coincidence that the reformers started to take swipes at the pope's miter at roughly the same time that the scientists began to challenge the sacred natural assumptions. The two centuries or so that separated the original Doctor Mirablis (1214-1294) from the loopy Doctor von Hohenheim (1493-1553) seem a hell of a lot shorter than the one century that separated the latter from Newton and Pascal. (Even the scant decade between Paracelsus' death and Galileo's bawling entry into the world seems like it must have held a metric eternity tucked away in it.)

(And hey, wouldn't it be fun to see Roger Bacon battle Paracelsus in a rasslin' style steel cage match? Or, say, Rabelais take on Thomas More? Unfortunately, MTV stopped answering my letters in 1988 or so.)

Davies takes a fun stab at academia in The Rebel Angels. It's set, according to the book jacket, in a modern University, but his characters are medieval and Renassaince scholars mostly, and share much of their personalities with their antiquated research subjects. The professors are secluded, romantically stunted, bookish, collegial types with well-defined relations to the holy church (Anglican of course, we're talking Canada). One is even a degenerate, renegade monk. Even the science professors are shown pursuing ridiculous antique theories on body shape and bathroom habits, and theorizing about determinism of character. Davies presents the sort of academy that Rabelais envisioned, a utopia infested with amusing and obscene crackpots. (Davies even offers a running lowbrow theme of scatology, to which he manages to give an intellectual gloss, succeeding at the impossible task of turd-polishing). I wish I could tell you whether Davies does Rabelais credit in this modern reimagining, but as usual, I'm under-read on the primary sources. I will tell you that he does a hell of a job in his own right.

Which isn't surprising. Robertson Davies is just a hell of a writer. He crams in observation and philosophical detail to beat some of the windier geniuses I've reviewed (Mark Helprin, say, or Don DeLillo), but damn, he does it with lean prose and laser-precise (though not always laser-accurate) observations. The characterization is deeply detailed, and as a bonus, in The Rebel Angels, compared to some of the other Davies books I've read, I actually liked these people. And it's fun. Davies reads like he was having a blast as he wrote this, and it comes through in the reading.

I've a few nitpicks, of course. Davies doesn't fail to include a conspicuous Canadian-ness to this novel (a distinction which seems such a Canadian thing to stress).* He also has an unforgivable penchant for trilogies, but in this case I may break my proscription against reading the same author twice in a row. My more serious complaint is that the novel doesn't map very well to my own time in the academy. Davies takes a rather conservative definition of the liberal arts in this book, relegating by action (if not design) engineering and the physical sciences to the realm of lesser trades. (One of his best scenes is a faculty dinner, and he succeeds at being esoteric and irreverent, but I so wanted the computer scientist or the astronomer to pipe up and do something respectable.) I didn't spend a lot of time with those grad students, but I strongly suspect that their bosses had no more opportunity to occupy rarefied realms of pure thought than did the science and engineering advisors, and similarly had to divert a lot of research ideas to their students for tutelage and to also harvest the work of their busy young brains and hands. And any discipline that requires funding can only afford to be so removed from conferences, and marketing, and demonstrating some value of the effort. (Though arrogant liberal arts types have told me differently--I've got a small chip on my shoulder, it appears.) I only hope that Davies' parodies of classicists and historians are as biting as his parody of a biologist, but frankly, he seems to love those former types of people a lot more.

Keifus (If I were projecting Renaissance kooks to the modern era, I'd have gone more with the alchemy)

* Don't get me wrong, I love Canadians. They're like Minnesotans with diction, or Mainers with teeth (and diction). I've yet to meet a Canadian man who couldn't out-fight, out-skate, and out-drink me, and never seen a population of males who can wear mustaches with such comfortable ease. Canadian women are real women, their clipped accents are indescribably cute, they're lean and strong, with not one of 'em a useless dainty effete. I only wish I was ever man enough to fight any of their brothers. (Plus their govt isn't the same brand of authoritarian jingo-slinging imperialists as mine, and they've got a health care system that sorta works.)

(I still lost half my readers, didn't I?)

Genre: ,


sydbristow said...

I haven't read any Davies (though I've tried!). Now DeLillo, I like a lot (and followed back to read your Underworld review). A quick story on that book: I read it twice, back to back! First time took a couple of months, and I realized at the end that I missed something -- one of the links regarding the baseball (i.e. how it got from person n to person n+1). So second time I read it I kept a relationship diagram (think Prez in the Wire) .. like for a few months after that second reading I was probably *the* Underworld expert, nothing I didn't know. (For all the good it did me ...)

Keifus said...

I liked this one better than some of his other books. Davies seems to suffer from unlikable character syndrome often enough. And this time he's a good deal more humorous than I remember (unless I missed it before).

I wanted to like Underworld more, but I found I had a hard time picking it up every time I put it down. Seemed like too much for not enough if you know what I mean. (But I liked it well enough taht I'd give DeLillo another shot at a more constrained length...)

You should have taken that knowledge to the internet dude.


[I'm holding my breath here, waiting for someone to call me on my idiot's view of the Renaissance up above.]

Thy Goddess said...

Calling you on your idiot's view of the Renaissance up above.

But damn, I really enjoyed it.

Yours, very truly...a useless dainty effete.

Keifus said...

Yeah, I was waiting for someone to lambast me about my Canada-baiting too.

K (insert emoticon here)