Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels is a witty, though ultimately muddled, philosophical novel which attempts to explore the nature and meaning of history, our story, the passing on of understanding and knowledge through generations, the development of religious sensibilities, the nature of good and evil. As you would expect from Davies, it is character rich and full of humorous set pieces. It also contains some longeurs and, in the end, doesn’t wholly convince.

Gnosticism sits at the heart of the novel although it is not, ultimately, a gnostic text. The rebel angels of the title are two middle-aged academics at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, a small college in a Canadian university. The rebel angels of gnostic theology after which they are named, come from a gnostic apocrypha. Maria, the central character in the novel, explains:

They were real angels, Samahazai and Azazel, and they betrayed the secrets of Heaven to King Solomon, and God threw them out of Heaven. There weren’t soreheaded egoists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene – taught everything...
This begins to tell us many of the central thematic concerns of the novel. We are exploring knowledge, plus the duality of good and bad and the relationship between mundane man and transcendental truth, whatever form that may take.

There are two narrators in the novel, with a slight disjunction in time between their narrative strands. The first is one of the rebel angels, Simon Darcourt, a college pastor, a good and honest man and someone apparently comfortable in his role as bachelor for life until he falls under the spell of the second narrator, Maria Magdalena Theotoky. She is a PhD candidate wrestling with the duality of her highly rationalist, evidence-based academic career and her gypsy family history, with its traditional gypsy appeal to ancient knowledge and traditions and ways of thinking. As we shall see, this dualism is a thread that runs through the novel. Maria’s tutor is Professor Clement Hollier, who is described as a paleopsychologist. This is defined as someone who investigates past ways of thinking, and so once again we are returned to the duality of modern rationalist thought and earlier, faith-based (in the broadest sense) beliefs. Hollier, too, is smitten by Maria and, indeed, on one occasion they consummated their desires on his couch. Much to Maria’s frustrations, Hollier never mentions this episode again, nor is it repeated. Hollier is the second of the rebel angels and another force for good.

Ranged against these angels of light are the forces of dark, in the shape of the two sources of negative energy in the novel, the “evil” monk Parlabane and the devious Renaissance scholar Urquhart McVarish. Together, this quintet form the principal characters in the novel, along with two members of the Cornish clan after whom the trilogy of which The Rebel Angels forms the first part is named. Francis Cornish is a recently deceased academic, whose exceptional and highly valuable estate is being overseen by trustees McVarish, Hollier and Darcourt. His nephew Arthur Cornish brings some much-needed business acumen to the proceedings. The McGuffin around which Davies builds his plot is an item of Cornish’s estate which both Hollier and McVarish recognise to be unique and priceless – letters by Francois Rabelais to Paracelsus which indicate his involvement in aspects of cabala – a Jewish mystic sect with similarities to gnosticism. This is stolen by McVarish, leaving a distraught Hollier, whose special area of literary expertise this is, and who wants the documents to provide the backbone for the PhD of his star student, feeling murderously inclined.

But plot, although it is rich and diverse and humorous enough, is secondary in this novel. Rather, it is a philosophical exploration of ideas. I have referred to duality more than once in this review and that is intentional, because the novel is a study in dualism. Gnosticism, of course, was a radically dualist religion, in that it opposed equal forces of good and bad. Gnostic theology, then, saw a dualism of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, mundane and transcendent, good and evil. And this is what we see throughout this novel, with the rebel angels ranged against the bad angels in a fight for ascendancy

We see it also in Maria. Even her name gives a sense of dualism: Mary is the Christian mother of Christ, while Theotoky, from the Greek, is a gypsy name which means bringer of Christ. Meanwhile Darcourt, one of the rebel angels, calls Maria his “Sophia”: in gnostic theology, Sophia, the bringer of wisdom, was paired alongside Christ in the succession of divine beings beneath God.

But the dualism portrayed in the novel is not merely gnostic. Rather, it moves beyond purely theological grounds into a more Jungian analysis of the nature of myth and history. In this, it becomes much more interesting. Thus, as we have already discussed, Maria battles her genes and her education, superstition and progress, lore and learning. This then becomes a key dualistic battleground in the novel. Hollier, the professor who investigates the thoughts of previous generations, explains:

“We tend to think human knowledge as progressive; because we know more and more, our parents and grandparents are back numbers. But a contrary theory is possible - that we simply recognize different things at different times and in different ways.”
This, of course, is very Jungian, suggestive of our collective unconscious. It recalls ancient thought systems such as the Aboriginal dreamtime, an innate knowledge that is buried deep inside us like the gnostic pneuma or divine spark. There is no doubt that, through the millennia, knowledge that might be of use to us today has been lost, while in many cases the sources of our understanding of aspects of the world have long since disappeared. Jung is often thought of as gnostic, unsurprisingly since he wrote on the subject so positively, but he was not: while, ontologically, he might have accepted a dualism of mind and matter, in terms of theology he was surely a monist. As such, he would have been greatly at home with the rebel angels of this novel, dancing as they do to the beat of a dualist battle of wills, overseen by the biggest rebel angel of them all.

The Rebel Angels is a lot of fun. It is far from a great novel. Maria’s mother, the larger-than-life gypsy mother-from-hell slides into caricature. All of the characters (even, ridiculously, the said mother-from-hell) speak with identical voices. There are long passages of didactic theorising and slice-of-life glimpses into academia which may amuse those who are in academia but leave cold those of us who aren’t. But overall the novel rises above these inconveniences. Simply, it is too much fun to be po-faced about. As the first of a trilogy, it certainly makes me want to read the rest. I already have the second on order from Amazon...

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