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Tuesday 1 April 2014

Robertson Davies: A Psychological Education

**This marks the 200th post on this blog. When I started it I wondered if I would get past 10, or whether it would become one of those blogs with 2 or 3 posts followed by years of nothing. I'm working on other writing projects at the moment and so the pace has slowed a bit, but I'll keep this up for the foreseeable future. Questions and suggestions for topics are very welcome.**

Not long ago I wrote a post on ways for budding clinicians to increase their range, apart from reading psychological texts. I recommended travel as a strategy to develop perspective on the “truths” we learn as a result of being raised within a particular culture.

Reading fiction can be another strategy. At minimum, fiction reveals the inside of the novelist’s mind. If they’re any good, it can also reveal something about people in general.

One of my favorites for the past 30 years has been Robertson Davies, the deeply-Ontario author of many acclaimed books, including the Debtford and Cornish trilogies. Davies isn’t everyone’s taste. Some people find him a bit ostentatious. But he specialized in stories of human development, often starting before the birth of his central characters and working his way through to their old age, showing how their upbringing and experiences shaped who they became.

World of Wonders is probably my favourite of his books, beating by a nose Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone.

A friend recently gave me a copy of The Quotable Robertson Davies (2005, McClelland & Stewart), James Canning Shaw’s compilation of some of Davies’ most concise observations, and it reminded me why I wound up reading virtually everything Davies ever published.

Here are a few samples:

Myth explains much that is otherwise inexplicable, just because myth is a boiling down of universal experience. World of Wonders

Happiness. It is a catlike emotion; if you try to coax it, happiness will avoid you, but if you pay no attention to it, it will rub against your legs and spring unbidden into your lap. One Half of Robertson Davies

What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face; and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you – that impatient, all demanding child who wants love and power and can’t get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit until at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say “Doesn’t he look peaceful?” The Rebel Angels

The more complex our civilization becomes, the less fun there is in it and the more work there is to do. The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

I know what a heavy burden everybody carries of the unconfessed, which sometimes appears to be the unspeakable. Very often such stuff is not disgraceful or criminal; it is merely a sense of not having behaved well or having done something one knew to be contrary to someone else’s good; of having snatched when one should have waited decently; of having turned a sharp corner when someone else was thereby left in a difficult situation; of having talked of the first-rate when one was planning to the second-rate; of having fallen below whatever standards one had set oneself. The Manticore

A heart is never really stout until it has broken and mended at least once. What’s Bred in the Bone

The “unlived” life…: It is very often the life that has been put aside in order to serve the demands of a career, or an idea of one’s place in the world, or simply to serve one’s own comfort and egotism. Very often it is love that is sacrificed in this way, but it may also be adventure, or a concern with the arts, or friendship, or simply a greater freedom of action: these unlived elements revenge themselves and sometimes they do it with compounded interest. One Half of Robertson Davies

Education is a great shield against experience. It offers so much, ready-made and all from the best shops, that there’s a temptation to miss your own life in pursuing the lives of your betters. It makes you wise in some ways, but it can make you a blindfolded fool in others. World of Wonders

The plain fact is that most Canadians dislike and mistrust any great show of cheerfulness. The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

How much more complicated life is than the attainment of a Ph.D. would lead one to believe!  The Rebel Angels

And ...

This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good night. The Cunning Man