July 2, 2018

1. Fifth Business

I read Fifth Business, a novel by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies. When it was published in 1970, Fifth Business was very popular; bookstores couldn’t keep it on the shelf. It’s often called Davies’ best novel. It’s the first novel in Davies’ Deptford Trilogy; in the 1950s, Davies published The Salterton Trilogy, and in the 1980s, he published The Cornish Trilogy. In addition to novels, Davies wrote plays and essays.

Davies is a great storyteller and a deep thinker. There’s never a dull moment in Fifth Business, the prose is highly readable, and the plot keeps your attention until the last page. On the debit side of the ledger, Davies has the faults of many modern writers: he often descends to the vulgar and sordid, his prose is clear but rarely arresting or moving, he’s content to entertain and doesn’t aspire toward the great or the noble. When the narrator of Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay, writes a book, he describes it in words that could be applied to Fifth Business itself:

It was full of romance and marvels, with a quiet but sufficient undertone of eroticism and sadism, and it sold like hot-cakes.... It was a lively piece of work, and all I regretted was that I had not made a harder bargain for my share of the profit.

In an earlier issue, I noted that older writers like Agatha Christie (born 1890) have a certain dignity and courtesy. Younger writers, including Davies (born 1913), take the low road to popularity. There are many examples of this in Fifth Business, such as the passage in which Boy Staunton is explaining to Dunstan why Dunstan can be a teacher but not a Headmaster:

Don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows — great wild things like moustaches, I don’t know why you don’t trim them — and those terrible Harris tweed suits you wear and never have pressed. And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess.1

But while Davies is too fond of the low road, one canít deny that Fifth Business is filled with shrewd psychological insights. On the very first page, the young Dunstan is sledding with another youngster, Percy Boyd Staunton. He describes Percy as his “lifelong friend and enemy.” I immediately thought of my own boyhood friends, who were friends one day, enemies the next. Even among adults, relationships change over time, and today’s friend can be tomorrow’s enemy.2

Davies says that childhood traits recur later in life:

I have never thought that traits that are strong in childhood disappear; they may go underground or they may be transmuted into something else, but they do not vanish; very often they make a vigorous appearance after the meridian of life has been passed. It is this, and not senility, that is the real second childhood.

Davies remarks on the complex, multi-faceted nature of man. When Dunstan is in the army, he reads the Bible and also entertains his comrades with dirty jokes. His comrades

could hardly conceive that anybody who read the Testament could be other than a Holy Joe — could have another, seemingly completely opposite side to his character. I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.

In earlier issues, I quoted Nietzsche’s remark, “The ultimate art is the art of self-love.” Dunstan has a friend named Liesl, who criticizes him for being too altruistic: “You are a decent chap to everybody, except one special somebody, and that is Dunstan Ramsay. How can you be really good to anybody if you are not good to yourself?”

Davies admired Jung, and he incorporates Jungian ideas into his fiction. He says, for example, that “Religion and Arabian Nights were true in the same way.... They were both psychologically rather than literally true... Psychological truth was really as important in its own way as historical verification.” Davies uses Jungian terms like mysterium coniunctionis [synthesis of opposites]: “In a movement that reached its climax in 1924,” Davies writes, “the Presbyterians and Methodists had consummated a mysterium coniunctionis that resulted in the United Church of Canada.” Davies says, “I was myself much concerned with that old fantastical duke of dark corners, C. G. Jung.”

Like Jung, Davies is conscious of the dark side, the shadow. Davies speaks of, “the Bollandist tradition of looking firmly at the shadow as well as the light.” According to one critic, Davies believed that good and evil are interwoven in the striving for wholeness.3 God is not absolutely good, nor is the devil absolutely evil.4 Dunstan can’t achieve wholeness until he compromises with the devil. Liesl says to Dunstan, “Why don’t you, just for once, do something inexplicable, irrational, at the devil’s bidding, and just for the hell of it? You would be a different man.”

Like Jung, Davies is receptive to the occult. “As to the reality of ghosts,” Davies said, “I am not of the sceptical party.”

[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading Fifth Business, you may want to skip the rest of this section.]
Dunstan’s childhood friend, Percy Boyd Staunton, becomes a wealthy businessman. He gives himself a new name: Boy Staunton. Davies discusses a subject that we’ve often discussed in this e-zine, the death of love. Davies discusses the quarrels (“rows”) between Boy and his wife, Leola:

Rows between them seemed to be single affairs, and it was only when I looked backward that I could see that they were sharp outbreaks in a continuous campaign.... Boy needed me as someone in whose presence he could think aloud... a lot of his thinking was about the inadequacy of the wife he had chosen to share his high destiny.

Davies discusses another subject we’ve often discussed in this e-zine, willed death — a person who dies because he doesn’t have the will to live. Leola, Boy’s wife, loses the will to live, and brings about her own death: “I have always thought it suspicious that Leola opened her windows one afternoon, when the nurse had closed them, and took a chill, and was dead in less than a week.”

As the will can cause death, so it can cause life. Mrs. Dempster, Davies’ saint figure, brings the narrator’s brother to life when he has apparently died. Mrs. Dempster doesn’t use physical means, she uses the power of will.

The novel ends with the question, Who killed Boy Staunton? One critic said that all three novels in The Deptford Trilogy deal with this question.5 Davies’ answer to this question:

He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.

This is a profound answer because it suggests that events don’t have one cause, they have multiple, inter-locking causes. In earlier issues, I spoke of Mutual Arising — multiple causes arise together. Causality is a net, not a chain.

2. Philip Roth and the Whale

The American novelist Philip Roth died recently. One of his friends, Nathan Englander, published a piece about Roth in the New York Times. Englander wrote thus:

Philip once told me about finishing a novel, and how, with a new book under his belt and nothing to do, he’d walked out the door of his Manhattan apartment to the American Museum of Natural History, a few steps away. He’d strolled around the displays and told me that, standing in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life, he’d gazed up at the giant model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling and thought, “What am I supposed to do, look at a whale all day?” And so he went back up to his apartment and started writing again.

I can’t tell you how greatly that anecdote affected me. When I finished my last book, I didn’t waste an instant before starting the next, solely because I had that comment of Philip’s floating around in my head.

Roth is bored by nature, bored by the world, and his disciple (Englander) thinks this is a virtue, a trait to emulate! How can someone be a good writer if they aren’t astonished by reality, fascinated by whales, etc.? Thoreau could stand in a pond and observe frogs for five or six hours, but Roth is bored after fifteen minutes in the Museum of Natural History! And he finds “nothing to do” in New York City, except stay in his apartment and write books.

Are modern writers like Roth trapped in their own mind, their own subjectivity? Were older writers like Thoreau able to forget themselves and focus on the object? Were older writers able to balance world and self, object and subject? Has the modern artist lost his faith in the world, his love for the world?6

3. Fate and Freedom

When Lincoln was about 20, he bought a barrel of odds-and-ends for $1. At the bottom of the barrel, he found Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Thus began Lincoln’s law career and political career. There are three ways to interpret this event:

  1. Pure chance. History is a series of chance events.
  2. Fate. History is shaped by Fate. Lincoln’s career was the result of Fate. Lincoln was passively playing the role that Fate had assigned to him.
  3. Will. Lincoln had an obscure impulse, a semi-conscious impulse, to advance his career. This impulse prompted him to buy the barrel of odds-and-ends. Our lives are shaped by our wills.

Philosophy has often contrasted Fate and Free Will. But modern psychology has taught us to see will as unconscious, or semi-conscious. Our will isn’t entirely free. So when Lincoln bought that barrel for $1, he may have been driven by both fate and will; our lives may be a “mingled yarn” of fate and will.

4. Trump

The case against Trump is easy to make. Indeed, Trump himself makes the anti-Trump case every day with his crude and intemperate remarks. Is there anything to be said in Trump’s favor?

As commander-in-chief, the president has considerable power on questions of peace and war. Bush Jr. was too quick to commit troops, Obama swung to the opposite extreme. Trump has so far managed to steer a middle course, he’s avoided the extremes of his two predecessors.

The president also has considerable power with respect to SupremeCourt appointments. Here, too, Trump deserves good marks.

What about the economy? Is it wise for Trump to impose tariffs on foreign goods, and start a trade war? The New York Times recently carried a column by Jochen Bittner, a German journalist. Bittner writes,

Allowing China into the World Trade Organization [was] a huge mistake.... China, which has grown wealthy in part by stealing intellectual property from the West, is turning into an online-era dictatorship, while still denying reciprocity in investment and trade relations.... China’s unchecked abuse of the global free-trade regime makes a mockery of the very idea that the world can operate according to a rules-based order.

But is it wise for Trump to start a trade war with our European allies? Bittner:

Mr. Trump’s anger at America’s allies embodies, however unpleasantly, a not unreasonable point of view.... The [European Union] puts a thumb on the scales in its members’ favor: It is a highly integrated, well-protected free-trade area that gives a huge leg up to, say, German car manufacturers while essentially punishing American companies who want to trade in the region.

While the EU is punishing American companies, it reaps the benefits of American military spending. Bittner:

The Europeans have basically been free riders on the voyage, spending almost nothing on defense, and instead building vast social welfare systems at home and robust, well-protected export industries abroad.

But shouldn’t Trump pursue fair trade through normal channels, through a legal process, rather than suddenly imposing tariffs? Fair trade is difficult to achieve by any method, and Trump’s method may be as effective as any other.

5. Selling Philosophy

I’ve been going over back issues of this e-zine, bringing together essays on the same topic. I recently published five books, or rather, I self-published five books:

They’re now e-books, but I may publish them in paperback form soon. I also plan to publish three more volumes taken from this e-zine; these volumes will deal with travels, memoirs, the history of Rome, etc. I’m grateful to Elliott Banfield for designing five new book-covers. Click here for the Amazon Author Page where all my books are listed. Iím using Amazon not just to sell books, but also to make e-books, and make paperbacks.

The first of these books (The Best of Phlit: Excerpts from a Newsletter on Philosophy and Literature) was published several years ago with the same title but different content. Now this first book has the following chapters:

6. Meditation and Motivation

A recent article in the New York Times discusses meditation in the workplace. It says that, while meditation reduces stress, it also reduces drive/motivation by preaching acceptance of the present.

The very notion of motivation — striving to obtain a more desirable future — implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which seems at odds with a psychological exercise [namely, meditation] that instills equanimity and a sense of calm.

The authors of the article conducted various studies and “found strong evidence that meditation is demotivating.”

© L. James Hammond 2018
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1. One might ask, What caused the decline of courtesy and the rise of vulgarity? What happened between the AgathaChristie generation and the RobertsonDavies generation that might have caused the rise of vulgarity? This is when the aristocracy fell. I’m reminded of Pessoa’s remark, “The ruin of aristocratic influence created an atmosphere of brutality.” back
2. In a recent issue, when I was discussing the relationship between Shakespeare and Penelope Rich, I said “Relationships change over time.... They probably loved each other at one time, and hated each other at another time.” back
3. “Three Times Three: The Novels of Robertson Davies,” by Edward L. Galligan, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Winter, 1990), pp. 87-95, jstor.org/stable/27546167 back
4. In a recent issue, we saw how Pope Francis wants a God who is pure light, pure love. back
5. “All three books hinge to some extent on the mystery of who killed Boy Staunton.” (“Robertson Davies as a Modern Instance,” by Douglas Paschall, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 180-186, jstor.org/stable/27543522 back
6. I’m reminded of Alfred Kazin’s remark that the modern writer is isolated, trapped in his own subjectivity. Kazin speaks of, “the isolation that imagines anything because it has contact with nothing.” Kazin says that the modern writer “increasingly loses his connection with the world, the great world, the only world.... The world — the surrounding and not always friendly reality of nature, history, society — has disappeared for these writers.” Kazin is referring to contemporary writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. (Kazin, “Psychoanalysis and Literary Culture Today.” 1958. In Kazin, Contemporaries. London: Secker, 1963. 362-73) back