Monday, July 9, 2018
The Manticore by Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies' Fifth Business ends with the death of Boy Staunton, the millionaire politician who set the novel's action in motion as a child years before by hitting a pregnant woman with a rock buried in a snowball. He dies, mysteriously and provocatively, by driving into that lake with that same rock held in his mouth. The sequel, The Manticore, is about the effect of Boy's death on his son David, described in Fifth Business as a weak and sullen child who grows up in the difficult shadow of his father. David, visiting a traveling magician--whom we know to be the other Deptford, Ontario native mixed up in the events of the first novel, and possibly Boy's killer--who claims to be able to answer any question. David calls out: "Who killed Boy Staunton?" but escapes before he can hear the cryptic answer, surprised at his own outburst, and submits himself to Jungian analysis in Switzerland.
The form of the novel is that very analysis, recorded in notebooks and conversations between David and his analyst, Dr. Johanna von Haller. She forces David to confront the complicated history of his lfie: his adulation for his father, who really was an asshole, coupled with his attempt to excel in a field (criminal law) separate and distinct from Boy. David is cold and repressed. He hasn't had sex in decades, and he's a thoroughgoing alcoholic. Dr. von Haller tells him that he is an excellent thinker, but he is severely deficient in the arena of feeling.
Even more than Fifth Business, The Manticore says something interesting about the relationship between Canada and the UK. David's real name, after all, is Edward David, after the Prince of Wales who Boy idolized and whose reign as king ended in abdication. (Spoiler alert, he was also a Nazi sympathizer, so there's that.) David recounts how he paid a genealogist to investigate his family's Canadian lineage, hoping to find a coat of arms, instead discovering that the Stauntons are most likely descended from a victimized servant who escaped her village with a child to form a new life in Canada. Boy suppresses this information, knowing it will affect his chances to become Lieutenant-General, the Queen's representative in Ontario. The irony, as Davies' genealogist hammers home for us (Davies doesn't really do subtlety), is that the heritage that well-to-do Canadians like Boy Staunton crave, marked by unbroken connection to English nobility, pales in comparison to the Canadian heritage of exploration and frontiersmanship, of the New World.
More than anything, The Manticore is a love letter to Jungian psychology. David's therapist gives a layman's education in its principle terms: the Shadow, the Anima, the Persona. These are aspects of David's own psyche, expressed in mythological terms, and he must venture inside himself to understand them. At the end of the novel, reunited with Ramsay (from Fifth Business) and Eisengrim (the magician), David is forced to crawl into and out of a harrowingly narrow cave, inside of which lie the remnants of ancient bear worship. It's not subtle, symbolically, but it is effective.
All this Jungian stuff is a little retrograde. It made me feel a little icky, because the contemporary person I associate most with Jungian archetypes is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and provocateur who peddles a lot of anti-feminist garbage. I don't think Peterson himself describes what he does as Jungian, but his focus on broader mythological patterns certainly shares an ethos with Jung. David himself seems to be echoing Peterson when he tells von Haller, "That's the pattern, and we break patterns at our peril. After all, they became patterns because they conform to realities." But then again, it's hard to imagine Peterson endorsing something like what von Haller says to David about men and women, with regards to the feminine aspect of the psyche called the Anima: "Oh, men revenge themselves very thoroughly on women they think have enchanted them, when really these poor devils of women are merely destined to be pretty or sing nicely or laugh at the right time." For von Haller, the point of therapy is to interrogate the ways that the archetypes present in our own psyches stand in for the realities of other people, and to eliminate them. Only then can we see people as they really are. For a flimflam man like Peterson, the archetype is the reality; for Davies, it's a projection, and that's a worthy distinction.
The Manticore is fun, and I really enjoy the kind of antiquated, didactic mode that Davies uses. It's interesting to see the characters from Fifth Business from another angle. Like Ramsay, David's place in the mythopoetic battle between Boy and Eisengrim is on the sidelines, and like Ramsay, part of his lesson is to figure out how to accept not being a principal in the "big story." But it misses something of the grandeur and scope of Fifth Business. Like Jungian therapy itself, it feels a little deflated in shrinking the grand narratives of myth to the therapist's couch.