- Miracle and art in Fifth Business or who the devil is Liselotte Vitzlipützli?
- Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 9, Number 4, November 1974
- pp. 3-16
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Miracle and art in Fifth Business or who the devil is Liselotte Vitzlipiitzli? WILFRED CUDE Perhaps scholars fall a little too easily into the habit of adopting long-established categories with a minimum of scrutiny. To many an academic mind, the categories of "fiction" and "nonfiction" are of a mutually exclusive nature, and works listed under the one are to be carefully disassociated from those listed under the other. It is almost as if fiction were deemed more enjoyable, but somehow less respectable, than nonfiction: as if it were deemed imaginative and recreational , but simply not real. This sort of categorization, however admissable to scholars still deferring to Plato's censure of the fanciful follies of poets, has been flatly rejected by many serious writers of fiction. Henry Fielding wrote of his novels as histories . Henry James insisted that fiction emanate the odour of reality. Ernest Hemingway demanded that the author of fiction confine himself rigorously to the realm of personal knowledge. For such writers, art was not to be divorced from reality: rather, it evolved out of reality, and it existed to provide another means of approaching reality. As Joseph Conrad put the matter, the task of the writer is to make you see. Fiction is not literary sleight of hand, fun tainted with tricksterism: fiction is an artistic miracle whereby those afflicted in their imaginations can be made to experience again the remarkable world about them. Within the long tradition of works that challenge us to appreciate this truth, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies is a vital newcomer. In Dunstan Ramsay, the narrator of the novel, Davies has created a character who seems to have a comprehensive grasp of reality. Despite his wordly demeanor, Dunny lives by an academic philosophy that is austere to the point of asceticism. He is quite prepared to come to grips with any Journal of Canadian Studies mode of thought that passes his way. I clung to my notion, ill defined though it was, that a serious study of any important body of human knowledge, or theory, or belief, if undertaken with a critical but not a cruel mind, would in the end yield some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man. 1 Suiting his practice to what he preaches, Dunny grapples heroically with a curriculum that would daunt anyone but the most dedicated of polymaths. One subject after another , he wrestles into submission entire kingdoms of learning: magic, history, zoology , religious studies, French, German, Latin, Italian, Greek, and medieval and renaissance art and architecture. Nor is he content only with a mastery of the mechanics of several disciplines: nothing less than a confrontation with "the reality of the spirit" (102) will satisfy him, and so he sets himself to an engagement with the entire phenomenon of faith. I was trying to get at the subject without wearing either the pink spectacles of faith or the green spectacles of science. All I had managed by the time I found myself sitting in the basilica of Guadalupe was a certainty that faith was a psychological reality, and that where it was not invited to fasten itself on things unseen, it invaded and raised bloody hell with things seen.(179) As Dunny's personality emerges from his narrative, he stands out as one who has the courage to attempt much and the vision to perceive wonders: he stands out, in effect, as a formidable and devoted scholar. "Illiteracy was my abhorence," (111) he laconically observes: and, from the evidence he supplies, we may well believe him. And yet, even while he delineates his own scholarship and insight, Dunny does not appear affected or smug. He is alert to the pathetic delusions fostered by self-decep3 tion. "This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even supernumeraries." (20) He is alert to the multiplicity of masks that every human being might wear in life. "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not...