Robertson Davies: “I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.”


A quick birthday card to one of my favorite contemporary novelists.  It’s Robertson Davies’s 97th birthday today — or rather, it would have been, had he not died 15 years ago.  (I suppose some will argue that that fact makes him not “contemporary.”)

Davies (1913-95) is not one of my favorites because he’s the most profound, but because he’s a kick and provides me with the most amusement — and an enormous wealth of common sense, to boot.  As he himself said, “The great book for you is the book that has the most to say to you at the moment when you are reading. I do not mean the book that is most instructive, but the book that feeds your spirit. And that depends on your age, your experience, your psychological and spiritual need.”

Davies’s career is a reminder that journalists can have a future beyond newsprint — his father was a newspaperman, and Davies himself became the editor of the Peterborough Examiner in Ontario. “Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures,” he said —  but he had them anyway, apparently, and wrote novels, plays, libretti, and essays.

Alas, my own annotated copies of his novels have been loaned out to friends — but here are a few gleanings:

“Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”

“A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”

“The dog is a yes-animal. Very popular with people who can’t afford a yes man.”

“Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

“Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.”

“Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

“Inactivity and deprivation of all accustomed stimulus is not rest; it is a preparation for the tomb”

“Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.” (Perhaps my most frequently quoted line from him — and a very good rule of thumb.)

“The world is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young and everlastingly harp on the fact that they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution that would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curse of the world. Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don’t know what they are conserving.”

“Pessimism is a very easy way out when you’re considering what life really is, because pessimism is a short view of life – If you take a long view, I do not see how you can be pessimistic about the future of man or the future of the world.”

“The people of the United States, perhaps more than any other nation in history, love to abase themselves and proclaim their unworthiness, and seem to find refreshment in doing so… That is a dark frivolity, but still frivolity.”

“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.”

“We mistrust anything that too strongly challenges our ideal of mediocrity.”

“What we call luck is the inner man externalized. We make things happen to us.”

“The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up.”

“The love of truth lies at the root of much humor.”

“Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

“All mothers think their children are oaks, but the world never lacks for cabbages.”

“I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind… At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme, I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves.”


4 Responses to “Robertson Davies: “I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.””

  1. Sharon Heinz Says:

    Thank you for these quotes from one of my favorite authors! Gave me smiles.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sharon, you might like Nicolás Gómez Dávila, too — today’s post.

  3. Karey Kane Says:

    I really enjoyed Davies play Eros at Breakfast. He is a very talented author. May he rest in peace.

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