Saturday, March 19, 2016

Robertson Davies' "What's Bred in the Bone"
Still Works Alchemy

Completing his apprenticeship to a restorer of ancient paintings, young Arthur Cornish paints an original triptych in 16th-century manner, marrying all the opposing forces of his life story, related in previous chapters, with his depiction of "The Marriage at Cana."Art experts, stumped by this apparently ancient painting in original style, call its anonymous artist "the Alchemical Master," unaware how close they are to the truth, for Cornish has melded much that was sad and painful into something beautiful, lead into gold.

Davies poses an interesting question via another clever art forger when critics who had loved the forgery turn on him and declare the work worthless. "What delighted you? The magic of a great name? The magic of the past?  Or was it the picture before your eyes?" (353)   Beyond the aesthetic question, there's an interesting religious and psychological angle on the story, that Cornish has drawn on mythologies of the past (alchemy, Christian images) to construct a "personal myth" from the elements of his own life.

Thirty years after I first read Cornish's story, the wonder of the novel What's Bred in the Bone still is this imaginary painting, focus of all Robertson Davies' far-flung, even outrageous, plot lines.  Now, as then, I'm fascinated by the way that Davies collected notes about anything that struck his fancy, composing novels in triptychs when the note cards reached a critical mass. As it happens, on this day when I'm thinking how such a confluence of ideas is itself such a great pleasure and uplifter of spirits, I've experienced a confluence of stories through the modern medium of network radio.                           
First, I heard striking stories on the podcast Snap Judgement, episode 706 "Man in the Mirror."  A soprano begins an audio diary at the start of hormone treatments for gender-reassignment, and the voice we first hear singing "Can you hear me?"  deepens through a rough patch of huskiness and voice breaks, until we have a satisfying, lovely duet of the woman's voice and the man's, an octave apart.   

Then, a Brooklyn storyteller sets a different scene:  one "Joe" in his flannel and workboots drinking Bud at 10 a.m., one self-satisfied college-educated storyteller working the bar in her family's establishment, and a hapless Chinese food delivery man who overcharges her; she cringes when "Joe" gets involved, only to hear him speak calmly, slowly, in Chinese.  The story flips her expectations (and ours).  

The program ended with a fiction about a virtual orphan caring for her younger sisters at the time of the London Blitz, the stained glass window placed in their care by the local church, and the apparition of a figure from that window, a guardian Man of Glass. 

The next program brought us actor/sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay telling about the subject of his new historical book, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living.  A little over twenty-four inches tall, born without hands or feet, this late 17th century polymath performed skillful tricks on stage and produced a self portrait comprised of Psalms and the Lord's Prayer in tiny calligraphy, etched backwards for a printing press.  

Both a 16th century dwarf and a picture made from tiny calligraphic lines figure in Davies' story of Francis Cornish.  As a young friend of the small town's mortician, Cornish had sketched the body of a suicide, the town's much-humiliated dwarf.  In a kind of artistic alchemy, he elevates that pathetic man to status of an icon as model for a faux-Renaissance portrait of a court jester.  Cornish also composes a line drawing of the Crucifixion from calligraphic lines from a Gospel passion narrative.

Can I, like Robertson Davies, pull all these strands into a single statement?  Something about the wonder of life might do, or what lies under the surface of our perceptions.  Davies' own idea about alchemy seems to fit all the stories, but, then again, also describes what I believe God to be doing in our world since the earliest days of Scripture.

I'm satisfied, for now, to record the stories for possible use, later. 


Davies, Robertson.  What's Bred in the Bone.  New York:  Elizabeth Sifton Books, Viking, 1985.


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