Reflections on Robertson Davies and Archetypes

Davies’ World of Wonders centres on the life of illusionist Magnus Eisengrim as he retells it. Davies has Magnus move in and out of the conversation though, so the other characters are left to analyse what he has said. At one point when Magnus is absent there is a discussion about the nature of biography:

“That’s another of the problems of biography and autobiography, Ingestree, my dear. It can’t be managed except by casting one person as the star of the drama, and arranging everybody else as supporting players. Look at what the politicians write about themselves! Churchill and Hitler and all the rest of them seem suddenly to be secondary figures surrounding Sir Numbskull Poop, who is always in the limelight.”

(Confession: I used more of that quote than I really needed. I just really wanted Sir Numbskull Poop in there.) This quote reminded me of the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business. In Fifth Business, the hero, Dunstan Ramsay is never playing the role of the hero, or the villain for that matter. Rather he is what those theatre (or maybe opera, I lent this book out so I can’t recall) refer to as the fifth business. In other words, an essential element, but never the main one.

In so far as I empathize very easily with all kinds of fictional characters (Which Karamazov am I today? – yes I’ve wondered that) I found a really profound echo of Dunstan in my own life. I seem to be a supporting character in someone else’s story. I don’t think that we consciously go around thinking about ourselves as heroes in our life dramas. Actually I’m pretty sure that most people do not do that – except for first-year literary theory students maybe. I think that unconsciously though most people are working on that level. Where I feel I can identify with the notion of being fifth business is in the fact that I am consciously uncomfortable with the notion of myself being the main character. I almost take comfort in the idea that I’m moving along the plot for everyone else.

I also find myself identifying a lot with other fifth business types. Read Crime & Punishment, and you get to be right Raskolnikov’s head pretty much, and yet, I was amazed at how much I saw of his friend Razumikhin in myself. Razumikhin is a classic example of a fifth I think. He’s not that anti-hero Raskolnikov; he’s not Raskolnikov’s tormenter like Svidrigailov or the police inspector either. No, he just shows up to move the plot along.

Now for a chicken-egg question: Do I live my life based on those assumptions, or has my life-experience shaped those assumptions? I don’t know. I wonder how many other people regard themselves primarily as fifth business?

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2 responses to “Reflections on Robertson Davies and Archetypes

  1. I do. But maybe that’s so I won’t feel I have to actually do anything to move the plot along.

  2. How amazingly literary that the fifth has remained anonymous.

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