This post may be the most intense and essentially personal thing I have written yet. What I want to do today is explore the impact of a particular book- Fifth Business– on the course of my life. To some of you this will come as no surprise; to others, it may be a bit of a shock. Robertson Davies’ first novel in the Deptford Trilogy radically altered my outlook, paving the way to lifestyle changes that have remained with me to the present. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan, not an expert. No, sir. What I have to say is rooted in my own experience- we’re not looking for universal truths here, even if we find some.
Do you remember when I mentioned that Davies was my favorite Canadian author? I found him in the jaws of high school education about six years ago. A good and very engaging woman, Ms. Beverley Haun, was teaching that class. Cam was there with me and would probably attest to the intensity with which I discovered Davies, under Beverley’s direction.
Fifth Business is a theatrical term; it indicates a character in a play who exists mainly to interact with the leading roles- a spectator who also carries a secret. He simply rides parallel to the sequence of action, ready to spill his guts with the secret dormant within him, ready to radically alter the plot at the drop of a dime. No one acknowledges his significance until his one vital act, and even then he is swiftly passed by as the protagonists and antagonists struggle to cope with the change.
All throughout my childhood and young adulthood I fantasised about that radical action, and found myself relegated to a sort of psychological spectator’s sideline as I waited to make my mark. Scene after scene rolled out before me, and in each one I strove to observe- and to intervene only when the moment was right. Sometimes I felt as though I missed my cue, and sometimes I felt entirely satisfied. Most of all, though, I watched- like I used to in the tree on my parents’ front lawn- and tried to understand. I wanted to know secrets so desperately, secrets that would give me the power to transform my own perspective, if nothing else- the key to my social context, the shadow-self of a friend, the hidden dynamic in language that would unlock communication.
You can see, dear reader, from whence my fascination with this book might have stemmed. The main character- a fifth business himself- is one of any number of personalities in the book that explore fundamental divisions in psychology. C. G. Jung’s Self and Shadow self are present everywhere, exploring the possibility that deep within us, hidden from ourselves, is an opposite personal dynamic. Some of our actions and opinions are said to be guided by this Shadow self; the suppressed aspects of our personalities exert themselves through our unconscious, and also in our dreams. I imagine that if you put a little consideration into this, you will find some real truth to it. I certainly did.
At the time I picked up this book and proceeded through its pages, I was deeply involved in a Christian lifestyle- an avid churchgoer and leader in my own right. A further thematic element in Fifth Business- the juxtaposition of spirituality with the material world- troubled me. As I explored the ideas of Self and Shadow, of spirit and body, of male and female, I came into contact with the concept that finally led me astray: the Persona.
The Persona can be roughly equated to a mask. This is the aspect of our psyche that we gradually build up in order to shield our Ego- a mediator between our sense of Self and the vast potentialities that exist around us. This is our defining construction, the device we use to protect ourselves from things that don’t jive or fit with how we view ourselves. This is how we present to the world.
I began to wonder just what had gone into the development of my own Persona. How did I view myself consciously- and was I fact in protecting myself from a Shadow that slavered on the other side of the door? In the Christian paradigm, I had been taught that the Shadow was only my sinful self, my old and unredeemed self. Now I began to wonder if it was, in fact, simply another side to my whole psyche. The sense that there was here in this book a whole new way of understanding life and my place in it began to eat away at me. I could articulate questions, where before I had only blind thirst.
Unfortunately for the stability of the life I led at that time, the questions found terrifyingly few answers. It’s no surprise, looking back- these were searching concerns, and not passing worries that could be reduced to simple terms. One of my heroes, the previously mentioned C. G. Jung, spent his life investigating these mysteries- and this brilliant pioneer admitted loudly that he had not nearly found the end of the shroud.
Today I am still exploring. I value my Christian heritage, but I am no longer constrained by its interpretations- my mind speeds across the wide dark waters of human thought and tradition, seeking new wonders and taking joy in the limitless expanse.
You may not have a book like this, a book that changed everything for you. I don’t think that’s especially important- everyone has their own path toward realising themselves. I do hope, though, that you’re enjoying this strange and difficult world as much as I am.
Until next time, folks!