The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 04 Feb 2022

An unexpected turn of phrase from Robertson Davies

Dave Turner has been tinkering with a game he calls Semantle and this reminded me of Robertson Davies' novel What's Bred in the Bone, which includes a minor character named Charlie Fremantle. This is how my brain works.

While I was looking up Charlie Fremantle I got sucked back into What's Bred in the Bone which is one of my favorite Davies novels. There is a long passage about Charlie and what he was like around 1933:

Charlie found Oxford painfully confining; he wanted to get out into the world and change it for the better, whether the world wanted it or not. He had advanced political ideas. He had read Marx — though not a great deal of him, for Charlie found thick, dense books a clog upon his soaring spirit. He had made a few Marxist speeches at the Union, and was admired by other untrammelled spirits like himself. His Marxism could be summed up as a conviction that whatever was, was wrong, and that the destruction of the existing order was the inevitable preamble to any beginning of the just society; the hope of the future lay with the workers, and all the workers needed was sympathetic leadership by people like himself, who had seen through the hypocrisy, stupidity, and bloody-mindedness of the upper class into which they themselves had been born.… Charlie was the upper class flinging itself into the struggle for justice on behalf of the oppressed; Charlie was Byron, determined to free the Greeks without having any clear notion of what or who the Greeks were; Charlie was a Grail knight of social justice.

A Grail knight of social justice! A social justice warrior! And one of a subtype we easily recognize among us even today. Davies wrote that sentence in 1985.

(But now that I look into it, I wonder what he meant to communicate by that phrase? In 1933, when that part of the book takes place, the phrase “social justice” was associated most closely with Father Charles Coughlin, founder of a political movement called the National Union for Social Justice, and publisher of the Social Justice periodical. Unlike Charlie, though, Coughlin was strongly anti-communist, which makes me wonder why Davies attached the phrase to him. Coincidence? I doubt that Davies was unaware of Coughlin in 1933, or had forgotten about him by 1985.)

[ A reader asks if Davies, as a Canadian, would have been aware of Father Coughlin. I think probably. Wikipedia says Coughlin's radio show reached millions of people, perhaps as many as 30 million a week. The show was based in Detroit, so many of these listeners must have been Canadian. At that time Davies was a university student in Kingston, Ontario. Coughlin, incidentally, was also Canadian. ]

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