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Robertson Davies

1913 - 1995

Novelist and essayist, publisher of the Peterborough Examiner 1945-1960, then professor of english literature at the University of Toronto and first Master of Massey College there. Author of Fifth Business (1970) and other works.

Book by Robertson Davies
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A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading
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Not all readers are prepared, at all times, to make independent judgments. But the failure of modern education to equip them to do so even when they have the inclination creates a serious gap in modern culture.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice From the Attic
If you don't hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you'll get.

1970 - from Fifth Business
Sometimes for us in Canada it seems as though the United States and the United Kingdom were cup and saucer, and Canada the spoon, for we are in and out of both with the greatest freedom, and we are given most recognition when we are most a nuisance.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice from the Attic
... in a time when the individual has lost significance (despite loud assertions to the contrary), an informed, rational, and intellectually adventurous individuality must take precedence over all else.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice From the Attic
Nowadays if you're funny at anybody's expense they run to the UN and say, 'I must have an ombudsman to protect me.' You hardly dare have a shrewd perception about anybody.

1981 - in an interview
In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form -- though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, "Sorry, there's no call for it."

1982 - from The Rebel Angels
Be sure to choose what you believe and know why you believe it, because if you don't choose your beliefs, you may be certain that some belief, and probably not a very creditable one, will choose you.

1972 - quoted in Columbo's New Canadian Quotations by John Robert Columbo
The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

... in the modern world freedom grows rarer the more we prate about it.

from Osbert Sitwell
I don't regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we shall have to pay for it, and in what coin.

1970 - from Fifth Business
Our age has robbed millions of the simplicity of ignorance, and has so far failed to lift them to the simplicity of wisdom.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice From the Attic
It is not my intention to denounce modern education. If it is bad, it may be said that all education is bad which is not self-education, and quite a lot of self-education is going on today -- some of it in our schools, under the very noses of the teachers!

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice From the Attic
Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that's really your own - a mind that hasn't been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down notions.

quoted in Columbo's New Canadian Quotations by John Robert Columbo
We [Canadians] don't go for heroes. As soon as a man begins to achieve some sort of high stature, we want to cut him down and get rid of him, embarrass him.

Dec. 15, 1994 - quoted in the New York Times
Everybody says Canada is a hard country to govern, but nobody mentions that for some people it's a hard country to live in. Still, if we all run away, it will never be any better. So let the geniuses of easy virtue go southward; I know what they feel too well to blame them. But for some of us there is no choice; let Canada do what she will with us, we must stay.

from his play Fortune, My Foe
I once had a dispute with a group of Swedish professors at the University of Uppsala as to which country, Sweden or Canada, was the dullest in the world. It was a draw; they claimed superiority because of their long history, and I claimed it because of Canada's immense land mass, which gives us space for tremendous expansion, even of such things as dullness.

from Opera and Humour
... in the modern world freedom grows rarer the more we prate about it.

from "Osbert Sitwell"
Understanding and experiencing are not interchangeable. Any theologian understands martyrdom, but only the martyr experiences the fire.

1972
Why are so many people ashamed of having intelligence and using it? There is nothing democratic about such an attitude. ... No man has ever won commendation for standing at less than his full height, either physically, morally, or intellectually.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice from the Attic
The past is only partly irrecoverable. The clerisy should accord it at least as much courtesy as they offer to the future.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice from the Attic
We mistrust anything that too strongly challenges our ideal of mediocrity.

from his essay "The Noble Greeks"
Let me confess at once that I think Canada has a soul, but it is a battered child among souls; it needs nourishment, exercise, and fresh air, and, above all, love, if it is to reach maturity.

quoted in Columbo's New Canadian Quotations by John Robert Columbo
I am convinced that Canada has a soul, and should get on better terms with it, because at the moment it is a sadly neglected aspect of our inheritance.

quoted in Columbo's New Canadian Quotations by John Robert Columbo
Education is a great shield against experience. It offers so much, ready-made and all from the best shops, that there's a temptation to miss your own life in pursuing the lives of your betters. It makes you wise in some ways, but it can make you a blindfolded fool in others.

1975 - from World of Wonders
One of the really notable achievements of the twentieth century has been to make the young old before their time.

1951 - from Tempest-Tost
... when a man has become a great figure in society ... we must not be surprised if he regards the laws of society as the laws of Nature -- but we need not respect him for it.

Sep. 1990 - from A Voice from the Attic
The simplest form of stupidity - the mumbling, nose-picking, stolid incomprehension - can be detected by anyone. But the stupidity which disguises itself as thought, and which talks so glibly and eloquently, indeed never stops talking, in every walk of life is not so easy to identify, because it marches under a formidable name, which few dare attack. It is called Popular Opinion...

Nov. 18, 1984 - from his Gilman Lecture at Johns Hopkins Medical School entitled "Can a Doctor Be a Humanist?"