The Cunning Man
A Novel
by Robertson Davies
Played by: Kate Hammer
body Main Quote:
"In my work on ward J, I had discovered that a new or merely an altered way of thinking was curative. It would not restore an amputated leg, or bring back an errant girlfriend, but it would give a new look at those misfortunes and the new look was healing." -- Robertson Davies

Relationship to the Core Wave:
"Whose well-being do I incorporate within my sense of self?" -- k.h.

Game I Core Wave: "The primary distinction between inside and outside."

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    Highlight Quotes

    "I believe, as I discovered Paracelsus had believed before me, that there are as many stomachs, hearts, livers and lights as there are members of the human race, and that they should be treated individually to suit their special needs, whatever these might be."

    "But usually it is in the realm where mind and body mingle -- where the mind affects the body and the body the mind, and where untangling the relationship is the Devil s own work, and that takes time and sympathy--that the hard-driven general practitioner and his specialist brother cannot be expected to provide for every patient who knocks on his door."

    "Everybody's speech has a tune, and it is always revealing. For social chat it might be a light scherzando, but when in the consulting-room it turns to themes of lower-back pain, of haemorhoids, of gas pains, of frequent getting-up in the night, it will turn to andante lamentoso; in it the attentive physician s ear discerns the cry of the infant, or the toddler who wants other to kiss it and make it better. Or it may be the sound of deep grievance, of one who has been dealt a rotten hand in the game of life, of one who sees unworthy people prosper while he or she is sinking in illness and decline. Tunes and tunes."

        -- Robertson Davies,
          The Cunning Man

  • Highlight

    I love Robertson Davies' novels because they seem so full of eccentric characters and quirky details about history, religion, art and magic. I read my first one the summer before college. Ever since then, I pick up a new or familiar novel by Davies when I want to immerse myself in a world which is unfamiliar but also full of things I am interested in, like alchemy, archetypes and art. Like his other novels, The Cunning Man absorbed me with deceits, journeys, secrets and surprises.

    The narrator of the novel is Dr. Jon Wullah, a non-traditional doctor in Canada. Dr. Wullah speaks often about how medicine can be rethought, made into an intimate art. "I approach my patients intuitively, with my attennae trembling at every hint from body or speech," the doctor explains, "and when I have found out whatever I can, I do whatever seems to me best." I celebrate this vision of medicine which doesn't hide behind the strengths of science. "My nose is one of my principal diagnostic instruments. I can smell disease, very often. I can smell disquiet. I can smell unhappiness," explains the doctor. Also, he says, "Everybody's speech has a tune, and it is always revealing." Here I see a doctor who uses his eyes, ears and nose to understand another person. It reminds me of Chinese acupuncture, and of a far out chiropractor I used to see. Why would any medical system rely on less? This sense of science and art, or science as art, not either one or the other (one at the expense of the other) is what I remember most about the novel.

    Davies novels are full of reappearing characters and overlapping references which absorb me like a soap opera. I read about these characters who seem like real people to me and for years after I have thoughts about them as if they were people I once knew, who I half expect to meet again. I find this smudging of life and fiction really potent. I can imagine Dr. Jon Wullah sniffing even now...


    Since I first read the novel and the quote I've highlighted above, my dad had half a leg amputated. I don't think he feels he needs to have his leg restored. Reading the Cunning Man, I got the strong sense that disease is a kind of disguise. It's not just that diseases have symptoms but also that disease itself is a symptom of the real, underlying often hidden problems unique to each individual. I was reminded of this recently reading Kathy Acker's essay about her experience with breast cancer, in which she describes that kind of confrontation with herself through her disease. The "Cunning Man" of Davies' novel suggests, "But are there not as many healths as there are bodies?" This view of "healths" not just "health" or "good health" reminds me both of Kathy Acker's choice to have a double mastectomy, then abandon western medicine and of my dad's new version of the Golden Rule: "Don't do unto others as you would have them do unto you, cuz their taste might be different than yours!"

    Chance seems pivotal in a lot of Davies' books. (Or at least, something which at first seems like chance, accident, coincidence....) The day I bought The Cunning Man, my dad was across the Atlantic Ocean nearly comatose with a blood infection. I think I had already finished reading it when I got the news. The Cunning Man was published in 1994 and Robertson Davies died in 1995. I'm not sure if this was the last book he finished, but for me The Cunning Man was about approaching dying and death as much as it was about healing and life. This is part of why I cherish it; because I feel like death is the secret everybody knows something about but hardly anybody will discuss!

    In dealing with my dad's illness (advanced diabetes), I juggle two things: My anger and frustration at his becoming so ill and the ongoing question, "What can I do?" The answer seems to be: some, but not much. From a distance (London to New York) I listen. When we can, we talk and that almost always means we laugh as well. I send him books and cards when he's laid up. I try to forget the part of me that always lurks, waiting for the next bout. Reading the novel, I felt sad that no one attends to the doctor with the focus or wisdom he brings to others. That is an aloneness I don't want my father to feel.

    -- Kate Hammer

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