Monday, January 2, 2012

One of Us: A Paean

Yes, a paean, a hymn of thanksgiving and gratitude. When I finished reading Steven Faulkner’s Waterwalk: A Passage of Ghosts (2003), sitting on my worn couch in my Tennessee hermitage, I was flooded with a wave of enormous gratitude, a metaphor that will seem more apt when you have finished his marvelous tale of a thousand-mile canoe journey. Trying to put words to what I felt, I suddenly said “yes,” quoting Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, “he is one of us.”

It is enough to make one believe in magic, I thought.

In Hans Christian Andersen, a boy is given a withered seedling and finds himself in a choir of angels singing God’s praise. Near a century ago, a professor at Columbia University hears a young man complain “but I can’t read all those books,” and says, “Well, then, here, read this one,” and hands him a copy of Plato’s Dialogues. And a traditional Benedictine monastery that will last a thousand years rises on the scrubby hills of Oklahoma. A tired student at the University of Kansas finds a copy of the journals of Pere Marquette in the basement of the library and we are given Waterwalk, which, to use Chesterton’s words, “touches the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.” In the world in which everyone has forgotten who he is, Faulkner’s book makes us sit up and bristle like porcupines.

The connections between these things stirred deep recognitions of my participation in events that now not only awaken wonder, they tell me who I am. I am, among many other things, a man who can read Steven Faulkner’s tale with the knowledge that I am in a community of fellow pilgrims. A fellowship of “those who know.” These are the fellows one sees on the other side of a canyon, upward bound on a parallel trail, to whom one shouts out with a wave, halloo! Our tracks are separate and unequal because we are not the same persons, but we sense that we are one from our shared destination.

A few months ago, I decided to contact an old friend who was a fellow graduate student at the University of Kansas in the early 1960’s. What followed , magically, was the appearance of a newsletter from the KU English Department. Usually disgusted by reading of the doings of the tribe that has taken over the Humanities—the multicultured band of postmodernists, feminists, Marxists, and what have you—I nearly tossed the thing. Then I saw a photo of Dr. Dennis Quinn, who died in this past year, and a reminiscence and tribute by one Steven Faulkner, who said he had taken every course Quinn and his friend, Dr. John Senior, had to offer. Faulkner’s praise brought a flood (another metaphor you will appreciate more after reading Faulkner’s book) into my aging brain. The tribute was read by the Chestertonians assembled, a small but doughty crew. Suddenly there was a fellowship in the room: we knew he was “one of us.” It was a connection.

The connections, say, between the blowing of a horn and the falling of an ogre’s castle, as Chesterton tells us in Orthodoxy, are the connections of fairie or elfland. They are not the connections of cause and effect, as in science, but the mysterious connections “deep down things,” as Robert Frost puts it. A man says the right word, and Sesame opens. A girl fails to do what is commanded, and all is lost. In the world of elfland, in which we really dwell, all this makes sense. The connections are not nonrational or irrational, as new age religions would have it, but rational, as reality is rational and mysterious at the same time. These acts of giving and receiving are called teaching. Enter these enchanted woods ye who hunger for true teaching.

In my first year of graduate study at KU, I was already world weary and mystified. Poor and beleaguered, having given, as Francis Bacon said of marriage, “hostages to fortune,” I had a wife and child and a Master’s degree from very nice folk at Marshall University in West Virginia, I also had the beginnings of a real education from pre-Vatican II Jesuits, who had given me a foundation in Thomistic philosophy and a love of literature and the arts. Suddenly I found myself among savages and barbarians who taught literature as a kind of apprenticeship in demonic power arts. Hankering to be a real teacher of literature, I felt trapped and hungry for something, I knew not what. I needed to hear the sounding of a horn. I needed to hear the reassuring words of Aeneas to his followers that all this travail must make sense somehow.

Several fellow convicts passed me a copy of Arvid Shulenberger’s Orthodox Poetic: A Literary Catechism (see March 31 and August 10) and pointed me to classes taught by Dennis Quinn, Arvid Shulenberger, and Frank Nelick. Soon I was in the presence of men who understood the connections, and who knew that good literature was actually about something: reality. The horn had sounded, the bells had rung, and like fairy tale heroes, I had been touched and awakened again. In Dr. Quinn’s class on the Metaphysical poets, the connections were the deep analogies of love and death in the poetry of John Donne. In Shulenberger and Nelick’s seminar on literary criticism, I knew the grasp of natural law that informs the best fiction of Hemingway and heard with rebellious chuckle the irreverences they committed against the idols of the academic theater.

The man who finds and celebrates these connections deep down things is called a poet—and all true teachers are poets, even if only by hankering. Waterwalk could as easily been titled Connections. No mere academic Steven Faulkner, a man who spent years on working with his hands before he met the fancy tribes, many of whom have never touched a tool or labored for bread and beer(here one may consult this blog on Oct 24), this fellow more than meets the low-rung standard I heard in paean of a teacher at Marshall University. With awe, the young man from the back hills of West Virginia said, “He knows more than one book!”

Steven Faulkner, waterwalker

More than one he knows indeed. As he carries us along his epic canoe trip from St. Ignace, Michigan, to the levee at St Louis, Faulkner touches docks and sandbars named Marquette, Belloc, Hemingway, Josef Pieper, Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, Lord Tennyson, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.S. Eliot, Dante, Virgil, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Twain, Wordsworth, Goldsmith, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Reading Faulkner’s tale, I am at home with many a book and passage I first heard from the true teachers at KU. “He is indeed one of us!” I sighed as I put the last page aside, with deep gratitude for the connections, like epiphanies and kinship lists invoked around a campfire.

Like many poets, Faulkner has chosen to write the story of a journey, not one merely imagined but one lived, a long, arduous journey by canoe through beauties and horrors—the horrors of modern life, the bleakness of destroyed towns and farms, the crudeness of savages—as well as the moments that allow us to see ordinary people at work and play, many of whom are extraordinarily kind to the sometimes hungry and exhausted travelers. As we follow Steven and his son Justin—for this is also a powerful father-and-son tale—through swamps and sloughs and rapids, we have the constant company of Virgil, Homer, Dante, and the vivid reports of Marquette and Joliet, the first Europeans to brave a journey from the Great Lakes toward the Mississippi which, as Indian tribes warned them along the way, was a place of lurking disasters and monsters. Picture Steven and his son by a campfire on a sandbar, reading aloud from the Odyssey. Picture Steven and his son on the Mississippi, now among the monsters of locks, oil barges, motorboats, and strange, uncivilized tribes of rowdies and, yes, nudist colonists.

It is sometimes a sad and inglorious tale in which we are brought up against what has become of America in the ages of industrialization and post-industrialization—the trash age, we could call it. Faulkner refers to Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, where we may read—

Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,
‘Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.


Even now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done;
Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land . . . .

Faulkner does not lecture or sermonize, but his well-drawn pictures make us aware that there is indeed a distance between a “splendid” and a “happy land,” an opposition that would be lost on many a pilgrim soul if a Faulkner were not there to show us. He has listened well to Conrad’s words in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus: “My task . . . is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see.” To these imperatives, Faulkner could be said to add, “to make you smell and to make you taste.”

But he goes a step further, as a poet should. To Conrad’s goals he adds the imperative, “to make you glimpse eternal things at the edges of material things.” Along the way, there are churches in small towns, where a scruffy, brushed-up poet and son sit in the back row and hear sermons, one of which tells the story of the Basilian priest of Lanciano, who was privileged to see the bread and wine of the Eucharist turn visibly into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, so that twelve centuries later the bloody flesh can be tested to show that the blood type is AB, just as it is in all the ten similar Eucharistic miracles world wide. "What are the chances of that?" Faulkner asks, just as he asks the same question when he sees a tugboat on the Mississippi named the Marquette.

Pere Marquette teaches the Indians. By Wilhelm Lamprecht.

True teaching. True poetry. True adventure. And soon a movie of the book will appear, premiering on April 7 in Green Bay. Also, the author tells me, another book is nearing completion, "'Bitterroot: A Father-Son Journey into the Wild West,' which includes bits of Francis Parkman's 'The Oregon Trail,' which I read with the professors, as well as accounts of Father Pierre Jean De Smet's two first journeys along the Oregon Trail to establish the first Catholic missions in the Rocky Mountains."

The Chestertonians of Middle Tennessee await.

Note: I welcome comments below. If you don't want to fight all the computer fol de rol, you can just choose the "Anonymous" option.