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University Bookman ^ | 2003 | James V. Schall, S.J.

Posted on 11/18/2003 7:00:39 PM PST by cornelis


Collections of letters can be charming. One of the things I like best about them, and I like this about journals and essay collections also, is that they can be so random. One’s day is not usually an organized treatise in which one thing flows directly from another in some logical patter. I have nothing against logic or organization, but I rather like to live in a world in which I am not quite sure what will happen next. I like it when folks can just “drop by.” The end of my world will come when weather forecasting becomes an exact science.

Such thoughts occurred to me in reading The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, which I believe Scott Walter gave to me several years ago. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, edited by Jay Tolson (BewYork: Norton, 1997).

Close In a letter to Percy, dated April 5, 1975, from Memphis, Foote explains that he had just returned from New York City. On return, he finds on his desk The Mississippi Quarterly with reviews of books by both himself and Percy. But he is anxious to tell Percy what he did in the Big City. “We did as I said we would in NY,” he explains, “ate our heads off – Lutece, La Fayette, San Marco, Caravelle, we did them all in style and at incredible expense without regret. Finally found one good thing to do with money: eat it, preferably with sauce Bercy and heavy drafts of Chateau Palmer or Gevry-Chambertin. You only go round once, they say, but we went round several times in just four days” (203). The one good thing to do with money -- eat it! Obviously, Foote knew what to eat, however “incredibly expensive.” But if one is going to splurge this way in style, there can be “no regrets.” Foote is right. It is not quite true that we go round only once – several times in four days. With the names of classy restaurants in New York and fine French wines given for our edification, we cannot but be amused by such delight with life itself. This lightsomeness is the way of friends with one another.

Several days later, April 8, Percy replies. He expects Foote to receive the Pulitzer Prize, but he never heard of The Mississippi Review. He tells Foote that he does not mind criticism, which Foote had noted in The Mississippi Review. “Praise always makes me feel vaguely guilty, as well as bored.” Percy had been teaching courses in college. In a year he would be sixty and Foote would be sixty-one. This fact precipitated reflection on retirement, on ultimate things. “So what now? It is a question of desire, what one wants to do – write something better or run off with two girls to the islands. Having delivered the last word on the nature of man, I am in a quandary.” How amusing is this passage from the author of Lost in the Cosmos. The irony of reaching retirement is to wonder what to do next, as if there were a “next.” How could one who has “delivered the last word on the nature of man” still be in a “quandary?” What of the last word is that there is no last word – what then? Write some more? Run off to the islands? Do these alternatives solve the “quandary” about the “nature of man?” They never did before. Percy laughs at his own irony.

On May 5, Foote writes back to Percy. He talks about his reading of Dante. “What amazed me was my reaction once I put the Inferno behind me. I had thought that once he got out of hell the story would sag into banality. I couldnt (sic) have been wronger (sic). The Purgatory was exciting beyond belief – and, though I couldnt really compass it without the theological background, I could see that the Paradise would be the best of all for someone prepared to appreciate it” (209). Foote and Percy at times “spell” somewhat Southern to each other, of course – “couldnt,” “wronger.” This passage again tells of the surprise that joy is more riveting than gore and horror. He tells Percy that he can find the book and commentaries in the LSU Library. “All Dante ever wrote about was Love, and once you understand that, you will read him with an immediacy that outdoes Faulkner or Hopkins or anyone else on the list...” (210). This is right, I think, the excitement of the good far surpasses the attraction of evil.

Evidently, in a previous letter, Percy has cryptically said something to Foote about the ultimate consequences of his not being a Catholic. Foote’s response is most witty. “I’m sorry to learn from your letter that you and F. (Flannery) O’Connor wont be joining me in heaven – I presume thats what you meant when you said that two of us three wouldnt be making it” (211). In these celestial calculations, a barb can cut both ways. Foote implies that, not Flannery or Percy, but he himself will miss them both when he is in this happy place that Dante describes so well.

Foote keeps returning to Dante. He compares him to James Joyce in a curious manner. He does not think Joyce up to the level of Dante, though “he’s (Joyce) just the best we’ve got” – presumably in English. However, both Joyce and Dante have something in common. “Fierce haters, both, great payers-off of scores and both with ice water in their veins when they wanted to score the wicked who had crossed them.” The Inferno is liberally populated with the powerful of church and world. The ice water is needed as retaliation can be expected to be swift.

In a letter of June 30, Foote is still thinking of Dante. He has Percy now also reading Dante. Foote found bits of the Inferno and Purgatorio in Faulkner and Celine. He understood those lower scenes quite well -- “the meaning of life amidst the squalor” (214). It was the Comedy itself that was the new form of literature. This is not what he was prepared for. “Only in the Paradise did I get a feeling of being out of my depth, and even there I had an overwhelming feeling of being involved in the very greatest conception of them all; the windup mystical rose, the love that moves the stars, all that.” It is not stars that move stars, nor is it ultimately only the forces of nature that move us. At the roots of all motion lies a reality that moves by loving, that moves by being loved.

Finally, on July 26, Foote figures that Percy is about half-way through his reading of the Inferno. He warns him not to stop in the fourth terrace of Hell wherein the sin of sloth is punished. Then Foote adds, surprisingly, a comment from Thomas Aquinas – “Aquinas identifies sloth as a form of sadness” (215). The word sadness is in italics, to emphasize its importance.

Josef Pieper has also made much of this word acedia, sloth. It does not mean, as we might expect, laziness. Rather it means that we refuse seriously to examine what we are, what kind of being we are, because we do not want to know, lest we have to face the conduct of our lives in terms of what is, and not just what we would like. Perhaps, Foote is humorously telling Percy and F. O’Connor that if they want to join him in heaven, they best be moving through to the Comedy that is Divine.

This exhortation on love in Dante does not deny that the best thing we can do with money is, as Foote says, to “eat it,” especially in style at “incredibly expensive” restaurants in New York, with exceptional French wine, but emphatically “no regrets.” We are to enjoy what exists to be enjoyed. Still, it does remind us, in the course of ordinary letter writing, that we can come across astonishing things there, that paradise is much more astonishing than hell or purgatory ever thought to be. Having “delivered the last word on the nature of man” and not taken off to the islands, perhaps we need not be in so much of a “quandary,” when we realize, as Dante tells us, that “it is love that moves the stars, all that.” Of such things, we come across in books of letters.

Published in the University Bookman, 42 (#1, 2002), 45-47.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: dante; foote; percy; schall

1 posted on 11/18/2003 7:00:40 PM PST by cornelis
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To: cornelis
Thanks for posting - the University Bookman is certainly an acquired taste - I once subscribed and may do so again. Gets a bit pedantic at times, but that's what it's for, isn't it?

But Dante and Joyce? I'm really gonna have to think that one over. Maybe it's just that Joyce's little hatchets are better-disguised than Dante's. Maybe I just don't really understand either.

2 posted on 11/18/2003 7:08:41 PM PST by Billthedrill
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To: Billthedrill
You're welcome.

Also from this issue: T.S. Eliot wrote that "continuity of culture" was the primary responsibility of "the small and obscure papers and reviews."

3 posted on 11/18/2003 7:18:21 PM PST by cornelis
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To: cornelis
"Food was the first thing I ever liked that liked me back."--Dorothy Parker

(In my case, the only thing...)

4 posted on 11/19/2003 7:27:02 AM PST by boris (The deadliest Weapon of Mass Destruction in History is a Leftist With a Word Processor)
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5 posted on 11/21/2003 11:35:36 AM PST by Dumb_Ox
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