Something Like Perfection
David M. Whalen
I first heard of Marion Montgomery in the 1980’s, when a friend mentioned having written to him concerning graduate school. Seeking advice as to where he might continue his study of literature, he wrote Marion asking about worthwhile graduate programs. “There aren’t any,” Marion replied. I warmed immediately to the truth of this. Being a graduate student at the time, I was only too ready to apprehend the failings of advanced study where any frivolity was taken seriously, and anything serious was beneath notice. Certainly, there were things one could do and ways one could advance without having to suffer the worst predations of the literary silliness that then—as now—occupied so much of the academy. But Marion’s reply interested me immediately in this man who had risen to the top of the profession while remaining a man of candor and wisdom.
Later, having come to learn a bit about his critical works and philosophical interests, I proposed that my department invite Marion for a visit and lecture. Though there were funds for such events, the proposal was declined. I was told that our distinguished local luminary, a scholar of wide renown, had dismissed the suggestion, saying “I’ve never heard of him.” So much for the local luminary. However, the visit occurred after all, as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute generously agreed to sponsor the lecture, and Marion. In the event, the lecture was successful—almost embarrassingly successful. By pure coincidence a famous translator the department had invited to speak gave a talk earlier that day, and I along with a meager fifteen people or so attended the presentation. It was an interesting affair, pleasant but unremarkable and unremarked. Then came Marion’s lecture.
I admit, I took the trouble to count the ninety-or-so people who turned out to hear Marion speak about Flannery O’Connor. But once he began to speak, the numbers were no longer interesting. His address had that characteristic combination of unaffected personable warmth and relentless intellectual intensity so native to all Marion’s lectures. The audience was in the presence of something as rare as it was lovely—an unpretentious but genuinely brilliant man considering serious, consequential, indeed imperative and compelling things with as much admiration as penetration. And the audience knew it. Without immediately aiming at charity, and despite the normally abstruse subject of metaphysics and O’Connor’s artistry, Marion quietly redeemed the time of the many graduate and undergraduate students in attendance that evening. They came hardly knowing they were effectively starving, but they left knowing what it was to enjoy a feast.
If memory serves, this visit was not our first meeting, however. That had occurred in Seattle, at a conference sponsored by two universities and organized by Andrew Tadie and Michael MacDonald. These good men, in herculean fashion, hosted conferences around the topic of Christian letters in the 20th Century, and the meetings featured papers on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and others. There, I met Marion Montgomery and shamelessly haunted him throughout the conference. Of course the conversation (or at least his part of it) was an education and a delight in itself. But the man was as delightful as the conversation. I recall his chewing an un-lit cigar—in season and out, it seemed—chewing slowly but steadily until the wonder was its holding together at all. This took about a day. Then, he said, it was ready to smoke. I recall too his smoking with as much leisure as he chewed, unhurried and meditative as the smoke casually rose in the evening air. If it became time to move indoors, he did not dispose of the half-smoked treasure. He simply deposited it in the crook of a tree. When we came out of the hall after the lecture, he retrieved the cigar, and there both conversation and cigar were reignited. This was the pattern throughout the conference.
Conversation with Marion was an unhurried excursion into the reaches of a profound intelligence and imagination always inseparable from the character and personality of the man himself. He was, truly, all of a piece. That ought to be a mere convention in describing someone—what else would a person be?—but one of modernity’s more dubious blessings is fragmentation of mind, heart, and soul. Modernity cannot really decide what a man is, and as a result we tend to be many things by turn. We are economic beings, biological beings, aesthetic beings, familial beings, political beings, professional beings. Instead of being one thing with many faculties, we are all these things in a dizzying sequence, and the result is both dissipation and despair. Eliot famously remarks upon this dis-integrating feature when observing how one prepares a face to meet the faces that one meets. But Marion somehow escaped the centrifugal force of modernity and, all of a piece, was the same person to all and about all. Whether talking about Aquinas and the agent intellect, poetry as the voice of being, or the endless necessity of barn painting, he was the same man. His delight in the fecund possibilities of metaphysical realism or the eccentricities of a town’s single stop light might differ in degree, but it was the same delight, and it was spoken of with the same warmth.
Marion’s capacity for such delight was not owning entirely to native readiness for it, though such readiness was real enough. His imagination, not just his analytical understanding, was steeped in metaphysical appreciation. Rather like G.K. Chesterton, Marion looked out at the world—miserable and fallen as it is, beset with the harrowing poverty of modernity though it is—and saw the splendor of being. This was no sentimental quirk of personality. The medieval notion that beauty was characterized by a kind of clear luminosity or splendor was not a notion for Marion, but an experience of ordinary life. Perhaps it is the gift of the poet, though in our understanding it is an often misunderstood and romanticized gift. In Marion’s case, the splendor of being was the final defeat of tragedy. The waywardness of the world is real and was keenly felt, but something more than optimism gave Marion his quiet confidence that all manner of things shall be well. His apprehension of the inescapable goodness of being—an apprehension both intellectual and experiential—paradoxically drove his appreciation for the grotesque or outrageous in literature. There are many affinities between Montgomery and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, or Eudora Welty, but the strangely comic sense of the outlandish and disordered human heart remains supreme among them. In principle, one could relish such things out of a disordered heart itself. But in reality, the comedy is only seen by those who love what is, and recognize that evil’s diminished being finally suffers defeat by an insuppressible, insistent, patient good.
It is with some diffidence that one turns to speak of Marion’s Christian faith. This most profound, most meaningful reality enveloped and leavened all his thought, all his qualities. This too was all of a piece, for there was apparently nothing in Marion that was at any remove from his Christianity. In fact, his Christianity was not an adjectival one—he was not so much a Christian poet, Christian scholar, Christian family man or Christian anything else. Rather, he was (to borrow from Tennyson) a “strong son of God” who wrote, and thought, and loved his family and steered young professors through the tempest of the times in a long, continuous expression of the grace that made him so completely himself. Marion’s faith was not an added quality or benevolent bonus; it made the man.
I recall sitting on Marion’s front porch on a brief visit to Crawford with my wife and children, marveling at the apparently complete leisure that hovered over this home. Marion and Dot, his wife, sat watching and chuckling at our children’s endless movements around the porch and yard, while we conversed about family, books, academia, barns, and projects in hand. Whether then or at another time, he told me of a student of his, Michael Jordan, now teaching at Hillsdale College in Michigan. I knew of this College, having watched it from afar for some years, but at that time I little knew I would one day come to call Michael a friend and colleague and teach there myself. On that porch, surrounded by loved ones and beloved friends I saw too rarely, my thoughts were upon the present. It may be too often quoted or too often invoked, but nothing else will do; that afternoon with Marion and Dot in Crawford was, truly, “something like perfection.” Homer’s famous description of a feast has become this world’s greatest claim, one realized in moments brief but eternal in significance. There on the porch, the peace that came “dropping slow” was no fantasy of escape but the real presence of leisure, grace, and human happiness. It was a foretaste. Marion’s life and work partakes of this very character: an image now of the good to come. Requiescat in pace.