Marion Montgomery: A Man I Have Chosen for a Father
William Tobias Straney
In 1993 I was a member of a very small literary group, all of us attached to the same university in some capacity, and we had just begun studying Flannery O’Connor and The Fugitives. Two of us worked in the same bookstore. One day we were poring through a catalogue when my friend pointed out a yellow paperback on O’Connor and said simply, “Buy that. Now. You absolutely have to buy it.” I bought it assuming it would have some insights into that shrewd author who loved the Church so much that she surrounded herself with the cosmic priestly vestments of the peacock’s tail.
All of us can say of certain times in our lives that at some benign, seemingly nondescript corner we took a turn that led us entirely out of our chosen path. I read The Trouble with You Innerleckchuls, chasing the book down through every page and footnote until I had read it in one sitting. I did the same thing again the next day. I know now that the more profound experiences of reading Marion Montgomery were yet to come, but such was my ignorance at the time that a book that only skimmed the treasures of Montgomery’s thought made me feel like I was fresh on the scent of wisdom. Until then, I had lived my life thinking in some vague way that that scent had grown cold centuries before. The book was about O’Connor, true, but it was also through her fiction and her thought that he indicated so much of man’s condition, especially as it is misunderstood in academia and society at large. Here, as I would come to know, was not only O’Connor’s best reader, but a great author in his own right. I had to buy another. And steadily, greedily, came the Montgomery canon to my shelves either through the mail or—like Robinson Crusoe fetching what he can from a wrecked ship—what I could dig out of remainder bins in the used bookstores of Atlanta.
Many of us are familiar with what C. S Lewis calls the “chronological snobbery of our age”—the belief that there is an inherent inferiority in any belief that came earlier than our own. If anything, I suffered from the opposite snobbery. I believed there was something comparatively substantial about even the most absurd belief of earlier times. A myth, for me, carried more weight than many of our modern “facts.” I’ll freely admit that this was a vague and even snobbish attitude, at least as I held it then. But I only mention it here because that same attitude compelled me to assume that this truthful and traditional Montgomery fellow must be dead, and had been for some time.
I was apprehensive to find that not only was the man still alive, but he lived a mere hour and a half away. My apprehension lay in the fact that I knew I would have no choice but to try to meet him. By this time his books had come to dominate nearly every discussion of our literary group, and it was not a question of if but when we would go to introduce ourselves. We were as excited and shy as schoolgirls about the prospect, which is why we didn’t screw up the courage to do so for almost a year. Who would go and when had become such a bother that one day I decided to see it as a thing done, the manner of doing it no longer being the issue. I will say why this is important in a moment.
Later that day, having driven through the Athens countryside heading towards South Carolina, I found myself just outside the heart of a very small town—which is to say, almost in the country by city standards. The Montgomerys lived at the end of a one-lane alleyway. (I would later find out that, instead of the actual street name, its inhabitants called it “A. Little Lane,” in deference to a diminutive resident who was now deceased. The current residents planted their own street sign near the official one, with a picture on it of children playing under the new name.) I found the house, parked my truck, and somehow managed, despite unnecessarily wobbly knees and fortitude undermined by possible presumption, to make my way under a gigantic oak that was cracking apart the front walkway. I knocked on the door.
I am very glad that it was Dot Montgomery who answered. I will never forget how she looked when she opened it and said, “Well, hello. May I help you?” It was in a tone as genuinely curious and warm as could have convinced me that she was glad I finally got around to visiting. Petite, white curly hair, and wearing what appeared to be a child’s kitchen apron and glasses that magnified the smiling, sharp light in her eyes, she gave me her full attention while I recited my practiced lines. (And now that I come to think of it, when has Dot Montgomery ever been distracted?) At least, I tried to recite them: “Hello, my name is Bill Straney. I’m here to meet your husband…if that’s okay.” After that I think I must have trailed off into confusion, given the misunderstanding that followed. She immediately welcomed me into the clean house (tall ceilings, a wide hallway that was a room in its own right) and into the front parlor room. There was a small piano there and through the doorway I could see a framed painting of Narnia hanging in the living room. She excused herself to let Marion know there was a visitor and put away her apron. I sat nervously until she came back so that we could make small talk.
I wish I could report what we talked about, but the fact is I was distracted indeed. For, as audible as firecrackers in a dry washtub, from the moment Dot opened the door there was the machine-gun crackcrackcrack of her husband typing away upstairs. It was one of the loudest, oldest-sounding typewriters I had ever heard. It gave you the sense that something was not being written, but engraved. I immediately regretted coming here alone and hogging this all up for myself, away from my friends, but I would be lying if I didn’t already see myself telling them, “And guess what he was doing when I came in.” But after a few minutes of pleasant small talk with Dot, I was pulled out of my distraction by the fact that something was off in our conversation. She was not entirely sure why I was there, I gathered, and she was in the middle of silently correcting her original assumption based on some sign that I was now giving. Perhaps it was the fact that my eyes kept drifting to the hallway where the staircase was. And then it became clear and we both had to laugh: I realized at the same time that she started to confess it, that she had thought I was an insurance salesman and (I can only imagine) not a very good one. Feeling more welcomed by her continued reception of me in spite of my clumsiness, I explained my visit in plain terms.
And then the conversation began in earnest. I did not realize it at the time, but Dot was a gatekeeper between her husband and his audience. I was, as she later admitted to me at his funeral, being vetted for admission, as were all visitors who came to meet her husband. There was no pretension in her office at all; she did not see herself as standing guard before some esoteric curtain. She simply felt it was her duty to protect her husband, his time, and his energy. And she was the one for the job. Dot is one of the most compassionate, warmest, most light-filled people I have ever known—the kind of woman who gently grabs your hand in greeting and parting, and also whenever there is some shared delight. But she does not suffer foolishness without naming it. This never casts a shadow on her playful, imaginative, and quick-witted temperament. If anything, her sense of right and wrong enhances it. It is bewildering to me that I cannot find her in a children’s story or a fairy tale, of the George MacDonald type. But her kind is in there aplenty: light and strong as bird’s wings, eyes focused, head and heart full of wonder and curiosity, and a dialectic that spoke to the point and cut away the dross remorselessly. There are some people for whom the world is both wondrous and practical. Or perhaps: wondrous, therefore practical. At some point the typewriter had stopped and there was silence upstairs.
After some of those vague movements that make people upstairs in every house sound like they’re either sneaking about or walking around in confusion, the stair began to creak. Dot and I both stood up as he came into the room. He was wearing, I couldn’t help but notice, floppy workman’s boots laced only partway up, and white athletic socks. His pants came down to his boots, but only barely, and his shirt was tucked in. He wore a pen holder in his shirt pocket, like a biology teacher. As I would come to know in time, aside from some of the nicer Sunday-go-to-meetin’ suits he wore, all of his clothes were of the older gentleman’s type that can be purchased in one of those country stores that also sells farming supplies and a little groceries. He had short-cropped, graying hair, and his face was tanned even though it was cold outside. What you saw in the photographs was clearer in person: no matter what expression he wore, his face was altogether open and guileless, but with many cunning thoughts behind it which could give him the appearance of being distracted. At this first meeting, his eyes were bloodshot, for it was drawing towards the afternoon and he had been “at it” for a good portion of the day. He actually greeted me with the same warmth as Dot, but also a smiling shyness. His voice, easily distinguishable from every other man’s, is as easy to remember as his appearance. It was one of those old, well-honed Georgian voices that is both low- and high-pitched at the same time, richly blended, though leaning well towards the high side. He repeated Dot’s greeting in almost the exact same tone, somewhat more subdued in him: “Well, hello!” We smiled at each other as I explained my visit.
The fact that he had not one, but a handful of devoted fans that he was not personally aware of, both delighted him and did not interest him as such. He was not looking for fans; he was looking for wisdom among men: friendship and like-mindedness at a depth where those things are most worth having. He was clearly pleased to hear about us, but in selfless amusement and gladness that we existed for our own sakes. “You are in the Academy and resist its temptations, I trust…this is good news,” he said wryly.
There was also the unlit cigar—the one cigar (or sometimes two) that he had with him all day and which he would only occasionally light and puff on. No description of him without the cigar would suffice, so allow me to focus on that thing. At that first meeting, for a split second I thought he was chewing on a dark dowel stick. While he rarely lit it, when he did he spent more time lighting it than smoking it. And such was their Platonic uniformity that there seemed to be only one. But their uniformity was of a different sort than you see in most cigars. These were not the featureless, “exotic,” contraband cigars that are rolled for Wall Street fat cats on the bare thighs Cuban virgins by the shore of a chamber-of-commerce sea. These were Marsh Wheelings: long, skinny, tough, and both rough and smooth to the touch like a stiff-haired dog’s coat. By appearance they seemed to be a naturally occurring phenomenon: something you’d break from a tree to take home with you: a long, cylindrical magic trick of nature. From a distance it looked like some poor tobacco farmer had lost the leaf to boll weevils but, having to make ends meet, tried to pass off the stalk. And after Marion had been chewing on it for a few hours, the root also. My friend Rick Barnett put it best: they were like Gandalf’s staff or Odysseus’s bed, nature shaped under a loving eye. Unlike so many other tobacco products, they actually smelled and tasted like tobacco and the good earth. You could faintly smell them if you were in the same room, before they had been lit. And it was a pungent, sweet smell, but not at all overpowering. These descriptions of that object may seem hyperbolic, but Marion’s friends could rightly accuse me of understating the axial role those cigars play in our memory of him. Yet they never seemed a crutch. One of the world’s strongest and badly used passions came across in him as elective and ordinately pleasurable. He is the only person I’ve ever known who smoked, or rather, chewed on that brand.
Marion was a little tired from his exertions at the typewriter—the mental energy is unimaginable—but he and Dot kindly asked me to stay for dinner, set on a country table cloth. We held hands as they prayed over our food. She suggested that I try some of her favorite mustard (Fuller’s Mustard, made in Virginia, and I highly recommend it). Afterwards, they introduced me to their hobble-footed dog and various other critters about the house and in their yard. Most of these were neighborhood pets, I believe. Their property had a very pleasing balance of wide-open spaces and tight clumps of bushes and trees. Both inside and outside their very old house, there were many places for privacy and publicity; but the publicity was welcoming.
It was natural for us to talk not merely of his books, but of other things, as we came to know each other, then and in the years following. I felt very peaceful there, as I’m sure many other visitors have, as well. It was only after several visits with Marion that I would take up the specific question of evil with him, one which we would talk about throughout the years. I teased out of him to the best of my ability his thoughts on the subject, and it was one on which he had given a tremendous amount of thought. I might as well give it to you here. In every conversation he suggested that the discursive intellect, which is always sneaking into metaphysics and passing itself off for direct apprehension, will never find an answer to the question of evil. At least, not ultimately. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain made an heroic and nearly complete effort. The discursive intellect is helpful, but it is only in participating in the reality that God has created, including one’s own being, that one will come to an understanding of good and evil that is ineffable. It is then that we might say, as Dame Julian of Norwich said, “All thing shall be well. And all thing shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” But these things, including his love for Dame Julian’s vision, are in his books.
I very much wanted to wear out my welcome, but the time had come for me to race back home and tell my friends what had happened. Such were my silly thoughts at the time. I was uncertain enough of myself—through no fault of the Montgomerys—that I made one last effort on his threshold to impress on Marion that my friends and I were worthy of his books. “We are a pretty smart group,” I said, trying to talk us up. Still smiling, still as warm as ever, he corrected me. “But remember, Bill. We all come to the truth too late.” He asked me to come back, laughing as he waved and said “Bye, now,” and closed the door on me before I could recover from my presumption. And I got into my truck having learned also another lesson, hinted at earlier: we should not avoid going to our heroes. They are, in some fashion unknown, waiting for us.
I, of course, raced home and told my friends what had happened. Especially the typewriter. And the cigar. And the amazing mustard. I don’t think I mentioned my coming off as a salesman.
We all quickly became friends with them and over the years our wives and children came to know them as well as we did. They were absolutely fascinated with children, theirs and everyone else’s, taking them very seriously and joyfully. I saw Marion once observing a friend’s toddler boy discovering a cricket or the like up-close for the first time. He chuckled to himself and said, “Those little minds…opening up onto the world!” Marion would get Dot to tell us some of the recent adventures: “Dot, tell them about what little Thomas did in church this morning.” He obviously preferred her storytelling, though they often told them together. And it was always a delight to see the respect in these stories with which they treated even the slightest characteristics of those whom they loved. They told these stories as admirers who were saving them pristine from any but the most respectful and humored retelling. It is worth noting that children play prominent roles in Marion’s three novels and his own children are in several of his poems.
As time went on we met more and more of their own family and their church. Most of their children were living out of state, but rotated back for visits gladly. Their children who were near at hand, and their grandchildren, were there as often as not when we visited. Somebody always seemed to be playing music, and everyone’s child seemed to have children of his or her own. The place was often, though not always, full of children. In later years, I couldn’t keep up with the influx of cats. It was a place that came alive and settled down, both just as easily. And there was the bat that slept under one of the shutters on the front of the house that Marion was excited to show us: at every visit we must check on it and show it to those of our children who hadn't seen it before, as well as to those who had. I moved to Athens and went to church with them. Every Sunday, I couldn’t help but notice that Marion always hid his face behind a hymnal or the BCP at the Epiclesis, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the Gifts and “makes them holy.” (Several of us started doing the same.) “Not many modern scholars talk about Eliot in ecstasy during the Service, or if they do it’s an exercise in psychology or religious psychosis,” he once said to me after church.
It was not long into these visits that we discovered that we—my friends and I—were part of a larger “diaspora” that had come to the Montgomerys’ house throughout the years, some from even as far away as Canada. We were, apparently, very late comers, compared to these other visitors, as Montgomery’s works were still so new to us by comparison. And when we “diasporians” met each other at or through the Montgomerys’, our sense of community increased. We were not part of some catacomb society gathered under Marion, merely lamenting the modern world, and pretending to be in on the government or at the summit of the created order. We never asked why nobody put us in control of everything. Or at least there was no such foolishness in the Montgomerys. Knowing each other and being known and knowing the truth was the thing.
In 1996 Marion had become a visiting professor for Rose Hill, a college that had just started in Aiken, SC. He advised me to go there—where I met my wife. It was an Orthodox Christian college, and as some folks know Eastern Orthodox men like having beards. The Montgomerys threw a going-away party for me, at which I expressed my apprehension at potentially being the only bare-faced man on campus. My sense of inferiority was lessened, though, when at the college I received a box in the mail from Heli, one of Marion’s daughters, that contained one costume beard. The tag on it read, “The latest in campus fashions.”
Their grandchildren made postcards for Dot, and along with the letters we received from Marion (and the thrilling photocopies of works in progress) we regularly got these postcards and hung them up on our refrigerator. We had children and visited the Montgomerys as often as we could, though not nearly often enough. The doors were open and the sun was always bright there. And always the way Marion and Dot referred to each other simply as “Love.” “Love, would you hand me that pitcher,” or, “Love, will you let the cats in,” or “I believe you are right, Love,” or simply, “It is true, Love, it is true.”
Reading Montgomery can be daunting, for there one encounters “how widely he has read, how deeply he has thought, and how acutely he has perceived.” It would help to know that he was a former academic—an escapee, one might say. In his retirement as in his career, he had hoped to rescue academia from its own malaise. And so he spoke to the larger questions of society, culture, virtue, philosophy, and metaphysics through the supposed literary subjects of academia. On one level his work can be seen as an attempt to remind academia of what its subjects should be.
He was a voracious reader of western civilization. There may not be many even among their scholars who are as curious as he was about the works of T. S. Eliot, O’Connor, Robert Frost, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, William Wordsworth, Richard Weaver, Plato, Aristotle, the ancient Greek playwrights, and many others. And he knew them all to their bones. While these are the focus of his works in an academic sense, that sense is the lesser, subject to his deeper concern for the nature of reality and man’s place in it. Such seemingly disparate thinkers as these are brought to bear on the “likeness of unlike things.” While each of these authors spoke to the questions of man’s predicament in their own way, through Montgomery’s efforts we see them in a lasting proximity to each other, and thus he reaffirmed the western literary tradition often fought against and misunderstood by academia. There are places in Montgomery’s books where authors separated by a thousand years speak as if in counsel with one another, and one gets the impression that (contrary to the modern tendency towards specialization and isolation) those authors would be pleased to be seen as such.
His works have many attractions beyond the academic. He begins The Reflective Journey toward Order by saying that, in talking about various poets, his ultimate subject is “the poet’s continuing quest for certitude, for a point of rest which reflects an order and harmony of mind.” (2) Such a quest would perhaps seem pointless to the man who starts every endeavor with the assumption that his mind is already in order. But no one can doubt that, given the legitimacy of the question, Montgomery seeks an answer that is valuable not merely to the poet.
For another, he gives us fine examples of what might be called the “manners of thought.” One of the most valuable characteristics of Montgomery’s essays is his undying curiosity about the way the “men he chose for fathers” looked at the world. He was indefatigable in following poets, philosophers, and theologians to the inevitable logical conclusions of their respective crafts. He did not review his subjects, as modern scholars do, in light of the temporary abstractions of our day (gender studies, deconstructionism, and so forth); he saw them in the light of the larger tradition of which they were really a part. For, Montgomery knew, as his friend O’Connor taught, that wherever vision goes, judgment goes, too. And his judgment was grounded deeply in tradition.
Whether he agrees or disagrees with the authors he writes of, he demonstrates a refreshing ability to see the world through their eyes. The theoretical exercise of being able to see the world through another’s eyes—an exercise increasingly suspicious by its absence in public discussions and debates—was fully alive in him. His work, therefore, can be said to be selfless, for he brought his vision to bear upon his subjects without sacrificing faithful witness either to their beliefs or his own, even as he brought those subjects to bear upon the larger truth of things. But let it also be said: there are no insincere or overweening claims of objectivity in his works. He doesn’t say, “Trust me, because I believe in truth.” One relies on the truth of his works because their objectivity is proven, rather than stated.
The truth was Montgomery’s constant focus, whether he was speaking of possums or playwrights or Plato. And while there are many “false truths” in modernism competing for supremacy, the one that Montgomery most directly opposed is the fable of man-as-God, man the measure of all things. The modernist redefinition of man as autonomous and without transcendent roots shoulders man out of the picture, because it redefines him as something less than what he is by nature. When man’s dependence on God and on the reality that God has created is removed, man becomes something less, not more, than what he was created to be. Man’s desires become something less than what they were created to be. The result is that we see ourselves as increasingly mechanistic in order to grant ourselves permission to fulfill whatever desire assails us, fulfillment of truncated desire being the highest standard of modernism. But there are even those of a more traditional bent who, seeking a more certain place for man outside of modernism’s noxious influence, redefine man as well. Thus, some “traditionalists” propose that man is more a political being than a spiritual one, or inversely he is so much a spiritual being that politics are beneath him. But in seeking such an errant traditionalism the traditionalist proves himself modernist, proposing a false abstraction of man that eclipses the reality of man. Montgomery knew both extremes at first sight: it is plain that he broke with the modernist way; but he also avoided the extremisms of certain new “traditional” approaches to truth. Against both, he avoided proposing either anthropocentrism, on the one hand, or a godlike autonomy, on the other. For Montgomery, man is understood both sub species aeternitatis as well as close to God.
As an aside, I might point out to the philosophy student that Montgomery had a healthy balance of Plato and Aristotle in his worldview; though, because he is a “Hillybilly Thomist,” his preference leans towards Aristotle. Often falsely portrayed as contending with one another on whether to see man as only a transcendent creature or an immanent one, in Montgomery’s view they and he agree that man is both. (Neo-Platonism, however, as distinct from the two, receives its fair share of criticism from Montgomery. He once confided to me that Plato was often misread by the Platonists, hence his shyness about identifying his worldview too closely with Plato’s.)
Over the last several centuries, it is obvious that we have started to despair of knowing the truth, or even that such a thing exists outside of temporal facts. We find quasi-certainty throughout society in plenty: in politics, education, morality, and even in spirituality. When the luminaries of our day speak—the politicians, the pundits, the best-selling authors, and so on—they seem to worship certainty for its own sake, whether or not it is supported by truth. They tell us to gather data, but not wisdom. They tell us to observe the “facts,” but not the truth. We are entrenched in a war between (as Montgomery’s beloved Weaver put it) ever-shifting and ill-conceived policies, on the one hand, and the increasing eclipse of eternal principles, on the other. We master today what we must unlearn tomorrow. But in the midst of this war Montgomery proved himself to be the exceptionally rare critic who engages his subjects, their ideas, and his audience in a conversation regarding what we can be certain of. He was a gifted conversationalist who, so far from eclipsing his interlocutors, enhanced their part in the conversation. Retaining one’s own certainty based on truth is rare enough. But in Montgomery this retention coexists with conversing openly with one’s interlocutors.
Because his conversation is free, his didactic method is free to be maieutic: he teases out of his own mind, the minds of his favorite authors, and the minds of his readers the wisdom latent in “known but forgotten things.” I had been reading Montgomery for years before I saw the obvious parallels between his works and the Socratic dialogues of Plato, wherein anamnesis—remembering what is already there to be known—is the goal, though it might be buried under strata of historical forgetfulness and “chronological snobbery.” In combining Plato’s maieutic method with Aristotle’s peripatetic method (via St. Thomas Aquinas), Montgomery’s works are examples of what they talk about, because his manner of teaching manifests the very thing that is being taught. He conversed with his subjects while also conversing about them. His ought is manifested in his own manner of suggesting it. How rare to see a man be in his own craft the very truth he teaches. This can be said of so few “innerleckchuls,” as he and O’Connor called them, but he had integrity—which is to say, consistency—while maintaining what would be for lesser thinkers a contradiction between teaching and manner of teaching.
A corrective that he was often anxious to put forth, that must be remembered by all traditionalists lest they fall into the vortex of modernism, is that modernism is not a chronological problem. With Etienne Gilson he argued that the root of all of modernism’s problems goes back much farther in time than the modern era, back to the Garden of Eden. When attacking modernism, Montgomery was not attacking the tendencies of only some men, but rather the tendency of all men. There can be no doubt that some men exhibit this fallen tendency—this desire to elevate a fallen state to the level of a standard—more than others; but the traditionalist is a traditionalist precisely because he subjects himself in his actual nature to the solution that will bring us out of our fallen state. The modern tendency, on the other hand, is to offer solutions that remove the folks who believe in them from the possibility of correction. Montgomery allows for no such egotistical escapism.
Thus, in his works I found the best method for testing whether this or that idea is worthy of consideration, based on how “modern” it is: to what degree is the originator of the idea removed from its implications? I will give a few examples.
Freud tells us that all human actions are results of the libido—all actions, that is, except the manufacture of Freudianism.
The evolutionist has yet to place the human mind and its necessary freedoms in the matrix of evolutionary theory, at least in any rationally satisfactory way. The mind is a mechanistic device—which begs the question of how evolutionists use their own minds to theorize about it. And these theories are presumably generated by certain minds out of their own volition because they are thought to be true, not because they are biochemically inevitable. The evolutionist has exiled his own mind from his own theories.
The Hegelian tells us that all ideas are either thesis, antithesis, or synthesis, always subject to correction by other ideas throughout history. But then he commits the dubious sleight-of-hand of claiming, or at least hoping, that the Hegelian Dialectic is none of these, but rather a thesis with no antithesis. How did it escape the constant self-correction that is supposed to be the history of human thought? There’s no answer, other than that it is the latest thesis. Thus, his paradigm of ideas is by no means exhaustive, having excluded its own idea.
And even within orthodox arenas we have the same problem moving in the opposite direction: traditionalists sometimes claim to have discovered some hitherto unknown tradition or truth, one that will save us from modernism more effectively than the plain, old traditional beliefs so easily mocked in the public arena. Presumably, there are truer truths and more traditional traditions that could not really have cropped up until now, under a modernist sun. Such traditionalists cannot point to a tradition—a system of belief carried through time—that they genuinely belong to.
The sum total is this: when we ask a modernist for directions to the truth, it’s as if we asked the Irishman in the famous story how to get to Dublin: “Eh, well, you can’t really get there from here.”
But then we have people such as Lewis, who warns us in The Abolition of Man that there is a tremendous difference between those who impact our shared reality ”organically,” from within and as a given, and those who operate on it “surgically” from without. Chesterton, in his wonderful Orthodoxy, speaks of a “patriotism” for the world and the cosmos that revolutionizes them from within, under the compulsion of stewardship and membership. Eric Voegelin warns us of the “gnostics” who see the world as fodder, the same way a lesser lumberjack sees a tree: as “so many board feet” (Montgomery’s phrasing). And Gilson, in his Unity of Philosophical Experience, warns us of an idea that has been with us since the Fall and which threatens to reduce to impotence all intimate engagements with reality. These authors can be trusted on this point at least, that they do not excuse themselves or anyone else from the limitations of their own findings. Montgomery knew these men’s works intimately, and it is among their company that he deserves to be placed. Speaking of the manipulative gnosticism of our day, he says:
Now, the gnostic manipulator of being, the one who would use ideas as a magician’s wand over man and nature, though he disbelieve in the God of Abraham nevertheless believes in this innate hunger of substance for fulfillment; he accepts a teleological drive in human nature and sees it evidenced particularly in the “ideological” inclination of man toward millennial ends. He will nevertheless explain it in terms of mechanistic evolution. At his best, that is, he is only a perverse philosopher, perhaps withdrawn into the acid of cynicism. At his worst, he recognizes the terrible power of ideology when it is under collective control by a subtle mind. On the one hand, he must deny that our inclination to worship idols is a truncation of a higher calling in us lest his authority prove derivative. On the other hand, he must encourage idol worship in order to enlist the power of that hunger in us. If he does not “sincerely” encourage such worship, he is in danger of being found out. Then he should have to declare honestly that the inclination is a fiction he encourages as a means to his own ends. In turn—if honest—he must account for the inclination in mechanistic terms. He must at least admit or deny that it is he who dreams a perfection which he intends to impose. Since in our several mind there is not one but many gnostic dreams, he must confront the ultimate question: Why your dream rather then mine? We must ask, if we accept the actual premise of his operation of mind; namely, his denial of logic or purpose in existence itself when existence is divorced from the human mind. (3)
Montgomery sought the universals through the particulars, as he put it, rather than among the dreams of supremacy doubtfully woven out of the manipulations of those particulars. He calls us away from those “truths” whose “universal” worth is valid only among those modernists who despise the universal truths. And in this movement from relative to absolute, particular to universal, he waged a war against modernism in the hopes of saving the person from modernism’s cult of individualism.
As an embodiment of the saying that the well-phrased question answers itself, Montgomery goes beyond merely pointing out our predicament and identifying our manipulators. They are not just “out there” somewhere, but ultimately “in here”: which is to say, ourselves. As the editor of this journal once put it, we have lost the power to predicate. The loss of this particular power Montgomery felt keenly, but especially among the traditionalists themselves. There is a preponderance of studies in several of his books on “purifying the dialect of the tribe.” And he speaks much wisdom on how to regain it: one of the reasons we have lost this power is because we increasingly despair of being able to see, or even to participate in, what can be known, save as “gnostic manipulators.”
Intellectual pursuits throughout all of modern society seem to have devolved into stating some twisted part of the obvious in order not to have to speak the truth. As Montgomery has suggested, out of a presumptive, arrogant belief that our only possible interaction with reality is as its manipulators, we hover somewhere above reality, kept aloof from reality by those facts that are specifically chosen to support our smaller view of man as a mere biochemical entity. Our unpurified “dialect,” which is language divided for bad reasons, reveals us to ourselves: we have given ourselves over to either the ratio, the rational mind, or the intellectus, the heart—either to science (of a blunted sort) or sentimentality. And in dissociating them from one another, under the illusion that love can exist without truth, or truth without love, we have done violence to them both. Manipulative language means manipulated knowledge.
But the problem with being able to predicate, to speak with any accuracy or authority, to know the truth, is that you have to be a full participant of the thing you wish to know. You cannot be merely one of its directors. It is not a question of trying to unify the ratio and the intellectus; it is a matter of realizing that they were created in unity, whether we embrace that unity or not. To do violence to one is to do violence to the other. We work with a given standard of unity, not one of our own making. And in beholding the unity of all the faculties of man as they were created to be, we ultimately come to know these faculties as givens (a favorite word of Montgomery’s), not material for experimentation.
A cornerstone of Montgomery’s teaching is that whatever we know, we cannot know accurately unless we do so in light of the fact that one’s self and the objects of our knowledge are givens. Therefore, life is often least accurately described in terms such as “potential” and “progressive.” For in these terms, whether we admit it or not, we are speaking of getting away from reality. It is better to start with the given reality of whatever it is we wish to better, and all the limitations that that implies. As Montgomery aligns himself with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the question, we may give ourselves to imagination, as it is rooted in reality. But we may not give ourselves up to fancy. There is a sufficiency—no, a surplus—for real potential in what has already been given, while there is absolutely nothing given about “progress” and its future dreams of utopia. So few of the “progressive” dreams paraded by humanity in the last several hundred years have come to pass, or will. “Givenness” and one’s acceptance of it are the keys to valuable and compelling participation with and predication of our shared reality. But, Montgomery laments, we do not have much truck with givens anymore, and we prefer dreaming of having transcended the limitations that the idea of the given implies.
We fear for who will be in power these days, and against this lust for power Montgomery reminds us of a proper way to overcome our fallen limitations: “‘I am able’ means at least that ‘I am enabled’.” (4) Wherever else power may lie, we are enabled by givens (including our very selves), not by autonomous power. Setting aside that lust for power, we may move from “inordinate to ordinate desire.” And then we have reason to hope to find ourselves in a “spiritual climate of one’s being when one is ordinately in love with creation.” (5)
I have often wondered how many people out there, like me, casually flipped open one of Montgomery’s books, thinking to find some insights into Eliot, or O’Connor, or Faulkner, or Gilson, or Thomism, or even “Southerness,” only to find that this “literary critic” had found his way through these artists and their respective visions down to the ground of being, up through the virtues and vices of man and his environment, and beyond into the eternal and temporal truths themselves. It may “take a village,” to borrow that political expedient so popular a decade ago; but how much better for the village if its inhabitants can discover a prophet among them.
In his poetry and fiction, we see many of these ideas at play. He is sometimes amused at how stubbornly we play hide-and-seek with reality. In one of the funniest poems ever penned—a sonnet dedicated to a student of his who grumbled about being assigned the writing of a sonnet for homework—he begins, “Shall I compare thee to a horse’s ass?” (6) In another poem, he blithely points out that “Eve set our time bomb madly ticking / With her furtive apple picking.” (7) And who can say he has never found himself indicted by the following: “‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ is your spoken wish / Whose secret is Get thee behind and push!” (8)
But his knowing laughter flowed in his life as his wisdom did on the page. At a picnic at his house, no one but him noticed a small neighborhood dog trying to sneak onto the table that had the hamburgers on it. The smack on the would-be thief’s backside was as loud as the dog’s immediate yelp. All of us turned suddenly to see Marion, gentle but decisive humor on his face, and the dog jumping away from the table. Being a dialectician, he pulled the Marsh Wheeling out of his mouth and explained, “I had to convince him that he did not want to do that.”
One of the stories that they most liked to tell had to do with their parish priest, Fr. Mark Haverland, who has since been elevated to the bishopric. At their church, one of the Montgomery grandchildren was wearing a t-shirt that read “Yale.” “Yale,” Fr. Mark said to the boy. “What?” asked the boy, taken aback. “Yale,” Fr. Mark repeated, pointing at the boy’s shirt. The boy then proceeded to holler. As Dot told it, “He was nothing if not obliging.”
Dot once showed us a newspaper clipping showing a young Marion, sometime in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, in military fatigues and holding a chipmunk in his hand. The article went on to describe how Sammy Q, the chipmunk, had gone through basic training with Marion, even so far as crawling in with him in simulated fighting exercises. He had also been issued his own dog tags. He is buried—according to legend—in a Prince Albert can “in an undisclosed location.”
But there wasn’t just good humor and enjoyment. It would be remiss for me, in any memorial of Marion, not to mention our friend Darius Lecesne, of whom Barnett writes so well in Volume 3, Issue 01 of this publication. (There is also a good display of Darius’s artwork there, as well as his poetry throughout various issues.) Darius was a member of the literary group I belonged to that sought Montgomery out. He was there at their house as often as anyone else, and he would sometimes drive for hours to see Marion guest lecture. It was from seeing him lecture that Darius concluded that Marion was the greatest mind he had ever seen in action. The correspondence between those two over the years was constant and lively, and Darius often sent copies of it to us. As much an artist as a poet, Darius made ink drawings (and occasionally, woodcuts) of his favorite authors, with a quotation written in calligraphy around the subject. He made cards of these drawings and sent them out on feast days, holidays, and just about any other time of year to those with whom he corresponded. One of these cards was of Marion.
In 2006, all too suddenly, Darius passed away. On the way to Atlanta the morning after he had been rushed to the hospital (I was living in South Carolina by this time), I called Marion and Dot to tell them the news and that it did not look like Darius was going to make it. Dot answered the phone and then quickly relayed the news to Marion, who was nearby. I have not, until now, willingly allowed myself to remember the quietude, fortitude, and suddenness with which Dot said, “I’m sorry, Bill, but Marion will not be able to come to the phone at this moment.” She thanked me for calling, told me to call back when we arrived in Atlanta, and quickly got off the phone. In the years that followed, their concern and love for Darius’s wife and children never lessened.
I once called Marion to wish him a happy birthday. He told me how the day before it had been gorgeously sunny and his yard had been full of songbirds, even some hummingbirds: an auspicious sign. On the following morning, however, he awoke and looked out the window to find that they had all flown, a heavy fog smothering everything, and his giant oak tree full of still, quiet buzzards. “A bad omen,” he said, laughing. “But I do believe I will be okay.”
That augury was not fulfilled for several more years, but it came too soon for one who even in his old age seemed so alive. The diaspora hastened to pass on our last messages to him—for me, an expression of unspeakable gratitude, and thus he and I parted the way we met. He died painfully and peacefully, full of joy, surrounded by his wife, children, and many of his grandchildren. To their delight, he constructed poetry on his deathbed (that pastime of the dying greats), all the while saying over and over again, “I’m so happy.” Their spunky and delightful daughter Heli (as quick witted as her mother) reports that for all of them the time was one of joy as much as it was of sorrow. Thus, we may say of him what Lewis said of his deceased friend Charles Williams: Death has its way with men; but there are some men who, in the way they live and die, do something to death.
After the funeral service proper and before the burial, I approached Dot in the fellowship hall of their church and told her what I couldn’t help but say. “I’m so happy for you.” It was an awkward thing to say, I guess, in the wrong place and at the wrong time. But I looked at their family and I could not help but feel joy for them. She squeezed my hand and we talked some of how our particular branch of the diaspora had come to them. Later that day, as he was lowered into the ground, Marion’s family spread beautiful yellow gingko leaves over his casket, and all of us came and dropped a handful of earth over him.
Marion Montgomery was, for me, one of the greatest minds of our day, a friend, a prophetic poet, a craftsman of the highest company, and my debt to him can never be repaid. However, he has taught me that all debts are real, and one is not excused from honoring them simply because they lie outside one’s scope. In considering that debt, I am reminded of another that he speaks of throughout his work (and included to great effect on one of Darius’s cards):
If one approach the question (whether virtue can be taught), as I do, from the Christian view of existence, he is left in awe by the most incommensurate relation of all, revealed in an action which reason cannot reconcile to its effect. Before this action, ourselves as analogous to the hero pales: that God should come to be victim in our stead. There is no adequate measure of the disproportion between God Self-sacrificed and the almost anonymous, self-centered soul his action recovers. (9)
His works, his voice and good humor, the unlit cigar clenched in his teeth: without these things I would be impoverished in ways I do not wish to know. But it is not so. As Eliot, one of his favorite prophetic poets, put it, “Quick now, here, now, always.”
1. Montgomery. Possum, and Other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1987: vii.
2. Montgomery. The Reflective Journey toward Order; Essays on Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Others. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1973: xiii.
3. Montgomery. Possum, and Other Receits for the Recovery of “Southern” Being. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1987: 46-47.
4. Montgomery. ibid.: 26.
5. Montgomery. ibid: 53.
6. Montgomery. “Sonnet to Myself for an Astonished Student Assigned the Writing of a Sonnet,” The Gull, and other Georgia Scenes. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1969: 37.
7. Montgomery. “The Ladies, God Bless ‘em,” ibid.: 65.
8. Montgomery. “The Enemy in the Middle Distance,” ibid.: 67.
9. Montgomery. Virtue and Modern Shadows of Turning: Preliminary Agitations. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1990: 2-3.