There is not much that can be done in the face of our certain mortality. Two nights ago I heard from friends that David Morgan, professor of French Literature at Furman University and for several years one of the teachers at Rusticatio Virginiana, lay on his deathbed and had probably only hours to live. I lit one of my novena candles and placed it outside, in the woods, where I could see it from my cabin. I sent a message, to be given to him if possible, that I had lit a candle “transitui eius,” for his “passing over.” It was a cold night and it was snowing, and at times I felt the candle looked cold and lonely out there. But it was in its appropriate place, in the wilderness, on the mountaintop, where only God and I could see it. I woke up around four in the morning and looked out and saw it there, still lit. But when I got up to truly start my day four hours later I found the candle had gone out. It had served its purpose. David Morgan passed away around 5:30 that morning.
No matter how much you prepare for it, no matter how much you meditate on the simple fact that we are all mortal, nothing masks how much it hurts to see truly good, truly wonderful people die. I cannot even claim that I was on really intimate terms with him, but just seeing one picture of him surface on Facebook, and to see that olive-colored shirt that he always wore, and his blue jeans, and to see that face that I will now see nowhere again except in pictures, immediately brought me to tears. I do not think that I saw him more than thirty days in my entire life – all at Rusticatio Virginiana, where for several years we would speak Latin together a week at a time. But his goodness made such an impression on me that it is impossible to think that it has ceased to exist.
To say he was a deeply learned man would be the greatest of understatements. As a Latinist he was one of the five or six most knowledgeable men in the world. He wrote a dictionary of modern Latin. He spoke Latin brilliantly – not just with the completest competence but with real beauty and refinement. And he could enter into any aspect of the language. He and I argued on more than one occasion about the merit of what Linnaeus had done to the Latin language (attempting to make a scientific instrument out of what had been a human and imprecise cultural matrix). All this to me is all the more impressive because he was not by profession a Latin scholar and to this day I do not know where he even learned Latin. He was a professor of French, and by all accounts an excellent one.
We spent hours discussing French literature. He seemed to know it all, from the Song of Roland forward. He knew of my own passion for Rabelais and Balzac, and we spoke about the theological meaning of those men’s incredible willingness to say yes to life. Knowing that this was my general direction, he proffered me all kinds of dicta from Descartes and Pascal, which he quoted from memory (and translated into Latin) – and David always seemed to know what was most important, and deepest, in all the authors, and what was most important he knew by heart. But if he could soar up to the theological heights with Pascal, it did not mean that he could not handle the ribald humanness of other French writers. We both would marvel at Rousseau, and his sometimes astonishing honesty, and trade off-color stories about the strange proto-Romantic, “qui,” (and I am quoting David’s exact words now) “dixit se numquam ad summam Veneris voluptatem assecutum esse nisi natibus verberatis” (“who said that he never attained the highest sexual pleasure without being spanked”). But of all the authors his favorite was Proust, and he recommended him to me again and again, as the sweetest and most delicate of all.
I think what I loved most about David was his gentleness. It was most evident when he spoke English, and out came a thick, slow, but incredibly gentle South Carolina drawl. He always spoke softly, and with a pleasing baritone. Whenever he spoke in front of a crowd, someone would always have to ask him to speak up. It wasn’t in his nature to be boisterous or loud. He ate quietly and drank quietly, and in pictures I generally find him in the background – sitting in the last row, or propping up a wall. He dressed simply, neither noticeably casual or formal. He played the piano beautifully, but what he seemed to want was to be an accompanist – he was not particularly interested in the spotlight. He taught at many of the major Latin-speaking programs around the world, and always as the second fiddle, to Nancy Llewellyn, to Terence Tunberg, to Luigi Miraglia, though in abilities he was second to no one. Once, when someone asked him how to say something in Latin, I heard him say, “You know, I think they expressed it like this…” There was nothing dogmatic about his mode, even though he had literally written a dictionary handling much more complicated matters than what the student was asking. He was gracious and humble, to the point where it was felt by others as actual beauty.
This seemed to be the fruit of age, perhaps from having had something of a charmed life. Once at Rusticatio he was part of a skit demonstrating how to run a classroom in Latin, and he played the “teacher’s pet,” who knew all the answers and never misbehaved, occasionally getting picked on by the other students. He played the part so well – and sitting there he seemed to get actual genuine pleasure from answering the questions – that I asked him afterwards if he had been like that as a student. He said, “You know, I kinda was.” It made sense to me – that he had been an angelic, perfect little boy, who had always been loved by his parents and teachers, and especially by his mama. It was still evident in his face somehow. The fact that he was a Southern man of refinement helped it all too – he didn’t have to use it much, but charm was in his arsenal when he needed it. And for all his learning, he could turn on the down-home version of that charm when appropriate: I remember him meeting the mother of a young Southern co-ed who had just finished Rusticatio, asking about their ride home: “Where y’all fixin’ to geaux [how else can I write a drawled ‘o’?]?”
His stories of the Old South mesmerized me. Rusticatio takes place at an old Southern plantation house with a giant verandah, and each year there have been several staff members from the South, and the place seems to encourage the telling of Southern tales. David’s lifespan went from the Old South to the New. I remember him telling a story of an old white man – it might have been an old family friend, or a relative, I cannot remember – who could not drive anymore, and knew he was dying, and asked David to take him someplace. “Sure,” he said, and off they went. The old man directed David to “the other side of town,” where he stopped at a little shack where an old black woman was sitting on the porch. As the old man got out of the car, she said, “Oh, Henry, I thought you’d never come back,” and the two old lovers went inside the house to see each other one last time. David said, “That was the society we had. We had a society based on injustice, but bound together by love.” It seemed he never lost sight of either of those things, and I think he wondered, as I do sometimes, how to hold on to the progress of modern life without losing the love and intimacy that characterized the older world.
But he was most emphatically not a laudator temporis acti, and this was reflected in the admiration he had for his students. I never heard him criticize – as opposed to correct – a student or lose patience with one, at all. The stories he told about his young undergraduates were just as loving as the ones he told about the dead men and women of his childhood. And perhaps because he had chosen to teach in the South, in his home state, at Furman University, he saw continuity. I remember one time he said of one girl, “You could just feel the strength in her – the strength that came from thirteen generations of Southern matriarchs all just like her.” And even when they acted absurdly, he clearly loved them. He told a story about a young lady – I think, teaching French, and being charming and good-looking himself, that most of his students were female – on a college trip to France, who bought a ten-thousand-dollar wedding dress in Paris. “What are you doing buying a wedding dress?” he said. “You don’t even have a fiance!” She replied (and you really must imagine the Southern voices in a story like this), “Professor Morgan, fiances are a dime a dozen. A wedding dress like this comes around once in a lifetime.”
In others it might be mere toleration of our weakness, or charity, but in him I saw a real love of those who were around him, even though we were not his equals when it came to Latin (much less French). One of the other Rusticators said about him, “He makes me want to be nicer.” Being nice – which so often in life seems like such a bad deal for the person who has the quality – seemed to be nothing but grace in him. I think this was because in him it was real – it was not a survival strategy, or way to overcome a social anxiety – it was real love, and real wisdom, by its very nature creating new life around it. He was always very affectionate to me, and it always made me feel good. He either called me “Henry David Thoreau” or mentioned “vir tuus, Henry David Thoreau” to me just about every day, and he never tired of hearing my stories about cabin life. This was another one of his great gifts, the ability to listen sincerely. And I always felt from him genuine reverence for the life I was living – I think for no other reason than that it was honestly my life. One day, after quizzing me about the trajectory of my life and my time in the woods, he said, “You know, I’m impressed how the men who have something great about them all spend a number of years removed from society and the normal things that people all worry about. It seems to be necessary for them.” I think I can speak for most men by saying that this is the kind of approval we most deeply crave – an older, wiser person saying that even we have the opportunity to become something great. It is the ultimate gift that teachers can bestow on their students. And David’s great patience made it seem like that approval of his was long-term, and not contingent on everything turning up roses within the next week. It felt like wisdom, and it came with all the traditional accoutrements of wisdom: there was the gentleness and the patience which all the old books tell us are the hallmarks of its presence. It did not come with a demand. And so I am not surprised to hear many people, even those of us who really did not spend much time with him, speak of him as a “mentor.” He had wisdom to share – and he found many young people who wanted it.
He never seemed like the sort of person I would call gregarious – I would presume that he spent a lot of time alone reading – but at Rusticatio he reminded me a bit of a cat, who seems solitary but always manages to be in the room where all the people are. At Rusticatio he was not the sort who would go off alone for a walk or be reading a book in a corner. He was always talking with someone – sometimes joking, sometimes earnest, but always engaged. And while he was not the first person up (by any stretch of the imagination), he was almost always one of the last people to bed. As long as there was conversation to be had he would be there. And this seemed to be what he valued in literature and society in general. I did not hear him hold forth about the importance of genre or how technology determines everything. He seemed to be interested in human connection – with people who were present or with the writings they left behind.
One other thing I will note. I don’t really know much about David’s life – where he travelled, where he lived, how he acquired his knowledge or his wisdom (just by looking at a brief obituary online I discovered that he had a law degree!) – but I know that in the end he was very publicly and obviously committed to two things, and those were the life of the mind as it appears in literature, and his home. He did not run away from old books as having no life in them, and he did not run away from his home as having nothing worthy of his talents. I know many intelligent people who would shudder to think of living in South Carolina, and I know many people who would question why one would bother to learn so much about people so long dead (even to the point of speaking Latin!). David proved that a path to wisdom still lies along the printed page, and in the place where one was born.
He died of liver failure; apparently he had had some liver troubles for some time. In retrospect this makes sense, because his complexion when I knew him was slightly off – which I simply attributed to the fact that people come in different shades. I was not shocked to hear of his illness – he had lived long enough to have a large number of gray hairs – but I will say that death coming for a man who was so full of life is hard to grasp. He was 53, and just beginning his intellectual prime, when he had clearly read and thought more than anyone else in the room but still was in complete possession of his faculties. He was fit and capable of everything the last time I saw him – he taught just last semester – and now he is dead.
There was generally something Socratic about him, deflecting the larger questions onto other speakers, and I never heard from him what he thought about God or the possibility of the mind’s existence after death. He had been raised Baptist, and I loved hearing him “talk the talk,” and he knew that I loved it and he would do it: “Now John, the Lord hath laid a burden on mah heart, and I wanna share it with you.” All I can say is that he lived as if there were more to life than what could be owned or touched, or even felt from inside one brain. And with him, who is still so vivid in the minds of all who knew him, it is impossible to imagine death as nonexistence. It would be as if a mountain you had walked past for decades were to vanish in a moment – it is easier to imagine that a cloud has obscured the mountain from sight, than that it could possibly have vanished like that. This is the way I feel about David – he is one of those people who by the beauty and greatness of their souls make the best case for immortality.
I will end this with a poem by Roscoe, which I shared with David because I felt he would find it apropos. (He never got back to me. He never responded to emails, ever.) Roscoe wrote the poem to his books, which bankruptcy forced him to sell; it turned into a hymn to intellectual connection. I turned three plurals to singular in lines five and six, in honor of David, who sleeps now with Proust and Rousseau and Rabelais and Roscoe, and all those other men he loved, and whom we will join soon enough:
As one who, destined from his friends to part,
Regrets his loss, but hopes again erewhile
To share their converse and enjoy their smile,
And tempers as he may affliction’s dart;
Thus, loved associate, chief of elder art,
Teacher of wisdom, who could once beguile
My tedious hours, and lighten every toil,
I now resign you; nor with fainting heart;
For pass a few short years, or days, or hours,
And happier seasons may their dawn unfold,
And all your sacred fellowship restore:
When, freed from earth, unlimited its powers,
Mind shall with mind direct communion hold,
And kindred spirits meet to part no more.