“None of these teachers have I ever met. The mystery is how one person whom I never met, through the recountings down the ages of how many others whom I also have never met, could shed light on each other, eventually to enlighten me.’’
One such teacher, in the more literal sense, I did meet, half a century ago, and to her I owe my sustained interest in eighteenth-century English literature: Donna Fricke. She’s now retired and living in Maine. I remember her when I read Swift, Johnson and Sterne. In a sense, reading them is an act of gratitude for Donna sharing her enthusiasm for these wonderful writers. There’s little mystery in that.
But in his essay “On the Mystery of Teachers I Never Met,” the late James V. Schall, S.J. (quoted above) examines something genuinely mysterious: teachers, usually writers or thinkers, some of whom lived millennia ago, who enlighten us today. For many of us, this sense of connection with long-dead figures is vivid. It’s not just academic, to earn good grades. Not to sound too much like Tevye, it’s tradition, once defined by Edward Shils as “that which is handed down.” For Schall they include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, Chesterton, Eric Voegelin, Hilaire Belloc and Josef Pieper. My list is more heterogenous, I suppose: Dr. Johnson, George Santayana, Beerbohm, Nabokov, Yvor Winters, the Mandelstams, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Epstein, others. What they teach is not, to use a word one hears with disturbing frequency, data. Nor is it lessons. It’s more a sense of openness to all that can be learned, with the understanding that there’s much we’ll never know. It’s about respecting mystery.
Another among my teachers deserves mention here: Guy Davenport. I met him once, on this date, June 18, in 1990, at his home in Lexington, Ky., so he straddles the two categories of teachers – call them page-bound and in-person. I had been reading him for more than a decade by the time we visited for a few hours. If I had to distill what he taught me, without being too reductive, I would say the importance of attentiveness, to books and the world at large. Pay attention. Schall turns, inevitably, from teaching to truth:
“We are beholden to those who guided us so that we can easily see and, if we choose, arrive at the first principles on which all truth stands. Teachers and students are in the same condition with regard to truth – they stand before something neither the one nor the other made. The modern idea that the only truth is the ‘truth’ we ourselves make is a narrow view that quickly cuts us off from what is. A teacher is content to see that light in the eyes of the student who himself, after some guidance perhaps from parents the teacher does not know, some prodding, some examples, some reflection, begins to see, to delight, in the truth of things. The teacher must, at his core, be unselfish, must rejoice in what is not his. This is the liberty of truth that links the generations, that links friends, one to another.”