The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Journal of Rehearsals, a memoir by Wallace Fowlie. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 219 pp.
In recent years, by chance, Wallace Fowlie had occasion to visit a playground where he had spent many hours of his youth. “An old forgotten feeling of panic rushed over me,” he writes. “This was the site of my exposure where, in the presence of all the children, I was suffocated by my incapacity to improvise gestures and runs, shouts and games.” In the rigid order of the classroom, where many another child felt awkward, Fowlie was secure. It was in the playground, where life was spontaneous, that he felt out of place. “Our childhood is our entire life,” he states in the Foreward* to Journal of Rehearsals, and the marvel of this elegantly composed memoir is that so much of the man can be traced back to the child, to events that to another writer might have seemed banal and inconsequential.
Among his earliest memories is a fascination with the power of language, in the sermons which he attended at the Baptist Tremont Temple of his youth; even when he could not understand their meaning, he thrilled at the flow and force of the words. But perhaps a profounder discovery was of the power of silence. At the same period as the weekly sermons, he had a chance to visit the circus. He was fascinated there by the various acrobats, at the beauty they demonstrated in the form and grace of the human body. But behind the art, he saw the artist; while others in the audience applauded, marveled at the spectacle, he noticed the tension and fear on the faces of the performers before they composed the smiles that were to be their masks for the next trick. As their routines grew more complex, action in other rings ceased, and all attention was focused on those central performers. The silence that descended on the audience as they watched the climactic routines was a measure, for that child, of the distance between audience and performer, a distance and silence that had to be maintained if the acrobat was to create with his body those images and motions of grace and beauty.
Another kind of silence was that of the clowns. Though mute, they had closed that distance between audience and performer, wandered among the crowd, played directly to the children. With their misshapen costumes, gaudy make-up, they had made themselves grotesque, destroyed whatever beauty they had as individuals. In so doing, they enabled the audience to laugh. It would not have been funny to see the acrobats fail, because they represented the grand aspirations of humanity, but the clowns failed constantly, and people could laugh, because clowns were the Other. Thus they were able to enact the real drama of humanity. For the history of man is a history of failure, the life of any one of us a series of failures. In the films of Chaplin, which Fowlie began attending about the same time, he saw a more complex form of the same drama. Chaplin moved in a more real world, where men acted, evil existed, but in his comic garb, with his jaunty cane, he was not of that world. Ever the innocent, he constantly failed, but was never utterly vanquished. His triumph was that he never participated in the evil around him. For Fowlie, even as a child, the clowns of this world were not funny, because they represented man’s hopeless dreams, useless striving, the “inexhaustible tenderness and impotence of man.”
What Fowlie could see in those early experiences, or at least had apprehended since, was that he would not be the worldly man, outwardly successful, who, like the acrobat, enacts man’s grandest aspirations. His was to be the part of the clown, who adopts a role in order to enact a truer drama. The role he discovered, the mask he was to wear, through which he would become more truly himself, he found in the French language, the French manner, the French temperament. When he began studying French in his twelfth year, he not only experienced one of those mysterious affinities between man and subject, but also saw in that language a chance to “correct all my past blunders and come fresh upon the universe.” He had discovered his “studied and rehearsed approach to life.”
Characteristically, his gradual discovery of another aspect of his role began at his weekly attendance at a silent film serial, “The Ruby Ring,” starring Pearl White. Essentially the same drama was presented each week, as the heroine’s beauty led her into an incredibly perilous situation from which she would not be rescued until the next episode. In these serials Fowlie perceived an association between sensuality and danger, but also discovered that it was when the heroine was in danger, threatened with extinction, that she became important and precious to him. With the object of his longing distant, endangered, he could “sing, during the week to come, like Orpheus, of my lost love.”
Pearl White, then, was the first of the objects of beauty who for Fowlie were to remain distant, unapproachable, who in fact had to remain so in order for him to have with them the relationship that he desired. In his adolescence he discovered a passion for opera, especially for French opera as performed by Mary Garden. She too, as she sang, seemed distant, vulnerable; even when she portrayed a lover there was something solitary in the very intensity of her love. In her role as Melisande she portrayed a red-haired beauty who was to be Fowlie’s new object of adoration, accompanied by an adolescent melancholy, “the same heroine whose beauty caused disaster and who disappeared, as Eurydice did, into a land of perpetual night.” He found a similar emotion in his earliest striking experience of pictorial art, Titian’s Europa; as he gazed at Europa being carried across the water on the back of the bull, he felt that he had been left behind on the other bank, and understood in himself “the role and fate of a certain kind of man which perhaps I was: the interpreter who looks at the world since he is unable to act in it.”
He made these discoveries not in the ordinary experience of everyday life, but in contemplating art: the experiences of art had become the most important in his life. The art of the clowns, of Chaplin, Pearl White, had been one of a perfect silence which he had filled with his own words. Discovering his passion for Mary Garden and for another singer, of art songs, Povla Frijsh, Fowlie was discovering arts which involved language, but language whose meaning was only partly comprehensible, so that he, with his own words, had to complete its meaning. When he had discovered his early affinity for the French language, he realized that what had most attracted him was its sonority, the almost sensual experience involved in speaking new words; he felt an attraction for the word even before he understood its meaning, perhaps partly because the meaning would never fully be understood. French, then, was a poetic language for him, and the great love of his life, around which his vocation was to center, was French poetry. His role as its critic was a calling, a vocation in a larger sense, and required of him, he felt, a certain stance toward life. “I had to leave Eurydice in her circle of light, abandon her to her role of singer and priestess of the transposed world of poems, without ever coming to her.” Fully to experience art, to be initiated into its mysteries, he would have to stand somewhat apart from life.
To much of the audience for this memoir, Wallace Fowlie will be a familiar figure. He has taught for twelve years at Duke University, and before that taught at Bennington, the University of Chicago, and Yale. His students have known him in a variety of guises. Above all, perhaps, he has been that teacher of literature most able to reduce the depth and complexity of art into an elegant simplicity. The list of courses he has offered is enormous, and he has never ceased teaching to undergraduates at least one section of that survey which follows French literature through all its history. He has been known, in a phrase that has repeated itself on all his book jackets until he must certainly be tired of it, as a writer of “the best criticism of contemporary French literature now being written in America.” He has been a man personally in touch with many of the important names in contemporary literature, a list that would be as impressive in its variety as in its length. For students interested in French culture and the French temperament, he has been the professor most in touch with it and most able to impart it. He has been all his life a writer and a man who has known writers, and for young writers a constant source of encouragement, one who has understood and sympathized with their struggle. He has been a friend to students, interested in and willing to befriend even the non-literary among them. He is a humble open man, self-effacing despite his considerable accomplishments. Many of his students must have hoped he would write his memoirs (bringing up to date an earlier volume, Pantomime) and detail the fascinating encounters that he has mentioned from time to time in the classroom. He has written that book, but has written also much more than that. Those who approach Journal of Rehearsals hoping to find a familiar figure will discover a deeper, fuller portrait than they had expected. Fowlie’s most moving pages deal not with the professor, the writer, the literary figure, but with the inner man who traces himself so unerringly back to the child.
Fowlie traces his vocation as a teacher back to his twelfth year, the same year he discovered French, and has recalled from throughout his schooling vivid memories of a number of teachers, those who dealt with French always more stylized, always to some extent giving a performance. At Harvard he encountered two professors who perhaps influenced the best features of his own teaching style, Andre Moritz, whose lectures were a model of organization and selection, and the renowned Irving Babbitt, a moralist and judge who dealt more with the conclusions to be drawn from literature than with a close involvement in the text. Fowlie writes movingly of the sorrow inherent in teaching, the fact that a teacher’s task is to train his students to the point that he is no longer necessary to them. The other side of his vocation, his writing, has always been a solace to him. Ever an exile without a home, despite his extended stays at various colleges, he has a habit of immediately sitting and writing a few sentences in whatever room he is to occupy, thus making it his own. “I can carry the past only if I can put it in a sentence,” he says. “The lightness of a book is all my life should weigh.” Writing has been a daily ritual for him, a spiritual exercise. Just as in his room he has always kept two desks, a dark one for his work as a professor and a white one for his own writing, so he has divided his days into periods, the early morning hours of silence, when he fills pages with his own words, a second period of preparing lectures, when he intones the words of others, and, finally, a movement into the world outside his rooms, into life, when he always feels that he is leaving his true existence for one that is its shadow.
Recurring through the volume like a series of refrains are Fowlie’s numerous visits to France. He was most fortunate in his early encounters there. As a graduate student, toward the end of a stay, he happened into a bookstore and fell into a casual conversation with the proprietress, spoke of his projected thesis on the poetry of Saint-Beuve, of his greater personal interest in the contemporary religious writers in France. “Do you know my brother’s books?” she asked, and through that casual meeting with the sister of Ernest Psichari, Fowlie not only discovered a new thesis topic that was to involve his spirit as well as his mind, but also found entry into a host of friends and family who brought him much closer to an understanding of French life. Through the Psicharis he met Jacques Maritain, encountered André Gide, but also spent much time with the sister, Henriette Psichari (the granddaughter of Ernest Renan), with Mme. Renan, and with Mme. Genevieve Favre, the mother of Maritain. This whole fruitful encounter, carried on through many years, with the entire Renan-Psichari family, involved his intellectual being, his spiritual being, his affinity with France, and was perhaps the most precious of his attachments there.
Much of the volume’s second half is given over to Fowlie’s literary and professional encounters. The list of his acquaintances, and their importance to twentieth century culture, is enormous: Robert Penn Warren, Martha Graham, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Saint-John Perse, Kenneth Burke, Stanley Hyman, Jean Cocteau; a number of others could have been included. With some he had only a brief acquaintance; with others he grew close. One cannot help feeling that his closest affinity, at least with an American, has been with the professor and writer Austin Warren. Warren typifies the Yankee temperament that more and more through his life Fowlie has realized is a large part of his make-up. Puritanical in his habits of work, almost whimsical in his modes of relaxation, uncomplaining in his personal life, Warren has been another pilgrim soul, traveling from university to university. He has acted as a stimulus to other writers without really having anyone to encourage his own work. Always he has insisted that Fowlie continue his personal writing rather than just studying others as a professor and critic. In some ways, the brief portrait of Austin Warren seems the most closely felt in the book. In much of it, as his friends will attest, Fowlie might have been writing of himself.
Perhaps the most interesting passages in the second half of the volume are Fowlie’s random speculations amid the anecdotes. Writing of a recent return to France, he ruminates on the changing literary scene, realizes that vital literary movements, that once seemed so important and alive, are gone. Just as his warmest relations are with old friends — so much effort is involved in breaking down the barriers that exist with new ones — so his greatest interest is not with new literary figures, but with re-evaluations of old ones. Meeting on a train a priest who is carrying in his suitcase a relic of Pius IX, Fowlie speculates on the strange fate of man, the possibility that all his striving may just be presumption. As the book proceeds, he realizes the extent to which he is an odd mix of two cultures, understands that no American can make himself over into a Frenchman, that really he shouldn’t want to. He confesses to the compulsive rigidity of his life, admits to vaguely admiring spontaneous men without really understanding them.
But Fowlie has always been a man of paradox. A scholar devoted to the most aesthetically difficult of all French writers (Mallarme, Proust), he has all his life been open to the latest literary fad. A devout Catholic, he has studied and admired Sartre, Genet, explored the avant-garde. A friend to the great, he has always shown interest in even the most timid of students to wander into his classroom. A self-effacing man who even in his lectures seems simply to be making suggestions (one can hear his repeated queries, “Does that make any sense at all?”), he comes across in his writing as a bold forthright voice, whose simple sentences speak volumes in a little space.
The reader is ever conscious of what has been left out. Fowlie makes reference in this memoir to the mass, to the theological writers that have always interested him, but he never makes specific mention of his spiritual life or of his conversion. One can understand the attractions of the mass for him, in its long tradition, its inherent simplicity, its essential mystery. In an early passage Fowlie compares the priest to the clown. Both, in an elaborate and complicated ritual, become increasingly the center of attention. Both are taking a role, acting less as individuals than as representatives of someone else. Both are surrounded by a silence. At one performance, Fowlie saw a clown toss a ball into the air, stare at it as if it were the sum of all life’s mysteries, then crumble in despair as it fell to the earth. The priest, as he holds the round communion wafer in the air for all eyes to focus on, then draws it to his heart, has hands that are more sure. Fowlie’s view is not, as passages in this memoir might suggest, that man must fail. It is that man must turn outward from himself, participate in a ritual, and, in so doing, allow another to succeed for him.
*Fowlie’s own unconventional spelling.