Walker Percy, Bouillabaisse, and Latin in America

Walker Percy, Bouillabaisse, and Latin in America


October 11, 2014

Andrew Dinan has been at Ave Maria University for ten years. He’s an associate professor of Classics and Early Christian Literature. He agreed to meet in his office to answer a few questions about his hobbies, his academic journey, and some of his recent projects.

1. One of my thoughts in college was that I wanted a comprehensive scope of the whole Western tradition. I always had an interest in Classics (I started Latin in high school, and took Greek nearly every semester in college), but having done the Great Books at Notre Dame, and having got a sweep of the literary, philosophical and theological tradition, my thought was to go back and attend to each of those eras—to study the Classical period, then Medieval, then Renaissance, and into Modernity. I suppose in one sense you could say that going into Classics was an attempt to begin the quest for a comprehensive scope, but I realized early on that wasn’t going to be possible.

2. I went to the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family for my M.T.S. The JPII Institute was held out to me as a place where modernity could be engaged from the theological and philosophical tradition of the Church. So many of the cutting issues today have to do with marriage and family. I wanted to understand what’s behind these issues, not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of the underpinning arguments, which re anchored in a conception of the human person and can be approached through faith and reason.

3. After getting my M.T.S., I went to Catholic University of America for my M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin and Greek. The M.A. program at CUA is devoted to the classical Greek and Roman authors—Horace, Virgil, Homer, Plato, and so forth. The Ph.D. program is devoted to Patristics. So, you approach the Church Fathers through the Classical period, an approach that I admire and am grateful for. That was why I ended up writing my thesis on Clement of Alexandria. Clement is traditionally regarded as the most Hellenic of the early Christian authors, in the sense that he is constantly citing the Classics, not just as ornaments, but engaging Greek thought at a very profound level.

4. What we’re doing here at Ave Maria University is absolutely unique. Several other young Catholic liberal arts institutions have been founded in the country in the last 30 years or so; each of these institutions has its own mission, and we all support one other, but I’m very happy to be here. I like the way in which Ave Maria is a liberal arts institution that treats the sciences very seriously. We have excellent research that is going on across the board in the arts, humanities, and sciences, even as we’re anchoring people in the tradition.

5. Recently, I’ve become very engaged in my own project, Latine Americana, on the role of Latin in early American history. I’ve been collecting documents that are in Latin and are written by Americans, or to Americans, or about America, or in America—anything American that’s in Latin. I’m putting together a reader, and I have close to 100 such documents. In my introduction, I describe the history of Latin in America, and then each of the documents is prefaced with an introduction and some help in reading the Latin text. 

When I first came to Florida, I was dismayed. Everything is brand new. There is an absence of noticeable history. I had grown up in the Washington, D.C. area, where everything is saturated in history; everywhere, you’re thinking about who was here before you. In Florida, you wonder whether anyone was here before you. But of course we know that Europeans were here from the early sixteenth century and native tribes were here long before that. Eventually I discovered that the Jesuits, great writers of Latin, had several missions in Florida in the sixteenth century, including one not far from here, near Estero, where Fr. Juan Rogel ministered. A Dominican priest, Fr. Luis Cancer, was martyred near Tampa in the 1540s. I have been exploring these and other early visitors in and through the Latin writings about them.

6. My morning routine is to get up very early, thanks to our kids, who for some reason are unable to sleep past 6 am, regardless of when they go to bed. The ideal morning is to have breakfast, Mass, and rosary—in some order—and to get out the door at a good hour. But now my morning is a battle scene, because we have a dog. My morning is contending, trying to get to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee without being slobbered on or attacked by the dog.

7. My favorite place to eat is at home, with my wife, late at night, a steak dinner. After that, if we can, we find a good movie to watch.

8. In writing, the most common mistake is to try to show off, and to be too verbose. I find that in writing, as in public speaking, it is helpful to try to think of it as a work of Charity, and to put yourself in the seat of your listener or reader, and to say: “What is going to help that person the most, not what will enable me to look the best, but how is this person going to take in what it is I’m trying to impart?”

9. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI inspire me as intellectuals and as Churchmen. Pope John Paul II is a hero of mine because of the way he lived his life. When you saw him in prayer, it was clear that that was how he found his strength. He was a patriot and an actor, a philologist, a playwright, a poet, a manual laborer, a philosopher, and a pastor. So many of those things don’t often go together. At the John Paul II Institute, we had a course in which we looked at his drama, and it was eye opening to me. I wrote a paper trying to discuss the way in which his rhapsodic theater was indebted to, or showed the influence of, Greek drama.

Reading Pope Benedict’s, then Joseph Ratzinger’s, Introduction to Christianitywas a great moment in my life. He helps you to see the old in a new way—the faith, which is ever ancient and ever new. I like his commitment to the liturgy, the way in which he upholds the liturgy as the work of God.

10. If you don’t have a conscience, teaching is about the easiest job you can think of. To the extent that you’re conscientious, teaching becomes more challenging, but it also becomes profoundly rewarding. I don’t even view it as a job, it’s a pleasure to walk to work every day—and I do get to walk, and I can go home for lunch, and come back for a lecture in the evening. I love to teach. Teaching Latin is great, because it’s a subject that students don’t always encounter formally before they come here. They have all sorts of conceptions about it, and it’s great to open up that world to them, to show them how Latin is the basis of so much of what we do, say, or think in America in the 21st century still.

11. Really, all of the gifts my loving wife has given me are so meaningful. An ipad, which she bought me a couple Christmases back. She bought it online a couple days before Christmas, and she was tracking it, and she was dismayed to see, two days before Christmas, that it was still in China. Lo and behold, it got here in time! She had it inscribed: Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

12. An intellectual who inspires me, or is my favorite author, is Walker Percy. I began to read Percy in college. On our honeymoon, my wife and I went to New Orleans. (Not a typical honeymoon spot, especially in August, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it.) My wife was a good sport; she still loves me and doesn’t hold it against me. We did two things, which were probably a little bit selfish on my part. We made a pilgrimage to Walker Percy’s grave, and we toured civil war sites. When we were at Vicksburg, on an audio tour, I looked over and saw my wife was asleep. Then I realized I’d gone too far. She puts up with me and my interests, and I’m forever grateful.

13. Back to Percy. He was a philosophical novelist. He was an existentialist. He writes entertaining stories, but follows in the tradition of Dostoyevsky and Camus. He always has a point, a theme, a question that he’s engaging. He wants to communicate through the novel. He very much was engaged with the philosophical tradition. My favorite Percy novel is The Moviegoer, his first novel, which took him years to get published. It’s very terse, short, but profound. Many of Percy’s novels end with a sacrament; one ends with baptism, one with confession, and The Moviegoer ends with a marriage. Percy, in his own life, trained to be a doctor. But then he got tuberculosis, and he pivoted and decided he was going to marry this woman from back home, he was going to become a Catholic, and he was going to become a novelist. At the end of The Moviegoer, you see this taking-on of responsibility. He is no longer going to lead a selfish life, but he sees that his life will be richer if he embraces the commitment of marriage.

14. When purchasing a book, I try not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. I love to buy books. My wife said, when we got married and were making a home together, that the only things I really had were books. She got a kick out of that. And I always tell my kids whenever they are bored: “Get a book, get a book. You will never go wrong, Get a book.”

15. I like to relax at home, with my family. It’s great to live in this community. I can go whole days and never get in the car, which, coming form the Washington D.C. area, is just heavenly. My favorite thing to do is to go on a walk with my wife and talk.

16. When applying for college, I had two posters on my wall, and I only applied to those two schools: Notre Dame and the University of Virginia. I think I chose Notre Dame because it was a Catholic school. I went to public school all the way from kindergarten, and while my education was very good, it was also very much secular. The people who were held out to me as being smart were usually those who had broken from the Church in one way or another. It intrigued me that I would have committed Catholics, priests, and clergy, teaching me. The two didn’t really go together in my mind, as strange as that is. I always thought that the people who were smart were those in the Enlightenment, those who had set free their reason and gone off to scale great heights. At some point, I began to think it must be different, so toward the end of high school I began to read Augustine, Thomas Merton, etc. I think that’s why I ended up at Notre Dame.

17. I wasted so much money on records growing up. I started mowing lawns and delivering papers when I was young, so I always had pocket change. I can’t tell you how many times I’d bike into Alexandria and come home with a record. So many dollars spent on records. I think of how many of these songs I have memorized, and I think—why? Sometimes I’d finish my paper route early, so I’d do my studying in the morning, before school. My father would come downstairs to find me listening to my music in earphones. He would say: “Do you think that author expected you to be reading his work with that music playing?”  I never had anything good to respond, because the answer was, of course, “No.”

18. I really like the film Avalon, directed by Berry Levinson. Levinson is a Baltimorean who made a series of movies on Baltimore. Avalon is about Jewish immigrants to Baltimore for the first part of the 20th century. It traces a series of generations as they come over to Baltimore and settle, how they encounter the culture and how the culture changes them. One example is they move to the suburbs and get a television. You see the way in which it changes them. It’s very funny, very well made, a rich and deep movie.

19. When I was kid, I thought of being an architect. It always intrigued me. In college, one of my courses was on architecture. It helped me to look at a building in a different way. Later on, I took a course on modern architecture, when I studied abroad in London. I remember taking a train up to Glasgow to write a paper on a building by Charles Mackintosh. Architecture is one of my side interests. I realized I didn’t have any artistic talent, and I’m not very creative, so I didn’t have a future as an architect. But I love studying it, classical architecture in particular.

20. My favorite food is Bouillabaisse—a fish soup from Provençal. There’s this restaurant in Alexandria called Le Refuge where my wife and I would go to celebrate. It’s very small, right on the main street in Old Town. I would love to order Bouillabaisse there.

21. I have two things to say about the etymology of the word “studying.” Studying is about being eager about something. We tend not to think about that very often. We tend to think of it as a chore. There ought to be some quest, desire, or eagerness about it. But it also involves a certain asceticism to pursue your studies responsibly, or well. There must be a pruning, a limiting, a denial. It’s a mistake to try to make yourself comfortable and to have your environment perfectly disposed while you study. Usually, it’s best to study with some elements of difficulty or discomfort. It actually facilitates the studying.

I’m always attracted to that quote of St. Josemaria Escriva: “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.” I’m also impressed with his words: “There is no excuse for those who could be scholars and are not.” In the Gospel, we are told to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. What does it mean to love God with our mind? Studying can be a part of that love.