Eulogy for Ralph Maud
Emeritus Professor of English, Simon Fraser University
January 2, 2015
St. Augustine's Church, Vancouver, Canada
Ralph was a colleague for thirty years and a friend for nearly fifty. In February of 2013 he telephoned in the morning, as he often did, and asked me to come over that afternoon. Would I have a look at something he had just written? This most recent work he called Make My Way Plain, borrowing the title from the hymn which begins:
Father, I lift my aching heart to Thee;
The path is dark, my way I cannot see;
Dangers encompass, which I cannot flee:
Make my way plain.
It was eight pages of deeply personal speculation.
Ralph's cardiovascular system had begun its betrayal of his body years ago. And he had recently experienced the beginning of his psyche's betrayal of itself: its collusion with his body to turn his sleep into night-terrors and his waking hours into, for now, merely sporadic but nevertheless still disturbing pauses in his ability to relish scholarship. Make My Way Plain is trying to deal with Ralph's gathering terror that he may be approaching an agonizing loss of self: a loss of scholarship; a loss of the ability to discover and connect detail in a way which takes himself and his reader into understanding and often gives access to depths beyond verbalization.
For Ralph one way of illuminating the way through the looming dark is laughter, just as it was his mother's way. "She," he writes, "exemplified the deepest form of human duality: the spark of camaraderie and laughter in the most dire circumstances." Ralph viewed with laughter the astonishing range of his own publication and the depth of his need to keep doing it. "We [scholars]" he writes, "are jugglers. I feel I've kept in a moving circle five bowling pins and an electric toaster. I've done Dylan Thomas, and then Charles Olson, still in the air. I've pulled things out of the local Native soil. Right now I'm trying to find a means of approaching Penguin Classics with the Raven cycle of Henry W. Tate. Recently, I have done some pamphlets pretending to be Thomas Paine at the end of the world."
Ralph drops the droll bibliography, but we should not forget that there is so much more, particularly the documentary films and the scope of the scholarship that drove his production of them. His complex understanding of both Jung himself and the neo-Jungians generated "The Terrible Mother;" his grasp of Marx and 20th century politics, "T. B. Bottomore on Karl Marx;" his commitment to Canadian poetry, politics, sociology and history, and his esteem for the poetry of Tom McGauley and Tom himself, "The Divine Comedy in Castlegar B.C.;" and years of assiduous delight in archaeology and history, "The Man Who Discovered America," a National Film Board of Canada documentary about the Norwegian explorer, Helge Ingstadt, who uncovered the remains of the Viking settlement at l'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
It is important to understand that Ralph's scholarship did not simply change focus. He did not just hop precariously and dissociatively from one project to another. Where his mind had been, was always, in the soul of his speech: in its fullness, its depth, its figurativeness, its allusiveness, and its sense of the infinite fabric of relevance woven from the discovery of detail. He was both scholarly and conversational. And the fact that Ralph was a great conversationalist made him a great teacher.
He soon gets right down to Heaven and Hell, still, with laughter. He has just observed that "one . . . publishes as one can to contribute to that objective world map we call civilization." He goes on:
This reminds me of a humorous story. A writer goes to heaven but Gabriel says he'll show him a glimpse of hell before he takes him in. They look down and see a big gym with rows of tables and typewriters and the condemned banging away forever. They then go up to heaven, and behold, it's pretty much the same: tables, typewriters, and authors banging away. "Hey, wait a minute," says the writer, "what's the difference between this and hell?" "Ah," says Gabriel, "you get published in heaven."
Then Ralph added, "Ha, ha. In eternity they still want the incentive! Down in this eternity of the moment we have on earth we call it hope." By now I was beginning to have my own "Hey, wait a minute." But I held my peace, and continued perusing as Ralph had asked me, even when a bit later I saw him observing on the page before me, "We all, I expect, have in us vestiges of that hope for heaven. I know my mother was eagerly looking forward to greeting my father on the other side. I'm not sure what my father might have thought of that." He went on to quote William Saroyan's insisting, "'I am not out to win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize or any other prize . . . . If I have any desire at all, it is to show the brotherhood of man.'" Still, I managed to hold to the silence of my reading. But then, down there in the print, Ralph was adding, "And if there is a solution to 'make my way plain,' I am still convinced it will have something to do with what we used to call the brotherhood of man."
That was too much. I didn't actually say, "Hey, wait a minute." But I did add a puzzled "Ralph . . . Heaven imaged as a place where the scholar is finally able to communicate the ineffable to the brotherhood of man? It sounds like 'No man is an island.' It sounds like caritas. It sounds like St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians." He smiled his answer. "Why not? I always loved Donne." Still smiling (and omitting the rest of the topographic metaphor) he quoted the conclusion of Donne's passage. "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for [and his smile did a mini-explosion as he edited the pronoun] me." Continuing the relentless smile, he finished with "Caritas in Veritate."
I wonder how many others here have, like Ralph, read closely, in its entirety, Pope Benedict XVI's social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Alvina brought a copy home to Ralph from St. Augustine's. In English, Love in Truth. The kind of love that St. Thomas Aquinas says flows from God to us all, enabling us to love Him in return, and to love one another. Ralph was particularly struck by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI said that every human being, in the light of the divine truth of caritas, has a right to the divine gift of life itself, and consequently the right to medical care.
The vast range of Ralph's works contains one that he privately printed for his friends. He calls it Personal Best. It's an anthology which he subtitles: "Representative poems and prose passages from the masters of written English, in which they are judged to have been most themselves."
The Hemingway passage which he chooses is from (no surprise) For Whom the Bell Tolls.
He observes the following about his chosen poem by Dylan Thomas:
There are only a few poems in which Dylan Thomas is not pushing his limits, but is speaking with a quiet assurance. "This side of the truth," dedicated to his six-year-old son Llewelyn, is the best of them.
Thomas wrote to Vernon Watkins on 26 February 1945, in the letter prior to that in which the poem is enclosed, "I have just been writing at length to Llewelyn, on the occasion of a fall from a tree and a split tongue." . . . In his safe Swansea home in the early thirties, Thomas had had a frightening vision of the world empty of meaning, and had been driven to extremes of language to try to fill it. When he wanted to write the truth of things in a poem that his son would one day read as important to him, Thomas managed to tell, in a measured way, an essentially existential view of life and death.
I would like to conclude with a reading of that poem, and I would like to try to follow Ralph's directions, by doing it with "a quiet assurance, in a measured way."
This Side of the Truth
This side of the truth
You may not see, my son
King of your blue eyes
In the blinding country of youth,
That all is undone,
Under the unminding skies,
Of innocence and guilt
Before you move to make
One gesture of the heart or head,
Is gathered and spilt
Into the winding dark
Like the dust of the dead.
Good and bad, two ways
Of moving about your death
By the grinding sea,
King of your heart in the blind days,
Blow away like breath,
Go crying through you and me
And the souls of all men
Into the innocent
Dark, and the guilty dark, and good
Death, and bad death, and then
In the last element
Fly like the stars' blood,
Like the sun's tears,
Like the moon's seed, rubbish
And fire, the flying rant
Of the sky, king of your six years.
And the wicked wish,
Down the beginning of plants
And animals and birds,
Water and Light, the earth and sky,
Is cast before you move,
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love.
Ralph's scholarship was always human, always impelled by what he and Saroyan called the brotherhood of man, and St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas called caritas. Always. From the beginning to the end.