Robert Anthony Byrne: In Memoriam


    This issue of Explorations is dedicated to the memory of Robert Byrne. Since the publication of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, his name has been associated with its
infamous protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, whose hilarious and anarchic character has generated the speculation, a wrong one, I would hold, that Robert Byrne was, for John Kennedy Toole, the unique modèle vivant of his hero or antihero Ignatius.

    The personality and the character of Robert Byrne were far removed from the Ignatius of Toole’s imagination. In the classroom and the general conduct of his life, he had about him a dignity which never left him even in his moments of laughter and humor. The influence of his Catholic education in parochial grammar school and at Jesuit high school in new Orleans remained with him all of his life. His style of pedagogy and his social carriage were shaped by his Jesuit education. Gravitas was an undeniable presence in Byrne. But there was in his person something more than that, something even more admirable, which also came from the influence of the Jesuits.

    Teaching was more than a livelihood for him. It was a vocation. The Jesuit high schools of the south were recognized for their traditional classical curriculum and for their scrupulous insistence that all of their students master it in its fundamentals. But the Jesuit fathers and the Jesuit regents were also deeply admired for the personal attention which they gave to those students who struggled under the burden of their demanding curriculum. Many hours of after-school tutoring and counseling were spent with students who had difficulties in their studies. Holidays and leisure were surrendered to what is best described as stewardship.

    This stewardship had a profound influence on Byrne. His presence in class was always formal and decorous. His lectures were undeviatingly focused on the subject. And his command and knowledge of the subject matter were complete, even to the last detail. But outside of class he showed solicitude for all of his students. And for those students who had difficulties in their studies, he gave unstintingly of his time. And so also for Byrne, many holidays, semester breaks, and vacations were given to students, many of whom he had never taught.

    In his conversations with his colleagues and friends, he could be quite assertive, sometimes harsh, if he felt they were using their gifts of mind to create a style of personality or an ornament of self. He did not expect that his intellectual and moral stances should be accepted as finalities, but he did insist that they be heard and addressed with seriousness. Although to some Byrne seemed too pleased with his own powers of mind and his learning, his argumentation (for, by his own admission, he loved to argue and to debate) was free of narcissistic defense.

    And, unlike Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces, whose raging apologias for the middle ages were not genuine beliefs but defenses of the ego against the duncical confederacy which surrounded him, Byrne valued medievalism because he considered it a legacy encompassing profound soundings of thought and spirit, and not an armory for petty social battles. Extraordinary in intellectual gifts, encyclopedic in knowledge and unending in intellectual curiosity, he could not avoid recognizing his intellectual superiority. Yet never did he wish to belittle others with his scholarship and knowledge, and never did he laud his powers of mind over others.

    Even as a student in high school he detested intellectual arrogance. Once in conversation about his days at Jesuit high school in New Orleans, I asked him, quite idly, in what year he was in the honor class. Here, the chief distinction of the honor class was that the curriculum required Greek and Latin; whereas, in the regular curriculum only Latin was taught. To my surprise he replied, laughingly and unapologetically, no, he was not in the honor class, recounting how those who were in the honor classes often spoke condescendingly of those who were not. “It was then,” he said, “that I decided to compete for the Latin medal,” an award always won by someone in the honor class. “I took the Latin medal that year. I was not being vindictive. But I thought that they needed a heavy dose of humility,” adding with a chuckle, “of Jesuit humility.” Even as an undergraduate at Tulane University, he felt called upon to teach the same lesson, this time to a group of premedical students who made light of the humanities. Solely for this reason he took a number of science courses as electives and broke the percentiles of the quizzes and tests. “I taught them,” he quipped. “I taught them ‘good’,” he said in playful Louisiana idiom.

    Hedgehogs and butterflies, Carolingian kings and Hapsburg queens, matter and antimatter, ginger lilies and scarlet tanagers: these were some of his interests which spoke for his love of knowledge and his never-ending energy of mind. He became a living legend during his tenure at this university. He found time to build a harpsichord, learn Gaelic and, later, Japanese. He read the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety in a span of every two years. But these accomplishments he made light of: he spoke of them as “mere hobbies” of his leisure.

    His lectures on Anglo-Saxon grammar and on the literature of the Middle Ages were among the finest. In the Middle Ages, in its theology, and in its literature, as he claimed, could be found the deepest subjects of human inquiry, the primal and perennial issues of order and disorder, of good and evil, of the human and the divine. As a Catholic, he saw medieval literature and theology as a flowering of his faith. He spoke of the medieval era as a time when the love of God and the love of learning were in harmony. But, for those who were disaffected from faith and belief, he argued that it provided the timeless issues which should be the assumptions of any intellectual quest, the same issues Lionel trilling once described in the novels of Hemingway and Faulkner as engaging “their hearts and their minds to the very bottom.”

    Byrne lived out his life as a devout Catholic. His attendance at mass each Sunday was unflagging, and he often served as the lector of the Gospel of the day. He was deeply read in the early church fathers; he could quote passages from Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus from memory; he delighted in explaining the rubrics of the mass and of holy days of obligation. He often recalled how devoted his family was to its Catholic heritage and often spoke of this devotion as not only enduing his childhood and adolescence with stability but also enabling him in adulthood to face the disappointments and failings of human life.

    His stoic calm did not attenuate his moral values and ideals. He disdained ambition and competition in the intellectual life. He dismissed the petty conspiracies of self, born of ambition and competition, with indifference. An unjustified promotion or an overbearing department head could not hold his attention for long. His response was always the same, almost a ritual of dismissal: Byrne would pull a cigarette from his old, worn, dull stainless steel cigarette case; he would then tap it on the case for what seemed the longest time before lighting it. And after lighting it, he would speak the inevitable words: “why be troubled by people not worth the space and time they occupy?”

    These were the actualities of his character, all conspicuously absent in the fictional character of Ignatius. In my forty-three years of teaching in a university, Byrne was the most brilliant colleague I have ever known. A speculation shared by many was the question of why Byrne never completed his doctorate. Everyone knew that Robert Lumiansky, the distinguished scholar in Chaucer studies, had urged him many times to take leave and to return to Tulane university and there to complete his dissertation. He never did. And when the question was put to him, as so often it was, his answer was always the same: “I disappointed Lumi.” In later years when doctorates “proliferated” and when, with the hiring of younger faculty members who, he was told, were “certified” to teach the Anglo-Saxon and middle English courses he taught for many years, Byrne never resented his displacement.

    Byrne knew what ascendancy he could gain with his gifts of mind and intelligence, should he had wanted that. But he believed with a passion that the intellectual life should never be put to the uses of ambition and power. Hence his famous words: “God help all of you should I have ever desired power.” For Byrne the university was a sanctuary for learning and reflection. It was a place of deliberate separation, of quietude and meditation, in which the substance and the spirit of the humanities could continue on, free of the personal ambitions of the individual and the urgencies of society.

    But in the last two decades of his life, he realized unprecedented changes were taking place in society, and these changes deeply concerned him. Often he spoke of the eighties and nineties as decades of ambition, money, and notoriety which were wearing away the moral and intellectual character of every class in our society. But what he was most apprehensive about was what was happening to the university. The impress of the times was invading the university; the sanctuary was becoming a market place in which ideas were speedily welcomed when they were in accord with the political fashions and cultural morality of the day.

    For the reception honoring him for his years of service to the university, he composed and read a poem which gave voice to what he saw as the university besieged by the morality of the market place. In this poem of valediction Byrne likens himself to a dinosaur displaced in the malevolent world of Darwin where competition and survival of the fittest are the sole ends of human life. And it was from this world he was now withdrawing. Byrne, we know or should know by now, was not a dinosaur. But his coupling of dinosauric fate with furry little creatures feeding on the eggs of those giant animals targets our present circumstance. We all know who these furry little creatures are. They are those who, more in ambition than in belief, have self-ordained themselves as custodians of the intellectual and moral fashions of the day; they are the braggart soldiers of mimic cultural wars who hammer literature and the humanities into the spears of political, sociological, and cultural morality. They can be identified with what Harold Bloom, in a moment both of strongest denunciation and of delightful irony, likens to suicidal lemmings carrying the arts with themselves over the cliff to extinction. The world Byrne took leave of was a world which he felt had betrayed the republic of letters and had replaced it with an amphitheater of gladiatorial contests of promotions, salaries, sabbaticals, and committees. The love of God and the love of learning had no place in this world. But for Robert Byrne in a sanctuary of his own making, in the solace of his garden, his family, and his friends, they were with him to the end of his life.

Maurice w. duQuesnay