The Magazine

Funeral for a Friend

J. Bottum, mourner

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By J. BOTTUM
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I MEANT TO ASK ALDO what he thought about Restoration comedy: Wycherly, Congreve, Steele, and Sheridan; all those sly, quick-witted plays with titles like The Way of the World and The School for Scandal. I meant to call him on the phone for a long conversation or even—why not?—take a few hours off one day and drive up to Baltimore for lunch.

But one day always seemed to turn into some other day, and he slipped away this winter while I was traveling. The sore throat that wouldn’t heal, the visit to the doctor, the discovery of cancer, the massive medical interventions, the heart that couldn’t stand up against them. Within weeks, he was gone, at 67 years old.

Aldo Tassi was a philosopher and a prize-winning playwright at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a barrel-chested man with long arms that would swing in big gestures as he talked, perpetually threatening, but never quite spilling, the wine glasses and coffee cups scattered across the table. He had a thick mop of white hair and one of those fine Italian faces that seem to get only finer—handsomer, more filled with character—as they fall to ruin. And his mind was like the attic in an old house, a magnificent jumble stacked with boxes of antique photographs, towers of forgotten books, and ancient steamer trunks you longed for an afternoon to rummage through.

He had a philosophical system, as well, a metaphysical intuition that somehow brought order to it all: the playwriting, the Thomistic philosophy in which he had been brought up, the sociology that dominated intellectual life in America when he came of age, the Platonic dialogues that were his real love, and the endless stream of novels he consumed.

I didn’t understand it fully; he never produced a complete expression of his thought. But it involved what Hans Urs von Balthasar called "theo-drama," and it filled his conversation. "God is the playwright," he’d say, "and we’re the actors." That’s not predetermination, a denial of free will, any more than Shakespeare predetermines how Hamlet is performed. Still, Aldo seemed mostly to think that what God intends for us is a comedy. Life only looks like a tragedy because we flub our lines so badly, and in the wings the Author stands, shaking his head in dismay.

He deserved better than the feeble turnout of faculty members Loyola managed to pull together for his obsequies during the semester break. We really have a duty to go to funerals—a duty not just to the surviving family, but to the dead themselves. Funerals are their last appearances, their positively final performances, before the curtain comes down forever, and we owe it to them to buy a ticket.

Besides, Catholic colleges have a particular duty to remember the generation of professors now passing away, the last group educated in the old Scholastic ratio studiorum and sharpened, as young men, like arrows before the Jesuits loosed them on the world. No matter how far they later fell into modern thought, they never lost the intellectual tools in which they were first schooled. It’s not that they still lived in a Thomistic world. It is, rather, that their minds remained Thomistic minds, and you couldn’t listen to them talk about anything—tulips, Shakespeare, politics—without hearing them order the subject by genus and species, mark the difference between form and matter, and point out the real distinction between essence and existence. They had trained minds, and there was a logic, a kind of mental cleanness, to the way they thought that, nowadays, has almost disappeared.

In an odd way, that made them even better with other people’s ideas than with their own. To tell Aldo what one was working on or thinking about was to have one’s half-thought notions lifted up, given a good shake, put in the right order, and offered back with far more clarity than they originally possessed, and often far more clarity than they deserved. It made for a rather breathless conversation.

I hadn’t seen Aldo Tassi and his wife Nina for more than a year before he died. I had thought, in my sloppy way, that there would be time—time enough to run up to see him, time later to pass an idea or two by him, time sometime or other to find out how Restoration comedies fit in his system. "Can we come back?" my daughter asked as we drove home from our last trip to Baltimore. And I said yes, but the answer was no. We can never come back to find things as we left them, unlost and unchanged despite our absence. My failure was one Aldo could have helped me with, for it was a failure to think clearly.