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John N. Deck: A Reasonable Likeness?

 

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Two men who knew John N. Deck (1921-1979) have given me their kind permission to enrich this site with their comments, for which I am grateful. 

James O'Meara wrote me upon finding on this site his teacher's profound study of an aspect of Aquinas' philosophy. Besides his memoir below, see O'Meara's review of Deck's Nature, Contemplation, and the One (NCO).

The Reverend Lawrence Dewan, O.P., friend and fellow philosopher who provided NCO with its foreword, corrected O'Meara's recollection of certain facts.  O'Meara's appreciation of this correction follows. 

Anthony Flood

June 29, 2006

 

John N. Deck

A Memoir Followed by a

Correction and a Response

 

James O'Meara

 

Deck was an odd figure in many ways.  He was from Buffalo, talked with a “nasal whine” supposedly characteristic of that area, and looked exactly like the picture of Schopenhauer on the front of the Dover paperback.  At least most of the year, for he had his head shaved each spring time in lieu of haircuts during the year. 

He dressed “the same way we all did in grad school, because we were poor then,” his colleagues would sneer: brown wing tips, green work pants, plaid shirt with two pockets, one for matches, the other for Pall Malls, which he chain-smoked during lectures, reaching mechanically for each pocket with separate hands [those were the days!].  A true campus eccentric.

Students enthralled with his lectures on “the more real life of the mind” were often stunned to discover he was, in private life, a fervent, "unreconstructed" Catholic of the Vatican I sort, with no less than nine children!  How he supported them I can’t imagine, but as you have gathered, he spent nothing on food or clothes.

Nor on books, movies, music, etc.  He proudly claimed to be tone deaf, and would drive guests away by playing his one record, German marching band music. He read only Hegel and Plotinus, relaxing occasionally with Trollope.  As for films, I once saw him get a rousing cheer when he showed up, sitting in the front row, at a student film society showing of Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different, in his wild hair and the monk’s robe he wore in cold weather. 

Despite this, he perversely insisted on teaching a class on Hegel’s aesthetics!  He had worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad before getting the job in Windsor, and between that and Toronto’s street cars, was something of a train fanatic.  If he attended a conference, he would entertain himself by seeking out the local train yards!

He was beloved by students, most of them non-[philosophy] majors looking for an easy lecture course, for his sheer bizarreness, easy grading, and wacky course material.  When the philosophy department needed a “dumbed down” course for freshman to expand enrollment, he “dreamed” up “Dream Worlds and Real Worlds”, a year-long denunciation of “the dream world of food, drink and sex” in comparison with the “more real” or “really real” world of philosophy (i.e., Plotinus) 

In short, he had created a sort of “absent minded professor who actually is clued in on what’s real and secretly or not so secretly sneers at the rest of deluded mortals” persona of classic proportions.  There are, I think, interesting parallels to Prof. Schlepfuss in Mann’s Dr. Faustus

More importantly, his career had been blighted by professional rivalry.  You must understand that Windsor had been, in Deck’s time, a sleepy Catholic college that was now trying to become a university.  [Professor Patrick J. Flood, Deck’s former professor, no known relation to your editor.—A.F.] had been there in the ‘forties, Deck got his BA there in the late ‘forties, (he claimed to have been a draft dodger!), then went to Toronto for his doctorate.  In those days, you could come back to a place like Windsor with your MA, teach and even get tenure while working on your PhD.  Deck managed to make some enemies in Toronto, where his sense of infallibility met its match in some of the most self-important academics in the world. (“Toronto, the center of the universe,” Flood would sneer.)  So it took ages for the dissertation to be finished, and the book was sabotaged by a nasty review by his former thesis director [J. M. Rist, author of Plotinus, the Road to Reality, published the same year]!

Deck spent the rest of his career in Windsor, ignoring the academic world, collecting disciples among students, while his colleagues dismissed him as having “given up philosophy for gossip” and “‘that goddam love affair with Plotinus.”  I must say myself, that he seemed to have been more interested in teaching Deck-ism than philosophy, even Plotinus, and so in some ways was a bad influence.  I myself learned only an attitude from him, almost nothing factual.

He died in 1979, within hours of a massive heart attack.  He was in his late 50s, and apart from smoking, was overweight (“Let the body enjoy its pleasures!”) and disdained exercise.  I was traveling at the time, and so did not find out until much later, though I heard that the funeral was well attended by former students.

Eventually the whole department (every one a Thomist of some kind from the University of Toronto!) was gradually overrun first by “existentialists” during his time and then after his death by “informal logic” teachers.

The final irony is that Deck has proven to be the only real scholar of the bunch!  His article on total dependence was selected by Anthony Kenny for his seminal anthology on St. Thomas,  his dissertation and work on Plotinus live on thanks to Larson,* and gradually his work is showing up in bibliographies, such as the Penguin ed. of the Enneads, and the recent Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization.**

 

* Deck's magnum opus, Nature, Contemplation, and the One (NCO), based on his doctoral dissertation from 1967, has been republished by Larson with a brief introduction by his friend and executor, Lawrence Dewan, which may give you some biographical flavor.  Larson’s story is odd.  Anthony Damiano was a self-taught mystical philosopher from New York City who relocated upstate (Deck’s native land) where he built up quite a following.  Deriving from Paul Brunton, he became fascinated with Plotinus and somehow came across Deck's book, which he elevated into a kind of St. Paul to Plotinus's gospel.  This was more respect than the academics gave it. They (his center, Wisdom's Goldenrod, Mr. Damiano is also now deceased) have reissued not only NCO but also a wonderful edition of Mackenna's translation of the Enneads, which footnotes alternate translations from all the later scholars, including Deck. 

Posted June 15, 2006

** After reading the above online, Mr. O'Meara wished to balance his recollection's tone which, he feared, sounded unduly negative:

In the context of our discussions, my respect for Deck's intellect and achievement was clear, but it may not be in the recollections alone. Deck was a great intellect who never gained the recognition he deserved, but has triumphed over his rivals posthumously. My criticisms of his teaching, for example, should be seen in that context: a frustrated
scholar who, like many academics, found himself unable to give as much to his teaching as he may have wanted. Thanks to Larson, and your website, I look forward to Deck's work finally getting the recognition it deserved!

Posted June 16, 2006

 

Correction received June 16, 2006:

Mr. O'Meara is in error on some things. John and Margaret had nine children. [Already corrected in the memoir.--A.F.]  Rist was not a director of John's work. The thesis was originally directed by Anton Pegis, but it was finished under Fr. Joseph Owens' direction.

John's work was neither ignored nor looked down upon in academic circles. R. Baine Harris, who for many years was the man who made the International Neoplatonic Society go, always said that he thought John's "the best book on Plotinus," and he worked to get funds to publish some monographs, among which was to be (as first and foremost)  a reissue of the thesis. He just never succeeded in getting the money for the series. John's debating with A. H. Armstrong was welcomed in Dionysius (published by the Dalhousie classics department, where Armstrong worked at the end of his career).

Lawrence Dewan, O.P.

June 16, 2006

 

James O'Meara responds, June 17, 2006:

Thank you for your encouraging reply, and for your correction of my faulty memory. While I may not yet be able to plead age, perhaps I can equally plead my youth at the time for the inaccuracies!

On the factual matters you are of course correct. I had no reason to ever be given an exact count of the
Deck children, and you can see how we students exaggerate!

And I remember now quite clearly about the thesis committee, even the sequence of directors. No excuse for this lapse.  At the risk of once again falling into gossip, the stories of his dissertation travails were always in the context of illustrating the hateful nature of graduate work at that time.  Despite his own scholarly accomplishment, Dr. Pegis was supposedly of the "old school" and regarded dissertations as "just more student work," which grated on a scholar like Deck, who found Fr. Owens more sympatico.  Supposedly, Fr. Owens wound up directing an extremely disproportionate number of them!

About Professor Rist.  The story, which was partly gossip and partly from Deck himself, was that his dissertation was to be published by Toronto U. Press,
as it was, but only after a delay, and other shenanigans, brought about by an 'anonymous reader' at the Press. When the book appeared, it received a negative review in Phoenix, the important Canadian classics journal, signed by J. M. Rist.  Rist, coincidentally, had his own book on Plotinus, published by Cambridge, coming out that same year.
Deck in turn used a review [in Dialogue?] as a riposte.  It always seemed clear that Rist, or someone close to him, was the "anonymous reader." But nothing ultimately hangs on this academic infighting from long ago.

More importantly, this and my other comments relate to the impression that Deck was disregarded by the academic community. You are of course correct to cite the opinions of what Fr. O'Brien called "that small, wholly admirable, international group of authorities in Plotinian research."  But note the words "small" and "authorities in Plotinian research." My comments were meant to convey the idea that Windsor, for all its virtues, was no one's idea of a career choice ["Somewhere in Canada!" sneered a character in one of Joyce Carol Oates's stories about Windsor of that very time, written when she was herself exiled to Windsor.  Unlike Deck, however, she made it to Princeton.]  I of course profited greatly from access to such teachers as Deck or Oates, but shouldn't Deck have been in Toronto, as Oates found her way to Princeton? Of course, who knows what would have occurred, had it not been for his premature passing.

At the same time, things in Windsor were changing, and even the other professors who had almost all been at Toronto with or around the time of Deck, were moving on the "newer things." Windsor must have been the only place on earth where men with Licenciates in Mediaeval Studies were teaching Heidegger and Austin!  Some, like Professor Cunningham, gave up philosophy altogether and moved to Communication Studies.  [Amazon shows he has published a standard work on propaganda.] Others, like Dr. Pinto, began teaching Quine and Sartre [again, where else but Windsor?] and eventually, "informal reasoning" which now that University Professor Johnson has been Department Head rules the roost.

In such an environment, a Neo-Platonist like Deck was viewed as an anachronism, or worse. His old teacher Pat Flood [no relation to Anthony ] was still there, also scorned by the newer students, and had a whole story about how after the war it was "cheap to hire" analytic philosophers from the UK and that's how the rot set in.

So I was merely trying to convey my impression of Deck as a kind of last hold-out of the good, old school, who has triumphed posthumously, as surely he is the only philosopher, then or now, from Windsor so widely known and appreciated. While the rest chased after the "new things," Deck's deep appreciation of the Greeks made him timeless. Thus, the need for this website, to carry his ideas forward.

Needless to say your corrections, of fact and tone, will be implemented. And we [if Anthony forgives me for saying 'we'] look forward collaborating with you to bring more of Deck's heritage to the information age!

Cordially,
James O'Meara


Deck Page