John Alvis, RIP

John Alvis

Sad news on this eve of Christmas of the passing of John Alvis, a long-time professor at the University of Dallas. Professor Alvis was best known—though nowhere near as well known as he deserved to be—as a profound thinker and teacher on the relation between literature and politics. He wrote several extraordinary books and essays about Shakespeare’s politics in particular, but equally fine books on Homer, Virgil , and Milton.

I never got to know Prof. Alvis very well, but I was always struck by his warm personality and kindliness when I did chance across him. And I always knew that when you picked up a new Alvis book or essay, you were in for something quite extraordinary and profound.

It is tempting to offer long excerpts from Prof. Alvis’s work, but I’ll confine myself to the opening paragraph of his splendid book, Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor (1990):

If ordinate love of honor has a deficiency and an excess, we should set down Falstaff for the deficiency. As he looks about for safety on the battlefield of Shrewsbury, Falstaff asks, “What is honor?”—a rhetorical question, obviously, for he has an answer ready to hand which he believes suffices to excuse him from paying the heavy debt that Hal had just laid upon him when he said, “thou owest God a death.” Honor impels the soldier to die for his king; yet honor, as Falstaff replies to his own question, is nothing more than a “word,” mere “air.” It will not set a bone or minister to a wound; it has “no skill in surgery;” it serves merely to adorn the gravestone of the man who has bartered his life for the word. A good name reduces to a cold inscription on a tomb, “a mere scutcheon.” For two reasons, according to Falstaff, honor makes a poor recompense for the loss of warm, bodily life: the dead man cannot enjoy the renown he has earned and, in any case, his honor will not survive the ravages inflicted by changing opinion. To this mock catechism detailing the insubstantiality of honor Falstaff will subsequently add his encomium to sherris sack, that altogether corporeal source of vigor for mean-spirited men. Honor proves inferior to wine in the degree that insubstantial words fall short of certifiably physical supports for a life of comfort carefully preserved.

See what I mean? From here Prof. Alvis unfolds a lengthy, patient and utterly stirring account of Shakespeares’s refutation of Falstaff in the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s work. But of course Alvis’s real target is modernity itself, with its debased materialist and morally relativist understanding of human life. Just as Shakespeare by necessity wrote indirectly about these matters (because he was writing drama rather than traditional philosophy), so too our recovery of an older and sounder understanding can proceed by the indirect method of considering great literature afresh.

Alvis explained it partially in his preface to Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor:

A word about my method may spare the reader the trouble of trying to imagine what assumptions have produced a manner he will find old-fashioned or unfamiliar. The reactionary style comports with the reactionary intent. I practice a mode of interpretation that finds its motive in searching out the moral wisdom available in the best poets. For this task, very little of the language now favored by literary critics proves serviceable. [Emphasis added.]

I can see why a generation of students were devoted to him, and inspired by him. RIP.