An Afternoon With Dr. Louise Cowan

Poetry, Culture, and the University of Dallas

“…that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Any noble movement in culture is preceded by a return and re-grasping of foundational ideals, a return to simplicity. Optimism and simplicity graces a finished soul, a noble character, a saint.
After four years, is it true that the memories of wild nights, draughts of Shiner, and fiery couches will hide the majesty and power of the education we hold in our hands? In restoring our vision of what UD’s education has meant to us, this year’s graduation commencement address was less than effective. Besides any debate we might engage in as regards its argumentation, personally what was more disappointing was its failure to match the grandeur of our education and ideals with its subject. About to receive a confirmation of the privileged education which we have received, we heard about academic integrity through tolerance. I do not mean to belabor the address, but rather contrast it with the beautiful presentation of the King’s Award on Dr. Louise Cowan. Why was this presentation the most memorable of the morning, why did the faculty—and soon after the student body—instantaneously and unanimously rise to applaud the life’s work of Dr. Cowan? The afternoon spent with her by eleven recently graduated English majors satisfied where the graduation failed. I consider it the true confirmation of my four years, both a reflection on what was received and a challenge to unleash the power of what we have learned. A simple afternoon with wine and a saintly scholar contained more ceremony—more of an efficacious service—than the grand gestures and look of the graduation exercise. These reflections—at times mere sketches—attempt to recount and communicate the spirit of learning, wisdom, and hope which filled those few hours.

Dr. Cowan is a southern lady. As we filed in somewhat sheepishly into a well-lit conference room with a table delicately adorned with plates of cheese and pristine wine-glasses, Dr. Cowan, with her characteristic sunglasses and calm smile, promptly embraced each student. She embraced—sometimes with a kiss on the cheek—each student, even those whom she was first meeting. We were delighted into silence, and milled about until Dr. Cowan invited us to enjoy the Hors D’Oeuvres, wine, and, of course, her famous artichoke-dip. The conversation—and a true conversation it became—began with Dr. Cowan asking us all what our plans were for post-graduation. Her voice had a calm and steady tenor which underlay a maternal presence, graced by both affection and wisdom. One knew that her roles as mother and teacher had formed an indelible mark on her character.
Her wit was sharp and charming, her insights were impeccably articulated, and her spirit was awe-inspiring. No one person has left such an invaluable, unrepeatable first impression on me. A humble soul speaks only the truth, and Dr. Cowan never overstated nor understated a fact or opinion, especially in relation to herself. Even statements laudatory of herself were expressed with an elegance and a matter-of-factness which exhibited the depth of her humility. She cared not for her own value in scholarship, but for scholarship, for a love of literature. She told us that the UD education is not “superficial” because, “We do not simply know the great works, but they live inside us, become us.” This was no more the case than in Dr. Cowan.

A Sense of Urgency
In the context of discussing strained politics within the University of Dallas, Dr. Cowan commented that “protesting is not our business, it is not fitting with the mission of our school. Perhaps this is just a personal eccentricity, but my husband and I always rejected adopting a mob mentality when you want something done. If you want to do something, if you disagree, go out there yourself and do something about it. Write a letter, talk to the person. When I left UD for a decade”—in response to the board’s firing of the heads of the departments in order to ensure that the graduate school of psychology would be closed—“I didn’t tell anybody to do the same.” Her stress on the role of the individual in transforming UD’s culture matched her insistence that we are charged to transform the national culture.
The main reason that literature is currently stagnating or declining, and a cause of optimism and excitement, is that, as Donald Cowan would frequently discuss, we are in between two overarching myths. The old myth is the dregs of the Enlightenment, the centuries-old Rationalism which embraces an analytic, rationalist structuring of reality. This old myth is masculine, analytic, quantitative, and scientific. Rationalism has died, and a new myth must arise, and with it a new wave of literature will come. Dr. Cowan said that the new myth would be characteristically feminine, close to the earth, Egalitarian, and essentially poetic. This shift would be soon, in fact now. A sense of urgency compelled her to present to us, the recent graduates who carry the necessary tools, to steer and shape this shift.
At the same time, Dr. Cowan called herself at times a skeptic about culture. She pointed out the in the media truth and tradition are fruitless, insubstantial terms. It is the privilege of the well-educated UD student to recognize the deep flaws of academia and the culture at large, and his obligation to infuse within culture the truths and tradition it so tragically lacks. Quite to the contrary of the “bunker mentality,” to which she alluded, Dr. Cowan believes the UD student ought to diffuse his zeal for learning and tradition, leading the revitalization of culture.
It is an exciting time for poetry and culture. Dr. Cowan never separated the two. The former presents itself in a form which is complimentary to and distinctively flavored by the latter. So, what ought we to do?
“You should all get a Masters someday.” She repeated this phrase ten times in the course of the conversation. Her reasons for saying so were twofold. Simply put, first, the academic world needs UD students. Secondly, the professional world needs UD students. Concerning the latter, Dr. Cowan stressed that a graduate degree allows one to enter a more elite circle of competition. The UD student is well-equipped to effect an authentic transformation of culture on both an academic and, if I may be allowed, secular level not from practical knowledge but based on the love and understanding of literature which we have allowed to grow and flourish. It is our ideas, our souls. From a twenty-one year old, such phrases always seem dead, fanciful, unproven and awkward. From such a sage as Dr. Cowan, one could believe it. Her call to us was clear, understandable, and terrifyingly lofty.

A Mother of a School
“When we started this University we thought UD students would change the world…I guess I still believe that.” She has dedicated the larger part of her life to UD, from its beginnings and through its innumerable and continuing trials. Her stories about UD’s beginnings and her thoughts on UD’s culture and aim were always marked with an irrepressible optimism and clear-sightedness in regards to its mission. The school has been through many purgative trials, and has always faced challenges from within, either from administration, the board, or the faculty. “We are poor, aren’t we? We’ve always been poor.” Dr. Cowan optimistically reminded us that UD has perpetually faced financial crises, at times worse than the present one.
Dr. Cowan lamented that she cannot teach anymore, reminding me what was said at graduation that Dr. Cowan prefers the title “teacher” over scholar, as in her own words “something happens in teaching that does not occur in ordinary life.” Such love for teaching has become so ordinary to us while at UD that we may forget its uniqueness.
Dr. Cowan advised that “being too proper will restrict the freedom of imagination” which characterized the spontaneous, adventurous beginnings. “When I was at TCU, during faculty meetings people walked around drinking sweet tea. At the University of Dallas, at faculty meetings I observed nuns walking around with glasses of bourbon.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph were marvelous, and need to be honored for conceiving of this school, providing the University with the idealistic, enthusiastic, optimistic spirit born of the character of nuns. Dr. Cowan referenced Nicolai Gogol, saying “nuns are girls who never become women,” but rather maintain their enthusiasm and youthful spirit. Cowan further quoted him by saying, “the problem with girls is that they become women.” Granted, the school required the academic direction offered by the Cowans, who saw that the school was transforming into a vocational school. However, the nuns gave the school a youthful, adventurous quality.
“Hungarians are mean,” said Dr. Cowan with a smile, “but they provided a seriousness and sophistication in all our dealings.” The Cistercians brought with them something America did not have, a European sense of class which added another dimension of culture to the faculty. They also embraced a spirit of moderation which guided the University atmosphere.
UD was always a family, in many ways caused by the southern character of the school. The University of Dallas was founded with hospitality and congeniality, provided by the southerners who first led the school. In many ways this must be restored by a return to simplicity, spontaneity, and a sense of adventure. The school must realize the adventure entailed in seeking to diffuse its ideals, combating the trend of Universities towards a mediocre, pragmatic, non-poetic education and to uphold the value of the Western tradition. She saw the current UD culture as being more proper, where things are more controlled and moderated by propriety. She warned that “being too proper will restrict the freedom of imagination” which characterized the spontaneous, adventurous beginnings. What we imagine is not simply another small, mediocre, Catholic University. “When we began the school, we wanted to make a real University.”
When asked what may be improved in UD’s current culture, Dr. Cowan spoke about the early enthusiasm for debate, for lively discussion about large questions concerning literature and philosophy. The main improvement that Dr. Cowan wishes to see is a greater inter-departmental dialogue and debate. She advocated programs that would provide a forum for debate with lots of involvement. She remembered a time when faculty and students were excited about big academic debates that were happening amongst the faculty. Our love is literature, great ideas, and this should be our passion. That there is a lack in inter-department conversation can be traced to two factors: specialization and treatment of faculty. A specialization in scholarship which ignores the whole of tradition can preclude a collaborated discussion concerning the whole (a mindset not dissimilar to the common trend to leave out translated works). Secondly, Dr. Cowan reminded us that the faculty is scandalously underpaid, and has even received deductions in salary, leading to either a disenchantment or stress which discourages the extra enthusiasm required for lively dialogue. Dr. Cowan challenged us to “Get the faculty to argue.”
Many other institutions consider UD as naïve to study translated works. Dr. Cowan’s Vanderbilt education was comprised of only English Literature. However, at UD, that not simply a few masters of Italian read The Divine Comedy, but every student does, changes the atmosphere fundamentally. Learning comprises a whole, where every work forms a part and adds to the whole organism. Without translated works, our vision of reality would come only through the lens of Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Cowan joked about what an odd reality that would be. She told us that the UD education is not “superficial” because, “we do not simply know the great works, but they live inside us, become us.” She said that when she met the Fugitive Critics, called also the New Critics and the Southern Critics, she noticed that they quoted Homer frequently. These works were ingrained in them, a part of their soul, not merely an object of their knowledge. UD aspires to offer their students this type of vision.
In discussing the ideal UD President, Dr. Cowan remained immensely refined considering the recent tension which has surrounded the office. Dr. Cowan stressed that the President must be a charming, public figure. His job is fundamentally to attain large monetary donations. The way in which one attains large donations is through going out into the city, into Dallas, and contributing to the city, getting involved in the city. As president, Donald Cowan would join city boards and attend city meetings. Dr. Cowan upheld the character of Dr. Lazarus as of the utmost kindness, never returning criticism with a harsh word and always remaining a gentleman. However, Dr. Cowan pointed out that he is “not a public man,” but a reserved man, and thus perhaps does not sufficiently go out and convince people of this school’s importance. One must literally go into the city, find the big potential donors, and convince them that the University of Dallas is accomplishing something extraordinary. The school does not need an academic leader—the faculty are doing a fine job, and do not need change. The school needs money. UD needs a president with the charm and enthusiasm to sell the school to the city.
Briefly mentioning the core, Dr. Cowan reminded us that it was never meant to remain static, but evolve. However, evolve in the right direction (an important qualification), i.e. towards a fuller vision of the Western tradition.
Dr. Cowan distinguished UD’s education from Great Books Programs. The latter is exemplified in an institution like TAC or St. John’s. She noted that the students there are essentially debaters, as the seminar/debate style of the classrooms there encourages students to see problems, to doubt every proposition. The books can thus lose their integrity in relation to their entirety, and may never enter the students’ mind as a holistic vision.

An Angel Looking on Literature (“You can disagree with me.”)
“We should look upon literature as the angels look upon the works of man.”
Both startling and profound, this statement underlay every interpretation of literature Dr. Cowan gave that afternoon. When we approach to literature we ought to match the wonder which the angels have in considering man’s works in context of the divine plan. This notion encompasses the reason why we love literature, the mystery that keeps us in pious awe and compels us to seek the UD education and latch onto its mission.
“Fiction is in decline.” Later she would say poetry is, too. A great writer, as opposed to a good writer, captures a layered meaning reflected in the Medievals’ four-fold method, where the highest level, the spiritual level, is the anagogical. Jane Austen is a good writer, rendering things beautifully, but remains at the moral level, as do many Victorians, and thus is not great. She apologized profusely for her blunt opinions. Jane Austen was never in the core at first for this reason. Madame Bovary also remains at a moral level, but is rendered spectacularly. As she was considering converting, Dr. Cowan discovered that Madame Bovary was on the Index, and hesitated in her decision to be Catholic. Madame Bovary is completely orthodox. She commented to the side that the Index had noble intentions, but simply did not know how to read literature. Great works get at something mysterious, unknown, beyond the veil. Moby Dick showed what the novel could be, revealed the scope to which the genre could aspire. “The greatest novel in the world is Brothers Karamazov,” for it simply has everything.
Dr. Cowan thinks it inappropriate to approach an artwork and judge the characters good or bad; she detests professors who hate Odysseus because he is unjust. We are not meant to judge characters, but we are “to look upon literature as the angels look upon the work of man,” with wonder in relation to its place in the overall divine plan. Wonder at the intricacies, depths, and mysteries of human life is the mark of a good reader of great works.
She enumerated a list of books we should all read (novels) which included most of the Lit Trad. sequence, but notably also contained Brothers K, Anna Karenina, Absalom Absalom, Light in August, Dubliners, Ulysses, Portrait, Lord Jim
Peter asked about the difference between the reader judging Odysseus and Dante’s condemning him to hell and Cowan recognized that Dante is obviously doing something different. She also emphasized that the journey of the Divine Comedy is reflected in most great works.
“Literature is an organic thing,” just as Eliot spoke of culture in Tradition and the Individual Talent, where “organic” has a very important place, underlining the character of great books to change the meaning of the whole, to add to the ever-growing, unified tradition. Not just the meaning in our minds changes, but literally the meaning of the work changes. Joyce’s Ulysses transforms Odysseus in the Odyssey.
Interestingly, Dr. Cowan was not familiar with poetry until she met her husband, a physicist with a deep love for poetry. On being asked who were the greatest poets, Dr. Cowan opined that Keats has been the greatest poet of all time, one who reached depths which no other poet has uncovered. She also named Donne, Marvell, Hopkins, Eliot, Frost, and a few others as great poets. Shakespeare’s sonnets lack the same mysteriousness of Keats’ poetry, as Shakespeare’s sonnets, undoubtedly both beautiful and genius, are intellectual exercises. She said all this—apologizing several times—while maintaining that, of course, they must be read as Shakespeare is the most important writer in the English language. Dr. Cowan remarked that her husband could remember the sonnets and would recite them even after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
She also mentioned some current poets. She recognized Jorie Graham as an example of someone who is good but missing something, perhaps because in the midst of a shift in myths there is nothing to undergird contemporary poetry. A minor poet is one who never strikes a false note, a note of sentimentality, writes beautifully and flawlessly. A successful minor poet is John Crowe Ransom. A major poet does all this, but accesses themes and mysteries which journey beyond the veil, embracing Keats’ negative capability in drawing forth the unknown. In this light, Allen Tate was a failed major poet. She briefly commented that perhaps if something did not happen to Tate which led him abruptly to stop writing, he might have attained the status of major poet.

Her comments about literature were as lofty and inspiring as her insights into culture and our role in society. In her mind, and as the University of Dallas has always believed, the two are united in the same love for the truth. In awe of the organic, interwoven whole of tradition, our calling is to take up the love for that tradition which we have inherited and carry society into a new myth transformed and guided by our actions, thought, and zeal. I think every person in the conference room might have stayed all day. Dr. Cowan seemed to want to as well: more than a few times, in the youthful spirit of UD she let us know, “if we’re running out of wine there is more in my apartment. I can go get it.” Dr. Cowan is a mother and a teacher. As any person there can attest to, separating the two is neigh impossible.

The gathering was on May 19th, 2009. Compiled by Peter Kane from the memories of Peter Bloch, Michael Horan, Mary Pat Jones, Laura Junker, Peter Kane, Anne Lorimer, Elizabeth Lowery, Alex Misko, Laura Papania, John Sercer, and Mary Watson.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
4 Responses
  1. John Sercer says:

    Re 'An Angel Looking on Literature ("You can disagree with me.”)
    “We should look upon literature as the angels look upon the works of man.”'
    Allan Tate says,
    "hypertrophy of the intellect" is "the intellect moving in isolation from both love and the moral will, whereby it declares itself independent of the human situation in the quest of essential knowledge." With "hypertrophy of the intellect and hypertrophy of the will," "neither intellect nor will is bound to the human scale, [and] their projection becomes godlike, and man becomes an angel, in M. Maritain's sense of the term: 'Cartesian dualism breaks man up into two complete substances, joined to one another none knows how: on the one hand, the body which is only geometrical extension; on the other, the soul which is only thought–an angel inhabiting a machine and directing it by means of the pineal gland … for human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception. The natural roots of our knowledge being cut, a general drying up in philosophy and culture resulted, a drought for which romantic tears were later to provide only an insufficient remedy.'"
    This excerpt is from an article called "The Angelic Imagination." I just think we need to be careful not to indulge in Poe's "exaltation of the imagination in its Cartesian vacuum."
    Dr. Cowan advised that “being too proper will restrict the freedom of imagination;” I think that Tate is pointing out the dangers of an unrestricted imagination [uper–"over," "excessive;" + trophia–"growth," "nourishment," "development"].

  2. John Sercer says:

    Re "The greatest novel in the world:"
    Read "The Fratricides" by Nikos Kazantzakis; I read it while I was reading some selected essays on "Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent," I couldn't help but see the similarities between the two authors. Nikos K. is essentially to Greece what Dostoevsky is to Russia (or Faulkner to America, etc.). The novel addresses the historical conflict between Greek Royalists and Social Democrats, through the eyes of an [Eastern] Orthodox Priest who sides with neither party, but with God. The religious charism of the Byzantine church is a little bit foreign to this Latin Church-er, but the description of mysticism in this book (with its focus on the community, of course) offers an intriguing look at a different aspect of Christianity. Two themes Fratricides addresses that reminded me of the Brothers K (or at least the "Grand Inquisitioner" chapter) are Feuerbach's claim that stories about god or religion are only about human life and the problem of evil or pain (cf. CS Lewis or Hume): in the socialist camp, the new religion proclaims, "That's what God is today, anyway–the people!" and a woman states, "As long as there are starving children there is no God" (180). The priest, Father Yanaros, must decide what role he or religion ought to play in a bloody, fratricidal Greece, and, to play on another theme of FD's, Fr. Y thinks that "God's words are double-edged, double-mouthed, and dangerous …. God's words open both doors–hell and paradise–and in man's fear, he cannot distinguish which door leads to God" (148-149). Anyway, the book is both entertaining and worth a second read, something I can't say about Eugene's novels (except maybe Strychnine and Ceremony).

  3. John Sercer says:

    I have to ask again…"Shakespeare is not a 'great' lyricist?"
    Full Fathom Five:
    "Nothing of him that doth fade
    But doth suffer a sea-change…"
    Winter Wind:
    "Heigh ho, the holly,
    Life is most jolly!"
    "When that I was and a little tiny boy…"
    "Come and kiss me, sweet and twenty,
    Youth's a stuff will not endure."
    Billy Boy strews brilliant lyrics on his drama like God showers mercy in gentle rain onto the place beneath.

  4. […] Dr. Louise Cowan. Downloaded from A Draught of Vintage. […]

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>