Joe Sobran on a Reservation
... and what Sam Francis once memorably left unsaid
DR. ROBERT HICKSON
It was at a weekly gathering in Northern Virginia, close to Washington, D.C., that Joe Sobran once spoke of his dismissal from National Review in 1993, and Sam Francis was present and sitting next to me and also close to Joe, only three feet away. There were approximately fifty persons present at this meeting in late 1995, or perhaps it was early in 1996. Sam Francis had already been himself dismissed, in September of 1995, from The Washington Times.
"You've wandered off the Reservation"
After Joe Sobran's poignant and vivid but self-effacing extended narrative was over, I said to Joe:
Joe Sobran was deeply touched by Sam's generosity and initiative; and also visibly moved by what I had related — even while I was first saying it — and he at once then said to Sam:
Anti-Semitism: Patent and Latent
Touched as we all were by his spontaneous tone of humility, I then said to Joe: “You were, as it were, a 'Kept Critic' — tolerated, and even courted and praised, as long as you stayed within certain bounds. Bounds you were unaware of.”
We then recalled the concepts — the 'Hidden Dimension' and the 'Silent Language' — as Edward Hall, the anthropologist, once presented them when he tried to help us to understand such potent forms of tacitness or implicitness — and as Mary Douglas herself, the British anthropologist, also understood the analogous phenomena of tabooing and risk-taking — especially in her 1966 book, Purity and Danger, subtitled An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (These studies dealt with various forms of risk-analysis, group-solidarity, and “symbolic boundary-maintenance” — as well as other important, yet often subtly implicit, codes of prohibition and of reputed “uncleanness.”)
Moreover, Joe and Sam and I also then acknowledged that “some things are so taboo you can't even say they're taboo!” Sam himself, while earlier working for Senator John East, some time around 1985, had discovered in a then-recent essay, in fact, that one well-known New York writer had accused Alexander Solzhenitsyn of a form of “latent Anti-Semitism,” because, in none of his famous writings, had he given sufficient attention to the plight of the Jews. Sam then recalled how he and I saw the “Category Problem”: a Gentile, so it appeared, was either a Patent or a Latent Anti-Semite. Not a very good rhetorical position to be in, it would seem. Or was there, without Sophistry, a Tertium Quid?
Sam was to die some ten years later, at fifty-seven years of age, and Joe some five years later — in February 2005 and late September 2010, respectively; and I have always especially remembered that intimate meeting of mutual gratitude and reciprocal recognition with Sam and Joe. And, after Joe had publicly shown his great gratitude to Sam, who was himself so self-effacing about the whole matter, Sam later said to me, in private, in his characteristically gruff terseness: “Bob, thank you for what you said.” But, with Sam, every word counted. (Moreover, Sam always admired H.L Mencken's own little-known, very quiet and selflessly generous acts for his friends — as Sam himself showed, so modestly, on behalf of Joe Sobran — and not only in the late 1980s and at General Wedemeyer's home.)
In the early Spring of 2010, five years after Sam's death, my German wife and I and our little daughter had another surprise. This time it was in the Shenandoah Valley, some seventy miles west of Washington, D.C., in Front Royal, Virginia — and at the end of the Traditional Latin Mass offered by Father Richard Carr. (The Mass, as usual, began at 12:30 pm. — and it was now almost two hours later.)
Moreover, Maike and I had earlier and once again requested a Mass for Sam Francis — who may well have become (as James Burnham actually did) a Catholic at the end of his life — and it was, as it turned out, on that very Sunday — and Joe Sobran was unexpectedly there to know that fact and to hear Father Carr explicitly announce that Mass-intention just before his own Sermon. However, my wife and I only discovered Joe's presence at Mass, when, as we were departing, a mutual friend, Bruce Hacker, came up to us and said: “Joe is here and he wants to see you. He is outside and waiting for you.”
In our delighted surprise, we went out immediately and found Joe Sobran sitting on the steps. He looked very weak — and even seriously ill — and he was in shabby dress and unshaven. I had never before seen him like that. But, he was so warm — and so spontaneously affectionate — and he gave our little daughter, Isabella Maria, a very tender kiss. He then said to me: “Bob, I've come to Front Royal to die. Yes, this is where I want to die.” (Although he was not to die in Front Royal, Joe's last days were greatly enhanced, as well as consolingly alleviated, by another parishioner of Saint John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, Allen Potter, who often selflessly drove to Joe's somewhat humiliating nursing homes further to the east, near Washington, helped bathe and dress the Difficult Patient, to take him to Mass, to book stores, and to various restaurants. The full story of Allen Potter's corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and more, needs to be written. Born in Saigon, Allen's fifty-fifth birthday was on the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, 29 September, one day before his beloved friend — but sometimes a trying and impatient patient! — was to die.)
But on that earlier day in Front Royal, since my family and I could not then go with him and Bruce Hacker to have coffee after Mass, Joe memorably wrote out on a little piece of paper his new cell-phone number and then poignantly said: “Please call me, will you? And soon.” And he again warmly kissed our little daughter and smiled, also to Maike, whom he knew. And he was, he said, so very happy to be there — and, providentially, even at the Mass for our deeply cherished, mutual friend, Sam Francis — Joe's former Vice-Presidential Running Mate in the “Rejectionist Party.”
That famous new Political Party was founded with an ironical pact which began its unconventional conduct and policy by having Joe himself first reject Sam as his Vice-President; and then Sam was promptly to reciprocate by condignly repudiating Joe as well, and not capriciously, but on principle! Such was their mutual affection. (I can still see Sam Francis's responding smile!) And such was Joe Sobran's own abiding drollery.
Even amidst his cumulative disillusionments and multiple sorrows towards the end of his life; yes, even in his final weakness and acute trials near the end, such was Joe Sobran's warm mirth and warm heart. And after Mass that day in early Spring, one also saw, so unforgettably, Joe Sobran's deeply Catholic heart and love of little children.
May he be blessed to be with Sam again. Requiescant in pace.