Curiously, Dr. John Senior is remembered today less for his work in the traditionalist movement than he is for a book list that appeared as an appendix in his great work, The Death of Christian Culture. This list of “The Thousand Good Books” is meant to be something of an antidote to the extreme demands of the many “Great Books” lists popularized by many academic programs—the “merely good” books that are useful for fertilizing and tilling the soil of children’s souls from the nursery to youth.
Dr. Senior’s own youth is shrouded in a bit of mist. He was born in 1923 in Stamford, Connecticut, and grew up in Long Island, New York. In the 1930s he was enamored with Marxism. He married Priscilla Wood in 1945, and received his BA (1946), MA (1948), and PhD (1957) in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. The Seniors had three children, Penelope, Matthew, and Andrew.
In 1959, Senior published The Way Down and Out: The Occult in Symbolist Literature through Cornell University Press, apparently while teaching at Cornell. In this volume he acknowledges a great debt to Raymond Weaver, a professor at Columbia University who was instrumental in first bringing the works of Herman Melville out of obscurity and into the world of academic appreciation. Weaver’s book Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic was the first major study of the American novelist, and it was encouraged by Carl Van Doren (himself the brother of Mark Van Doren, another mentor of Senior’s).
In The Way Down and Out, the nearly forty year-old Senior shows an obsession with the subject of the occult. He spends half the book describing esoteric traditions in detail, with the rest attempting—and, I think, succeeding—in finding occult intent in the works of many poets and novelists: Blake, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Yeats, and others. The symbolist poets, he says, were attempting to revive the ancient esoteric priesthood by becoming priests themselves through the composition and promulgation of poetry. Most if not all of them failed in the attempt, Senior argues, but such was their intent.
Later in life, Senior asked people not to read this book. It is not difficult to understand why. Orthodox Catholics could easily be scandalized by the writings of the pre-Catholic Senior, for The Way Down and Out is the work of a still half-pagan mind. To take but one example, he writes that Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal is “a book as pure as that by any monk, and the fact that it was suppressed as immoral is a bitter joke, like a lesser burning of St. Joan” (p. 96). This is a far cry from the condemnation of Baudelaire that would appear in The Death of Christian Culture (1978).
Senior described his own conversion in an essay written shortly before his death,
My conversion started at thirteen, when, having visited the orchard of forbidden pears, I followed Marx and Freud, as most students of my generation did, until, through the good offices of an extraordinary teacher at college met my Socrates and truth, from whence I followed Plato to Platonism and, in the depths of intellectual if not moral despair, Oriental doctrine which brought me face to face with Nothing. Many of my friends and colleagues from this time, driven by the thirst for truth beyond Existence ended in insanity and death from overdoses of drugs and bogus Buddhist meditations. By what then seemed merely chance, my Angel interfered: Meditating on the famous proposition of Heraclitus that the “way up and the way down are the same”—which the Gnostics take to mean that, since opposites are one, the law of contradiction is void—I happened (oh happy chance!) to take up St. Thomas who says the way up and down are indeed the same, except as to direction.
To my astonishment, as I mounted up the gangplank to the Ark, I was all but trampled by a horde of crazy Catholics rushing to embrace in the name of “Renewal” the very horror I was leaving. (“The Last Epistle” from The Remnants, p. 128-9)
Senior was received into the Church soon after the publication of The Way Down and Out, in 1960. That year he also moved west to teach at the University of Wyoming. Esquire Magazine named him one of the country’s top fifty teachers in 1966. In 1967 he relocated again to take a position at the University of Kansas, where in 1970 he founded the Integrated Humanities Program with Dennis Quinn and Franklyn Nelick. It was a program doomed to fail dramatically and yet succeed in ways beyond Senior’s wildest hopes.
(to be continued)