Remembrance

Sam Francis & Me

September 08, 2008

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Sam Francis & Me

You have no idea what joy lies in discovering that there is another human being in one’s homeland who actually has heard of, and reads with pleasure, Samuel Francis. But so there is. Australia, where moral cowardice and insanely punitive libel laws have combined to produce an intellectual milieu even more squalid than the average Beltway think-tank, has actually allowed the publication of a Samuel Francis tribute. Written by the greatly gifted New South Wales poet, novelist, and essayist Peter Kocan, it appears (though not online as yet) in the September 2008 issue of the Sydney-based monthly Quadrant.
Since a serious and respectful Australian examination of Dr. Francis’s work represents a watershed in anybody’s language, it occurred to me that a few personal memories of Dr. Francis might deserve revealing. These have not been broadcast before; they are perhaps worth sharing now. I included some of them in a letter to Quadrant, which might or might not be published, and from which I have cannibalized part of what follows.
Meeting Dr. Francis—I never dared, as his friends did, to call him “Sam,” but it seems that only his enemies ever called him “Samuel”—was a remarkably unnerving experience. While the phrase “he didn’t suffer fools gladly” has become almost clichéd among obituarists, no other writer known to me made his impatience with folly so obvious from the first second. I was introduced to him in Washington DC at a 2003 party run by The American Conservative (the same periodical which some dubiously continent Western Australian intellectualoid calumniated in Quadrant’s January-February 2007 issue). At this stage TAC had not yet appointed me a contributing editor, but even if it had, I doubt if Dr. Francis’s initial manner would have mellowed.
He was a huge man, of Chestertonian bulk, with (like Chesterton) a speaking voice much higher and more diffident than would have been expected from so gigantic a figure. Once I had been introduced to him as “Rob Stove, who’s visiting from Australia,” he turned on me the full moral force of his coke-bottle glasses, and assured me: “I’m afraid I have no interest whatsoever in Australia.” Before I could say anything, he went on: “Or the rest of the Commonwealth,” in case I had been about to waylay him with a monologue on politics in Bangladesh or Trinidad.
This declaration, the equivalent of a boxer’s feinting, preceded 10 minutes of the most complete amicability on Dr. Francis’ part, at the end of which he gave me his office’s telephone number and hoped I would keep in contact. I recall one long subsequent phone conversation in which, to my undisguised pleasure, he passionately lauded an article of mine (which TAC had printed) on the subject of a 17th-century French poison scandal. It turned out that Dr. Francis had an encyclopedic knowledge of this scandal, as of so many other subjects about which he never publicly wrote. As we spoke (Dr. Francis at his office, myself in some run-down phone booth at a Washington Metro station), America seemed to melt away. The connivings of Louis XIV and his high-maintenance mistress Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan appeared much more important and interesting than John Kerry or George W. Bush. Four years later, in all honesty, they still appear so.
I think Dr. Francis and I both hoped to catch up again—certainly I hoped we could—but we never did, although we exchanged some e-mails. His health, always a burden to him, deteriorated rapidly in late 2004. Before I could revisit the States, he had died.
Another anecdote, this time secondhand, surely warrants preservation for posterity. Dr. Francis had agreed to take part at a pro-family conference on porn, where every possible argument about what conservatives should do in the face of pornographers’ inroads had been already thrashed out. It was not in Dr. Francis’s nature to withhold protractedly from admirers the gift of his acidulous tongue. He told the gathering: “We paleoconservatives are totally opposed to pornography[theatrical pause] although we consume vast quantities of it.” A startled silence ensued, followed by audience laughter—the exact response that Dr. Francis must have sought.
Contrary to what stalkers suppose, it is actually rather easy to meet famous people. I have met, over the years, quite a few—I once met John Howard, and wasn’t that a thrill-and-a-half for both parties—but though I have fairly frequently met the famous, I have very seldom met the great. The great men I have met amount, in truth, to only five. They were B. A. Santamaria, the Australian political philosopher-activist; Sir Walter Crocker, the Australian diplomat; Carlo Felice Cillario, the Australo-Italo-Argentinian opera conductor; Pat Buchanan (who is the only one of the five still with us) ... and Sam Francis. Rest in peace, Sam, and may Mr. Kocan’s review bring you a new antipodean readership.

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