Walker Percy Wednesday 119 (Father Smith’s Confession)

This excerpt is quite possibly Percy’s most intense piece of writing at least within the domain of his fiction writing.


In the 1930s I found myself visiting distant cousins in Germany. My father took me. They lived in the university town of Tübingen, where my cousin Dr. Hans Jäger was professor of psychiatry. He had two sons. One, Helmut, at eighteen, was older than I but became my friend. The other, Lothar, was a good deal older. I didn’t like him. He was some sort of minor civil servant, perhaps a postal clerk, and also a member of the Sturmabteilung, the SA, the brownshirts. Not even his own family had much use for him. In fact, as best as I could tell, the entire SA had fallen into some sort of disfavor at the time. Sitting around in his sloppy uniform, he reminded me of a certain kind of American lodge member, perhaps a Good Fellow or Order of Moose dressed up for a lodge meeting. Helmut was something else. He had finished the Hitler Jugend and had just been admitted to the Junkerschule, the officer-training school for the Schutzstaffel, the SS. The one great thing he looked forward to was taking his oath at Marienberg, the ancient castle of the Teutonic knights. He already had his field cap with the death’s-head and his lightning-bolt shoulder patch. What he hoped to do was to become not a military policeman like many of the SS but a member of an SS division and incorporated into the Wehrmacht, the German Army. Dr. Jäger had nothing to do with the Nazis. He was a distinguished child psychiatrist—did I ever tell you that at one time I was considering going into your profession?—a music lover, and, I remember, a dog lover—he had two dachshunds, Sigmund and Sieglinde, whom he was extremely fond of. When I think of him, I think of him as the “good German” as portrayed in Hollywood, say by Maximilian Schell or earlier by Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine—you know, sensitive, lover of freedom, hater of tyranny, and so on, certainly the courageous foe of the Nazis. Dr. Jäger was a composite of the two, better than both, not only a brilliant child psychiatrist but a fine musician—he had just played the Bruch concerto with the university orchestra, the ultimate expression of romantic German feeling—Gefühl! Gefühl! Toward Lothar, the brownshirt, he displayed an open contempt. But he was silent about Helmut. I could never make out what he thought of Helmut.

What were we, my father and I, doing there? I had just finished high school. My mother had died the year before and my sister had got married. My father decided it would be good for both of us if we went abroad. He had never been abroad. But he liked to say that we were both entitled to a Wanderjahr, as he called it. He was a romantic and a lover of music. In fact, he taught piano at the music school at Nicholls State Junior College. If you want to know the truth, he was second-rate, not really first-class at playing, not really first-class at teaching, not really a scholar. He was a certain type, quite common in the South, a lover of culture, books, the lofty things in life. Music of a certain sort moved him to the point of tears. In short, he was a romantic. His great ambition for years had been to make the grand tour of Europe, to see the cathedrals, above all to go to Bayreuth. It was natural that we should visit our cousins. The Rhine, the Lorelei, the cathedral at Cologne—they were as much a part of his dream of Europe as Chartres and Mont-Saint-Michel and Florence. I think he thought of Tübingen and Heidelberg as a sort of backdrop for The Student Prince. Do you recall that being a student at Heidelberg was as much a part of the Southern tradition as reading Sir Walter Scott?

 It is important to understand that in the 1930s most Americans didn’t have two thoughts about the Third Reich and Hitler. We were still in the grip of the Depression. Mussolini, in fact, was the object of more curiosity than Hitler. I remember my mother presenting a paper at her literary club entitled something like “Mussolini, the New Caesar.” Mussolini, the strong man who made Italy work. Fascism was then thought of as a bundle of sticks, fasces, stronger than one stick and not necessarily a bad thing. Hitler seemed to be a German version of the same, another strong man whom the Germans had in fact elected, a matter of some, though not much, interest.

There was certainly no reason not to go to Germany then, if one was going to Chartres and Florence.

I must tell you how I felt about my father and mother, though it does me little credit. My father was, as I say, a type familiar in the South, not successful in life but an upholder of culture, lofty ideals, and the higher things. He was a practitioner of the arts, by turns a painter and a musician. And an author: he wrote occasional articles for the New Orleans newspaper about old Creole days, perhaps a humorous anecdote about Père Antoine or a historical sketch about a romantic encounter between a plantation belle and a handsome Yankee captain. As a young man he wrote poetry and was named poet laureate of Thibodaux by the mayor’s proclamation. But he settled on music and gave piano recitals at places like Knights of Columbus halls or the Jewish Community Center. Later he became assistant professor of music at Tulane, not the university proper, but in the university college, which was a sort of night school for adults. As I’ve said, not first-rate.

We come from old Alsatian German stock who two hundred years ago were lured here by the thousands by a real-estate swindler named John Law who promised an idyllic life in a Louisiana paradise. So they landed in the swamps next to the west bank of the river, which is still known as the Côte des Allemands, the German coast, where they were engulfed by mosquitoes, malaria, yellow fever, and the French. My father’s family, the Schmidts, became Smith. My mother’s family, the Zweigs, became Labranche.

My grandfather had a hardware store in Thibodaux, but my father moved to New Orleans, where he lived in the French Quarter, wore a beret, and painted a bit, like an American on the Left Bank. He claimed to have been a confidant of Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and Frances Parkinson Keyes.

My mother was a thin, hypertensive woman, perpetually worried by my father’s airy improvidence, by his playing at la vie de bohème—I can still see him at the piano on students’ nights-at-home, playing and singing “Che gelida manina” not quite accurately, fingernails clicking on the keys, head swaying, eyes closed at Puccini’s melting melodies. But my mother had to make ends meet and keep up with New Orleans social life. She was both pious and hostile. She had it both ways. If someone offended her, she sent them holy cards, notices of Masses for their “intentions.” What she was really saying was: Even though you’ve done this rotten thing, I’m having a Mass said for you. She had a mail-order hookup with some obscure order—I think it was the Palatine Fathers of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin—so that if, say, her own parish priest offended her by having a black altar boy, he would get a card of acknowledgment from the Palatine Fathers of Fond du Lac that thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Simon R. Smith ten Masses were going to be said for him. How to argue with that? The more somebody offended her, the more Masses he got. Once, an acquaintance of hers mortally offended her by contriving to have her daughter named queen of the Lorelei Carnival Ball—not one of the major balls, to be sure—when my sister was the obvious choice, what with my father being one of the founders of the Krewe of Lorelei. But money won out and my sister had to settle for being a maid in the court. My mother, white-lipped, blood pressure kiting over three hundred, of course said nothing. But after the ball both the queen and her mother received cards of acknowledgment from the Palatine Fathers of Fond du Lac that thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Simon R. Smith, thirty Masses were to be said for each, sixty Masses in all.

Honor thy father and mother. I didn’t exactly. I am not proud of it. It sounds as if I’m saying that my father was a phony and my mother a shrew. Well, yes. On the other hand, no. To be truthful, I didn’t exactly honor my father and mother. But no, it was sadder than that. I felt sorry for them. How many other people, I wondered, were messed up for life? Most, I later discovered. But yes, it’s true, I was an ingrate. To tell the whole truth, I was a spiteful boy. I couldn’t stand what my mother called religion. I couldn’t stand my father’s fecklessness and his everlasting talk about the loftier things in life, Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Art, the Soaring of the Spirit in the Realm of Music. Would you believe I couldn’t stand all that Catholic business, holy cards, candles, rosaries, my mother’s flying novenas and Nine First Fridays. I couldn’t stand Holy Cross High School—except for football. I played tackle and we beat Jesuit, who thought they were the hottest stuff in town. I liked to hit, as they say. And I liked the science courses—no bull, just the facts and verifiable theory, no praying for anyone’s “intentions,” no swooning over Puccini. Actually, I couldn’t stand Louisiana, and New Orleans, with its self-conscious cultivation of being the Big Easy, its unbuttoned y’all-come bonhomie, good eats and phony French laissez le bon temps rouler, let the good times roll, which masked a cold-blooded marriage of moneymaking and social climbing, rotten politics and self-indulgence. Don’t misunderstand me. If I was anti-Catholic, I was also anti-Protestant. They were, if anything, worse. Actually there was not much left of Protestantism except a dislike for Catholics and a fondness for their festival. For, though they had nothing to do with Ash Wednesday, indeed had not the faintest notion of what it was about, they took to Fat Tuesday like ducks to water, in fact took it over. Worst of all were the local village atheists, professor-philosophers, ACLU zealots, educated Episcopal-type unbelievers, media types, NBC anchormen, New York Times pundits, show-biz gurus. If one can imagine anything worse than Jerry Falwell governing the country, how about Norman Lear? Love your fellow man, the Lord said. That’s asking a lot. Frankly, I found my fellow man, with few exceptions, either victims or assholes. I did not exclude myself. The only people I got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons, and the dying.

What a background for a priest-to-be, you say. You say charitably, Well, at least you changed, became a priest, and ran the hospice here. I didn’t change. Does anyone really change? I am still a spiteful man. The Lord puts up with all types. Look at his disciples. A sorry crew, mostly office seekers and social climbers. They could all have come from New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Down there in the world I had no use for my fellow priests or parishioners. I had use for the bottle. As one alcoholic to another, I’m sure I’m not telling you a secret—the secret of all alcoholics—when I tell you that the bottle enabled me to enjoy my spite. I despised TV, stereo-V, yet I watched it by the hour. Do you know how I spent my evenings? Not exactly like St. Francis praising Brother Night. Watching reruns of Dallas, which I despised, despised every minute of it, despising myself, having six drinks and enjoying my spite. At every commercial I’d jump up and have a stiff drink—to stand Dallas and my fellow priests.

You’re shaking your head: But you did run the hospice, you’re saying, didn’t you, and did a good job, before they took it away from you. You took in the dying and the unwanted, like Mother Teresa.

Don’t kid yourself. I don’t know about Mother Teresa, but I did it because I liked it, not for love of the wretched. Didn’t your mentor Dr. Freud say that we all have our own peculiar ways of gratifying ourselves? Don’t knock it. Yes, I took in the dying. Do you want to know why? Because dying people were the only people I could stand. They were my kind. Do you know the one thing dying people can’t stand? It’s not the fact they’re going to die. It’s other people, the undying, so-called healthy people. Their loved ones. And after a while of course their loved ones can’t stand the sight of them, haven’t a word to say to them, and they can’t stand the sight of their loved ones. They liked me because I liked them and they knew it. You can’t fool children and you can’t fool dying people. We were in the same boat. They knew I was a drunk, a failed priest. Dying people, suffering people, don’t lie. They tell the truth. Death makes honest men of all of us. Everyone else lies. Everyone else is dying too and spending their entire lives lying to themselves. I’ll tell you a peculiar thing: It makes people happy to tell the truth after a lifetime of lying. The best thing I ever did for the living was, in a few cases, to make it possible for them to speak with truth and love to their dying father or mother—which of course no one ever does.

In the end, all they would send me out here were AIDS patients—God knows what they did with the others—because not even the Qualitarian Centers wanted to handle them. Now of course they’ve started the quarantine, so they can’t come here. Do you think I’m setting up as another St. Francis or Mother Teresa kissing lepers’ sores? Certainly not. I liked them. They knew it. They told the absolute truth. So did I. I was at home with them. Did I try to convert them? Certainly not. Religion was never mentioned. Only if they asked. I knew I belonged with them, because I didn’t have to drink. When they died or got quarantined, I came up here.  Germany. Let me tell you what happened to me. Well, my father of course was in a transport of delight. First, France: Notre Dame! Chartres! Mont-Saint-Michel! Then Germany: the Rhine! Beethoven! Das Rheingold! Heidelberg!

Well, he was half right, I thought. Right about Germany, wrong about France. Let me make a confession. I did not like the French. It took me years to discover their virtues. It was a prejudice, I admit, but for a fact France in the 1930s was fairly putrid and mean-spirited. Even I could tell. We stayed with my mother’s cousins in Lyons. Our cousin was in the dyeing business. I recognized them on the spot. They were like my mother’s family in Thibodaux. They knew nothing, cared about nothing except business and eating and politics—the latter with a passion which I could not quite fathom. They had their political party and favorite newspaper, which represented their views. I gathered there were many such parties and newspapers all over France, because our cousins spoke of them at length and with venomous passion. They only came alive in their hatreds. The French hated each other’s guts. Only later did I realize that our cousins were what Flaubert called the bourgeoisie.

The Germans were a different cup of tea. I liked them. Dr. Jäger and his friends were charming and cultivated. They were accomplished amateur musicians. They invited my father to join their chamber-music group, welcomed him as Der Herr Musik Professor from New Orleans. I remember them playing Brahms and Schubert quintets, my father at the piano—and not doing badly. So happy he had tears in his eyes!

There were many distinguished German and Austrian psychiatrists in Tübingen that summer. It was some sort of meeting or convention—I can remember the exact name, isn’t that strange?—the Reich Commission for the Scientific Registration of Hereditary and Constitutional Disorders. They were not Nazis, quite the contrary, had in fact been famous as psychiatrists and eugenicists in the old Weimar Republic. I remember them well! There was Dr. Werner Heyde from the University of Würzburg and director of the famous psychiatric clinic there—which had been famous for its humane care of the insane going back to the sixteenth century. Dr. Heyde, I remember, even mentioned Cervantes’s description of the mental hospital in Seville, also noted for its humane treatment of patients. There was Dr. Karl Brandt, a great admirer of Albert Schweitzer, who had even planned at one time to work with him in Lambaréné. There was Dr. Max de Crinis, a charming Austrian, a very cultivated man, yet full of high spirits, who, I see I don’t have to tell you, is still well known for his work on the social difficulties of children—he was even decorated by the West German government in 1950, came to Washington later, and participated in the White House conference on youth. And Dr. Carl Schneider, professor of psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg, successor to Dr. Kraepelin, founder, as you know, of modern psychiatry, and author of a pioneer work on schizophrenia—I see you recognize the name. And Dr. Paul Nitsche, director of the famous Sonnenstein hospital in Saxony, who, I learned later, wrote the best textbook on prison psychoses. And finally Dr. C. G. Jung, whom everybody admired and was supposed to come but couldn’t—he was busy working as editor of the Journal for Psychotherapy with his co-editor, Dr. M. H. Goering, brother of Marshal Hermann Goering.

There was much lively discussion in Dr. Jäger’s house after the meetings, laughter, music, jokes, drinking, horseplay, and some real arguments. They were excited about a book, a small book I had never heard of, not by your Dr. Freud, but by a couple of fellows I never heard of, Drs. Hoche and Binding. I still have the copy Dr. Jäger gave me. It was called The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value. I couldn’t follow the heated argument very well, but it seemed to be between those who believed in the elimination of people who were useless, useless to anyone, to themselves, the state, and those who believed in euthanasia only for those who suffered from hopeless diseases or defects like mongolism, severe epilepsy, encephalitis, progressive neurological diseases, mental defectives, arteriosclerosis, hopeless schizophrenics, and so on. Dr. Jäger took the more humane side. Dr. Brandt, I recall, as much as he admired Dr. Schweitzer, maintained that “reverence for nation” preceded “reverence for life.” Their arguments made considerable sense to me.

I must confess to you that I didn’t warm up to those fellows, distinguished as they were. But I must also confess that I was not repelled by their theories and practice of eugenics—why prolong the life of the genetically unfit or the hopelessly ill? But I did admire German science—after all, it had been the best around for a hundred years—and in fact I was thinking of staying in Germany and going to the university at Tübingen and later to medical school. My father was all for it. And after all, none of these guys were Nazis, far from it—they joked about the louts. They might speak of Goethe but never of Hitler. And the little book they were excited about had been written in 1920, before anyone had heard of Hitler. Why didn’t I like them better? Because they, like my father, were professors of a certain sort, and though they were certainly more successful than he, they had the Heidelberg smell about them, the romantic stink of The Student Prince. They even recited Schiller and Rilke, and sang student drinking songs—Trink, trink, trink—one of them even had saber scars on his cheek from student dueling and was very proud of them. Of course, my poor father was out of his mind with delight. Imagine: Saber scars! Musik!

One night in particular, I remember, was an occasion for celebration. Our cousin Dr. Jäger had just received news of his appointment to the famous hospital in Munich, the Eglfing-Haar, and there were congratulations all around, a great musical evening, piano quintets, much toasting of Dr. Jäger. Helmut even sang Schubert lieder with a wonderful voice.

Helmut and I became good friends. Imagine a friendship between two American boys of a certain sort, say, a sixteen-year-old starter on the varsity team being befriended by the eighteen-year-old all-state quarterback. It was like that but different, different because I was aware of a serious and absolute dedication in him which I had never encountered before. He was extremely handsome and strongly built. He showed me his SS officer’s cap with its German eagle and death’s-head. It dawned on me that he meant it. He was ready to die. I had never met anyone ready to die for a belief. His plan was to become an SS officer and then, as I told you, he hoped, not to become a military policeman, but to join an SS division and to be incorporated into the Wehrmacht—which in fact did happen. He was planning for war even then. Who can I compare him to? An American Eagle Scout? No, because even a serious Eagle Scout is doing scouting on the side, planning a career in law, insurance, whatever. Certainly death is the farthest thing from his mind. I can only think—and this may seem strange—of the young Jesuits of the seventeenth century who were also soldiers knowing they were probably going to die in some place like India, England, Japan, Canada. Or perhaps a young English Crusader signing up with Richard to rescue the holy places from the infidel.

He let me come with him to his last exercise in the Hitler Jugend before going to the Junkerschule, the SS officer school. It was a Mutprobe, a test of courage. He and the rest of the troop jumped in full battle gear from a sort of scaffold twenty feet high. Then they marched—and sang. The singing—! It made your blood run cold. I remember the Fahnenlied:

Wir marschieren, wir marschieren,

Durch Nacht und durch Not 

Mit der Fahne für Freiheit und Brot 

Unsere Fahne ist mehr für uns als der Tod 

The flag and death.

After the Mutprobe and the ceremony, he took me aside and told me with that special gravity of his, “You are leaving tomorrow. I wish you well. I think I know you. We are comrades. I wish to give you something.” He gave me his bayonet! It was the same as a Wehrmacht bayonet but smaller, small enough to be worn on the belt in a scabbard. He withdrew the bayonet from its sheath and handed it to me in a kind of ceremony, with both hands. On the shining blade was etched Blut und Ehre. I took it in silence. We shook hands. I left.

So what? you seem to say. A valuable souvenir, the sort of Nazi artifact any G.I., any collector, would be glad to have.

No, that is not my confession. This is my confession. If I had been German not American, I would have joined him. I would not have joined the distinguished Weimar professors. I would not have joined the ruffian Sturmabteilung. I would not have matriculated at the University of Tübingen or Heidelberg. I would not have matriculated at Tulane, as I did, and joined the D.K.E.s. I would have gone to the Junkerschule, sworn the solemn oath of the Teutonic knights at Marienberg, and joined the Schutzstaffel. Listen. Do you hear me? I would have joined him.

(At that point the old priest took hold of my arm and pulled me close. Through some illusion, no doubt a trick of shadow and light from the weak kerosene lamp above us, his withered face seemed to go lean and smooth, his eyes sardonic under lowered lids.)

I would have joined him. Do you find that peculiar? Then try to guess who uttered these words about them, the SS, that very year: There is nothing they would not do or dare; no sacrifice of life, limb or liberty they would not do for love of country. You do not know who said that? It was one Winston Churchill.

The Jews? How do the Jews come in, you ask. Believe it or not, they didn’t. Not then. The Jägers never mentioned the Jews. The distinguished professors didn’t mention the Jews. Not even Werner, who looked like a brown-shirted Kluxer, mentioned the Jews. This was before Kristallnacht when it became official policy to beat up Jews. I’m sure Werner did his part. But at the time it was bad taste. I remember one night when Hitler spoke on the radio. I watched the family as they listened. Hitler of course was a maniac and was rabid about the Jews even then. But extremely effective, even hypnotic. I understood enough German to understand such words as alien, decadent, foreign body in the pure organism of the Volk. It was always Das Volk. Werner was all ears, nodding, buying it all. Dr. Jäger was ironic, almost contemptuous—just exactly as my father had been listening to Huey Long. Mrs. Jäger was smiling and starry-eyed. The women loved Hitler! Helmut’s face was expressionless, absolutely inscrutable. I asked him about the Jews later. He was not much interested. He shrugged and said only that there had been Jewish applicants to the HJ—Hitler Jugend—but they had been turned down. He added that anti-Semitic activities were forbidden in the HJ. Believe it or not, this was true at the time. I checked it. Then I asked him about Catholics. The Jägers were not Catholic, but there were many Catholics in the South and the Nazis were not as strong as they were in Prussia and Saxony. In fact, when I was there, the Catholic Center Party was the only opposition to the Nazis. He said only that the Catholic Church was part of the “Judaic conspiracy” and let it go at that. He was not interested.

I? I let it go at that too—though I didn’t know what he meant. Catholics part of the “Judaic conspiracy”? I could not translate that into American or New Orleans terms, where there is, as you know, a kind of tacit, almost tolerant, anti-Semitism from Catholics and a species of ironic anti-Catholicism from Jews. Catholics and Jews go to a lot of trouble pretending there is no such thing, behaving toward each other with a sort of Southern Protestant joshing and jollification, like good old boys from Mississippi. But it’s there. I remember a fellow telling me in the Lorelei Club that he had been bested in a business deal. By whom? somebody asked. By Manny Ginsberg. Nods, winks, looks all around, that’s all. You know exactly what I mean.

Or: once, before I became a priest, one night I was attending a symphony concert in New Orleans. I was talking to a friend of the family, a splendid old lady from a noble Jewish family and president of the symphony board—New Orleans Jews, God bless them, keep the arts alive. She was telling me about her recent trip to Italy. She’d been to Rome, where she’d seen the pope carried aloft around the square in a throne. She too winked. It was the way she said the word pope that was in itself outlandish. It made him sound like some grand panjandrum borne aloft by a bunch of loony Hottentots. As a matter of fact, she was right. I never did see why they hauled the pope around in that sedia—and I’m glad John XXIII put a stop to it. But it was the way she said the word pope—it made me think he was absurd too.

But Catholics as part of the Judaic conspiracy? Helmut said it. He took it as a matter of course. I couldn’t make head or tail of it—then. Imagine hearing that from a young SS cadet, with his German eagle and death’s-head on his cap and lightning bolts on his shoulder patch. Of course, in his own mad way he was right, but not quite in the way he meant.

I am ashamed to say that I did not question him or argue with him, at the time not having much more use for Catholics than he did. I thought of them as a lot of things but never as part of the “Judaic conspiracy.” In defense I can only say that the expression would also have amazed both New Orleans Jews and Holy Name parishioners.

My father and I went on to Bayreuth. I remember hearing Tristan and Isolde with him. He had graduated from Puccini to Wagner. His eyes were closed during the entire second act. I confess I felt contempt for him and admiration for Helmut.

Do you know that I don’t think he ever noticed the Nazis or Hitler or the SA or the SS that entire summer—any more than he noticed Huey Long when we got home?

I decided not to stay in Germany, after all. I came home and went to Tulane, tuition-free because of my father’s academic connection.