Home >> Volume 3, Issue 01

Darius Lecesne’s Seers of All Time[1]

Richard Barnett

It’s been said that Atlanta is “a city in the trees,” yet despite its economic huffing and puffing to forget, it is actually a city built on a Civil War graveyard. In the sprawl-swallowed town of Jonesboro, Georgia, not far from where some of Hood’s men lie in a mass grave across the street from a fast-food restaurant, a man spends his days watching over his young daughters, answering letters, writing poetry, and drawing portraits of men he has chosen as fathers. He is tall and slim as a distance runner. His speech has, if not the accent of an English gentleman, the careful diction. His shaved head is large and fine-boned as an African prince’s. He will tell you that he is a Southerner, if not by birth then by choice, geography being incidental to the kind of location he implies. He is a professor of certain qualities that one of the Southern Agrarian writers wrote belong not to the South, but the South belongs to them. He is quietly masculine, without bravado, living in his vocation like skin. He is a deeply religious man in the way it’s nearly impossible to talk about anymore, for Walker Percy was right when he observed that religion and “the language of grace” have been usurped by sentimentalists.

Darius Lecesne (pronounced “La-seen”) is Jamaican by birth, but claims a Southern heritage in his perspective that is apparent in both his drawings and his poetry (see vol. 1, issues 1 and 2 of this journal). Noting the comments of Southern novelist and critic Marion Montgomery,[2] Lecesne and his drawings call us to embrace a meaning of the word “Southern” both wider and yet more particular, “a state of soul”[3] that includes not only Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, and Walker Percy, but also such unlikely writers as T.S. Eliot, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The subjects of Lecesne’s sometimes interpretive black and white etchings are chosen very carefully. He says they are writers who can still smell our corruption. They are chary, as Warren said, of “faith gone from God to experts.” Lecesne suggests they exhibit what Andrew Lytle called the “philosophia perennis,” or, more plainly stated by Southern scholar Louise Cowan, literature that both reminds and confirms the eternal truths of what it is to be a whole human being. “The Indian architect was said to go to heaven for his designs [and] Neolithic man did not consider his house just a machine to live in but a structure for a cosmology,” Lytle wrote.

Lecesne asserts that the geographical Southerner’s sense of “community” -a term he laments being usurped from its original sense, imprecisely used, and whored around these days to such absurd contexts as “the adult entertainment community,” ( heard recently during an ad on an Atlanta radio station) -has always been larger than mere place; Montgomery maintains that it includes a certain view of the world, which suggests a communal “window upon the eternal.” A view and vision not restricted to place or location strictly speaking.

As he grew to manhood in Jamaica, where people came begging at the door daily, Lecesne was influenced a great deal by his father, an RAF veteran of the night raids over Germany during the Second World War and whose experiences frame some of Lecesne’s best poems. The elder Lecesne’s war-time familiarity with our “Shadowy Third” was a tacit warning to his intellectual son against ignoring Original Sin and the complexities of the island’s overwhelming poverty in favor of simplistic “do-gooder” social remedies administered like The Cure. We don’t want to suffer with the poor, Lecesne explains, we want to “fix” them. Only we can’t fix them any more than we can fix the meanness that drives us to bomb cities.

But while Lecesne was reared to respect what he calls “the mysteries that belong to God alone,” he was also keenly aware of American advertising and its design to convince a world market of consumers to want only what a “Snopes-ordered economy” is able to furnish. This alchemy, Lecesne says, is enemy to anyone who believes with Percy that human beings are not merely “meat computers” satisfying biological urges, but “ensouled creatures under God.”

One of the things that attracts Lecesne to the American South is the Southerner’s natural suspicion of “experts,” a wariness of what John Crowe Ransom called our technological society’s “gospel of progress,” and a perspective that is frequently ridiculed by outsiders. Lecesne says this is because a section of the South still clings to its Judeo-Christian cosmology, however “backwards” or fragmentary, whether as Dennis Covington’s snake-handling believers, or, less dramatically, as “other-Georgia” misanthropes. Flannery O’Connor’s small-town and rural Southern skepticism toward many of the things the mass culture deems “broad and up to date” has always been and continues to be a scandal to Allen Tate’s “Yankees of the spirit,” who would replace faith with what Lecesne and his Southern “kin” call “intellectual idolatry.” Here in the South, Lecesne says, “people still see their mark of Cain clearly” and the region’s “manners, tragic history, and whispered sins” are “the stark truth” of God “striving for possession of suffering and violent souls alike.”

A voracious reader,” Lecesne cites Confederate veteran Sam Watkins’ Civil War memoir (Co. Aytch) to illustrate the kind of transcendently located view of the world he means. Watkins, he says, is completely un-self-conscious when he writes, for example, that “the vans of the Angel of Death” beat over the fields at Chickamauga. Lecesne notes that even today Southerners are more likely to see “the transcendent wedged in reality,” and he corresponds with Georgia teachers who refer to the Internet, with more seriousness than mock, as “Highway 666” precisely because of its (that is, our own) enormous potential for meanness. (Not a puritan, however, who places evil in objects rather than in the human heart, Lecesne admits he uses the Web himself to track down reasonably priced copies of often out-of-print works of Southern novelists and writers like Lytle, Montgomery, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, and Madison Jones.)

Lecesne’s etchings, which he sends out as cards on Catholic feast days, often are accompanied by quotations from the works of the writer-subjects. The drawings and quotes are leaps of faith themselves, for he never measures the space they will take up on the paper beforehand.—Yet they always seem to turn out properly. Often the quotes are apocalyptic, for as he says, the Southerner is apocalyptic in his views because he knows what people are like—given to what folks in “the other Georgia” outside Atlanta might call “cussedness.” The Southerner, he explains, “knows desolation isn’t something peculiar to Kosovo; it’s happened here, and it can happen here again.”

One aspect of the “regional” perspective of the writers he chooses to draw lies in their canny skewering of what Lecesne calls American mass culture’s “metaphysical white-wash,” for example, “the Devil masquerading as a kindly doctor,” as in the case of abortionists.

One of Lecesne’s favorite subjects, Walker Percy, for instance, saw that the new eugenics would be more subtle than that of the Nazis—it would be consumer-driven. The scientist in Thanatos Syndrome is sure that everyone will want to get rid of certain peculiar human traits once “special treatment” is available. Fact being stranger than fiction, Lecesne points to Monsanto and other chemical corporations buying up the gene-mapping of odds and ends of human DNA (the Constitution forbids buying or selling human beings, but one day you may be able to get one piecemeal) as fast as they can register the patents, promising a “dis-ease free future for everyone who can pay for it.” The potential for abuses such as racial-feature selection, human cloning, and the elimination of what the Nazis called “useless life” often are dismissed as “alarmist”; however, Lecesne adds, the problem lies as always “with our cussedness.—There are some scientists who believe that “anything that can be done must be done.”

Two writers Lecesne has sketched, arguing they are as “Southern” as Percy and O’Connor, are Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Harvard dropout turned British poet, T. S. Eliot.

Similar to Percy and O’Connor, (who once remarked that the reason she liked chickens is because they never went to college) Solzhenitsyn scandalized his audience at Harvard’s graduation commencement ceremony some years ago when he observed that Marxism and free-markets “both lead to the same spiritual death.” Like the Agrarians, Solzhenitsyn warned of the “spiritual impotence that comes from living a life of ease.” His, like theirs, was a “protest of the soul against those who tell us to forget concepts of good and evil.” Lecesne credits Montgomery with showing him how Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) is a “Southern” grotesque character as powerful as O’Connor’s Haze Motes, “not grotesque as detached, but as indicative of a larger, spiritual freakishness.”

A natural choice among Lecesne’s sketches, T.S. Eliot, (indeed, The Waste Land and The Four Quartets have long been considered quintessential studies of our spiritual demise) once remarked that the world is “trying the experiment of ...a civilized non-Christian mentality” which will fail, and that the writer’s task “in the dark ages before us” is to “preserve the faith” and to “save the world from suicide.” Eliot and Solzhenitsyn, like their Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee “kin,” share a vision of humanity that is both dire and hopeful.

It is tempting for some to confuse Lecesne’s views and work with reactionary “Southern League politics”; hardly an Old South romantic, however, Lecesne insists he came to the Agrarians’ perspective “at its theological dead-end,” one which the writers themselves, particularly Lytle and poet Allen Tate, came to see in their later works. (Indeed, Lecesne spent part of an afternoon discussing precisely this with Lytle regarding his novel The Velvet Horn a short while before the latter’s death in l995.) Perhaps Lecesne’s vision is most simply understood in the story of his two uncles who returned home from The Great War. One went to Mass every day of his life thereafter; the other took to the bottle and died an alcoholic. “[T]here’s not much in between those two choices,” he says. No sentimentalist, Lecesne dismisses a “Southern Partisan-type renaissance of manners,” with nothing redeeming or transcendent. “To listen to them, if we just get the gambling out of Biloxi and the loggerheads back to the shore-line everything will be fine.—Well, it won’t,” he says quietly.

Lecesne never took a creative writing or art class. He applauds O’Connor when she answered a young student, that, yes, such classes do actually stifle writing—but “not enough!” He quit the academy several years ago without taking his degree because, he says, quoting another “Southerner,” George Orwell, he found there “a fog of ideas so outrageous only an intellectual could believe them.” A diligent family-man, Lecesne prefers to spend his days taking care of children, re-working his poems, and drawing his “Southern” portraits. He earns money at night driving a fork-lift, work that, he says, helps keep him humbly located. He maintains a wide-ranging and lively correspondence by letter with a number of “kinfolks” in the spiritual diaspora, including besides Montgomery, theologians Thomas Torrance and Luke Timothy Johnson, until her death, Flannery O’Connor scholar Sally Fitzgerald, and Nashville publisher John Stoll Sanders (who Lecesne praises for bringing some of the South’s best and most under-read writers back into print).

One might wonder why a man with such obvious gifts is not anxious to overcome anonymity. Perhaps the answer may be found at the end of one of his poems, “Walker Percy at Lost Cove,” where the narrative voice observes that a man’s real vocation is reaching for the eternal door of his locale by going inside to his wife and children “in the steadying hope of an everlasting/Covenant solid beyond all his mind’s contriving.”

It is easy to say that Lecesne is merely “whistling Dixie” with such views in a place like Atlanta. But perhaps there are spiritual kin even in places that seem most hostile, as evidenced by a bit of graffiti seen by this writer recently on the back of a seat on an Atlanta commuter train. It was in three different handwritings:

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is coming!”

“Why fear God?”

Then, with an arrow pointing to the previous: “Must be some white man wrote this.”


[1] Writer’s note: This article was composed several years before Darius Lecesne’s passing in 2006.

[2] For a complete discussion of Montgomery’s “Southerner,” see his “Solzhenitsyn as Southerner,” in his book The Men I Have Chosen for Fathers.

[3] All Lecesne quotes are taken from his letters to and conversations with this writer.