In Tim Powers’ supernatural thriller, Last Call, which is set largely in Las Vegas, the city and its casinos are seen as the playground of invisible demonic forces who prey on those who are playing the tables. For those who see reality in supernatural terms, this is the way things are in Vegas, a city that prides itself on its vice, flaunting its viciousness. Visitors to Vegas who indulge themselves with the deadly sins that the city facilitates and encourages are killing the life of grace in their souls, leaving themselves unprotected spiritually from the onslaught of demonic forces. In this sense, Tim Powers tells it how it is.
In such a city, one expects vice and not virtue, and the living of the lie and not the speaking of the truth. It is, therefore, surprising that one of the finest speakers of the truth and one of the noblest advocates of virtue lived in Vegas for many years until his death earlier this month.
Richard Harp, who died on March 7 at the relatively young age of 73, had been chairman of the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for many years. He was also the founding co-editor of the Ben Jonson Journal and editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jonson’s plays and co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. It was, however, as a regular contributor to the Ignatius Critical Editions, of which I was the series editor, that I came to know him. Over several years we corresponded and collaborated regularly, Dr. Harp contributing essays to five of the editions. For Romeo and Juliet he wrote of “the luminous quality of beauty,” citing Thomas Dubay and Thomas Aquinas to buttress his perspective.
In “The Nobility of Hamlet” Dr. Harp exposed the shallow nature of those critics who emphasize the Prince’s “melancholy and procrastination” to the detriment to his higher qualities. It was, he insisted, Hamlet’s acceptance and embrace of inevitable suffering which raised Shakespeare’s misunderstood protagonist to the company of the heroes and saints: “For, ultimately, the greatness of Job, Oedipus, and Hamlet involves their touching a realm higher than the merely human; their suffering is of such a dimension and intensity, and their acceptance of it is sufficiently genuine, that they are given a glimpse of the transcendent.”
In his essay for the Ignatius Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice he concluded his discussion of the weaving of the comic and dramatic aspects of the novel with an encapsulation of the novel’s deepest moral meaning which was as succinct as it was sublime: “Both hero and heroine discover, to use almost biblical terms, that it is only in losing all that had so much defined their single lives – everything tinged with pride and vanity and the indulgence of prejudice – that they gain their life together.”
Showing himself as comfortable with American Literature as he was with its British counterpart, Dr. Harp called no less a witness than Thomas Aquinas to the defence of the love of Hester and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter: “Even so strict a moralist as Saint Thomas Aquinas affirmed that all acts, including sinful ones, have at their root the pursuit of the good. Every sin, says Aquinas, ‘includes an inordinate turning to a mutable [that is earthly] good’; inordinate and mutable though Hester and Dimmesdale’s love may have been, then, it was also a good.”
In his essay for the edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dr. Harp focused on the influential role of fables, myths, and fairy tales in Wilde’s cautionary novel. In doing so, he introduced a veritable host of writers and works to argue his case: Aesop, Horace, the myth of Narcissus, the story of Cinderella, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Joseph Conrad, Charles Williams, and last but indubitably not least, G. K. Chesterton.
One can only imagine how a man as erudite and as steeped in tradition as Dr. Harp, and a man who made no secret of his Catholic faith, could have survived for so long in the quagmire queerness of the secular academy, in which English departments have succumbed to the dogmas and hydra-headed monstrosities of radical relativism, deconstructionism, Marxist historicism, and queer theory. And yet such was my trust in Dr. Harp, who was Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of English at UNLV, that I was very happy to recommend that students seeking a graduate degree in English should consider UNLV as one of their options. He encouraged me to do so and was keen to take such students under his wing, serving as a mentor who could guide them through the swamps and the minefields of the university’s English curriculum.
For those of us fighting for goodness, truth, and beauty against the culture of death’s cult of ugliness, the news that Dr. Richard Harp is lost to us is a bitter blow. We need such faithful witnesses who wield the sword of truth in enemy territory. Switching metaphors, we need those who sing with the clarity of truth amidst the din of discord. Dr. Harp was, to be sure, and with apologies for the pun, a harp of veritas amidst the harpies of viciousness. He will indeed be sorely missed. Nonetheless we are consoled and amply compensated by the knowledge that he has gone to his reward. He has received the wages of the warrior. He is finally beyond all the shadows of doubt which surrounded him because he is finally beyond all shadows. In the words from Hamlet with which Dr. Harp ended his own essay on the play: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Allegory of Vanity” (c. 1636) by Antonio de Pereda (1611-1678), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.