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In the summer of 1995, my wife and
Iboth Evangelical Protestants at the time-took a trip
with the Catholic novelist Walker Percy.
He had died in 1990, but his presence was very much evident in Signposts
In A Strange Land (Noonday Press, 1991, 1992), a posthumous collection
of essays and interviews we took along with us and read to one another
as we drove from the Pacific Northwest up into Canada on a weeklong vacation.
The title was fittingnot because of the scenery along the
highways, but because at the time we found ourselves in a strange land
between the familiar, but frustrating, homeland of Evangelical Protestantism
and the largely unknown vistas of Catholicism. While others, including
Pope John Paul II, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, and G. K.
Chesterton, would escort us into the Catholic Church a couple years later,
the melancholy and brilliant novelist from the Deep South journeyed with
us for an important stretch of that pilgrims road.
More than a novelist, Walker Percy was a fellow wayfarer and seeker, as
well as a self-described "diagnostician" of the "modern
malaise" and a builder of signposts in a strange land.
Out of the Shadows of Southern Tragedy
Born in Georgia in 1916, Walker Percy was shadowed by tragedy from the
beginning of his life. His paternal grandfather committed suicide with
a shotgun in 1917. Percys father, a highly intelligent and successful
lawyer who was prone to deep depression, killed himself in the same manner
in 1929, just as Percy was entering his teens. Percy later addressed his
fathers suicide, at least indirectly, in his second novel, The
Last Gentleman (1966). Unbelievably, two years after his fathers
suicide, Percys mother drowned when her car ran off a bridge not
far from their home.
Walker and his brothers were taken in and adopted by their enigmatic and
well-educated "Uncle Will," their fathers cousin, and
a lawyer and author. Walker loved Uncle Will dearly and gave him credit
for changing his life. In Pilgrim in the Ruins, his biography of
Percy, biographer Jay Tolson notes, "If it hadnt been for Uncle
Will, Walker Percy once said, he probably would have ended up a car dealer
in Athens, Georgia." Uncle Will was a Southern gentleman who held
to a Stoic idealism and a Romantic view of the Old South. Though deeply
affected by Wills beliefs, the shy and studious Walker soon embraced
a cynical agnosticism and the conviction that modern science held the
answers to mans origins and future. Spurning the life of the lawyer
a profession highly esteemed in the Percy clan
Walker chose to pursue a career in medicine. After completing undergraduate
work at the University of North Carolina, he went on to Columbia to pursue
studies in pathology.
From Doubt to Faith to the "Diagnostic Novel"
An anonymous corpse carrying tuberculosis changed Percys life forever.
Attending medical school at Columbia, Percy contracted the disease while
performing autopsies. Bedridden for three years, he was exhausted and
often depressed. Yet later in life he admitted that despite the difficult
ordeal he was secretly relieved at being able to leave medicine behind.
During his lengthy rehabilitation Percy spent much time reading works
of the existentialists Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, as well as the
writings of Catholic thinkers Blaise Pascal, Romano Guardini, and St.
Thomas Aquinas. An insightful observer of human nature and relationships,
Percy had growing doubts about his scientific, materialist view of reality.
Years later he wrote,
"What did at last dawn on me as a medical student and intern, a practitioner,
I thought, of the scientific method, was that there was a huge gap in
the scientific view of the world. This sector of the world about which
science could not utter a single word was nothing less than this: what
it is like to be an individual living in the United States in the twentieth
century." ("Diagnosing The Modern Malaise," p. 213)
This realization led Percy to make three major decisions in short order
in his mid-thirties: to become a full-time writer, marry, and become Catholic.
Percy and Mary Bernice Townsend, (affectionately called "Bunt"),
were married in 1946, and entered the Catholic Church the following year.
Not long afterwards, they moved to the small town of Covington, Louisiana,
where Percy wrote and lived until his death in 1990.
Initially, during the 1950s, Percy wrote technical articles on semiotics
the study of language for various scientific and theological
journals, as well as pieces about psychiatry, culture, and the South for
Commonweal, America, and other magazines. Many of these
articles were later collected in The Message in the Bottle (Farrar,
Straus and Giroux: New York, 1975, 1986), subtitled "How Queer Man
Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other."
In the authors note, Percy wrote that his "recurring interest
over the years has been the nature of human communication and, in particular,
the consequences of mans unique discovery of the symbol . . ."
Convinced that he needed a different literary vehicle for taking his observations
to a larger audience, Percy wrote two novels during the 1950s. Neither
were published (Percy apparently burned one of the manuscripts), but his
third novel, The Moviegoer, was published in 1961.
Initially ignored and selling poorly, the novel was the surprise winner
of the National Book Award in 1962. Over the course of the next three
decades Percy wrote five more novels, published The Message in the
Bottle, wrote occasional articles, and produced the most unique and
insightful "self-help" book ever written, Lost In The Cosmos:
The Last Self-Help Book (1983). Each of these works, in their own
way, grappled with entwining anthropological concerns: the pervasive influence
of scientism on modern man, the resulting "modern malaise,"
mans need and quest for life-giving symbols and signs, and man as
wayfarer and homo viator. Percy pursued these issues with the belief that
the modern novelist is meant to be a sort of "diagnostician,"
probing and testing the human condition through his literary craft.
The Cartesian Split and the Failure of Scientism
Percy rightly dismissed the notion that people can live without an anthropological
vision, that is, a specific understanding of who man is and what he meant
for. "Everyone has an anthropology," he wrote in the essay,
"Rediscovering A Canticle For Leibowitz." "There
is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that
his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought
to call into question." His own conversion was due, in large part,
to the realization that scientism the belief that the scientific
method and the technology it produces can provide answers to mans
deepest questions and longings was untenable and, in fact,
was a lie. As a trained physician, Percy had respect for science when
properly practiced and understood. But he saw many theories making claims
to being "scientific," but in reality were ideological positions
based on a subjective and self-serving view of reality. In the essay "Culture,
The Church, And Evangelization," Percy wrote,
"The distinction which must be kept in mind is that between science
and what can only be called scientism. . . . [Scientism] can
be considered only as an ideology, a kind of quasi-religionnot
as a valid method of investigating and theorizing which comprises science
propera cast of mind all the more pervasive for not being
recognized as such and, accordingly, one of the most potent forces which
inform, almost automatically and unconsciously, the minds of most denizens
of modern industrial societies like the United States." ("Culture,
The Church, And Evangelization," p. 297).
Percy traced scientism back to Continental philosopher René Descartes,
believing the Cartesian distinction between the thinking mind and the
rest of the physical world had finally produced its evil fruit in the
twentieth century. This radical dualism shaped the ideologies of Communism
and Naziism, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and secular humanism.
Each of these belief systems, however well or poorly articulated, rejected
God and set up man as the ultimate reference point for all of human activity,
whether that activity was political, social, or sexual. Now freed from
the confines of the supernatural order and objective truth, man could
create and customize his own reality: totalitarian, egalitarian, hedonistic,
Percy often noted the paradoxical fact that man can form a perfect scientific
theory explaining the material world - but cannot adequately account
for himself in that theory. Man is the round peg never quite fitting into
the square hole of scientism. "Our view of the world, which we get
consciously or unconsciously from modern science, is radically incoherent,"
Percy wrote in his essay "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault
in the Modern Mind." Again, science must either recognize its own
limits or create confusion: "A corollary of this proposition is that
modern science is itself radically incoherent, not when it seeks to understand
things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks
to understand man, not mans physiology or neurology or his bloodstream,
but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human. In short, the sciences
of man are incoherent." ("The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas
Fault In The Modern Mind," p. 271). In a self-interview, "Questions
They Never Asked Me," he put the matter more bluntly:
"This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at
the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer,
Scientific humanism. That wont do. A poor show. Life
is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that
one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite
delight; i.e., God." ("Questions They Never Asked Me,"
The Modern Malaise
In each of Percys novels the main character realizes that something
is seriously wrong, but cannot identify the source of the anxiety. These
characters suffer from the "modern malaise," an unknown but
palpable dis-ease a sense of despair not easily brought into
focus and identified. The epigraph at the start of The Moviegoer
quotes from Kierkegaards The Sickness Unto Death: "
specific character of despair is specifically this: it is unaware of being
despair." In The Moviegoer, the young movie-going Binx Bolling
states that "the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to
you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the
world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquos ghost."
A successful stockbroker, Binx is unsettled by his own gnawing emptiness
and is finally compelled to seek out the solution. When considering whether
or not God exists, Binx reflects that, "as everyone knows, the polls
report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists
and agnostics which leaves not a single percentage point for a
seeker. . . . Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they
so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has
occurred to them?"
This malaise, Percy makes clear, is not simply the corruption and abandonment
of Judeo-Christian morality. Immorality is a symptom, "not a primary
phenomenon, but rather an ontological impoverishment" ("Diagnosing
The Modern Malaise," p. 214). The real issue is more basic: What
is man and who am I as a specific man? The average person is led by the
dominant culture to believe that everything is fine and life is set
a comfortable existence is for the taking. "But something is wrong,"
Percy notes. "He has settled everything except what it is to live
as an individual. He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.
. . . What does this man do with the rest of the day? the rest of his
life?" ("Diagnosing The Modern Malaise," p. 213).
This is the predicament of Dr. Tom More, first introduced in Love in
the Ruins (1971), and reappearing in The Thanatos Syndrome
(1987). A self-described "bad Catholic" and a psychiatrist,
More is a widower falling apart at the seams, filled with terror, anxiety,
and lust. He confesses that he is "possessed by terror and desire
and live a solitary life. My life is a longing, longing for women, for
the Nobel prize, for the hot bosky bite of bourbon whisky and other great
heart-wrenching longings that have no name." As potential catastrophe
threatens to overwhelm him, More must come to grips with the "malaise"
infecting "the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western
world." Similar challenges confront the characters in Percys
other novels. While the "malaise" which Percy describes is distinctly
modern, it is inherently ancient in nature; it is the longing of man for
meaning in a world that has abandoned any real notion of transcendent
Man as Wayfarer and Homo viator
Although influenced by the work of Sartre and Camus, Percys "existentialism"
is not a despairing, atheistic sort, but a hopeful, theistic sort. This
can easily be missed due to the darkness that often fills the pages of
his novels. An example of this is Lancelot (1977), Percys
most raw portrayal of mans decadence and loss of self. A read could
easily misunderstand the book, for it turns on one single word, uttered
at the very end. That word is the difference between Lancelot being nihilisitic
and being theistic. Mans existential crisis his confusion
and despair over his own existence can only be satisfactorily
addressed by Catholicism and its incarnational, sacramental vision. In
"The Holiness of the Ordinary," Percy writes,
"What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world
religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view
of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly
on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic
Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever they
do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world,
bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listeningand
what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a
real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery;
a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding. Such a view of man
as wayfarer is, I submit, nothing else than a recipe for the best novel-writing
from Dante to Dostoevsky." ("The Holiness of the Ordinary,"
Percy explained that his anthropology is "scriptural" and embraces
"Gabriel Marcels Homo viator." ("An Interview with
Zolta´n Aba´di-nagy," p. 375). Mans search is for
himself and for the Other. In the end, finding one means finding the other,
for we cannot see our humanity rightly unless we see ourselves in relation
to the Creator. In several of Percys novels, the main character
begins to see himself more clearly at he embraces unexpected love. This
human love eventually points him beyond himself to the ultimate source
of sacrificial love. Percys depictions of these moments of recognition
and transition are masterful, always understated, quietly observing the
ordinary nature and commonness surrounding such significant (and sign-filled)
The Diagnostic Novel
While many novelists are content to be literary dermatologists, Percy
was a literary surgeon or, better yet, a literary coroner
cutting beneath the skin and examining the very blood and guts of the
"To the degree that a society has been overtaken by a sense of malaise
rather than exuberance, by fragmentation rather than wholeness, the vocation
of the artist, whether novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker, can perhaps
be said to come that much closer to that of the diagnostician rather than
the artists celebration of life in a triumphant age. Something is
indeed wrong, and one of the tasks of the serious novelist is, if not
to isolate the bacullus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness
a name, to render the unspeakable speakable. Not to overwork the comparison,
the artists work in such times is assuredly not that of the pathologist
whose subject matter is a corpse and whose question is not What
is wrong? but What did the patient die of?" For I take
it as going without saying that the entire enterprise of literature is
like that of a physician undertaken in hope. Otherwise, why would be here?
Why bother to read, write, teach, study, if the patient is already dead?for,
in this case, the patient is the culture itself." ("Diagnosing
The Modern Malaise," p. 206).
In describing his novels as "diagnostic," Percy turned to Aquinas
and drew a careful distinction between art and morality. He once explained
that "art is making; morality is doing
. This is not to say
that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense if it
is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make
somebody do right, youre writing a tract which may be an
admirable enterprise, but it is not literature." He goes on to say
that what interests him as a novelist is the "looniness" of
modern man, "the normal denizen of the Western world who, I think
it is fair to say, doesnt know who he is, what he believes, or what
he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain
of the diagnostic novelist."
Here lies, I think, the greatness of Percys writing. Although a
brilliant stylist, he provides far more than a mere description of the
epidermis, but cuts into the sinew and fiber of the human soul. Once there,
he honestly names the disease and confusion he sees, and also indicates
that a cure does exist. He works in a world of curious messages, sorting
through ciphers and codes, plunging the depths of human language in search
of further clues. "The contemporary novelist, in other words, must
be an epistemologist of sorts," Percy explains, "He must know
how to send messages and decipher them. The messages may come not in bottles
but rather in the halting and muted dialogue between strangers, between
lovers and friends." ("Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,"
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides in a top secret
location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento,
For more about Walker Percy, check out Peter Kreeft's
C.S. Lewis and the Third Millennium, especially chapter
five, "Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Abolition of Man
in Late-Night Comedy Format."
Kreeft writes: "Percy's and [C.S.] Lewis's 'message in the bottle'
is the first half of the gospel command to 'repent and believe.' Percy
wrote not just to elicit laughs, and Lewis wrote not just to elicit thought,
but both wrote to elicit repentence, the necessary preliminary to salvation.
If that worked on even one reader, it was worth all the books in the world."
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