By W.L. Prehn
The protagonists of Walker Percy’s novels are eccentric — odd if endearing ducks — but by the conclusion of each story the reader sees that the sanity and health of the surrounding culture are more truly brought under scrutiny by the author-cum-physician, and in the end we are thinking that the hero is sound and strong. Like the sun-blinded possum who must find his way to the den from his sense of smell, so the protagonists of Percy’s novels are “onto something” and, if they persevere, will find a reassuring moral resolution in the end. From Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer (1961) to Tom More in The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) we observe the victory — projected victory is more accurate — of a basically good person who moves from self-critique to culture critique. The first line of the last novel Percy wrote begins, “For some time now I have noticed that something strange is occurring in our region” (The Thanatos Syndrome).
Percy lamented that “technological societies become less interested in roots and tradition.” This theme is all over the novels. While it was natural for a man of the Deep South to be suspicious of Yankees, Percy’s narrator in all six novels is suspicious of all Americans. Americans in general have lost their moral compass (to offer a now clichéd device). On one level, it is an old rub: the pursuit of happiness has run amok into the pursuit of pleasure, the desperate searching for security, the accumulation of more wealth than is necessary. Self-reliance has decayed into a half-life of noxious individualism. By the time we get to The Thanatos Syndrome in the late ’80s, the characters are sick. The human beings are less than human. But what disease does the doctor diagnose?
“For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.” This is the sort of talk to which Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer is given, but the heroes of all six novels make such expostulations commonplace. Percy was a physician of the soul. The health of the culture in which he found himself is his major concern. How the individual can find sanity in such a sick — and dying — culture is his major theme. He saw that Americans were suffering from a deep malaise (mostly created by themselves) for which the remedy was nothing of or in this world.
In the manner of Henry James, Percy suggests and does not describe, even as his characters are sometimes comic for effect. Besides a knack for seeing Americans in ways Americans do not care to be seen, James and Percy have this in common: the eye of the artist passes over the things of this world, little things most of us overlook, and certain details we did not notice, are given to our consideration. As Henry James was preoccupied with the man of missed experience — e.g., Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors — so Walker Percy’s heroes want to be alive and not dead.
Scientism is an important cause of the malaise in Percy’s diagnosis. His own deeply rooted scientism caused Percy to assume for half his life that the scientific method can and will solve all of our problems and answer all of our questions. But often enough it is the trained scientist such as Percy who rejects scientism as seriously wrongheaded. Through his struggle to live truly, Percy learned that truth is a very large thing and scientific truth is only one part of the vast whole. As it turns out, the other kinds of truth may matter more than what we can gain from the five senses and our ingenious instruments. Here is how Percy put it in his Laetare Medal speech at Notre Dame (1989):
While truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails, the abstract and technical truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of, and a destruction of, human life for what appear to be short-term goals. It’s no accident, I think, that German science—great as it was—ended in the destruction of the Holocaust.
It is plain as can be that the truth was very important to Percy. He was not so naïve as to assume that we can know the truth very often, but he believed that there is truth and the way to be a human being is to pursue it. Pascal is never mentioned in Percy’s novels, but the doctrine of the Pensées that the heart has its own reasons is something Percy took for granted.
The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages. (Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book)
From Kierkegaard, Charles Sanders Peirce, and others, Percy learned that there are flaws in the airtight mechanistic conception of reality (“bottom-up causation” as biographer Jay Tolson puts it). The truth behind the sensible world of scientific discovery probably cannot be known directly by mortals; hence the openness of Peirce and others to investigating how poetry, symbolism, visual arts, and drama can “get at” the truth.
Students of Percy’s fiction have noticed its Augustinian bent. The Two Cities motif is perennial in his work, but another major preoccupation is eros: sexual fulfillment, wealth, status, happiness on earth. Just as C.S. Lewis wished to tell the basic gospel story in language and stories his generation would not despise, so Percy gives us fictional characters who are filled with the desires we all know so well, and by which we sometimes suffer, and by novel’s end we have the strong feeling that our desire can only be fulfilled by That to Which the desire is ultimately pointing, even if unconsciously. “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.” This famous doctrine of St. Augustine (Pusey’s translation of the Confessions) does summarize a principal idea in all of Percy’s work.
Against Liberal Protestantism
“Lancelot Andrewes Lamar” (Lancelot) and many other allusions to the Anglican world make me ask whether Percy felt a special vocation to prophesy to Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church in the South, a most aristocratic institution, is the rock from which the Percys were hewn. Uncle Will Percy of Greenville, in whose home Walker and his two brothers grew up, was an ambivalent Episcopalian who admired his mother’s sincere Roman Catholic piety. In any case, it seems to me pretty clear that Percy believed that Liberal Protestantism and the Protestant Establishment — Episcopalians serving as the leaders thereof — left him cold. He found superficial the upwardly mobile American commitments to wealth, status, power, and academic learning. These false values occlude one’s vision of what really matters in life.
Percy knew of what he wrote. In The Second Coming, the older Will Barrett has developed nearly a phobia of “Christians”; that is, he does not particularly trust any club-swinging man or bridge-playing woman who claims to know the truth about God, man, and the universe. Binx Bolling’s Aunt Emily in The Moviegoer notices that many of Binx’s friends are Jews, and she does not like it. But Binx identifies with “the Jews” because Jewish people took an independent stand and paid for their beliefs. He admires this. “I am a Jew by instinct. We share the same exile. The fact is, however, I am more Jewish than the Jews I know. They are more at home than I am. I accept my exile” (The Moviegoer, p. 80).
An increasingly small percentage of Episcopalians are in exile. Being in exile, and accepting the fate as morally and intellectually important, was a discovery and a blessing for Percy. How many Episcopalians are really independent thinkers? Our inability as a denomination to be genuinely countercultural — which would include an examination of our economic arrangements — is as true of Episcopalians today as of Episcopalians in Percy’s lifetime. We are given to fads; we love to trend. The Episcopal Church deals with sin either by calling it “natural,” or ignoring that sin is real, or by declaring (this is the Protestant twist) that, since all have sinned, we need not address the problem. Misery loves company. Percy assumed that humans are called to be moral agents in an immoral society and, if your acts are morally good, you will find yourself on the outside: you will suffer. But sacrifice is meaningful. Sacrifice is good.
There is nothing pious or sanctimonious in a single line of Percy’s fiction, but a Christian message permeates every novel. He understood that sin is a universal disease for which there can only be a universal remedy. Admit this revealed proposition and joy — perhaps glory — is just around the corner.
Dr. Percy’s Remedy
Percy would prescribe for 21st-century Americans what he prescribed for 20th-century Americans who faced the liabilities of modernity without much confidence. After living almost half his life as a stoic agnostic who worshiped the scientific method, Percy made the decision to believe in the gospel that is Jesus Christ. Faith in community is Percy’s remedy for the human situation. Percy was converted to the Faith, not by rational argument or logical syllogisms, but by believing humbly on the testimony of others. He discovered that saving faith depends on a testimony that must have authority. Whence comes that authority? All points to the Lord Christ, of course, but also to the fellowship of the Lord, to the body of persons living on this earth in and for the Lord.
It was not a difficult step for Percy to see that there must be a guarantor of the truth and authority of the Gospel testimony. This scion of the Protestant Establishment was converted to the idea that the guarantor was none other than the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of the Creed. The Church gives a person confidence and room to live. The Church is a way for a human being to become a person, which implies living in community and leaving unhealthy forms of individualism behind.
Percy told his biographer that joining the Roman Catholic Church “saved my life.” For Percy, the existential moment leading to self-realization was when he experienced being part of something bigger than himself. This idea sounds timeworn, but isn’t it true? Percy might have appreciated the maxim of the Scottish novelist George MacDonald (1825-1901), who wrote, “The one principle of hell is, ‘I am my own.’” For Percy, membership in the church meant survival in a wicked, fallen world. Our African and Asian brethren are teaching us this truth today. Long years ago Michael Ramsey conveyed the same idea in The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936): The Church is the Good News in the sick world. We are part of this Body mystical or we are not.
For Percy, the Roman Catholic Church was the anchor; it was his way to be lost in the cosmos with confidence and even happiness. The Church was for him a reality — the authorized fellowship — upon which he could stand without doubt. But joining the church did not end Walker Percy’s search. The church only guaranteed a headlamp for the tireless quest of this sober, reasonable, and honorable man.