Walker Percy: Seer of the ‘Self’STEPHEN SPARROW
The December 1977 issue of Esquire Magazine carried an insightful self-interview with American novelist Walker Percy entitled "Questions They Never Asked Me" and it commenced with a rundown on his not inconsiderable list of personal aversions.
the only answer I can give is that I asked for it; in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offence. So I demanded (faith).Percy's imaginative answer may sound tongue in cheek but he was being sincere; and given the circumstances of his early life it's not surprising that he demanded to know more about the reason for his being in the world; and it was this sort of curiosity that led to his discovery of and acceptance of Faith and which later resulted in his conversion to Catholicism.
Walker Percy was born on May 28th 1916 in Birmingham Alabama. He was only thirteen when his father committed suicide. A year afterward, the now fatherless family accepted the invitation of a well off uncle to move in with his household, but even further misfortune lay in store and two years later Walker's mother died in a car crash. The uncle who took the family under his wing was prominent Southern lawyer, writer and landowner William Alexander Percy and he spared nothing to ensure that Walker and his two younger brothers were cared for and well educated. After high school Walker enrolled at Columbia University's Medical College. He graduated in 1941 but a short time later while completing his internship in a New York Hospital he contracted tuberculosis. A long convalescence followed which enabled him to read widely and it was during this period that he came in contact with The Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas, which in turn led him to the threshold of the Church. He returned to Columbia to teach, with a special interest in psychiatry, but a few years later the after effects of his illness caused Dr Percy to relinquish medicine altogether. He married a medical technician named Mary Bernice Townsend on November 7, 1946 and the couple later moved south, settling in Covington near New Orleans, where Walker commenced earning his living as a writer.
Like many aspiring writers, Walker Percy's first attempt to have a novel published ended in failure. His next effort however exceeded all expectations. The Moviegoer was published in 1961 and a year later it won America's National Book Award. The story tells about a young man named Binx Bolling whose comfortable but empty life revolves around having a good time, that is until the unexpected death of his adolescent step brother Lonnie recalls him to the real purpose of life. After that, Binx has a sudden desire for marriage to his neurotic cousin Kate, whom he thinks is in need of protection. The novel (like all Percy's fiction) has a strongly Catholic theme and despite the superlative writing style, I suspect that its church friendly stance would cut little ice with today's bunch of liberal trendy critics. Immediately after receiving The National Book Award, Percy made an illuminating comment to a group of journalists, one of whom had asked him why the American South continually produced such good fiction writers. Percy answered that it was because the South had lost the war (The American Civil War), meaning that the American South, in tasting of defeat, had had it's fall and that good story telling could not proceed out of arrogance but rather it required a humility that had been burnt into the novelist by both culture and life experience.
Over the next twenty-five years another five Percy novels were to be published. The Last Gentleman, Love In The Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome. All in various ways deal with psychological dislocation, despair, as well as good and evil, and all are carried along by Percy's lively writing style that shimmers with wit and inventiveness. During his lifetime Walker Percy also wrote two works of non-fiction. The Message In The Bottle, published in 1975, is a rather technical albeit opaque collection of writings on the human mind and myth, but in 1983 appeared the brilliant, witty and highly original Lost In The Cosmos, which Percy described as the last self help book. A year after Percy's death in 1990 an eclectic collection of his essays was published under the title of Signposts In A Strange Land. The articles were culled from a wide variety of periodicals and books and edited by Father Patrick Samway S.J.. The collection contains the previously mentioned piece "Questions They Never Asked Me" and others such as "Is A Theory of Man Possible?," "A Cranky Novelist Reflects On The Church," "Why Are You A Catholic" and "If I Had Five Minutes With The Pope".
Walker Percy's use of fiction to tune into the modern malaise of despair and helplessness is well illustrated in The Second Coming where the main character Will Barrett, having lived through a childhood scarred by the memory of his father's suicide, decides in middle age to adopt the same 'out' and crawls into a secluded cave armed with various pills to secretly achieve his aim, only to be thwarted and driven to seek help by a severe bout of toothache. A comic example of how a commonplace painful condition can prevent our taking ourselves too seriously. On that topic, we gain a glimpse of Percy's point of view from a recent web published interview with Robin Leary recorded back in 1982: Leary asked Percy what advice he would give to someone contemplating suicide. Percy's answer was,
Go ahead and contemplate it. Then enjoy the consequences of not doing it.
On the first page of Lost In The Cosmos Percy asks the question,
Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life.In another part Percy expresses amazement at how extraordinarily nice many of today's young people are. But then comes the clout over the ear as he adds,
extraordinarily nice and extraordinarily ignorant.And further down the same page he poses the question of how many sincerely religious folk still exist, meaning Christians and Jews, whose lives are filled with the joy of the love of God and who go about doing good. Well, there were perhaps some he supposed, but for every Mother Teresa, he reckoned there were 1800 nutty American nuns, female Clint Eastwoods who have it in for men and are out to get the Pope.
If Lost In The Cosmos is a witty tour de force of the human psyche, The Thanatos Syndrome is its fictional counterpart. Its main protagonist Dr. Tom More is a psychiatrist recently released on parole from the state prison where he'd been incarcerated for selling large quantities of stay awake drugs to long haul truckers. Dr. More muses,
that prison works wonders for vanity in general……All doctors should spend two years in prison. They'd treat their patients better, as fellow flawed humans.In reality the story is a fast paced thriller with a decidedly Catholic overlay. There is a reformed alcoholic priest who punctuates sermons with embarrassingly long pauses while he organises his next utterance; there is a droll description of a woman who can't stand the thought of black altar boys and a brief musing on the Marian apparitions at Medjugore. Ex convict Tom More is permitted to practise psychiatry under supervision and one of his patients is a thirty something divorcee who models her life on the gestures and sayings of various TV and film actors. Naturally she regards herself as a failure until Dr More explains that every scene in a film usually requires many takes before the Director is satisfied. She asks what is failure? And Dr More tells her that failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. The story has a few raunchy allusions but none of them as detailed or offensive as the court reports in your local newspaper.
In "If I Had Five Minutes With The Pope," Percy's counsel on scientists was,
Don't worry about scientists. They pursue truth, from which the Church has nothing to fear. They become a matter of concern only when they begin mucking around with human life with their high technology……Scientists tend to be smart about things and dumb about people.On vocations,
"Why Are You A Catholic?" is an essay written for inclusion in a book on the beliefs of some eminent Americans and in it Percy expressed his frustration at the devaluation of language, especially for words like sin that had almost completely lost their meaning and he looked forward to the day when language would be renewed and words would once more celebrate the things they originally stood for. He conceded that it would probably require some catastrophe to bring this about.
Nevertheless, however decrepit the language and however one may wish to observe the amenities and avoid offending one's fellow Americans, sometimes the question which is the title of this article, is asked more or less directly. When it is asked just so, straight out: "Why are you a Catholic?" I usually reply, "What else is there?He said he justified this sort of smart mouthed answer because invariably it was in reply to a smart mouthed question. The same essay carried his criticism of the present age as being both post modern and post Christian, a situation he said was self-evident to anyone who thought about it and he described the 20th Century as,
the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history,and labelled it the
age of the theorist-consumer. All denizens of the age tended to be one or the other or both.Walker Percy had a quick eye for the incongruities and absurdities of our so called Christian society and in one essay he theorised that if during some Sunday service, Jesus Christ was to walk up the aisle of your average American church, the most likely response would be that at least one person present would phone for the police. A sad commentary on how Christianity is so often dishonoured and discredited by lip service only.
Being outspoken gained the man more than a few enemies and in the 1960s Percy found himself branded a nigger lover and a bleeding heart, an accusation that was followed almost immediately by a bomb threat from the Ku Klux Klan that caused him to spend at least one night armed with a shotgun and huddled with his family in the attic "and feeling both pleased and ridiculous and beset with ambiguities" since knowing some of the Klan people made him aware that "they weren't all that bad and were probably no worse than bleeding heart liberals".
According to one biographer (Father Patrick Samway) once Percy had turned Catholic in 1950, he "never backed away from his faith" although he did admit to novelist friend and fellow convert Mary Lee Settle that the Catholic Church was "a very untidy outfit." In 1988 he was surprised to find himself the only American invited to participate in a symposium sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican. Two years later on May 10th Walker Percy died. He had been suffering from cancer and was just a few days short of turning seventy-four.
I cannot think of a better way to conclude this article than to quote from Walker Percy's 1983 address to the trainee priests graduating from St Josephs College Seminary in Louisiana, and which he ended with these words,
Stephen Sparrow. "Walker Percy: Seer of the 'Self'." Catholic Education Resource Center (March, 2004).
Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Sigrid Undset. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children.
Copyright © 2003 Stephen Sparrow
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