Walker Percy’s American Apocalypse

In an unpublished essay from the late 1950s called “Which Way Existentialism,” Walker Percy offered his assessment of contemporary American life:

Something is dreadfully wrong with the world of the emotionally mature, integrated man. What it is becomes clear in the writings of Heidegger and Marcel. The modern world, not merely the slums of Paris but the pleasant American suburb, is implicated in a special sort of tragedy. This tragedy is not the catastrophic wars of the 20th century—though God knows these are tragic enough. These particular events are only symptoms of the tragedy; indeed they might even be said to be desperate attempts to escape it. The tragedy has rather to do with the fundamental banality, the loss of meaning, of modern life—what Heidegger calls the “every-day-ness” and the homelessness of life in the modern world, a world which Marcel refers to as a broken world.

To use one of Percy’s favorite (if grim) expressions, it is death-in-life. Such a turn of phrase powerfully captures the malaise, the noxious particles, the despair that beset his fictional characters, and at times perhaps even Percy himself. He often wondered in his essays and novels how we are to undertake the task of living in the world “without falling prey to the worldliness of the world.”

By the same token, for Walker Percy (1916-1990), this world was not an abstraction. Like many of his literary neighbors in the South, he recognized the formidable claims that place and particularity make upon the writer. It is therefore no surprise that Percy’s work reveals an abiding concern with politics that is robust enough to inspire a rich collection of scholarly essays on the same. It is equally unsurprising that his diagnosis of the human condition—while compellingly dramatized for us in a world of Southern manners and politics—reveals pathologies that reach far beyond mere politics or even political philosophy. Percy well understood that the writer, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, “operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.”

Hence the political maladies we observe in Percy’s writing are not first causes but symptoms of what he always regarded as a deeper ontological impoverishment. Among many commendable qualities, the chief strength of A Political Companion to Walker Percy is that Peter Lawler and Brian A. Smith have collected a fine group of essays that not only explore the political implications of Percy’s work but also take seriously its philosophical and theological foundations. The essays, like much of Percy’s writing, seem remarkably propitious, even prescient, as they remind us time and again of our fundamental predicament. “A theory of man,” as Percy himself wrote, “must account for the alienation of man.”

In the rough-and-tumble decades of the 1950s and 1960s during which he found his voice as a writer, politics was unavoidable, at least for Southerners. A lifelong Democrat (but seldom a political partisan of any stripe), Percy was an astute observer of and erstwhile participant in some of the most significant political movements of his lifetime. When it came to the vexing southern question of race relations, Percy never lost a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the courageous—if paternalistic—example of his cousin and surrogate father William Alexander Percy. After all, Will Percy, the great Southern poet and stoic, joined his father (U.S. Senator LeRoy Percy) in facing down the Klan in Mississippi in the 1920s. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1947, Walker Percy’s embrace of the Church’s liberal teachings on social justice eventually moved him to support racial integration.

As Percy makes clear in his finest essay on Southern politics, “Stoicism in the South” (1956), to take such a stand was to break significantly with his family’s patrician past, which was shaped much more profoundly by the stoic virtue of noblesse oblige than by any New Testament notion of Christian brotherhood. Percy’s progressive racial politics became even more public and pronounced in 1970, when he boldly decided to testify as an expert witness in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans regarding the meaning of the Confederate flag in Southern life. Percy spoke in support of a group of African American public high school students who had objected to the principal’s hanging the Stars and Bars in his office. Percy concluded that the flag’s meaning (at least since the Brown decision) had become largely representative of “segregation, white supremacy, and racism.”

In national politics, Percy’s fervent Catholicism undoubtedly fired his enthusiastic embrace of John F. Kennedy. So deeply did he grieve Kennedy’s assassination that his second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), was delayed by more than a year. Given his inveterate shyness, it is most surprising that he appeared on William F. Buckley’s national television show Firing Line in 1972, along with the great Southern writer Eudora Welty. With winsome perspicacity, Percy turned a rather predictable discussion of “the Southern imagination” into a seminar on the predicament of modern man.

I find it helpful to read A Political Companion to Walker Percy against this backdrop, especially because Percy’s literary and philosophical project seldom fails to comment on the American enterprise, including politics. He once described his existentialist fictional mode as being characterized by “the apocalypse of the country club.” As he affirmed in 1986, “I wouldn’t dare write of the twentieth century as such.” He continued:

Most writers, I believe, sense that these evils are too vast and too close to be portrayed in any aesthetic mode; in fact, my own hunch is that only a major theological vision like Dostoevsky’s can accommodate such evils, that a truly demonic age is too much for writers of sociological realism. . . . But show me a couple, a man and wife, who have moved into the condo of their dreams on the Gulf Coast or fronting the Heritage golf course at Hilton Head to live the good life, except that the man is spending seven instead of six hours in front of his cable TV and has graduated from a six-pack to an eight-pack, and the woman is spending more and more time at Gloria Marshall’s and reading Nancy Friday and Judith Krantz—and neither man nor wife has said a word to the other for days, let alone touched each other—and I’m on home grounds.

Whatever political questions Percy pursues are never divorced from a sharply drawn contemporary American setting. The ephemeral satisfaction derived from the American dream is ever impressed upon us. His America is often suburban, and, as we saw above, his characters typically haunt the increasingly prosperous Sunbelt. Whether we view it from the freshly minted sidewalks of Binx Bolling’s Gentilly (a new suburban neighborhood outside of New Orleans) or the golf links on Will Barrett’s mountain in western North Carolina, the pursuit of happiness often comes in for rough treatment. Whenever Percy brings his Roman Catholic faith to bear on the American scene, we find much wanting even in the best of environments. He relentlessly calls into question, as he said, “modern man’s fondest assumption, that he has made the world over for his happiness and that therefore he must be happy.”

Because Lawler and Smith so clearly understand the contours of Percy’s polemic, they present us with a strong and varied group of essays that take fruitful approaches to the essays and novels. A number of writers take up Percy’s theory of man and its political implications. Among the best in this group is James V. Schall’s “On Dealing with Man.” Focusing largely on Percy’s philosophical essays and Lost in the Cosmos (1983), Schall explicates Percy’s complaint against modern political philosophy, especially his concern that Enlightenment political projects generally go astray as they seek (in Eric Voegelin’s words) to “immanentize the eschaton.”

Such hubris cuts across the grain of Percy’s most basic insight into the human situation. Upon receiving the National Book Award for The Moviegoer in 1962, he proclaimed that

Man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.

Thus, Percy believes that to embrace modern liberalism and its politics is to imbibe the Gnosticism of our age. As Schall contends, Percy frankly satirizes any promises of a blithe autonomy that frees us from the nitty-gritty particularities of intersubjective life among people who share our pilgrim status.

A second grouping of critics forthrightly addresses Percy’s musings on the American dream. Elizabeth Amato’s essay on “the pursuit of happiness” explores Percy’s critique of the self-forgetfulness that the American dream often inspires. Amato undertakes keen readings of The Moviegoer, Lost in the Cosmos, and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) in her explication of one of Percy’s most provocative insights.

Remarkably, he sees our unhappiness not as something to be gotten rid of, but rather as a fact of human existence that might prompt us to consider, as Amato puts it, “what our lingering discontent may indicate about ourselves.” The liberal pursuit of happiness, she continues, “does not properly understand the human being as a needy, dependent being who, above all, needs other people to live well.” Amato shows how Percy, albeit often through negative examples, insists upon a true community that might nurture authentic human flourishing while still embracing our pilgrim predicament.

Usefully building upon Amato’s clear-sighted discussion is Richard Reinsch’s consideration of marriage in Love in the Ruins (1971) and The Second Coming (1980). Marriage is foundational to Percy’s social ethics. Indeed, as Reinsch rightly recognizes, many of Percy’s novels achieve hopeful resolution only as they recover the healthful practice of married life. This sacred relation provides perhaps the best antidote to the dissatisfaction and death-dealing that are endemic to the “theorist-consumer” role that this age foists upon us.

Beyond his thematic analysis of the novels, Reinsch also argues for Percy’s political relevance even in our own vexing times, especially in light of our current national conversation on marriage. Given the South’s enduring social conservatism in favor of traditional marriage and family, Reinsch suggests that the region’s religious folk (both Protestant and Catholic) might yet have a role to play in helping the rest of the country to recover the “twofold love between man and God and husband and wife” that Percy celebrates.

I applaud Reinsch’s optimism, but only as it is tempered with Flannery O’Connor’s insight that while “the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” O’Connor well instructs us. Nearly every happy marriage in Percy’s novels (Binx and Kate, Tom and Ellen, Will and Allie) appears exceptional, even in the South. And among these unions, only the marriage of Will and Allie inspires hope that they will prove truly capable of restoring each other and their neighbors to a polis that reflects Biblical values. Whatever aspirations we have for realizing the Biblical beloved community and offering a winsome Southern witness to its viability, we may not be able to hope for more than what Percy dares to dramatize in the lives of his most redemptive characters.

Finally, for those of us who come to Percy chiefly because of our love of literature (more so than politics), a couple of essays address Percy’s novels via a more forthright focus on literary history and analysis. Chief among these is Farrell O’Gorman’s very fine chapter on Lancelot (1977). In “Confessing the Horrors of Radical Individualism in Lancelot: Percy, Dostoevsky, and Poe,” O’Gorman situates the author within two disparate veins of the Western philosophical tradition (scientific humanism and romantic idealism) with particular attention to literary genre.

In his essay on Herman Melville and the writer’s craft, Percy once said “there’s no occupation in the universe that is lonelier and that at the same time depends more radically on a . . . commonwealth of other writers.” For O’Gorman, this provides the impetus for discovering in Lancelot what he calls a “problematically” confessional mode that partakes of Dostoevsky’s romantic alienation and Poe’s Gothic despair. In Dostoevsky and Poe alike, such a manner of confession is unwittingly aided and abetted, suggests O’Gorman, by the Protestant Reformation’s promise of autonomy and liberation from a medieval (Catholic) past.

O’Gorman is most persuasive in demonstrating Percy’s debt to Poe. That Percy alludes to Poe’s stories throughout the novel is obvious, but O’Gorman deftly uses these congruities to elucidate the prodigious negativity that distinguishes Lancelot Lamar among all of Percy’s characters. More importantly, O’Gorman also explains how Percy reconfigures the idea of confession. Lance Lamar’s only hope of recovering from the solipsism of his murderous and tormented self, says O’Gorman, is to reach beyond the radical autonomy so celebrated by Enlightenment liberalism and romantic self-reliance alike. As he seeks to connect with his fellow inmate, Percival, Lance must risk a sacramental confession that might just unite him with the communion of saints.

This collection of essays reminds me of a number of conferences dedicated to Percy’s work that I’ve attended in recent years at Loyola University in New Orleans. To give or listen to a paper at such a gathering is not to participate in the hermeneutics of suspicion. All too often, academicians gather in an atmosphere fraught with prideful cynicism, determined to persuade everyone that their ideas are more compelling than those of the author they’ve (ostensibly) gathered to discuss. Readers of Percy seldom get together for such purposes. In their own delightful way, Percy’s novels and essays offer too much joy and pleasure—even hope—to sustain much academic scorn.

On the contrary, Percy is the kind of writer who inspires in his readers the emergence of their best selves: philosophically sound, persuasively sincere, graciously good-humored. This is not to say that the refreshing and original essays that Smith and Lawler have put together here constitute some sort of uncritical festschrift. However, without apology they give us good cause to be once again impressed by, and thankful for, Walker Percy’s artful and wise oeuvre.

H. Collin Messer

H. Collin Messer is Professor of English at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He is currently working on a book-length study of Walker Percy.

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