Walker Percy Essay - Critical Essays

Walker Percy American Literature Analysis

Like fellow southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor before him, Percy saw through the pious pretensions of an irreligious age. His southernness may have cleared his vision, but it was his sweeping grasp of Western civilization and its foundations that gave his fiction its substance.

The twentieth century, Percy declared in the words of Father Smith, hero of The Thanatos Syndrome, is that period of history in which God “has agreed to let the Great Prince Satan have his way with men for a hundred years—this one hundred years.” Percy’s protagonists—from Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer and Tom More in Love in the Ruins to Will Barrett in The Second Coming—are all, in their unique ways, refugees from that century, one in which, Percy notes, “more people have been killed . . . by tender-hearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together.”

Percy found the roots of the twentieth century’s sentimental nihilism in science’s bastard son, “scientism,” by which he meant the pathological attempt to objectify humanity as simply one more organism trapped in its environment. He concluded:[T]he modern objective consciousness will go to any length to prove that it is not unique in the Cosmos, and by this very effort establishes its own uniqueness. Name another entity in the Cosmos which tries to prove it is not unique.

The offense of humankind’s uniqueness in the universe bemused Percy, and it became a predominant theme not only in his fiction but also in his engaging excursions into the philosophy of language. How humankind and language are each informed by the other, how neither people nor language can be understood apart from the other—these primary questions provoked Percy to challenge the “official version” of how humans acquire language skills promulgated by linguists, scientists, and philosophers such as Noam Chomsky, B. F. Skinner, and Jacques Derrida.

In Percy’s hands, fiction and linguistics both became a subtle brand of apologetics, an inquiry into the nature of humans, God, and the Cosmos that yielded an exhilarating (although indirect) defense of the Christian faith.

From his improbable base in Covington, Louisiana, Percy conducted anthropological safaris into the human psyche. His credentials as a navigator were impeccable, possessing as he did the single most important trait such a guide can have: He recognized a clue when he saw one. Each fact about human communication, its successes and its failures, pointed Percy to a transcendent order of meaning, a transcendence that could be explained only by reference to an Eternal Logos who made creatures in his own image and thus made them capable of responding to him with language.

A traditionalist who lamented the twentieth century’s loss of the perception of sin and its need for grace, Percy created protagonists who search for the source of their alienation and melancholy in the most prosperous country on earth. The typical Percy protagonist is a roughly middle-aged man, comfortable financially but plagued by a vague sense of disorientation and depression. This cerebral main character communicates his sense of disorientation through paradox and oxymoron. His story is always one of “coming to oneself,” of suddenly discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, of the transcendent in the mundane. To Percy, a person is neither “a beast nor an angel but a wayfaring creature somewhere between.” The ultimate challenge is to seize one’s own destiny and act on one’s own or some other’s behalf against the status quo.

As a narrator, Percy often came to readers in the guise of the island “castaway” desperately awaiting news from home. The “message in the bottle” (the title of his profound nonfiction study of language) found by Percy was language itself. Humankind is wallowing, Percy posited, in a spiritual malaise, a post-pagan, post-Christian identity crisis. Men and women, intended by their Creator to become full persons, settle for existence as ghostly personas—bifurcated creatures propped up by a pseudoscience all too ready to ratify humankind’s soulless state.

Percy saw himself as a castaway with news even more newsworthy than a few tidbits from home. The “authorized version” of humankind’s story is, according to Percy, a myth, yet a true myth, one that actually happened: a story of wickedness in high places, of a fall from grace, of a scandalous redemption achieved by a dying God. Percy’s diagnosis of humankind’s malaise at the end of the modern age will thus be his lasting legacy.

Set in the then-future 1990’s, his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, represents Percy’s “final warning” to an age that seems to regard a death wish as the epitome of mature adulthood. Homeless, nostalgic, twentieth century people face extinction, Percy believed, from a new gnosticism manifested in various permutations as deconstructionism, radical feminism, and overt racialism. This latest gnostic faith drives one further inside one’s own head and tribe, creating a cerebrating creature who nevertheless participates in the real, public cosmos only as a brute consumer. There is no “outside,” no transcendent reference point that might give one direction or purpose.

Percy knew that the apologist must be careful, however; what he has to say must be heard as news and not mere gossip. His compatriots must connect the message in the bottle with the longings deep within their own hearts:What if the news the newsbearer bears is the very news the castaway had been waiting for, news of where he came from and who he is and what he must do, and what if the newsbearer brought with him the means by which the castaway may do what he must do? Well then, the castaway will, by the grace of God, believe him.

The Moviegoer

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

The story of a young man alienated from modern life who finds more meaning in the quest for God than in its resolution.

The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction for Percy when he was forty-five; it launched his career as a novelist. As a novel of ideas, The Moviegoer consistently raises the largest questions of human life. Is there a God? If so, what is mankind’s relationship to him and to the quest of knowledge of him? As became Percy’s trademark handling of plot, much of the action of The Moviegoer takes place within the mind of the protagonist, Binx Bolling, who, nearing his thirtieth birthday, retreats to a mentalist existence, “sunk in the everydayness of life,” unequipped to live life to the fullest and baffled by its ambiguities and contradictions.

A successful broker in New Orleans and a war veteran, Binx nevertheless has few friends. Although he has had a number of affairs with his secretaries, he knows neither what friendship or love truly is nor how to find a purpose for living. Binx is stuck in the mundaneness of life, which saps his strength for caring and believing in others. Immersed in the ordinariness of his social life, family, and job, he is a “wayfarer” who feels homeless and abandoned.

Binx thus embarks on a quest for meaning that evolves into a veiled search for God. As a seeker he is discouraged, because “as everyone knows, the polls report that 98 percent of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2 percent are atheists and agnostics—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.” He wants to be “onto something,” to feel authenticated as a human being, because “to become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.” In launching a search that takes him away from the consumerism and aestheticism of his environment, Bolling rebels against the mundanities of life: family heritage, job status, material good. Binx seeks a different kind of authentication and becomes obsessed with motion pictures. “The movies are onto the search,” he says, but they always end in the same everydayness which brings him despair: The hero “takes up with the local librarian” and “settles down with a vengeance.”

Ultimately his cinematic excursions bring him no closer to a solution, but when he is drawn into the life of Kate Cutrer, the stepdaughter of his great-aunt Emily, he finds both the courage and the determination to confront life as it is. When Kate’s fiancé is killed in an automobile crash, she lapses into despair, secretly drinking heavily and contemplating suicide. After Kate jilts a willing suitor, Emily Cutrer enlists Binx as an aide and confidant in helping Kate through her emotional trauma.

During the Mardi Gras season, Binx is sent on a business trip; impulsively, Kate requests that he let her join him. In the aftermath of their trip and the growing empathy with which Binx perceives Kate’s malady, he discovers his own humanity and worth. In his compassion and risk-taking on Kate’s behalf, he has transcended the ordinariness in which he was trapped and has conquered his malaise.

In the novel’s climax, Binx is lectured severely by his aunt for his failure to meet the standards of southern gentlemanliness. Paradoxically, this liberates Binx: He and Kate marry, free of the facade of gentility in which they were both bred. In the epilogue, Binx reveals that his aunt has learned to understand and forgive him for what he is; “the Bolling family had gone to seed and . . . I was not one of her heroes but a very ordinary fellow.”...

(The entire section is 3926 words.)