Percy, Walker (Vol. 14)
Percy, Walker 1916–
Percy is an American novelist and essayist. His fictive concerns are serious and ambitious: in his work Percy seeks to reconcile the problem of faith in a secular world. He won the National Book Award in 1962 for his first novel, The Moviegoer. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Edward J. Cashin
Walker Percy's Lancelot reminds us of the novelist's role as conveyor of history. Although Percy is knowledgeable about the facts of Southern history, it is not factual history that he conveys. Rather it is that peculiar understanding of their own history which Southerners have that he reveals. (p. 875)
There is an indeterminate but very real point when a people's history becomes internalized. Myth becomes mores. When that happens to a tribe or to a nation, then the history as understood becomes more true than the history which historians seek to define. The novelist is a better historian of history-as-mores than the professional writer of history-as-it-happened. The novelist reaches deep into his psyche for his history, and he communicates readily to a wide audience because his readers recognize the same attitudes and perceptions within themselves. (pp. 875-76)
In Lancelot, Walker Percy writes about his perception of the South, and his perception is grounded in fact. The South came out of Virginia, and Lancelot Lamar Andrewes returns to Virginia to begin all over again. (p. 876)
Virginians did not confine their way of life to Virginia. When their available land began to give out, they migrated to Georgia and planted their dreams with their tobacco…. Because the South paused a moment in Georgia before rushing to the West, the newer states accord her the respect reserved for the oldest...
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Percy's devil [Immelmann] is a modern avatar of the Faust and Don Juan myths so prominently alluded to in Love in the Ruins, but the details of Immelmann's appearance and method also owe much to the devil in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a book which helped lead Percy into a systematic study of Existentialism. The ideas and terms that Percy borrows from Existential novelists like Dostoyevsky and Sartre and from the philosophers Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Marcel give his fiction an interesting allusiveness and, at times, a real philosophical depth…. While Love in the Ruins is the work of a ranging intellect and observant eye, I think it is the least successful of Percy's four novels. Its weakness is a disturbing incongruity between intelligence and imagination…. I call this essay "Walker Percy's Devil" because Art Immelmann represents both Percy's philosophical allusiveness and the aesthetic inconsistency of the novel. Immelmann's temptation of [the protagonist] Tom More is the internal analogue of Percy's temptation by an old-fashioned art. Briefly put, Walker Percy's devil is Existential material in an un-Existential novel.
The primary terms in which Percy presents Tom More's psychological condition are angelism-bestialism—terms derived from Maritain's The Dream of Descartes. Tom More has both a Faustian abstractive pride and a Don Juanian absorption in carnality, and his fall issues from...
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Robert D. Daniel
In an article published almost twenty years ago, Walker Percy talked of modern man's peculiar predicament, the result of secular man living under the protection of a tradition he ridicules and of religious man being unable to live the life his faith demands. Percy compares "our posture" to that of "the cat in the cartoon who ran off the cliff and found himself standing up in the air. Maybe he can get back to earth by backing up; on the other hand he might be in for a radical change of perspective."… After three novels showing the contortions of the cat in midair, Percy's new novel, Lancelot, is a dialogue between secular man and religious man on what the world may look like once the cat discovers that he is too far from the cliff to get back. (p. 186)
Lancelot clarifies his position through a mad black/white reduction of moral choices. Despite its limitations, such a reduction may be seductive to those of us tired of the complicated—and often fruitless—ironies of modern life. In questioning Lancelot's sanity, we are led to the central ethical question: How do we avoid the intolerance of false simplicity without slipping into the quagmire of relativism? Percy's answer seems to be that ethical questions ultimately have religious answers. Thus Percy uses Lancelot not only as a voice for satire, but also—and primarily—as an object of satire. Though Percy would agree that all the ills Lancelot rails against are deplorable,...
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[For Percy, as indicated in his essay "Symbol as Need" (1954),] the inclination toward symbolization is not only a uniquely human one, but one in no way explained by reference to either evolution or biology. (p. 75)
"Symbolic transformation" for him is not a "need," but rather "a means of knowing." He wants not to put labels on people, but understand what they are doing. He believes that symbols enable us to acquire not "facts," but rather knowledge "in the Thomist and existential sense of identification of the knower with the object known." (p. 76)
[As] Percy puts it, "our common existence is validated" when one person learns from another that not only does a particular flower exist, and not only does it have a name, but it exists for each of them, and that state of existence can be jointly affirmed by two human beings through the use of words. (p. 77)
[Percy] has tried hard not to give up what he had once so exclusively believed in, the value of the scientific method, but instead [has tried] to add new ideas or values of his to old ones, and when necessary try to reconcile apparent incompatibilities…. Let man himself be the subject of "research" and we have what are sometimes called the "human sciences," and (in Percy's words) "certain notorious difficulties."
He examines them, and for a while anticipates himself as the novelist who can in a paragraph or two make his...
(The entire section is 4786 words.)