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.)
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 child. Walker Percy treats Georgia gently. Lance's first wife, Lucy Cobb, was a Georgia girl. Lance confesses that he was "ill at ease among the easy ingrown Georgians and Carolinians—where people seem to come and go, meet and part by agreed-upon but unspoken rules."
Something happened to the Virginian tradition in Georgia, and although Walker Percy does not refer to it, he sees its effects. The Virginia ethic merged with two other traditions. The oldest was the Charles Town (Charleston came later) way of life…. The Carolina planters were city folks, planting for the profit of it. They were merchants at heart and socializers by preference. They saw politics as another means of improving their fortune. (p. 877)
The other stream which met and intermingled with the Virginian as it flowed through Georgia was that curious kind of Puritanism growing out of the Great Awakening. (p. 878)
Percy readily recognizes the followers of the...
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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 both. Immelmann promises a hedonistic life and encourages More to "'Develop your genius.'" While the latter can be read as a call to scientific pride, it is also more specifically an allusion to a Kierkegaardian essay, "Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle," that Percy has said "was more responsible than anything else for my becoming a Catholic."… The Apostle, says Kierkegaard, has his authority from God; his message remains news because of its transcendent nature and authority…. For Kierkegaard the genius was born, not made, but anyone could make himself a Christian by exercising his freedom. Although the term "apostle" goes back to the beginnings of Christianity, Kierkegaard's emphasis on subjectivity and freedom gives the term an Existential quality.
Tom More introduces himself as a genius, a man who can "discern not this thing or that thing but rather the connection between the two."… [He] identifies himself in what Kierkegaard calls aesthetic terms and takes his authority from his intelligence rather than his faith. His lapsometer is the physical proof of his genius. Although it can diagnose the ills of post-modern man and can, with the attached ionizer, adjust people to their environment, the lapsometer is limited to the immanent. It cannot save—and might well help to damn—those it "cures." It almost damns the genius who has invented it and whose faith it nearly replaces.
Tensed between the call of genius and the meaning of faith, Tom More lives two half-lives—he orbits the world in abstraction and scampers its surface in carnality. In this condition he is ripe for the devil's temptation…. (pp. 3-6)
Immelmann's forebear is the devil in The Brothers Karamazov who describes himself as follows: "'Mephistopheles declared to Faust that he desired evil, but did only good. Well, he can say what he likes, it's quite the opposite with me. I am perhaps the one man in all creation who loves the truth and genuinely desires good.'" (p. 6)
[Through] this devil Dostoyevsky portrays an image of hellishness that Percy finds worth recalling, for in his discounting of spiritual issues Ivan's devil encourages both sin and an Existential inauthenticity. Although Dostoyevsky's devil and Percy's Immelmann do appeal to conventional pride, their call is not to rebellion but to spiritual amnesia and to an idea of happiness that is despair. By modeling his devil on Dostoyevsky's, Percy makes Immelmann both a traditional Christian tempter and an Existential "salaud."…
[The] actual dissolving of Art Immelmann comes through Tom More's mumbled prayer to his ancestor the saint. It is in the epilogue, five years later, that Percy develops his hero's recovery. Although some readers have complained about the sentimental patness of this section, it is consistent with the assumptions and progress of the book: if the novelist wants to put the devil in his novel and have his hero defeat him, then a storybook ending is not out of place. A passage from Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity summarizes the quality of life in the epilogue: "everyone for himself, in quiet inwardness before God, shall humble himself before what it is to be in the strictest sense a Christian, admit candidly before God how it stands with him, so that he might accept the grace which is offered to everyone who is imperfect, that is, to everyone. And then no further …". (p. 7)
Kierkegaard's understanding of what it is to be a Christian is essentially repeated in Love in the Ruins by the unlikely cleric Father Smith. "A gray stiff man," Smith is entirely unremarkable, a nearly anonymous man with an anonymous name. But Father Smith, like plain Father Boomer in The Last Gentleman, is the agent of God's news. Following Kierkegaard, Percy is illustrating that the knight of faith...
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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...
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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...
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