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Percy, Walker 1916–
Percy is a Southern American novelist and essayist, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and a National Book Award winner. The search for individual identity in the post-bellum South and the reconciliation of love as a grand ideal with modern moral confusion are abiding themes in Percy's distinguished fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Love in the Ruins] is a marvelously funny and satirical science fiction Christian allegory that asks us to wonder how we will recognize apocalypse when it arrives. Percy's answer seems to be that it occurred in Eden, long ago, and is a daily fact. Maybe this makes the book sound didactic; if it is, it also fulfills the other half of literature's ancient use—it delights. (p. 283)
The Antioch Review (copyright © 1971 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1971.
[In both] The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman … the theme is modern alienation, and … the setting is that of the present-day South. In both novels the hero is a young Southerner who has lost his purpose and even his identity, and yet comes to find in his native region a challenge and a resource. You will mistake me … if you take me to be saying that Percy's theme is that the South offers a warm and comfortable refuge from the great world of confusion and frustration outside. Percy is not so naïve as that: we below the Mason and Dixon Line are not immune to the cold winds that whip through the contemporary world. The story that Percy has to tell is more subtle and complicated: it involves some double-edged ironies and some laughter at the foibles of the South as well as those of Yankeedom. (p. 285)
[Percy dramatizes] the themes of alienation, community, and tradition. Yet the writer is not treating his native region sentimentally or indulgently. Though he does not reject his heritage, he is well aware of its defects and limitations. The author is not too much at ease in Zion. He is perceptive and ironic as he contemplates his "Southern-ness." (p. 286)
[Some] of the side effects of the cultural crisis are amusingly but also profoundly described. The crisis has not, however, reduced Walker Percy to hysteria. He understands it, he can cope with it, and … he doesn't lack for the words that allow him to anatomize it, which is the artist's one way of triumphing over it. (p. 287)
Cleanth Brooks, in The Southern Review (copyright 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1973.
Percy's three books deserve careful and respectful criticism…. Percy's first two novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, are attempts to deal with characters who have the habit of looking at themselves too objectively, and who therefore have no stable character but exist in perpetual doubt…. It is probably not too much of an overstatement to say that Percy locates "the malaise" he speaks of entirely in mentalist terms. If we could think and feel differently we would be at one with ourselves. The difficulty of this approach is that it can lead to treating the world as a joke…. For a kind of realist, which Percy surely is, and would be even if he made a secret of his Catholic faith, it is hard to bring the world back into the equation, as the failure of synthesis in Love in the Ruins displays…. (pp. 206, 208)
In Love in the Ruins Percy made witty and to my mind convincing satires (up to a point) on left and right wing conceptions of "human nature" by pushing to logical extremes some of the sillier political tendencies of our times. His satirical position was rather like Swift's in A Tale of a Tub…. [As] Swift equated Popery and Enthusiasm, so Percy equates the Knotheads and the Lefts in his book, calling them both species of the mad…. (p. 208)
Like some other overtly Catholic novelists … Percy often seems to fall into the delusion that no one else has the vaguest idea of the gaps in the behaviorist world view, of "original sin," or of elementary Christian doctrine. Percy's treatment of the dangers of abstraction and of the "angelism-bestialism" at either extreme of the mind-body split is clever, and the idea of an "Ontological Lapsometer" [a device invented by the protagonist] is an amusing one, but after four hundred pages of being prodded in the ribs with it we are apt to wish that, like [Graham] Greene's buzzards and other incessant memento mori, they would flap away. In spite of its repetitious digressions, Love in the Ruins is very successful as comic didacticism, but as a convincing evocation of how we should live I think it fails. This is not to denigrate Percy at all. (pp. 208-09)
Eugene Lyons, in Southwest Review (© 1974 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1974.
Percy has keen and perceptive eyes for the despair underlying the increasing disarray of society, its root cause and its possible cure. It is not, however, knowledge about reality as such that primarily concerns him but the way by which a person can come to himself and begin to live his own life. Percy is an existentialist. A delightful thing about him, and one that continually carries over into his fictional characters, is that he is a man of surprises, which is to say that he is a man who seems somehow to have moved into the realm of freedom. It is first of all in his philosophical position that one can see a clear instance of this, because it is here that he has made a decisive break with his past. European-Existentialist just does not fit with Southern-Traditional-Conservative-Greek Classical….
It is the need for an initial decisive break that Percy sees as central to the task of self-becoming….
Both Percy and Kierkegaard are centrally concerned with one vital question. While many, perhaps most, theological and even existentialist thinkers are content to probe the objective truth of human reality, Percy and the Danish "Father of Existentialism" are concerned with the vital question how. How can one make the necessary movements that can take him from inauthentic to authentic existence? It is by means of his fictional beings that he portrays the movements to selfhood, as he understands the way in which these take place. (p. 233)
Existentialist that he is, Percy traces the problem of the times not to faulty societal or economic structures, but to failure of the individual. It is rooted essentially in the universal human tendency to take the easy way of floating on the tide of external influences and thereby forfeiting one's sovereignty and the place on which one is given to stand. Because of this, a person becomes lost to himself, he is barely able to experience himself as a self, he lives outside of himself and does not know who he is. He is in despair, and the worst kind of despair is that which is so successfully covered up by diversion that one is hardly aware of it.
The essential human failing, then, is that of allowing oneself to be seduced by the magical charms of externals, whether these come in the more obvious pleasures of sex, the anesthesia of "miles and miles of T.V. or movie tape," or in more subtle ways. Why is this the human tendency? Because of the structure of our human nature, says Percy. Because of the way we are made. Man is not a home on his earth-island as the animals are. He is a "castaway," a "wayfarer." He is in an in-between state. As Percy puts it, a man is "neither a beast nor an angel but a wayfaring creature somewhere between." The problem is that this is a very uncomfortable state in which to live. One feels the urging within himself of possibility, but he is restricted by his own particularity of place, history and genes. He senses the ultimacy of the challenge to act upon his own and that somehow for him this is a life-or-death matter. But suppose he fails? In the face of such a challenge held out by freedom he is anxious, and it is his attempt to evade this natural anxiety that leads him to the diversion of the moment.
In Percy's view there is a particular manifestation of this evasive movement which is increasingly seductive to the present scientistic age. This is the temptation to forfeit one's sovereignty to "the experts." Modern man, Percy believes, tends more and more to let the expert's theory of what is true, most adequate, or real usurp his own ability to see and act for himself. In an age in which the credentials of science are erroneously believed to apply to all sectors of reality, the temptation becomes strong. An example can be seen in the fact that abstract theories are increasingly applied to human relationships; unfortunately the theory tends to be regarded as more real than the relationship itself. Percy observes that this is the layman's way of falling into what Alfred North Whitehead terms "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness." A veil of abstractions comes between the person and the reality that is there before him. He allows the idea to intervene and claim his attention, thus losing his sovereign power to see. It is not a little thing, because, says Percy, it is in this way more than any other that selfhood is being eroded today.
Examples abound in Percy's fiction, and they are at the same time humorously presented and chillingly eerie in their import….
If all of this is what it is to be dead, how does Percy see the possibility of coming alive? Life itself, he clearly implies, provides the means in and through concrete situations and events. The cardinal instrument by which one can cease floating passively on all manner of external attractions can be summed up in one key word in Percy's vocabulary: catastrophe. It is by the grace of catastrophe that a person can come to himself and see what is before him as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable his own sovereign seeing. Catastrophe can come in the form of increasing inner despair, as Kierkegaard primarily saw it, or in the form of external accident or event. (p. 234)
Explicit god-consciousness is not a necessary characteristic of recovered selfhood as Percy portrays it, but it is clear that, in his view, the god-relationship has been restored. Walker Percy is a Catholic who specifically asserts his belief in the Christian understanding of man and salvation. He also specifically acknowledges that he sees his mission as a writer as that of conveying the Christian truth to an age for which the traditional words have worn so smooth that they no longer take effect. (p. 236)
Lewis Jerome Taylor, Jr., "Walker Percy and the Self," in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 10, 1974, pp. 233-36.
Percy has commented that "what it means to be a man living in the world who must die" is his major concern…. In The Moviegoer, when protagonist Binx Bolling accepts his half-brother Lonnie's death, he moves one step in his search for an answer to the death-in-life he lives and perceives around him. In Love in the Ruins, Tom More despairs over his daughter's death, recovers himself through a suicide attempt, overcomes his pride, exorcizes his devil, marries, and finally accepts grace in a resolution similar to the one in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Percy's fiction has been moving to just such spiritual comic resolution, for both The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman poise their heroes on the edge of marriage, reintegration of life, and a hopeful future. Percy's comedy is, then, more traditional than that of other Black Humorists, more assuredly satiric, less pessimistically ironic and desperate. However, his placing man's avoidance or grudging acceptance of mortality at the center of his novels, his sense of a comically inverted world, and his malice toward conventional religious, social, and scientific pieties are consonant with the practices and attitudes of other Black Humorists. (p. 22)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
Walker Percy has an intellectual range and rigor few American novelists can match. Barth and Pynchon play with a profusion of information and ideas. But only Bellow and Gass have Percy's learning, precision and passion for concepts both in and out of fiction. Years before "The Moviegoer" won the National Book Award for fiction in 1962, Percy was writing on language, philosophy, psychiatry and science for high-powered intellectual quarterlies. His importance as a novelist [was] established by "The Last Gentleman" and "Love in the Ruins."…
His aim [in "The Message in the Bottle," a collection of essays,] is to demonstrate that the naming act—the assigning of meaning—is a queer, open place in language that makes man qualitatively different from other animals. The consequences are not just academic. If we could understand the strange nature of language, Percy suggests, we might understand "man's peculiar upside-down and perverse behavior"—feeling anxious without knowing why, feeling homeless while at home, longing for catastrophe—that plagues the best of times.
"The Message in the Bottle" is ambitious, dense and difficult. Percy says most readers won't want to read all of it and admits that he can't imagine any audience for the last chapter, "A Theory of Language." Who, then, is the book for? Admirers of Percy's novels (and I am one) will find interesting his amplifying of ideas dramatized in the fiction….
Psycholinguists, transformationalists, semioticists, structuralists, phenomenologists, behaviorists, and those in the interstices should read "The Message in the Bottle" for the differences Percy has with them. Half of the 15 essays are primarily for these specialists. (p. 6)
Because Percy's intent is to salvage mystery from accepted but inadequate scientific explanation, his method is not so much assertion of new truths as disproving old ones. Percy's is a holding action—a "not yet you haven't" to the experts—so the ultimate validity of his ideas about naming is difficult to judge…. Linguists and psychologists will surely have their arguments. After thousands of pages of illustration, we will again need Percy to explain what was resolved.
What can be judged is Percy's suggestion that modern psychic complaints—boredom, rage, free-floating sadness and anxiety in the midst of the good life—are closely connected with the nature of language. Some of the specialized essays make the connection. More often, though, the link between the queerness of language and the queerness of man's behavior is only the common queerness. One finishes the book with a sense of incompletion. Despite their unity of focus and repetition, the essays remain discrete probes into what Percy calls the "terra incognita" of language use. There is no map—just an open place for being.
In the light of these essays, Percy's fiction is also a promise unfulfilled or, more accurately, a promise not quite made yet still somehow unkept. The novels are important—thoughtful, observant, skillfully ironic and written with laconic precision. Yet only "The Moviegoer" comes close to achieving a style that registers Percy's profound thinking about language. Binx Bolling in that novel is the man among persons and things for whom naming and its wonder constitute existence. The other novels have a meditative, alienated stranger-in-a-mad-land hero, but much of "The Last Gentleman" is about sixties doings in the New South and "Love in the Ruins" engages in scenario-like action and some trivial socio-political naming.
Despite knowing more about language than other novelists, many of whom make it their subject, Percy chose to go on telling stories with ideas in them. They are good stories, yet one comes to wish Percy had imagined a form that would have transmuted his enormous intelligence into some supreme verbal fiction. There are plenty of reasons—esthetic, social and religious—why Percy continues in the realistic mode. Perhaps one shouldn't complain about what he doesn't do. It's just that these essays create after-the-fact expectations about his fiction that are not met, a sense of possibilities described rather than created.
In "The Man on the Dump" Wallace Stevens calls truth "The the." With different esthetic choices, Percy could have written—could still write—a fiction of the is. (p. 7)
Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1975.
According to Mr. Percy, the singularity of the human animal lies in the ability to "symbolize" experience—that is, to name and attach meaning to all those things that constitute the world, and not, as with all other living creatures, merely to "respond" to "stimuli" in an "environment." [In The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other] Mr. Percy counterposes this definition of the "human" with the extreme reductionism of the behaviorists, whose notions do not account even on a descriptive level for the important differences between man and beast. In the essay "Culture: The Antinomy of the Scientific Method," he goes a long way toward debunking the assumptions and the methods of cultural relativism….
Mr. Percy is an especially congenial and lively stylist, and one follows him willingly (albeit, at times, somewhat haltingly) over even the roughest—that is, the most technical and recondite—terrain that The Message in the Bottle traverses. Finally, though, he does not come to terms with the very area of concern that he seeks to illuminate—modern man's sense of radical alienation from that which exists and from that which matters. He is attempting to articulate an essentially normative system, and he rightly begins by taking to task those who offer "scientifically" valid propositions about the nature of man that disregard all the vexing and untidy actualities of human experience. As it turns out, however, this is pretty much the nature of the enterprise Mr. Percy himself is embarked on, and, where all such enterprises falter, his does, too. (p. 24)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 28, 1975.
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