Percy, Walker 1916–
Percy is an American novelist and essayist. His fictive concerns are serious and ambitious; ranging from existentialism to epistemology to language and ways of communication. Percy won the National Book Award in 1962 for his first novel, The Moviegoer. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[For] seriousness and keenness of mind, Walker Percy has few rivals in American letters. Since the early '60s we've been accumulating evidence that such is the case, the evidence being Percy's three novels…. We might also have been aware of these essays [collected in The Message in the Bottle]….
[The] first half of the book is the part most readers will learn most from: the essays in the second half, published in specialized journals … are pretty tough. Despite his disclaimers, his profession of modesty, Percy is not the amateur he says he is …, and he enters the battleground of linguists, semanticists and behaviorists in full battle dress. He knows the adversaries' language and observes their rules of war. But aside from the thorniness of the language, the proliferation of diagrams and arrows (equally dear to the hearts of Percy and his adversaries), these essays in the latter half of the book are an expansion of those in the first half: they detail the reasoning that makes possible the assertions put forward in the more literary essays.
The book's subtitle teasingly suggests what the issues are: "How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other." The comic tone here is altogether characteristic and momentarily disguises the fact that Percy is dealing with life and death matters, with final things, as he makes "an attempt to sketch the beginnings of a theory of man for a new age," in a prose recognizable to the readers of the novels—wry, humorous, ironic, diffident, his meaning made ever clearer with perfectly apt, homely metaphor. His theory of man for a new age grows out of an intellectual tradition which seems not to have much affected our scientific-humanist consciousness: Percy's teachers are Aquinas and Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Marcel, Cassirer and Peirce—and with their help he mounts a frontal assault on how we fail to handle the predicament of our being human, on the ways in which we misconceive ourselves and our great, mysterious, unique gift, language.
Percy sees us as having arrived at a new consciousness and having no theory to deal with it, so we turn for comfort to a patchwork quilt of the past—an attenuated Darwinism, which reduces man to mere organism, a stimulus-response toy, grotesquely combined with an empty and secularized Judaeo-Christian ethic. We live in and with a hopeless incoherence. Percy calls repeatedly in these essays for a radical science of being, which will recognize the uniqueness of the human creature, that symbol-mongerer, who alone in creation names the world in his speech and discovers what it is. His invocation is made from a posture that seems to me altogether singular in American letters: he is by training a scientist (with an M.D. degree), an admitted hard-headed empiricist, quite obviously learned in psychiatry, linguistics and philosophy and he is a Christian. An artist with such inclusive credentials writes essays about coherence with an authority few in our culture can command. (p. 28)
These essays—and those gritty, uncompromising forays into alien territory which follow them—have a way of quickening the spirit and cleansing the sight. Perhaps Walker Percy has been the happiest man in America—and we can share that happiness. (p. 29)
John Boatwright, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 19, 1975.
[American] novelists have on the whole been inept at handling general ideas, but in this collection of essays on linguistics, psychiatry and existentialism written over the past two decades, Walker Percy shows himself to be as comfortable with philosophical discourse as he is with the creation of character and plot. Moreover, he avoids the self-promotion that afflicts writers like Norman Mailer when they turn to nonliterary realms.
Percy's explorations derive from a sense of wonder about his immediate situation (a feeling crucial to genuine thought and missing from most academic philosophy). This leads him to the basic issues of his book: Why are we unhappy, what does it mean to use language, and what is the connection, if any, between these two questions? (p. 18)
The central pieces in The Message in the Bottle deal with language, and give Percy the opportunity to take direct aim at the behavioral scientists' notion of linguistics. Employing a stimulus-response schema, the behaviorists argue that when one hears the word "fire," for example, one reacts appropriately—by warming one's hands, dousing the blaze, leaving the building, or cooking a steak. Yet this model, Percy observes, cannot distinguish speech from animal language codes; it ells us everything about human communication except what makes it peculiarly human….
Percy uses his theory of language to illuminate the therapeutic session. For him the strict meanings of words and syntax are less important in the psychiatric setting than what is sometimes called the "pragmatics" of communication. If, for instance, a patient announces he is going to commit suicide, the analyst does not necessarily take him at his word: The patient may be pleading for mothering, or indicating that the doctor's hopes for a quick cure are overly sanguine. Certainly, whatever is being communicated cannot be determined by studying the structure of the sentences according to Chomsky's ideas. Instead, Percy's approach to this topic inclines toward much of the work being done currently in psychoanalytic theory—such as Erving Goffman's notions of "framing" and Gregory Bateson's contexts of discourse.
But what, in the end, is the connection between man's capacity to name, and the fact that he is often, against all reason, unhappy? While Percy's answer is far from clear, he seems to be saying that because we can symbolize—because we can conceive of things being other than they are—we are never at one with ourselves, like animals. That is, our alienation is necessarily tied to our capacity for language, to our humanity. Percy's entire argument can be read as a secular version of the "Word become flesh," and, indeed, Percy is a committed Christian. Nonetheless, apologetics is foreign to him, and only in the title essay, where he distinguishes between knowledge and news, does he hint at the Christian nature of his thinking.
Knowledge, Percy says, must conform to empirical reality or be deducible from general laws or principles. In the case of news, we are called upon to respond without bringing to bear the standard criteria of verification. If one is on a sinking ship and hears the message, "Come this way and you will be saved," one doesn't wait around in order to test it for possible errors or faults.
Our human condition, Percy continues, is that of castaways on an island. All we can do is recognize our alienation, for "the worst of all despairs is to imagine one is at home when one is really homeless." In short, The Message in the Bottle is presented in the form of negative news, whose purpose, it appears, is to prepare us to regain the sovereignty of insight that is the necessary preparation for receiving the Word, the final positive news. (p. 19)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 13, 1975.
Walker Percy's The Moviegoer is a classic and compelling account of the power of representation, of re-presentation, and his later novels show the same wry acuteness in describing characters' adventures in the intersubjective space of symbolic representation. The Message in the Bottle, a very intelligent if uneven collection of essays which includes, among others, his famous "Metaphor as Mistake," speaks directly of these matters. Man is "Homo symbolificus," the "symbol-monger," distinguished from other creatures by the fact that he dwells in a world of symbols: "The world is the totality of that which is formulated through symbols."
The book's subtitle, "How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other," gives both the direction of his argument and the deliberately "unprofessional" mode in which readings and insights are marshaled. If man is a rational animal, why does he behave so strangely? No sensible animal so insistently courts self-destruction, insists on being unhappy in good circumstances and happy in bad. If man behaves in paradoxical ways it is because he lives in a symbolic order. Indeed, our notions of rational behavior have been produced and elaborated by a behaviorism which works very well for rats in mazes and animals in their ordinary world but which singularly fails to apply to the most complex and interesting aspects of human behavior. (pp. 261-62)
On the other hand, when one turns to linguistics for elucidation of this central mystery, of the characteristically human, one learns a lot about phonemes, distributional regularities, and syntactic transformations, but next to nothing about "what happens when people talk, when one person names something or says a sentence about something and another person understands him." For Mr. Percy the mystery of language is the mystery of the name: "Naming is generically different. It stands apart from everything else that we know about the universe."… What is the nature of this connection, he asks, and, placing it at one corner of a triangle whose other points are word and object, he calls it "the Delta phenomenon": a phenomenon that lies at the heart of every linguistic and symbolic event. By the end of the book it is still a mystery, though it is now treated as a "coupler" which relates the visual cortex to the auditory cortex.
The problem of the sign has a history of which Mr. Percy is partially aware, but the most interesting and contemporary moments of that history suggest that his problem is insoluble in the form proposed. What he seeks is a moment of unity, a point of origin where form and meaning are fused; but since the sign is always a sign of, however far one tries to push toward a pure and unitary origin, one will always find a dual structure. The problem may be insoluble, but that it should at least be posed in another way emerges if one notes that it is nonsense to ask what was the first sign or word a baby used. It is contrast between signs that allows signs to emerge, so that the individual sign or name is not the unit in whose terms the problem should be posed. Signs are produced by differentiation of undifferentiated noise and differentiation of an affective universe. Differences are what constitute signs, and thus the problem is one of difference and repetition.
Percy offers a forceful, if unnecessarily repetitive, critique of behaviorism, but he is not always aware of the implications of his own insights and formulations, and this can lead to a measure of confusion. Thus, the central fact on which he insists is that man lives in a symbolic universe, and that therefore his experience is mediated by symbolic structures and systems of names. The varieties of symbolic mediation are what explain man's paradoxical behavior: the bored commuter on his evening train becomes less bored by reading a book about bored commuters sitting on trains. And Mr. Percy's superb discussion of the "dialectic of sightseeing" (the way in which symbolic representations or frameworks alter the character of perception) is based on his awareness of mediation…. The impossibility of direct, unmediated experience is the basis of this dialectic.
Yet at the same time, direct perception is something Mr. Percy longs for, and not merely with that nostalgia for what is irrecoverable. His remarks on the inadequacy of behaviorism and linguistics are ascribed to a Martian, the hypothetical representative of unmediated vision, and Mr. Percy seems to conceive of his own role in the same way: since I am not a professional scientist/linguist/philosopher/critic, he will tell us, since I am free of these symbolic frameworks, I can, like a Martian, see things in their true nakedness. He goes on to suggest that an inhabitant of Brave New World who comes upon Shakespeare's poems "is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet" than a student who reads it in a literature course, and he extends this to a general educational principle…. [One] suspects that "see" has taken on a special meaning and that in his enthusiasm for direct, unmediated perception, he has forgotten that outside of symbolic systems [a thing] would be nothing but a lump of undifferentiated matter and certainly unknowable.
In brief, Mr. Percy raises a series of problems which are central to contemporary thinking about signs, representation, and symbolic systems, and though he often does so without full awareness of their implications or of the distinctions which others have raised, his clear presentation and his skill in relating them to little dramas of ordinary experience make this a book to recommend. (pp. 262-64)
Jonathan Culler, "Man The Symbol-Monger," in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1976, pp. 261-64.
Walker Percy, a Southern Catholic non-practicing psychiatrist, has published three excellent novels about the spiritual discomforts of well-meaning, educated Southerners. Since 1954, at least, he has been preoccupied with the nature of language and has made himself into an enthusiastic and well-read amateur of linguistics, regularly publishing his thoughts on the subject in intellectual journals.
Reading [The Message in the Bottle] … gives me the impression that Percy has been writing less about language than about religion. He writes in a quasi-scientific style; he seems to be trying to persuade logically, but his insights are essentially emotional, even poetic; and the whole effort seems to be directed toward opening a line of thought leading toward a Christian concept of human existence, which would be all right except that he purports to be writing about language.
Most of the essays deal with the idea that language—or "symbol-mongering," as Percy likes to call it—is the principal quality that distinguishes man from other animals, and, moreover, that the symbolic nature of language is not only a unique phenomenon, but is inaccessible to understanding by present scientific methods…. Percy makes it clear that he detests the idea that man is no more than an "organism in an environment" and can be studied and ultimately known as such. Indeed, Percy's hostility to science is one of the most striking aspects of the book. (p. 209)
Unfortunately, as an expository writer Percy has a serious flaw. He substitutes cryptomystic eloquence for the effective assembling of a logical case. (pp. 209-10)
Percy's essays show him to be an admirable man: serious, kind-hearted, and genuinely worried about the state of human affairs. But he is fundamentally anti-rational, and, for the most part, he fails to convince. (p. 213)
The Message in the Bottle reveals an ingenuousness that I would not have suspected in the author of The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins. (p. 214)
Martin Kirby, "Neither Far Out nor In Deep," in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1977 by Carleton College), Volume XVI, 1976–77, pp. 209-14.
The Message in the Bottle is a series of reflections on the birth of a human world through the mystery of language.
As an American writer, Percy can hardly lay claim to something called "the tradition" in and through which we encounter Being. Our tradition for understanding man is provided by the social and behavioral sciences, a reductive hermaneutics wherein nothing spiritual is what it seems but is always the expression of something more or less primitive, the id, the chauvinism of sex or race, and so forth. We have bought the whole fabric of scientism as our ideology. American criticism is either a vast ad hominem argument or the celebration of an autonomy of feeling and technique, of a sensitivity which is sensitivity to literature alone, reality having been won by the positive sciences. We can sing psychic unsuccess, make a pure music, or perpetrate the latest variant of a scientific ideology. Percy has taken on this scientific tradition and subjected it to the searching light which is the coming-into-being of the logos itself and has, on the whole successfully, showed its inherent incapacity to yield understanding. Perhaps in freeing ourselves from the dimensions which constrain us to think of ourselves as this or that, we open ourselves to Being and human reality.
The major hero of Walker Percy's series of essays is the American mathematician-physicist-philosopher Charles S. Peirce. Best known for the pragmatic tradition he founded and repudiated. Peirce was the first to become concerned with semiotics, the way the world enters into the being of language through the mystery of naming….
Percy shows through the act of naming that the truth conditions for the sciences of man are other than what is assumed to be the case on their positivistic and naturalistic foundations. These conditions lie within the dimension of meaning explored by the existential and phenomenological philosophers. (p. 198)
Walker Percy learned his thesis about the intentionality of consciousness, not from Husserl and Sartre, but from such masters as Wittgenstein and Heidegger who found it in the nature of language itself. Beyond this lurks the realism of Aristotle and Aquinas. For Wittgenstein there can be no realm of private meaning and private language; for us reality is the public world of linguistic meaning, meanings which are shared forms of life. For Heidegger transcendental subjectivity is a distortion and perversion of our original prethematized self-understanding of Being. When this understanding is thematized, first as substance and then as transcendental subject, there is a progressively instrumental and technological feeling (mood) toward beings, a feeling which justifies itself in a science that strips objects and ourselves of ontological mystery and makes of them problems for a technique. We are creatures who constitute a world out of a primordial understanding of Being, and the intentionality founded on this structure gives the world its form. Being, not the I, is the ground of a world: it is this, not subjectivity, which is intended or meant in all our cultural and linguistic formations.
Percy intends to cut through Cartesian dualism and its idealistic and materialistic variants by close attention to the act of naming. This is first of all a public act. I am given the name by him who has for me the authority to name, acts Plato associated with the legislator and dialectician. When something or other is given for me a name, in this original experience of self, world, and other, I encounter a being in its beingness. (pp. 199-200)
It is through [the] epiphany of the logos that Percy extends the discoveries of phenomenology to the anthropological sciences; this marks The Message in the Bottle as a unique contribution to what has hitherto been a European phenomenon. The mystery of the symbolic event discloses that the problem for man is that he has come to think of himself as a problem, not a mystery. And what have the human sciences done, insofar as they are true to their positivistic foundations, which has taught us anything much worth knowing? Should we not at least try to follow up Percy's lead? Where might we expect it to take us?
If man is, in Percy's paraphrase of Heidegger, "That being in the world whose calling is to find a name for being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing," then our responsibility for our world, our relations to nature, to our fellows, and to ourselves, must be a function of the way we talk about Being. That being itself is not much talked about is evident if we look at how we have come to think about talk itself, both in the formal disciplines in linguistics and philosophy wherein speech is made into an object for us, and in more concrete disciplines in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy where talk enters into our concern for worldly structure and human behavior. (pp. 200-01)
Percy shows us that the originary presencing of self to itself is with and to another through the naming act, the assertion of a word that raises Being to being known. Being is doubtless inexhaustible, but we shall exhaust ourselves and the creative roots of culture itself in avoiding the ontological issue.
When we abrogate our common right to participate in Being and in one another through the logos and bind ourselves to some abstractive scheme which renders experience possible (Kant), or at least respectable, we shall fail to note that our own experience is not the dreary, tiresome repetition of saying and knowing the same thing about the same sorts of things. We become programmed calculators. Socrates in the paradigm case of Meno's slave taught that experience is not so much conformal (for Meno was himself so wrapped up in technical jargon derived from Gorgias that he could not recognize a color when he saw one but had to have it "explained" in the nonsense terminology of Empedoclean effluences) as it is negating, a break away from the customary and conventional into an openness for Being. Language is the instrument of this continual re-creation of the world. In talking to one another in serious, passionate pursuit of what is there, so Beautiful and true, in trying to get right about things, we can follow the power of language itself to lead us from our banal and orthodox subjectivity into a participatory encounter, an epiphany. This human act, not Skinner boxes, might well be the proper paradigm for the human sciences. The truth conditions for the human sciences lie within those conditions of language, essentially spiritual, which constitute knower and known, self and other, man and world. This is the great theme of the logos itself.
If one is to pick a nit with Walker Percy it is that he has, in freeing us from naturalistic jargon of the social sciences, unwittingly laid claim to the sterile jargon of despair we have inherited from Kierkegaard and romantic existentialism. Granted that the intolerable banality of our culture is endurable only through irony, through the hubris of distancing: were there no community with saints and sages, how in God's name could any humanist bear the burden of trying to represent his values in such a world as we are called to serve? And it is the positive value of this participation in the historic fabric of our tradition which Percy ignores. One can in fact read Plato on a train. It is easy enough to pick away at the social sciences and to demonstrate their bizarre consequences for human self-understanding; but the real issue of a hermaneutical philosophy, as we are now learning …, is the possibility of a meaningful involvement in culture and the recovery of effective freedom within the scope of ontologically grounded, inherited values. We can now see a way of avoiding historicism, relativism, and subjectivism in the nature of language itself. Given this understanding, despair seems to be a limit situation, not a norm, and we can begin to see the possibilities of a rebirth, a recovery of effectiveness, duration, and power, the marks of human being in a human world. We can develop the human sciences on their spiritual foundations as sciences of meaning.
The final essay, "A Theory of Language," makes a fundamental contribution to our understanding of linguistics. Percy demonstrates that on his account of naming, which says of something what it is, the basic syntactical structure is implicit. To the dispute between Chomsky and Skinner, which as far as it goes is clearly in Chomsky's favor, he proposes an empirical theory of the origin of "deep structure." The asserting structure of the original naming act is rich enough for that structure which Chomsky has to account for on occult grounds, for oddly he recognizes only those semantical and syntactical features which have been handed over by the formal logicians, not the semiotic dimension itself. There is abundant evidence in various studies of how children learn speech to show how syntax develops out of semiotic activities. A semological-phonological model is "transsyntactical," founded on "the science of the relations between people and signs and things—which specifies syntax as but one dimension of sentential theory"; it accords with the data of language acquisition and provides a model for the ontogenesis of speech; it allows the possibility of looking for a neurophysiological correlate of such a model; and it permits the assimilation of linguistic theory to a more general theory of all symbolic transaction, "a theory which in turn must accommodate such nonsyntactical 'sentences' as metaphor, a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music." I think it works.
Most of the essays have been previously published. They should have been rewritten to avoid what becomes when taken together the tiresome repetition of catch words, stock examples, and identical arguments. Also a good index would make this badly produced book even more valuable, for believe me it is very valuable indeed. It is an important work by a major novelist who is also even more impressive as a philosopher, one who lovingly seeks and strives for wisdom in and out of the conditions here and now with us in America. One is reminded of greater ages when culture was in the hands of amateurs, not prostitutes, of a Jefferson or a Hume. Walker Percy is a member of that community of saints and sages without whom life would be unbearable indeed. (pp. 204-06)
Charles P. Bigger, "Logos and Epiphany: Walker Percy's Theology of Language," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by Charles P. Bigger), Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 196-206.
Serious contemporary fiction which might be called religious is not exactly raining down from the American sky. I'm not in the business of exhaustive keeping up; but I suspect that, once you'd read Buechner, Updike, Oates (a full-time job) and me, you'd have only one other sizable assignment—the novels of Walker Percy.
There are essentially two ways to write stories about God and His relations with the world. You can introduce Him as an actor, a tangible presence among His creatures—the method of the Old Testament, Homer, medieval dramatists and Milton. Or you can circle Him as an invisible axis, hint at His shape and gestures by the path of your circumference—God perceived and described by His absence or exclusion from the lives of human actors. No modern novelist known to me has dared the first method; but religious narrators of the recent past—Bernanos, Mauriac, Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor—discovered in the world and in their own experience a story which has proved adaptable to the inner and outer experience of the few contemporaries named….
Walker Percy's superb first novel, The Moviegoer, had its own grave movement toward the sensing and faithful acceptance of a nonhuman invisible spirit who wishes us peace. His next, The Last Gentleman, pursued the suspicion to the rim of certainty (despite a tendency to harum-scarum action and occasional lumps of unprocessed Franco-American metaphysics). His third, Love in the Ruins, offered a Roman Catholic doctor (Percy is a Roman Catholic doctor) engaged in a quest for spiritual health. Again an inability or an increased unwillingness to secrete sufficiently interesting story as vehicle or solvent for idea resulted in a set of parts which refused to form a whole.
Now in Lancelot, his fourth, he succeeds—powerfully, scarily and funnily—and at something new for him: not an ignoring of God or a chart of the vertigo induced by His absence but a sustained and ferocious attack upon Him for that absence. The attack is not mounted by Percy in his own voice but by his central character who speaks all the book except for two words at the end. The speaker's name is Lancelot Andrewes Lamar; and to hear him tell it, his life has driven him to the acts of murder and arson which have landed him in a mental institution. (p. E7)
Tough luck, one might grant and walk on—a dozen such plights are on tap for any of us: our crumbling friends who yearn to tell us of their baffling collapses. And tell us and tell us. But Percy compels me to listen to Lance. His fervent voice—eloquent, reckless, accurate, hilarious and genuinely agonized—is literally the book. His vision of the world, his tale of revenge, his program for the future (he's about to be released) make a straight, lean story that plunges forward through tawdry small bedroom mysteries toward a final grand puzzle—Why has this happened, this local disaster and the larger encapsulating disintegration of our world? (The question of whether it is really our world or only Lance's is moot for the length of his tale.) His own tormented answer to the puzzle is a string of other questions—What is evil now? In a time of exploded values, what is any longer bad? Would any imaginable honorable God have permitted all this or endured it so long?
Yet he thinks he can answer the questions, once free in the world again. He'll go with his young daughter to the Shenandoah Valley and begin a pure life of old-Roman zeal, a life which he seems to think will lead to a new revolution in the lives of men. His delayed unveiling of the nature of that New Life—late in the novel—is almost Percy's last surprise: a half-accurate, half-admirable, wholly insane reductio ad absurdum of the Puritan republican founding vision.
The last surprise is the novel's last word. Lancelot has raved out his long monologue to a silent audience—Harry, the beloved companion of his riotous youth; now a Catholic priest called John. As he ends, prepared to leave his asylum, he asks his friend, "Is there anything you wish to tell me before I leave?" The friend says, "Yes" and the novel stops.
Or Percy stops. His story though is only half-told—his story, not Lancelot's. The fury with which he has transcribed Lance's wail (binding the comic-awful plot with sheer hot fury) and the daring with which he has left us at the end to imagine the priest's calm answer to the wail—and left us with a gradually implied complete outline for the priest's reply are the measures of his skill and urgency.
Yet he also leaves me wishing that he'd written the reply. I say that he left us with an outline, but how many contemporary readers of fiction are equipped or even prone to provide a sufficient counter statement?—a full intellectual and emotional Defense of the Faith, and in the implicitly fascinating voice of this particular friend and priest.
We may be grateful then for what we're given—a merciless burning-glass aimed at our faces—while we hope for the more which the last Yes promises: license to live in the world we've made. Let it be Walker Percy's next offering. (p. E10)
Reynolds Price, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 27, 1977, pp. E7, E10.
Though he cares about plot and character, making fictions that easily translate into movies, [Walker Percy] is a serious, even moderately philosophical novelist not at all ashamed of his seriousness. Nor should he be: the familiar philosophical questions he raises, and his ways of raising them, are as interesting as his characters and plots, or anyway they would be if he had any idea of how to answer them. He cares about technique, enough so that—as is often the case in the very best fiction—technique is one of the things we watch with interest, though her sometimes with dismay. He's clever, witty, efficient, concerned, and his fictions pass one of the two or three most important esthetic tests: they're memorable. All this I say without much reservation, which is to say I think he's a novelist people ought to read, as they will anyway, since he's caught on.
"Lancelot" is the story of a man, Lancelot Andrews Lamar, who, after years of happy marriage, learns that his beautiful, voluptuous wife has been unfaithful to him…. Out of his disappointment and jealousy—and out of his sophisticated modern sense that perhaps there are no evil acts, no good acts either, only acts of sickness, on one hand, and acts flowing from unrecognized self-interest, on the other—Lancelot turns his wife's sexual betrayal into a central philosophical mystery. Question: Is all good mere illusion?—in which case, seemingly, there can be no God—or can we at least affirm that evil exists, so that (as Ivan Karamazov saw) we see God by His shadow? This question sets off Lancelot Lamar's "quest," as he tells his old school chum, now father-confessor, Percival. (The whole novel is Lancelot's "confession," though it reads like writing, not speech.) Lancelot says, "We've spoken of the Knights of the Holy Grail, Percival. But do you know what I was? The Knight of the Unholy Grail. In times like these when everyone is wonderful, what is needed is a quest for evil." A good start for a philosophical novel. One begins to read more eagerly.
In his pursuit of evil, Lancelot first tries voyeurism, making absolutely certain of what he already knows, that his wife—and nearly everyone around him—is betraying all traditional values, turning life to garbage. Predictably the proofs do not satisfy, and Lancelot takes the next step. He turns himself into a monster to find out how evil feels—if it feels like anything. Even as he commits his most terrible crime, Lancelot feels nothing, so for him as for Nietzsche there can be no such thing as good or evil in the Christian sense, only strength, on one hand, and, on the other, "milksopiness."
The events that dramatize Lancelot's transformation are typical of the Southern Gothic novel at its best, grotesque but sufficiently convincing to be chilling. They flow from the potential of character and situation with deadly inevitability, supported by brilliant descriptions of place and weather—the climax comes during a hurricane, or rather two hurricanes, one real, one faked by a film crew—and supported by the kind of intelligence, insight and wit that make the progress of the novel delightful as well as convincing. (pp. 1, 16)
I've said that technique is one of the things one watches with interest as one reads "Lancelot." Percy uses, throughout the novel, the conventional device of regular rotation from motif to motif, incrementally building toward the dramatic and intellectual climax…. All this is well done, and the rant—much of it true, some of it intentionally crazy—gives the novel rhetorical oomph. (p. 16)
Convinced that Percival's meek Christianity and faith can have no effect and incensed, rightly, by the modern world's obscenity …, Lancelot decides, slipping into madness, to start up, somehow, a new revolution and, like Christ Triumphant, either purify the world or destroy it utterly. We're encouraged to believe that he and others like him might really pull it off. He's a competent murderer. Lancelot's decision is not quite firm, however. He would like to be answered by his priest-confessor, though faith, we're told, has never been sufficient to answer reason. Percy is content to leave it at that. He suggests in his final line that some answer is possible, but he doesn't risk giving it to Percival. Certainly no answer can be deduced from the novel except Kierkegaard's consciously unreasonable "leap of faith"—a blind, existential affirmation of the logically insensible Christian faith. But surely everyone must know by now that Kierkegaard's answer is stupid and dangerous. Why Abraham's leap of faith and not Hitler's? Lancelot himself makes that point.
The reader has come all this way in critical good will—ignoring Percy's errors of scientific and mythic fact, though important arguments hang on them (human females are by no means, as Percy thinks, the only ones that make love face-to-face, and Malory's Guinevere was by no means indifferent to the betrayal). And from interest in the story and argument the reader has put up, too, with quite gross esthetic mistakes on Percy's part. Even granting the funny way Southerners name their children, the allegory is too obviously contrived; it distracts us from drama to mere message. Also, as I've said, the "confession" sounds written, not spoken—a bad fault, since it shows that the writer is not serious about creating a fictional illusion but is after only a moderately successful "vehicle," like the occasions of Chairman Mao's verse.
From interest in the drama and argument, we blinked all this, but when the end comes and we see the issue has been avoided and evaded, as it nearly always is in our stupid, whining, self-pitying modern novels, we hurl away the book. When everyone's talking, as Lancelot does, about the world has no values, it's not a good time to rehash "The Brothers Karamazov" (Is there evil? Does it imply God?) or offer a sniveling version of Ayn Rand, that is, "Maybe—just maybe—Lancelot is right." Everybody, these days, is thinking and feeling what Walker Percy is thinking and feeling. Lancelot rages, at one point, "I will not have my son or daughter grow up in such a world…. I will not have it." Paddy Chayevsky's mad TV news commentator and his disciples say the same—only better—in the movie "Network." Everybody says it. Over and over, film after film, novel after novel, people keep whining about the black abyss and turning in their ignorance to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, as if no one had ever answered them. (pp. 16, 20)
Fiction, at its best, is a means of discovery, a philosophical method. By that standard, Walker Percy is not a very good novelist; in fact "Lancelot," for all its dramatic and philosophical intensity, is bad art, and what's worse, typical bad art. Like Tom Stoppard's plays, it fools around with philosophy, only in this case not for laughs but for fashionable groans. Art, it seems to me, should be a little less pompous, a lot more serious. It should stop sniveling and go for answers or else shut up. (p. 20)
John Gardner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1977.
Lancelot … is about the problem of faith. I think that is an accurate description, but it may also be an utterly misleading one, since it doesn't go far toward suggesting the book's tone or its events. (p. 113)
All of Walker Percy's fiction has been written in the service of the same theme that animates Lancelot, the search for whatever it is that can banish despair. Percy has spent his entire career debriding the same wound. His work is narrow but it cuts deep. In four novels he has essentially created only four characters, and they have much in common: all southern gentlemen, estranged from their world; all on a quest that begins in wistfulness for an imagined past and ends in intimations of the supernatural.
Spiritual journeys are often lonely, and the great limitation of Percy's work is that he has participated in his heroes' isolation; there is no fully formed character in any of the novels besides the central figures. They themselves could be tedious fellows, but they are saved from that by Percy's wit, by his sly social observation, by his affection for the graceful sentence, and by the additional fact that they unpretentiously embody one of the fundamental dilemmas of existence.
It's the great strength of Percy's fiction that he looks about him and sees a landscape of moral and emotional confusion, and refuses to offer handy sociological or economic wisdom by way of comforting explanation for it. He speaks directly and challengingly to the private heart. Despite the antic nihilism of Lancelot, despite the devout respect he pays doubt, it seems plain that he means to call attention to the possibility of faith. (p. 115)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1977.
The Moviegoer remains Percy's best work, a perfect small novel whose themes, though important, are never allowed to overload the fictional craft. It is a book redolent of its time and place, a book with a thickly sensuous texture that can accommodate both the banalities of contemporary New Orleans and the glamorous aspects of Binx's now meaningless heritage. It is full of expertly realized characters. The working out of the complex destinies of Binx and Kate is both believable and moving. I can think of no American novel in which the device of a first-person narrator has been used with finer tact, control, and shading.
The Last Gentleman (1966) is a much longer, more overtly ambitious enterprise. Its literary antecedents are Candide and the picaresque novel of the eighteenth century. Percy chooses a naïf as his protagonist, a young man of twenty-five from an old and honorable Delta family that has over the generations turned progressively ironical until it has finally lost its grip on life. Suffering from various nervous dislocations, including amnesia, Williston Bibb Barrett lives an almost totally isolated life at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York and works as a humidification engineer at Macy's…. The … adventures of Will … are too complicated for a retelling in this essay; it is worth pausing, however, to consider two aspects of the novel that are central to Percy's fiction: the image of the South to which Will returns and the way in which the Catholic theme is handled….
In this novel, as in The Moviegoer, Percy handles the Catholic alternative so subtly, so diplomatically, that it is hardly to be perceived as an alternative at all. Percy is careful not to stack his deck, as Graham Greene often seems to do and as Waugh did so notoriously at the end of Brideshead Revisited….
I do not consider The Last Gentleman a wholly successful novel. It is somewhat like a hurricane swirling around a hollow center. Will Barrett is simply too blank, too passive a character to sustain the role assigned to him. But it is a rich book, with brilliant scenes, some of them marvelously funny.
Love in the Ruins (1971) is also rich and frequently funny, though in other respects it indicates, I think, a weakening of Percy's grip upon his materials. Set in the pre-Orwellian year of 1983, it begins with a middle-aged doctor (the book's narrator) sitting near the ramp of an interstate highway in Louisiana, a carbine on his lap, awaiting what may well be the end of the world. (p. 6)
The Sunbelt world of golf links, marinas, and shopping centers still exists in 1983; but things are now in a bad way; vines are encroaching everywhere; the young blacks have taken to the swamps, where they call themselves Bantus; atrocities occur daily; the Catholic Church has split into three parts, of which only the smallest still recognizes the supremacy of Rome; political divisions have hardened, the Republicans having become "Knotheads" (conservative, evangelical, prone to disorders of the lower bowel), while the Democrats are now the LEFT (advocates of the pill, pornography, abortion, love clinics, and euthanasia)…. (pp. 6-7)
Love in the Ruins is a sharp-eyed, clever book that goes on much too long and strikes out in so many directions at once that it puts one in mind of a hornet's nest poked by a stick. It suffers, if ever a novel suffered, from the looseness that Henry James saw as a major weakness of long novels in the first-person—from what he called "the terrible fluidity of self-revelation!"…
In Lancelot the materials of the novel seem to have eluded Percy's control altogether. Yet the book held my interest throughout, leaving me puzzled, disbelieving, but never bored. It is the story—again the first person but told to a specific listener—of a corrupted Louisiana gentleman, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, who has been confined to a mental hospital in New Orleans after incinerating his adulterous wife Margot and a group of filmmakers in a fire that destroys his ancestral home, a showplace called Belle Isle….
The main action of the story is the sheerest Gothic clap-trap, replete with a ghostly visitation, a grisly murder, and a raging hurricane; Percy, whether deliberately or not, handles this stuff in the perfunctory way it deserves. His real concerns are elsewhere—with the symbolic aspects of the situation…. (p. 7)
Lancelot … has a primarily emblematic function, one which touches interestingly upon the role of the gentleman in Percy's novels from The Moviegoer on. Percy goes out of his way to establish the thoroughly regressed condition of his protagonist…. Lancelot is a heavy drinker, a failed lawyer, a failed liberal, a grubby and withdrawn stranger in his own house…. What has failed him above all is his inherited vocation as a gentleman.
It is hard for a Northerner or even a native of the Upper South like myself to appreciate the self-conscious emphasis still given to the idea of the gentleman in the Deep South. Presumably it has more to do with the numerical smallness of the old landowning and professional class, with the comparative lack of a substantial middle class in the old Black Belt, than with the ethos of Sir Walter Scott. Percy himself gives every sign of participating in this self-consciousness….
[For] the gentlemen in Walker Percy's novels, the enemy, of course, is nothing less global than the whole modern world, to which they respond by withdrawing into apathy like Binx, stumbling in amnesiac innocence like Will Barrett; or, like Lancelot Lamar (resonant surname!), by igniting a holocaust….
[The] central problem of Lancelot as a novel [is] its ambiguity of tone. It would be easy enough to accept both the postures and opinions of Lancelot as appropriate to a created madman—a character properly at a distance from its creator—if they did not represent in an extreme form attitudes expressed by far more sympathetic characters in the other novels. When Lance states that in the new order he proposes a woman will have to choose between being a lady and a whore, he is echoing a confusion about women voiced by Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman. The satirical thrusts against the contemporary world in Love in the Ruins have given way to Juvenalian invective and rant in Lancelot—with a palpable loss in effectiveness. Lancelot's fantasy of setting out for Virginia ("where it all started"), and there inaugurating a Third Revolution founded upon honor, chivalry, and the suppression of pornography could be enjoyed as comic megalomania if we did not suspect a certain authorial complicity in the protagonist's program.
Percy evidently wants to have it both ways….
Percy is unsuccessful in making Percival carry his assigned weight, just as he is unsuccessful in assembling the different levels of reality—documentary, Gothic, satiric, symbolic—into a coherent structure.
It is too bad that Percy is not content to be a "mere" novelist—and a gifted one at that. His apparent desire to be a philosopher-novelist in the Continental mode leads him, in Lancelot, to chase a dozen thematic butterflies at once while his real subject—the haunting of the Sunbelt by atavistic, even pathological, remnants of the old dispensation—lies half-formed and neglected in the mud. (p. 8)
Robert Towers, "Southern Discomfort," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), March 31, 1977, pp. 6-8.
There are what appear to be repetitions here: some lines, even passages, are paraphrases from Percy's earlier novels. And the metaphor of the hurricane which worked so well in The Last Gentleman (people are happier, and better to each other, during a hurricane) is expanded in Lancelot: the climactic action of the novel occurs during a hurricane.
I believe there are good reasons for this, and that finally what we are seeing is not repetition at all. Walker Percy was forty-five years old when he published his first novel, The Moviegoer. So what we don't see in Percy's novels is the changing vision of the world that we often get from a writer who publishes while he is young, and then continues to write. With The Moviegoer we were in the hands of a mature writer whose theme had already chosen him. He has been possessed by it ever since, and that is why he is not truly repetitious. A repetitious writer is a tired writer, perhaps filling the blank page because there is nothing else to do. Percy is not tired; he is growing stronger; so that when parts of Lancelot sound like parts of the earlier novels, it's not repetition we're hearing, but the resonant sound of a writer grappling with his theme….
The question is simple and profound: What is one supposed to do on an ordinary afternoon? Therefore, what is time for? What is a human being for? To ask the questions and find no answers causes despair (Sutter Vaught in The Last Gentleman). Not to ask the questions causes a despair that doesn't know it is despair; this is what troubles most of the secondary characters in Percy's novels, which is why they feel better during hurricanes (from Lancelot: "Hurricanes, which are very bad things, somehow neutralize the other bad thing which has no name"). Percy's heroes are assaulted by both: they ask the questions and find no absolute answers, and they are surrounded by friends and relatives who don't ask the questions, who are dead while they yet breathe, talk, make plans, carry them out. (p. 86)
In each of [Percy's four novels] the hero is searching; he is searching because he has to, because if he does not search he will join the active dead who move about Percy's joyless landscape, making sounds, making money, making children. The search remains the same from novel to novel, as it must—for how can Percy ever find the answer? And how can he quit without the answer?
With each novel the tone changes. Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer is often comic; his struggle isn't, but the way he tells us about it is…. The Moviegoer keeps a comic tone because young Binx is tolerant of the people whose values he cannot accept. So is Bill Barrett of The Last Gentleman: he knows there is something wrong in the land, yet he is able to understand and tolerate the people who embody that something…. The Last Gentleman is largely comic, too, because Barrett maintains a tolerant vigilance of the people around him, though at one moment in the novel he resorts—happily and justifiably—to violence: he hits the right man at the right time. (This moment of certainty in violence becomes, in Lancelot, the climactic action of the novel.) In Love in the Ruins, things are closing in on Percy's hero; he is literally under attack. Thomas More is older and less tolerant than Bolling and Barrett; his wife has left him and he likes the bottle. Both the search and the struggle are more desperate, more tangible: hippies, racists, militant blacks, sex clinics have replaced the nuances of despair that entered like ghosts the nice conversations with nice people in the first two novels….
In Lancelot, Percy is again confronting the forces which make moral choices and live by them. And his hero, Lancelot Lamar, is angry. Because of this, the novel goes further, more deeply, than the three before it. Lancelot cannot be content with amused tolerance of others, while he takes his lady to bed. In a land where so many are devoting their energy to coping, to being like everyone else and surviving it, Lancelot cries out no. It is a different kind of no. It is not the no of dope or booze or television or what we call recreation. It is the no of Jean Anouilh's Antigone, who finally tells Creon that she simply refuses to live in the world as it is; and that no causes her death. Lancelot's no causes death too, and a new world. It is a small world: the world of the soul, of moral choice and action, is always limited to the few who choose it. (pp. 86-7)
[Lancelot] cannot, like the earlier Percy heroes, find a peaceful bemused niche within the world he sees; he must act, and his action is the center of the novel. He struggles against loss of personal worth and values, a history that haunts him, the infidelity of his wife, his own lust and its purpose, the loss of two of his children to the nonvalues of the age, the invasion of his empty life by even emptier Hollywood directors and actors (for a while their emptiness is active enough to make his emptiness even more passive), with women whose liberation, he believes, has further enslaved them to their unique condition of being the only female creatures who are always in heat, and with God.
In all of Percy's novels Catholicism is essential as an alternative…. If Catholicism demanded a stoic life in the desert, no doubt Lancelot would happily do it. But, looking at the flabbiness of the modern church, Lancelot decides there is only one way to leave the present world and enter the new one which all Percy's heroes have yearned for. Lancelot, through his own will and action, destroys the present world, and after that cleansing destruction, he starts over. This novel is Percy's strongest counterattack against those forces which I suspect are still shrieking at his door. (pp. 87-8)
Andre Dubus, "Paths to Redemption," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the April, 1977 issue by special permission), April, 1977, pp. 86-7.
Although Walker Percy is a Christian novelist, he refuses to write mere sermons. He recognizes that he must find—or, better yet, create—striking patterns of imagery, structure, and voice to command our attention. Thus if we simply discuss his apparent attitudes toward faith, American violence, etc., we are fragmenting his work, using it as our platform for abstractions. (p. 568)
There is a "two-faced" quality to the narrator [of Lancelot] (and his listener); and the fact that they move about and change places in the cell—remember that the narrator offers a chair; the listener refuses and stands near the window—suggests the cross-purposes, the doubling, at work in the novel. Even in the first chapter the narrator tries to get straight to his past (and present troubles), but he is trapped by the narrowness of the chapter. He is locked in by short, abrupt sentences.
The narrator is named Lancelot Andrews Lamar. The name is double (as he himself informs us); it signifies the "great Anglican divine" and the knight searching for the Grail; fixed and uncertain faith. Perhaps there is even another meaning. "Lancet": "a surgical instrument, commonly sharp-pointed and two-edged [my italics], used to open boils, etc." The narrator considers himself a wounded man trying to open the wounds of our society—he is doctor and patient.
[These] few metaphors … occur in the first pages, but I believe they underlie the complete work. Lancelot continually uses words as an instrument; he tells his listener (and reader) that he has committed murder and arson because he had discovered that his child doesn't belong to him: "It is a mystery which I ponder endlessly; that my life is divided into two parts, Before and After, before and after the moment I discovered that my wife had been rendered ecstatic, beside herself, by a man on top of her."… [Lancelot] seems to be participant and creator of his "revenge tragedy."
Whenever Lancelot discusses such things as Evil—his quest for the Unholy Grail—he offers split motives. He tells us at one point: "Things were split." He mentions two scientists "who did the experiment on the speed of light and kept getting the wrong result…. It took Einstein to comprehend that the wrong answer might be right." He acts many roles—he's perfected the Southern Gentleman for his wife—but he stands outside these very roles. Although he condemns the shallow actors—including his wife—and the fake lightning storm used to create effects (even when a "real" storm is threatening), he refuses to understand that he shares their theatrical lies. (There are some wonderfully comic Hollywood types, but they blend into his duplicitous role-playing and narration. Mirrors within mirrors!) And when he insists that he wants to speak honestly, he is so intent upon his purpose that it also seems a crazy (and sane) performance for his listener. Perhaps the most sustained use of this kind of "reflective" metaphor occurs when Lancelot photographs the sexual goings-on "off-camera" of the actors (including his wife and daughter). He calls it a "double feature" because what he views is symbolically linked not only to the trashy, pretentious film being shot at Belle Isle, his home, but to his desire to manipulate, to direct, and to create his artistic "mad" pattern: "Lights and darks were reversed like a negative, mouths opened on light, eyes were white sockets. The actors looked naked clothed, clothed naked." (pp. 568-70)
The novel ends ambiguously. Lancelot is now a free man; he will try to be a prophet outside of cell walls. But he persists in claiming to the listener that "one of us is wrong." Yes and no. Percy seems, after all the metaphors of distorted (and distorting vision), to emphasize that humanity is always at a midpoint, a crossroad, and that every design (or map), even a heretical, unholy one, is cloudy. I am fond of the priest-psychiatrist's "Yes"—it can mean anything!—and the word does not finally conclude the narration or solve ultimate mysteries enclosed within.
I believe that Lancelot is, oddly enough, an open book—despite all the imprisonment metaphors—which offers hints, glimpses, omens. It fights the idea of logical patterns, "useful" knowledge. It offers faith as a possible answer, a view of hell and purgatory, but it stops short of final solutions, visions, Paradise itself. (pp. 570-71)
Irving Malin, "Cross Purposes," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 568-71.