Walker Percy Percy, Walker (Vol. 3) - Essay

Percy, Walker (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Percy, Walker 1916–

Percy is a National Book Award-winning novelist, chronicling in his extraordinary novels the morally frustrating attempts of his sharply limned characters to deal with the "waste land" of contemporary society in which they must live and love. For Percy, the bayou country around New Orleans is synecdochic for modern America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Love in the Ruins is an exhaustive catalogue, serious and comical, of the things that men and women want and then proceed to do—to each other and to themselves—in an irrationally polarized society. Through Thomas More, Mr. Percy observes their behavior with perfect accuracy and then records it with the vigor and delight of the accomplished satirist. The lampoons occasionally come too easily and attain ends too predictable….

But these are petty complaints about a book whose triumphs are so numerous and so impressive: I think especially of a parody of that self-parodying fragment of modern Americana, the Masters and Johnson Clinic; of a debate, mostly on euthanasia, between Dr. More and a colleague in front of hundreds of howling medical students; and of Dr. More himself, a richly complex man struggling to be honest and sane in a world he understands too well, a man who tells us about himself and in the process lets his book supplant Portnoy's Complaint as the modern fictional descendant of Augustine's Confessions. Love in the Ruins is a remarkable anatomy of our times, and one that may offer a possibility, if not quite a promise, of deliverance.

Mark Taylor, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 29, 1971, pp. 118-19.

The first thing Percy does philosophically, in his confinement, is to survey his surroundings. One thing he discerns is a phenomenon he calls everydayness, which is almost omnipresent in The Moviegoer. Binx Bolling speaks of the impression growing on him that everyone is dead…. The condition described is everydayness, a term Percy borrowed from Heidegger—Alltäglichkeit. "Everydayness," Binx tells us, "is the enemy." (p. 21)

A second hazard Percy identifies in his surroundings is inauthenticity…. I am using the term in a … limited sense, in the way I see it functioning in Percy's novels. Inauthenticity in the novels involves a surrender of personal sovereignty. We can distinguish several ways of yielding sovereignty. The first lies in general conformity to the crowd or the prevailing myths. (pp. 24-5)

To be aware of playing a false role and go on deceiving oneself about it is to be guilty of what Sartre calls bad faith, a concept derived from Heidegger's view of the inauthentic. Bad faith is a deadly component of the malaise in contemporary society…. Suppose that Binx realizes he is unhappy as he coasts along in his Dodge but proclaims to himself that he is enjoying a splendid experience. He is then guilty of bad faith, which is commonly received by others as hypocrisy.

Bad faith has ominous implications when we consider the ultimate reality that each of us confronts in his own life, the fact of finitude or personal death; for as Heidegger has stressed, a man's recognition of the fact of his own death is what leads him to the threshold of authentic existence. (p. 26)

Another way of yielding sovereignty is by abdicating, or deferring to the experts. Percy himself has written a good deal on this question. The best statement of his concept of sovereignty is in his essay "The Loss of the Creature," in which he analyzes some of the ways men are disinherited in modern technological society. The predicament of a man in such circumstances is that he becomes a consumer in a society divided between "expert and layman, planner and consumer, in which experts and planners take special measures to teach and edify the consumer…. The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences." (p. 27)

Still another way of surrendering personal sovereignty is by forfeiting one's right to participation in the intersubjective communion—the I-Thou community of the truly human. "Lying cuts you off," says Tom More, the narrator of Love in the Ruins, and there are manifold forms of lying. A person forfeits his participation in the intersubjective communion principally by viewing others as objects and treating them accordingly. (pp. 28-9)

Percy's view of sovereignty is not an egoistic concept, but the assertion of one's claim within the community of others, which entails an acceptance of the claims of others on oneself. It is a sovereignty-within-intersubjectivity, for want of a more palatable term. And to forfeit one's sovereignty here, or in any of these areas, is to fall into inauthenticity and be prey to the malaise.

There is no more lethal component in the malaise than something Percy has identified as abstraction, which is prominent in all his novels and central in his most recent [Love in the Ruins]. (p. 30)

Abstraction in [his] sense means the absorption of the concrete human personality into its theoretical shadow, which can happen by the objectification of self, where one's person becomes irrelevant to oneself, or by the objectification of others, where human beings vanish into mere symbols or masses. (p. 31)

Man is a castaway … whether he recognizes it or not. But the image of man as wayfarer more accurately reflects Percy's overall views…. Modern industrial society exposes him to the further hazards of everydayness, inauthenticity, and abstraction. To be afflicted in all these ways is essentially to be closed in, to be closed off from one's being: an exile longing for news from across the seas; a consumercipher walled in by everydayness, dispossessed of his sovereignty, and lost in abstraction: the anonymous "one" of "one says," a "curtailed I." And yet that is not the worst…. Man the wayfarer is closed in. His hope lies in the search for a way out, and his journey must begin in the recognition of his exile.

Having recognized his predicament and identified some of the shapes assumed by the malaise that surrounds him, Percy begins looking for egress. The ways he finds open are mostly through existentialist terrain. One avenue familiar to any reader of his novels is ordeal. Will Barrett, the protagonist of The Last Gentleman, has the impression that people feel better in hurricanes and other natural disasters….

But ordeal has deeper significance in Percy's novels, and we can distinguish two forms of it. The first is shock, an unexpected rending of the everydayness that veils reality. At times shock turns out to be no ordeal at all, but a kind of surprise bonus, like the famous blackout in Manhattan. Sometimes the shock of ordeal helps us recover vision, Percy says, as in the case of the sparrow that vanishes into the everydayness of its symbol. (pp. 40-2)

The second form of ordeal … is my recognition that death is not a general phenomenon, but comes to me. For the existentialist the anxiety attending such a discovery is not simply a negative condition…. The person who in bad faith deludes himself about death is truly lost in despair. He is dead to news from across the seas because he does not know himself to be a castaway. (p. 43)

Another possible escape from the malaise is through rotation. Percy's most able practitioner of rotation is Binx Bolling, who passes his spare time in the company of his secretaries…. The ancient ritual that Binx is honoring … Kierkegaard would have called rotation. Its essence is novelty or possibility. Percy borrowed the term from Kierkegaard, who regarded it narrowly as a lower stage to be surmounted on the road to higher things. Rotation has been dismissed by one critic of Percy as a mere "bromide," but Percy values it more highly than such a judgment suggests. In the depths of the malaise roation can be a strategy for defeating everydayness and breaking momentarily into authentic existence. (pp. 44-5)

Still another way that Percy finds open is through repetition…. Like rotation, repetition is a Kierkegaardian term, though Percy has modified it for his own purposes…. I would like to cite an interpretation by George Price that may bear directly on Percy's more limited sense of the term. When the individual has made his leap of faith in Kierkegaard's scheme, Price says, he is forgiven: that is the repetition. Man has lost his real being by his error: "The likeness which was lost or forfeited was authentic being…. To go forward—that is, to start again the existential process of becoming—the self must initiate a movement in which it returns to its former state of being…. Forgiveness therefore is restoration—is repetition. What was lost is given back." It is in the sense of a return that Percy uses the term. A circularity is always implied. Repetition is the conversion of rotation…. "The aesthetic repetition captures the savor of repetition without surrendering the self as a locus of experience and possibility"; it is in the nature of a "connoisseur sampling of a rare emotion." The existential repetition, on the other hand, is the occasion for the "passionate quest in which the incident serves as a thread in the labyrinth to be followed at any cost." It seeks to find the answer to the question, who am I? This is the Return. Existential repetition is canceled in literature, being transmitted only as the interesting; the serious character of the search is lost. Each man carries on his own passionate search and can only taste another's quest in literature as a sampling. Percy's characters experience both kinds of repetition. (pp. 48-51)

Perhaps now we can see the landscape of Percy's fiction…. Somehow I must transcend my everyday condition. The first step is to recognize that condition for what it is. Then I must assert my claim to existence by the leap into the intersubjective communion, by which I acknowledge the claims of others upon me and within which I seek the answer to the question who am I? If I prove to be a knight of faith, I may arrive at the incomprehensible faith of Abraham. In any event the choice is mine: I can languish in the malaise as a "curtailed I" or I can live transformed by the infinite passion. To resume the primal metaphor, I must recognize my condition as wayfarer, a man on the road to somewhere, and undertake the search by which I may become a sovereign wayfarer, not a lone traveler seeking the lost road to being, but a co-celebrant sharing the joys of my pilgrimage. (p. 63)

Walker Percy's first novel is his most intensive diagnosis of the malaise. Like a surgeon, he probes the malaise through a character deeply rooted in the New Orleans of the 1950's, "a man who finds himself in a world," as Percy has said, "a very concrete man who is located in a very concrete place and time." His instrument is the laconic tone he hit upon when he began writing The Moviegoer, a tone that contributes immensely to the novel but can mislead the unwary reader. (p. 64)

The watchful reader will have noted that Binx's recognition comes on Ash Wednesday. The author does not point this out; in fact it is several pages later that Binx himself comes to realize what day it is. The reader will be aware too that virtually the entire action of the novel is sandwiched between two Wednesdays, the last week of Carnival in New Orleans. Clearly Binx is celebrating a very personal Mardi Gras, more a Lean than a Fat Tuesday, but the reader must search as hard for meanings as Binx himself does. The Moviegoer in fact is a highly elliptical novel, with key elements implied or omitted. Much of the framework is missing.

A close scrutiny of the novel's framework reveals a dialectical process in the life of Binx Bolling. The dialectic is philosophical and finds expression in the three temporal phases with which it coincides. Percy enters the dialectic at the end of the antithesis phase, which culminates in the week's action and [Binx's] recognition…. The dialectic begins with a phase of thesis antedating the book's action and involving the inheritance Binx receives from his forebears, which he has rejected as meaningless for him in the antithesis phase, his present exile in Gentilly, a condition that remains pleasantly noncommittal until the possibility of the search reawakens after years of dormancy and his recognition propels him into a synthesis phase, scarcely under way at the novel's end, in which he makes an existential leap into a future constructed on different premises. (pp. 65-6)

The Last Gentleman is a more ambitious novel than The Moviegoer and a more spacious one. In his second novel Percy has moved out in a number of ways from the confines of his first. The physical scope alone suggests the difference. Where The Moviegoer is intensive, centering closely on New Orleans, with a couple of excursions along the Gulf Coast and a sojourn to Chicago, The Last Gentleman is extensive and moves from New York through the Deep South to the Southwest. Along the way it develops an amplitude the earlier novel lacks. And Percy makes a minor stylistic breakthrough in capturing a supple American rhythm and tone that in retrospect give The Moviegoer the slightest trace of a European accent. The protagonist of The Last Gentleman breaks out of his underground existence as a humidification engineer in Macy's basement and makes a journey that takes him across country and out of time, from the contemporary "fallout" of American life to a realm beyond the reach of time.

Simultaneously a shift of emphasis takes place. The Moviegoer probes the malaise of American life and records, almost in passing, the death of the narrator's half-brother, Lonnie Smith. The Last Gentleman by contrast is structured on the impending death of Jamie Vaught, and Percy climaxes the novel with a powerfully rendered account of the event itself. Clearly The Moviegoer did not offer him sufficient latitude to explore the fact of death, the uniquely personal "I and my death" of the existentialists. Its reality permeates The Last Gentleman. And the death of Jamie Vaught is set off against a peculiarly modern kind of death-in-life.

The novel describes a pilgrimage, but it is a pilgrimage unlike any other because Will Barrett is a new kind of pilgrim. He suffers a postmodern incapacity. What is it to be a pilgrim if you are blind to signs along the way and deaf to the messages? That question underlies the novel. Will's journey takes place in a world denied grace by an affliction Kierkegaard saw in the making. Percy explores its lethal complications in being, choosing for the purpose a young man whose malady disqualifies him as pilgrim while it qualifies him admirably as protagonist. (pp. 111-12)

Percy's third novel is his most ambitious and demands consideration as a major work. In his earlier novels he probes the malaise intensively or traces a pilgrimage from the dislocated postmodern world back into the ancestral past and on to a transcendent timelessness. But times have gone from bad to worse all the while, and Percy, surveying the ruins-in-the-making of contemporary America, now leaps boldly into futuristic satire. What he attempts in Love in the Ruins is a comic synthesis of modern thought, like Dante's comedy in his time, and one addressed to the realities of the day. Its scope extends to the borders of the republic and beyond. Like Dante he writes in the aftermath of an Event, but in this case the Event is followed by an Eclipse. The landscape of Love in the Ruins lies deep in the shadow of that Eclipse, in the eerie twilight of a double vision that it will be my task to bring into focus. In such a complex book it is easy to become lost….

Love in the Ruins is Percy's most comprehensive diagnosis of the malaise. Underlying the novel is a question that has haunted the minds of many: how to account for the "monstrousness which the twentieth century let loose upon the world," as he once put it, "not the bomb but the beastliness"? Or to narrow the question as Percy does, "why does humanism lead to beastliness?" The novel suggests some answers. If we contemplate the scene he lays before us, we can see that his figures languish in the ruins of a consensus. (pp. 169-70)

Not even a man with Percy's gifts could write Percy's novels, unless he were grounded [as Percy is] in philosophy and medicine. [Percy's] great achievement may prove to have been translating Kierkegaard into concrete American terms. Such a task cannot be accomplished by intellect alone. Certainly in Percy an existentialist sensibility has taken root in America, a fact that could signal a turning point in American fiction. He has staked out a claim on behalf of the novel that brings to mind Henry James—a large claim for a medium so often pronounced dead, and one that would serve equally for film. No medium could hope to satisfy such a claim without heeding James's reminder that no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind….

Conceivably he might become absorbed in his writings on language and never complete another novel, though that possibility seems unlikely in view of the forces that led him to fiction in the first place. If he should never write another novel, the loss would be felt beyond the boundaries of the literary world, for the malaise has moved in for the duration, by all the evidence, and we have few writers whose vision can penetrate it. Percy learned his way of seeing mostly through the existentialists, but we cannot categorize a man of such varied talents in a phrase. We have to grant him his uniqueness. No one can predict with any assurance where his inclincations may lead him, though his views have shown a durable consistency. His pilgrimage bears watching, for who else do we have in America who writes superlative novels out of a considered philosophical position and a professional knowledge of medicine? And what contemporary who is our contemporary speaks to our predicament from a sense of his own sovereignty as this man does? It looks as if we too will have to wait and watch and listen. (pp. 242-43)

Martin Luschei, in his The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy's Diagnosis of the Malaise, Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Walker Percy … is not a "young" novelist, but his career has been relatively brief and his perceptions are incomparably fresh. In The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and now Love in the Ruins, he has provided the definitive portrayal of the ticky-tacky new South, a portrayal drawn with clarity, humor, and gentlemanly outrage. Love in the Ruins may or may not be the best of his novels, but its hilarious nightmare fantasy of what in a few years the South could become has the ring of truth. The novel is political, and its politics suit no one's ideological convenience but the author's. Percy is antiprogrammatic, suspicious of zealots of every persuasion, certain only of the enduring values of knowledge, tradition, civility, dignity, decency, and diversity.

Jonathan Yardley, "The New Old Southern Novel," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. 293.

No one who had read Walker Percy's first two books, The Moviegoer (1961) and The Last Gentleman (1966), could have expected an easy time with his third. But in Love in the Ruins the reader thus conditioned must have found himself even more surprised and puzzled than he was prepared to be. The new work is assuredly a composition "fearfully and wonderfully made"…. Love in the Ruins is a creation sui generis, shaped not at all upon the pattern of any predecessors. Few instructive or illuminating analogies are called to mind by its proportions and its themes—or by the relation of the two. Moreover, there is much about it that is especially delightful: so much that we, in amusement at masterful satiric episodes, are likely to be diverted from giving the appropriate attention to its considerable formal shortcomings….

Love in the Ruins, though a work of serious fiction, is assuredly not a novel. It presents the reader with an action circumscribed and contained by a recognizable and richly populated scene, burdened with an air of prophecy. Yet this apparent action carries in itself no authority, no suggestion of its own intrinsic importance. And the life of the world in which it occurs does not persuade us that it is real, that its interpersonal relationships, its politics, its science, its economics, and its history count for a straw. The book is an apocalypse or (in the current usage) a distopia, set in the 1980's and in a South we may still recognize….

Though I have not been an enthusiastic admirer of The Moviegoer or The Last Gentleman, at no point has there been a question in my mind concerning the operative efficiency of Percy's choice of an intellectual machinery for their assemblage…. Percy makes of these books an impressive, oblique exposé of modernity not unlike that achieved by Eliot in "Prufrock" or by Tate and Lowell in related poems. These two are, despite their wry comedy, novels of the now fashionable "lyric" variety. But a distopia ("near the end of the world") must sometimes be soberly satiric. Its action proper and enveloping action are naturally identical. And their focus is upon the course of history—ultimately upon mistakes made in the public weal by those concerned with (in the larger sense) its government. The implicit assumption is that these decisions are important, that multi-dimensional men and women do not live behind the "looking glass". Percy's "future" in this book is not thus intended; it is not the warning of an evil to come so much as it is a mere caricature of the present shape of things. And neither interests the author (or his hero) save as stimuli for movement from (to use Percy's own terms, borrowed from Kierkegaard) the "aesthetic" into the "religious mode".

Such is the tension which, to my thinking, mars the design of Love in the Ruins. It is both via and broad social comedy, with no persuasive juncture of the impulses behind its pull in these two directions….

Percy's high comedy [is] an achievement unto itself. It marks a progression in his thinking—a distance from the passions which, in earlier years, inspired him to a bit of foolish journalism and even more foolish public posturing. And it also draws with profit upon his clear-headed and Christian observation of the current intellectual "scene"….

Percy … has despaired of progress and of prescription. If not bored by the merely topical obsessions of his peers in the craft, he is at least amused. He stands aloof with his ironic manner, his philosophical interests, his social code, his work, and his religion. Everything about his satire tells the reader that the artist is, in these few matters, confident. And this certainty gives to him a good perspective for the gentle and friendly mockery to which he aspires…. In [a] sense Love in the Ruins is an anti-anti-utopia. Its argument is that history, except for church history, doesn't really count for much. Menippean playfulness is the appropriate measure of its importance. And the total work has a genuine authority, despite its structural imperfections: power, even in the starkness of its theological insistence. I know of no other writer who can do this sort of thing better—not Erasmus nor Sterne nor John Barth. And though many of Percy's earlier admirers are now angered by the superior air of this new offering, we have reason to take heart from its diagnosis of the public follies of our age, especially where these follies are our own.

Melvin E. Bradford, "Dr. Percy's Paradise Lost: Diagnostics in Louisiana," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1973, pp. 839-44.