The American Interest

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Hope in the Searching

Walker Percy distrusted the esoteric and the arcane, looking instead to the concrete and the quotidian as a bridge to faith and meaning. A man of both the American South and the Catholic Church, his novels and essays never evince a claim to know any mortal's destination—only the value of the journey.

Published on August 10, 2012

In 2003, the President’s Council on Bioethics, led by its chairman Leon Kass, published an anthology titled simply Being Human. The Council, whose membership included Francis Fukuyama, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson, drew on a broad range of generally Western sources to assemble its 600-page, 95-item anthology. It included Job and the Book of Revelation in the Bible; Homer, Plato and Aristotle from Hellenic antiquity; Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Rousseau from the diversity of Europe; Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Walker Percy from the diversity of America.

Why such a compendium from a body chartered to consider a scientifically and philosophically technical set of issues like stem cell research and human cloning? Kass tells us:

[W]e are quick to notice dangers to life, threats to freedom, and risks of discrimination or exploitation. But we are slow to think about the need to uphold human dignity and the many ways of doing and feeling and being in the world that make human life rich, deep, and fulfilling. . . . To enlarge our vision and deepen our understanding, we need to focus not only on the astonishing new technologies but also on those (in truth, equally astonishing) aspects of “being human” on which the technologies impinge and which they may serve or threaten. 

Perhaps not every Council member endorsed every selection in the anthology. But it is a serious testimony, both to the quality of his writing and to his insights into the question of what it is to be human, that the Council chose to include the work of Walker Percy. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the publication of Being Human, we are more than ever in need of his wisdom.

Walker Percy held to the belief that what is universally true about all people can only be found in the particular. His writing exudes both a sense of place and the disquiet that stems from lacking such a sense.

The particulars of his own life are well known. Born and raised in the South and educated at the University of North Carolina, he was a close friend of Shelby Foote (the latter of Ken Burns’s Civil War fame). The story is told of the two young men visiting William Faulkner, with Percy unable to speak to the author out of awed reverence. After enjoying his own literary success, Percy helped found the Society of Southern Writers, conspicuously identifying himself with his region. The posthumous collection of his essays and lectures, Signposts in a Strange Land, has several entries on “One Life in the South.”

Percy’s father committed suicide, as had his grandfather, and his mother’s subsequent death in a car accident may have been suicide as well. Another young Southern author, John Kennedy Toole, had taken his own life years before his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, came to Percy’s attention. Percy took up the novel’s publication as a personal cause. Suicide is a possibility that recurs in Percy’s writing, as does the possibility of becoming an “ex-suicide”, one who has seriously confronted the choice offered by Moses—“I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil”—and taken the advice to choose life.

Like Kass, Krauthammer and several other members of the Council on Bioethics, Percy trained as a physician, and also like some of them, he turned from medical practice to spend his professional life in letters. A lengthy recuperation from tuberculosis contracted in medical school at Columbia had given him time to read. He thus began his career as a writer with both the training of a scientist-doctor and the library of a philosopher-novelist.

To his Southern roots, family tragedy and medical training, Percy added the element of Roman Catholicism, entering the Church as an adult. He was not only a convert but a secular Benedictine oblate, suggesting considerable seriousness in his religious praxis. But he was nevertheless skeptical of organized religion. His work often disdains the Bible-thumping enthusiasm for which his home region is renowned. In his first novel, The Moviegoer, which won the 1962 National Book Award, the protagonist-narrator Binx Bolling alludes parenthetically to “a peculiar word this in the first place, religion; it is something to be suspicious of.” In a later novel, The Second Coming (1980), Will Barrett is wandering along a road when he observes with perplexity a bumptious bumper sticker, “Your God May Be Dead But I Talked To Mine This Morning.”

Percy’s Catholicism is rarely in full view in his fiction, and when the Catholic Church does make an appearance, as in Love in the Ruins (1971), it is as parody. But his belief in the inner shaping power of faith, as opposed to the institutional apparatus of the church in the world, is present throughout his work. Indeed, while Percy kept his Catholicism implicit in his novels, he put his “small c” catholicism at the center of his stories. He is concerned with the universal, the questions that every man and woman struggle with, or struggle to avoid. He writes for the biggest of tents, a tent that would shelter far more persons than his own Southern Catholic place contains, but he does it from the pivot of his own place and time.

Of these universal questions, two in particular dominate Percy’s fiction: malaise and searching. Malaise, Percy tries to show us, stretches back to the dawn of human self-awareness, but manifests itself especially acutely in the modern era. Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer introduces us to it:

What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you are no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost. . . . Where there is a chance of gain, there is also chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.

During his extended convalescence from tuberculosis, Percy encountered the existentialists, including Søren Kierkegaard. Percy quotes Kierkegaard at the start of The Moviegoer: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” The key characteristic of malaise, then, is the tendency to sink into despair, the absence of hope. Percy sees the modern condition as marked by an intentional disbelief, or at least a non-belief, that there is something better than what we see around us every day. The peculiarly modern feature of despair is to be unaware or unwilling to accept that the possibility of hope even exists.

Binx also introduces the idea of the search in The Moviegoer. Despite the unawareness or denial of hope, Binx, standing for all men, is compelled to search for something better:

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. . . .

What do you seek—God? you ask with a smile. . . . Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker. 

As The Moviegoer develops, it becomes clear that, in his search for a way out of the malaise, Binx is “onto something.” He is onto the God he may, or may not, be seeking despite his “invincible unbelief.” This is no random choice of words. Percy knows that the phrase echoes the Catholic idea of “invincible ignorance”, which can excuse or mitigate the gravity of the sin of unbelief, and it is an idea that returns in Percy’s Love in the Ruins, where the protagonist Tom More’s daughter invokes invincible ignorance to explain her mother’s lack of faith. Binx is mired in malaise, but his nose is above it as he senses an alternative that he begins to make out.

What, then, is Percy’s way out of the malaise, out of the hopeless everydayness? We get a hint early on in The Moviegoer. Binx is planning his walking route to a cinema and stops near a school.

I stroll around the schoolyard in the last golden light of day and admire the building. Everything is so spick-and-span: the aluminum sashes fitted into the brick wall and gilded in the sunset, the pretty terrazzo floors and the desks molded like wings. Suspended by wires above the door is a schematic sort of bird, the Holy Ghost I suppose. It gives me a pleasant sense of the goodness of creation to think of the brick and the glass and the aluminum being extracted from common dirt—though no doubt it is less a religious sentiment than a financial one, since I own a few shares of Alcoa. How smooth and well-fitted and thrifty the aluminum feels!

At this early point in the novel, Binx explains that the idea of the search first occurred to him as he lay injured on the ground in the Korean War, watching a dung beetle that awoke his “immense curiosity.” In the same paragraph, he describes actually seeing for the first time the pile of ordinary objects on his dresser, objects usually rendered invisible by the fog of the everyday malaise. Once noticed, once become visible, the search becomes possible through the great richness and diversity of “stuff”—ordinary, concrete objects that give clues to the searcher. For Percy, the “everyday” of the malaise is the ordinary without mystery; when the ordinary is observed carefully, the mystery of something to be searched for becomes imaginable. The ordinary and the concrete are thus clues to the way out of despair. Their opposites—the grandiose and the abstract—are the marks of the “everyday” malaise; they remove the mystery from reality though the blindness to its particularities.

Percy’s searchers never reach Nirvana, nor do they mystically transcend death, disease, bad weather or bad movies. His characters are not bogged down by attachments to or obsessions with the material and the ordinary; they are users of the ordinary as transports. Binx concludes,

There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons. It only remains to decide whether this vocation is best pursued in a service station or—

Or in medical school and with a wife, as it turn out for Binx, who bears an obvious resemblance to Percy himself. For him, as for Tom More in Love in the Ruins and for Will Barrett in The Second Coming, the way forward in the search traverses the ordinary daily tasks of marriage, parenting, work, looking after others and being looked after. The concrete provides the needed sense of knowing what to do; it and only it breaks the paralysis. The restoration of hope is the discovery of mystery in ordinary things and tasks, of poking around in the neighborhood and not missing a trick, of being onto something rather than insisting that there is nothing to be onto.

As several students of Percy have noted, his fundamental opposition is to gnosticism, to the belief that with specialized and esoteric knowledge exclusively available only to the extraordinary few, one can escape or transcend the evil and unreality of our “everyday” world. Here Percy crosses paths with the philosopher Eric Voegelin, who saw gnosticism as a persistent and pervasive influence in history and whose work Percy apparently knew. At times, Percy’s fiction can read as an absurdist version of Voegelin’s thesis as it plays out in the lives of Percy’s characters. Gnosticism pretends to know the missing hope causing the malaise—the idea that only the esoteric and the abstract can save us from a world that God did not directly create and is therefore distorted, imperfect, far from beautiful. Rather than remedy that malaise, Voegelin and Percy teach us, the gnostic digression intensifies it.

The universal need for the search, in Percy’s view, stems from the fall of man, from Original Sin. The fall left man universally disordered, out of place, aware yet unaware of himself. The subsequent search has been more or less well ordered, more or less successful in different times and places, but it has never been completed in this life. The hope of its final successful completion animated life in the West for centuries. That is what Christianity and Judaism are about: repairing a broken relationship with God, restoring hope from whatever it was that shattered the original vessels of Divine light (to express it in kabbalistic language). The unique feature of our day, as Percy saw it, is the diminution of that hope, and with it the weakening of a supernatural purpose, or telos, as a central organizing principle of society. Our pre-modern Western forebears contemplated such questions fully aware that their hope was uncertain, or a matter of faith. But the consensus held that such hope, and the search it spurred, was of the essence in a good life.

What displaced that hope, with its uncertain promise of future reward, was the possibility of certain reward in this life in the form of material prosperity. That prosperity derived not from metaphysics but from natural science, and looking back on the past two centuries, natural science has delivered. The West now has an abundance of material wealth inconceivable even a few decades ago, much less when the Enlightenment began. But for Percy, the success of natural science and the resulting material gains came with a price: the loss of consensus about the nature of a good life, and the consequent loss of integrity—or the fragmentation—of the individual person.

There is, of course, nothing rare about such a critique. But Percy’s way of going about it transcends cultural crankiness and so speaks to many readers as others’ similar complaints have not. In a lecture at Cornell University entitled “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise”, he said:

It seems fair to describe the times not merely in conventional terms as a world which has been transformed by technology both for good and evil, the evil being, of course, the very real ugliness of much of the transformation and the very real depersonalization of many people living in such a world. What is not so self-evident yet of far greater import to the novelist is the more subtle yet more radical transformation of the very consciousness of Western man in an entirely unexpected way by the scientific and technological worldview. . . . [T]he consciousness of Western man, the layman in particular, has been transformed by a curious misapprehension of the scientific method. One is tempted to use the theological term “idolatry.” This misapprehension, which is not the fault of science, but rather the inevitable consequence of the victory of the scientific worldview . . . takes the form of a radical and paradoxical loss of sovereignty by the layman and of a radical impoverishment of human relations.

It is this loss of sovereignty and impoverishment that Percy explores in the selection of his work in Being Human. In “The Loss of the Creature”, taken from his 1975 book The Message in the Bottle, Percy uses one of his favorite techniques, the thought experiment, to illustrate the loss of sovereignty and its effects. He begins by describing the contrast between the first explorer to come upon the Grand Canyon and later visitors whose experience is mediated by what they have read about the Canyon, the crowds around them as they view it, and the rest of the intrusive context in play. The first explorer has a direct experience of the place; subsequent viewers arrive looking for such directness but inevitably cannot find it.

Percy also reprises a thought experiment briefly touched on in The Moviegoer. A couple travels to Mexico in search of the authentic, an encounter with an unspoiled village never before seen, without the interposition of media or previous experience. Remarkably, they have exactly such an encounter. What is their reaction? They seek out an ethnologist, an expert, to validate the authenticity of their own experience—the very interposition they sought to avoid but find they cannot do without. Percy gives us their underlying problem:

Their basic placement in the world is such that they recognize a priority of title of the expert over his particular department of being. The whole horizon of being is staked out by ‘them’, the experts. . . . The worst of this impoverishment is that there is no sense of impoverishment. The surrender of title is so complete that it never even occurs to one to reassert title. . . . The loss of sovereignty is not a marginal process. . . . It is a generalized surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie. . . . So that, although it is by no means the intention of the expert to expropriate sovereignty—in fact he would not even know what sovereignty meant in this context—the danger of theory and consumption is a seduction and deprivation of the consumer.

By relinquishing so much of our sovereignty, of our own direct contact with ordinary concrete reality, to the expert’s interpretation—by forfeiting the chance of “poking around in our neighborhood and not missing a trick”—we give up a great deal of what it is to be human. We disintegrate into the external, given categories of expertise. And so we become vulnerable to all kinds of gnosticisms that do not know themselves as such; at the same time we abandon efforts to regain our sovereignty, because we do not know that we have lost it.

Percy offers a more complete non-fictional exploration of the problem in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), where he conducts a range of thought experiments. In one of these, he posits an interstellar spaceship that travels into the galaxy and encounters a rational life form that has not experienced its own spiritual fall, but has had unfortunate experiences with other fallen life forms like humans. This thought experiment raises a third possibility, a third kind of rational species in addition to fallen and not fallen: one that has fallen but has somehow, as a race or as individuals within a race, recovered from its fallen condition. Our search is to become that third form of consciousness, and modernity has not helped.

The spaceship in this experiment eventually returns to a post-apocalyptic earth that greatly resembles the post-apocalyptic science fiction world of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is no coincidence: Percy wrote an essay admiring Miller’s novel, and the Benedictine abbot in the remnant discovered by Percy’s returning earth ship is named Liebowitz (with the small spelling change). Both Canticle and Percy’s thought experiment in Lost in the Cosmos take us into a world where scientific knowledge has been lost, fragmented and preserved only incoherently. (Absurdist allusions to science, or to a scientism where science is the purported answer to all questions, abound in Percy’s fiction).

Percy’s thought experiment here takes him across the path of another philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s 1981 work After Virtue also opens with a Canticle-like thought experiment, imagining what would happen in a world where almost all scientific knowledge was lost but the remaining shards were used and displayed with no grasp of their original context or meaning. From that beginning, MacIntyre explores in rigorous fashion the comparable, actual disintegration in his own field of philosophy from the Enlightenment until the present day, when we find “barbarians” already inside the gates and, in some cases, actually in charge. After Virtue can be seen as a philosophical companion, or foundation, to all of Percy’s work. Interestingly, too, Percy, Miller and MacIntyre all allude explicitly or implicitly to the role of St. Benedict and the monastic communities he established in preserving the remnants of classical civilization through the early era of the post-Roman collapse. Percy, it seems, was a Benedictine in more ways than one.

Walker Percy is not the greatest novelist of his era, nor did he untangle knotty technical problems of contemporary philosophy. But his synthesis of literature and philosophy made him an unusually perceptive diagnostician of our modern and postmodern condition. In an era of material abundance that does not satisfy our deepest needs and wants, of comprehensive scientific progress that cannot offer worthy answers to the questions that seize us most, we can turn to him for insight on what to do to be human. Escape malaise and find hope in the concrete. Leave abstractions to their authors. “It is difficult for gods to walk the earth without taking the form of beasts”, Percy writes in Lost in the Cosmos. “It is even more difficult for one god to get along with another god.” People, to live hopefully and fairly happily, just need to start with their own particular, ordinary, mysterious place.

Joseph R. Wood lives and writes in Arlington, Virginia.