During the last third of the twentieth century, Walker Percy was a force to be reckoned with, as essayist, philosopher, vocal Catholic, and, especially, as a prize-winning novelist, often best-selling. (He was considered a first-class stylist.) Describable, I think, as “psychological gothic” (and Southern, though he came to hold no truck with Faulkner), those six novels are books of ideas, lots of them, none simple. All were academically examined and widely reviewed, usually favorably even when not entirely understood.
The ideas are, after all, existential ideas: the perils of inauthenticity, or of what Percy called “everydayness” (a numbness resulting from routine), or the surrender of personal sovereignty to habits of conformity. (In thinking of Melville, Percy does not think first of Moby-Dick but of “melancholy wonder.”) For these afflictions, his antidotes were ordeal (think Flannery O’Connor), the reliving of past experiences, and “intersubjectivity” (the refusal to objectify others).
Lots of ideas, none simple.
Inevitably his protagonists become untethered, from social norms, from their own memories, and often from language itself. Sometimes outcast (drunken priests pop up frequently), they are often self-exiled. So the question “who am I?” becomes a narrative force. Yet “untethered” is not “unencumbered.” The former is disorienting and frightening, often to the point of panic, whereas the latter can be liberating.
And just here do we have, respectively, Will Barrett and Allie, from The Second Coming (1980), my first Percy novel. It would be his penultimate and for me a sort of moral hinge: forty years ago it was a gift from my wife Alexandra, who has been “hoisting” me— helping me to ex-sistare, “stand out,” ever since. (Percy answered my thank-you letter with a brief but appreciative hand-written note.)
Of course the title must bring to mind Yeats’ very famous poem. Here, though, there is no rough beast slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born,” but a successful, if unbalanced, middle-aged widower who has “spells,” looks at every little thing (e.g. his golf slice, the imagined departure of Jews from North Carolina, and especially his constant falling down) as signs of his own waning identity, and is haunted by his father’s suicide— and attempted murder of him.
In this falling away from himself he falls towards a woman half his age who, nearly aphasic while searching for “one single answer,” is an asylum escapee who cannot endure any more electro-shock “therapy.” She catches this man and “hoists” him. And already Will has wondered. Why does he respect believers more than unbelievers?
The present-day Christian is either half-[a—], nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. The present-day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an [a——] – which is why I say he is a bigger [a——] than the Christian because a crazy [a——] is worse than a sane [a——].
Might there be some intimation of immortality?
He decides to put God to the test. Isolating himself in a cave, he will watch for a sign or, absent that, accept death. After some days he gets a toothache so nauseating that he must, though barely, climb out of the cave. (A man can stand almost anything, he reasons, except dizzying nauseousness and its vomit.) He simply does not recognize the toothache as the awaited sign, which is not surprising at that point. After all, “everyone believed everything,” he thought. “We’re all from California now. Yet we believe with a kind of perfunctoriness.”
While clambering weak and dazed he literally falls into the girl’s makeshift greenhouse abode. After hoisting him with block and tackle, she revives him. Eventually, by his wits, by his friendships with skilled and willing, troubled souls, by his influence, and by his great inherited wealth (his wife was vastly rich), he will save them both from commitment to this or that institution (and build a new, humane one for those same souls), notwithstanding the opposition of Kitty, an old paramour of Will’s who becomes ferociously angry when she discovers that Will’s new lover is her own daughter whom she is trying so hard to have committed. (No matter: Kitty would bed Will again if she could).
The complementarity of Will and Allie binds both the characters and the narrative, with duality threading through the whole. Will views believers and non-believers antithetically; he is coming down, she going up; he is in, she out; he escaping out of his mind, she into the world; he trying to make sense of what’s gone, she of what is; he oh-so-glib, she semi-coherent; she hoists (she calls herself a “hoister”), he (recovered from Wahnsinnige Sehnsucht, a longing deriving from a ph imbalance) interprets for her the ways of the world as well as idiomatic speech (“Our lapses are not due to synapses,” she says.) Percy frequently, seamlessly, switches from first to third person without the aid of quotation marks.
Yet the story-telling seems unbalanced: casual in Part One (the first two-thirds of the book, when we’re tempted to say of Will “enough already”), hasty in Part Two. There, though, Allie focuses both Will’s attention and ours, and the seeming imbalance is undercut as the hastening conveys discovery, above all Allie’s in her realization that carnality (“it”) may be a portal to becoming one with another. Marriage (by a Catholic priest who, according to the Protestant pastor who will marry Leslie, believes in “the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and . . . Apostolic Succession officiating) seals their recovered selves into one Authentic Thing.
But it wasn’t easy, for Percy that is. In his correspondence with Shelby Foote, the essayist, Civil War historian, and best friend, he complains, “I’m writing a medium-length novel which is nothing but trouble. . . . One must resort to all manner of tricks, cons, blandishments, obfuscation, curses, lies, jokes, animadversions” (for example, switching from the first to the third person, often from one paragraph to another). When he finished the book, he thought (incorrectly) that he would never write another: “an incredible ordeal . . . requiring all manner of alternating despairs, piss-offs, deaths and rebirths.” His post-apocalyptic Love in the Ruins, the deadly insanity of Lancelot, and the grotesqueries of child abuse in The Thanatos Syndrome (Dr. Comeaux tells us to look—look!—at the happy faces of the children as they are abused and asks, How can that be evil?)—these could not could not have been any less trying to write.
He declares, “show me a young California novelist who spends his life meditating on the Way, and I’ll show you a bad novelist.” But, he goes on, “show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a Communist at Columbia and I’ll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn . . . than he owes to Marxist dialectic. “Ten boring hail Marys are worth more . . . than ten hours of Joseph Campbell.” In fact, he never considered himself a “literary person.”
He had trained as a physician at Columbia University Medical College (M.D. 1941) but gave up medicine after contracting TB and undergoing psychoanalysis. In 1947 he became a (vocal) Catholic, and during the fifties he published articles on philosophy, literature, and psychiatry. Only in 1961, at age forty-five, did he publish his first novel, The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award.
He (whose father and grandfather committed suicide) was steeped especially in the works of Søren Kierkegaard, the “godfather” of existentialism. There Percy would have learned of the Knight of Faith, of the three levels of reality, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, and how, sometimes, there must be a “teleological suspension of the ethical” on behalf of higher good. All are embedded in The Second Coming. Moreover, he describes us as pilgrims, especially in his essay “The Message in the Bottle” and in his most engaging non-fiction book, Lost in the Cosmos, a sort of roadmap for the rest of us wayfarers (a favorite concept of his).
He goes on to lament that we behave and believe as though the Apostle were irrelevant—which gave us the twentieth century, because “God agreed to let the Great Prince Satan have his way with men for a hundred years. And he has. How did he do it? No great evil scenes, no demons. All he [Satan] had to do was leave us alone. We did it.” (My emphasis.)
On the other hand, faith, he tells us, is an act of communication, which implies a communicator. “It is a piece of news and there is a newsbearer, the apostle,” who must not “wait in the porter’s lodge while the learned upstairs settle the matter.” That Person would not have us solve a complicated puzzle; rather he would have us “participate / in a rich / mystery,” because what distinguishes Judeo-Christianity “is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble . . . in a predicament . . . a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” He continues,
The existentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the sciences of man. The case is rather that man’s science is one of the things that man does, a mode of existence. Another mode is speech. Man is not merely a higher organism. . . . He is, in Heidegger’s words, that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.
At the end of The Second Coming the worn-out, rattled priest who marries Will and Allie tells them of his missionary trip to Africa, how the little children would run to him with joy, and that “they believe the Gospel whole and entire. . . . They said that if I told them, then it must be true or I would not have gone to so much trouble.” After the ceremony Will wonders: “What is it I want from her . . . ? Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this . . . holy face? Am I crazy to want both her and Him?” Will’s answer is, No. It is not he who has gone crazy but the world that’s nuts, and Percy’s cons, obfuscations, and animadversions have us agreeing. Still.
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The featured image is a photograph of Walker Percy (1987) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.