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Walker Percy: Diagnostician of the Modern Malaise

  • CARL E. OLSON

I was first introduced to the writing of Walker Percy (1916-1990) several years ago and have been hooked ever since. The Moviegoer was the first book by Percy I read. It was also his first novel, the winner of the National Book Award in 1961.

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Walker Percy
(1916-1990)

I knew little about Percy, except that he was Southern and Catholic, and that a good friend of mine believed he was "required reading." As I read The Moviegoer two things immediately impressed me: the beauty of his writing and the spiritual longing which permeates the book. Soon afterward I began reading Signposts in a Strange Land, a collection of his essays, with topics ranging from "Bourbon" to "Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time" to "A 'Cranky Novelist' Reflects on the Church." That was quickly followed by a side-splitting read of Lost In The Cosmos, subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book" and filled with an ingenious mixture of cutting satire, pop culture, and philosophical reflection, all aimed at questions such as: Why is modern man, master of technology and information, such a mystery to himself? And why is he in so much misery most of the time?

Percy was a seeker in the truest sense of the word. Orphaned as a young boy his father committed suicide and his mother died under mysterious circumstances he, along with his two brothers, was raised by his eccentric and literary Uncle Will. While attending medical school he contracted tuberculosis and spent the better part of three years bedridden. During that time he read extensively from the writings of existentialists such as Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, and also works by Catholic thinkers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. Shortly thereafter, in his mid-thirties, he made three major decisions: to become a full-time writer, to marry, and to become Catholic. The quest taken up in his writing would be to "diagnose" the "modern malaise," the emptiness of spirit and darkness of heart so prevalent in the 20th century, especially reflected in the fact that modern man is a stranger to himself. This would be accomplished through characters who were on "the search" for the Other, even while they didn't know who or what that "other" might be. Binx Bolling, the main character in The Moviegoer, reflects upon this search:

What do you seek God? you ask with a smile.

I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. 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. Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?

It was a happy coincidence that at the same time I was reading Percy, I was also reading G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Although very different in style, Percy and Chesterton are linked in many ways. They were both converts to the Catholic faith who were raised in agnostic homes and who claimed no formal theological or philosophical training. More importantly, they both had a high regard for Aquinas and had a view of humanity which was at once modern and orthodox. They understood the times they lived in and saw how far removed those times had become from the life-giving, intellectually sound sources of Western civilization. Both used satire to expose the stupidities and evils of their age Chesterton with gentleness, Percy with a dark humor. Chesterton saw the evils of communism and Nazism on the horizon, even as Percy witnessed their reality and saw the practical implications of their philosophical underpinnings being worked out in the West in the forms of abortion and euthanasia. Both recognized that mankind, as it destroyed history and tradition, was "freeing" itself to wander the wastelands of despair, alienation and nihilism. They each pointed out that scientism, consumerism, behaviorism, and secular humanism were of no avail they could not answer the questions of the human heart even while they promised to fulfill the deepest human desires. In a real way, Chesterton's What Wrong with the World and Percy's Lost in the Cosmos are fitting companions, as divergent in style as the authors were in personality Chesterton ever optimistic and joyful, Percy somber and often caustic.

Much is made of Percy's reliance upon Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre. But his debt to Aquinas is either ignored or passed over by most people, although Percy himself noted that Aquinas had more impact on the creation of his characters and their analytic methods than did Kierkegaard. And while the "malaise" which Percy writes about is distinctly modern, it is inherently ancient at its core, the cry of man for transcendent truth and meaning. As Percy said in more than one interview, his books are about rootless, despairing, sinful, messed up people looking for Other, for God. In his novels this is sometimes shown by the discovery of the human "other" a human love, symbolizing the supernatural love which animates all love. Hence the title of one his novels: Love in the Ruins.

Percy talked of his novels as being "diagnostic." In this regard he turned to Aquinas and drew a distinction between art and morality. In an interview, he explained that "art is making; morality is doing. This is not to say that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense if it is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you're writing a tract which may be an admirable enterprise, but it is not literature." He goes on to say that what interests him as a novelist is the "looniness" of modern man, "the normal denizen of the Western world who, I think it is fair to say, doesn't know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain of the 'diagnostic' novelist."

For those who are seeking truth and for all those who love truth and great literature, Walker Percy is their writer, a challenging guide to the "signposts in a strange land."

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Acknowledgement

Carl Olson. "Walker Percy: Diagnostician of the Modern Malaise." CatholicExchange.com (June 19, 2001).

This article reprinted with permission from CatholicExchange.com.

The Author

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight.com and Catholic World Report, author of two books and numerous articles, and frequent blogger. Carl Olson is the author of Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, 2003) and co-author of the best-selling The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius Press, 2004).

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