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Literature as Preparation for Death


As a writer of novels and occasional essays, Walker Percy is fascinated by our pilgrimage unto death. For autobiographical reasons, it is perhaps the most pervasive theme among the many in his writing.

Walker Percy

In Plato's Phaedo Socrates makes the astounding claim that philosophy, that is, the love of wisdom, is preparation for death. How many parents of students at Catholic universities in the United States would welcome the suggestion that when the university requires their children to take a number of courses in philosophy, rather than preparing them for life, that is, a job, they intend to prepare them for death? $ 100,000 for that? How many Catholic universities would now dare say so? The parents' perplexity is the sort of thing the Catholic convert Walker Percy would find fertile ground for his brand of literary humor. In a world deadened by sitcoms, Percy knew that comedy is serious business, perhaps more serious than tragedy, and all the harder to achieve. And death is the very serious stuff of which literary comedy is made for Percy.

As a writer of novels and occasional essays, Percy is fascinated by our pilgrimage unto death. For autobiographical reasons, it is perhaps the most pervasive theme among the many in his writing. The most obvious instance would be his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, which is, I fear, not his best. There is a certain desperation in it, as Percy himself approached his own death. It's not as humorous, and he has lost the artist's subtle touch in exchange for the didactician's pointer. The great novelist, and Percy is one, knows that the author never teaches what he wants his readers to learn. It is in such gems as The Moviegoer, Lancelot, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, and The Second Coming that we learn from the artist what we need to know about death.

He once related that his would be a happy death if he reached it without killing himself. This remark makes Jay Tolson's account of Percy's death from cancer, in the biography Pilgrim in the Ruins, all the more moving. His epitaph should read, Walker Percy: he did not kill himself. This fascination with death appears less strange if one is familiar with his family biography, the history of a typically Southern family of landed gentry stretching back for two centuries or more, atypical in the fact that it seems that almost every third ancestor killed himself.

Percy came from the sort of noble Southern stoic family in which the ultimate, romantic ideal of noblesse oblige was to die in a duel over honor. He related with pride that his ancestors were the sort that would call out the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan for being a scoundrel, and challenge him to shoot it out then and there on Main Street. The increasing problem for his ancestors, as the twentieth century was born and grew, was that the Grand Wizard was not a worthy opponent, and increasingly refused to be called out. The Klan no longer bothered about the hollow honor of the plantation slave owner who had become the paternalistic gentleman planter. it was not the black man's humanity for which his great-uncles would offer their lives, but for their own Stoic honor, and the Grand Wizard had no intention of endangering his own life for the Stoic's honor. Worse, as Percy related in his essay Stoicism in the South, when it really came down to it about Jews, Catholics, and African Americans, his ancestors weren't that much different from the Grand Wizard.

For Percy it was not a Christian honor that his ancestor was defending. How like him to go into Chancellorsville or the Argonne with Epictetus in his pocket; how unlike him to have had the Psalms. In any case, their Stoicism had always told them there was nothing worth living for, and modern times increasingly told them there was nothing worth dying for either. Thus, in their love of death, they killed themselves.

But the issue for Percy was not how to avoid death. Just as it had been for his ancestors, the issue was how to die well. Where they had failed, he was determined to succeed. It was on the road to the New Mexico desert in the late 1940's, in a dusty roadside bar that he confessed to his friend Shelby Foote that Catholicism seemed to him to be the way to go. Foote, the great narrative historian of the carnage of the Civil War, responded on behalf of Percy's ancestors, your intellect is in complete and utter retreat. But it began an intellectual, moral, emotional, artistic and spiritual pilgrimage toward the Cross from which Percy would never retreat.

Like Flannery O'Connor he thought our sacramental vision is so deadened by the scientism, aestheticism, and eroticism of modern culture, that it can only be awakened in extremis. From the existential writers of continental Europe he learned that the extreme of the twentieth century is its love of nihilism, and from Nietzsche that our culture is dying badly for nothing. Originally trained as a pathologist, but having contracted tuberculosis from the skid-row corpses he examined in the basement of New York's Bellevue Hospital, he turned his attention in his novels to dissecting the corpse of our civilization, our culture of death. When Lancelot Lamar looks erotically down upon the bodies of his wife and her lover whom he has just slaughtered, he wants to look into the face of the evil he has conceived and created, but he sees nothing. The question is: Why did I discover nothing at the heart of evil? There was no secret after all, no discovery, no flickering of interest, nothing at all, not even any evil. There is no unholy grail just as there was no Holy Grail. Having finished his confession-apologia of how he came to that vision, Lancelot turns to the heretofore silent priest and says, Very well. I've finished. Is there anything you wish to tell me before I leave? The priest responds, Yes. The book ends.

Percy was fascinated by the phenomenon in which human beings feel most alive in, and often even secretly long for, the most deadly of situations, the trenches of World War I, or the most recent natural disaster. One of our greatest metaphors for putting forth the maximum effort to achieve a goal comes from the slaughter of the Somme and Flanders Field going the whole nine yards meant unloading in one glorious spasm the entire belt of machine gun bullets upon one's enemy, the standard issue belt that was nine yards long. And if we cannot experience that exaltation of the reality of death like our forebears, he would tell us that we can always go into the cave and see the shadows on the wall. How would the author of The Moviegoer and Lost in the Cosmos humorously transform the fact that no one actually died saving Private Ryan, and yet, lest we be alienated from our culture, we all had to go and see Saving Private Ryan? As citizens our choice was to participate vicariously in the slaughter or be alienated from one another. What would we talk about if we didn't have the movies?

At least one of the things that reading Percy's novels trains one to do is recognize that things are not as they seem. Contrary to the initial popular take on the movie, Saving Private Ryan does not depict the horror of war. It depicts for our aesthetic pleasure, in a century in love with death made scientific and mechanical, the glory of the horror of war; having become scientists and technicians of death, it must be rendered aesthetically pleasing to us in order that we can appreciate its glory. Spielberg managed to find a way of making each man's death much more noble, meaningful, and lovely for us through some romantic cliche, saving the little girl, destroying the machine gun nest on behalf of the GIs that will follow, hand to hand combat with the bad Nazi, stopping the tanks from crossing the bridge. The last thing he wanted any of them to do was actually die saving Private Ryan. Despite that irony, even Private Ryan only turned out to be worth saving because stoically he did not want to be saved. The glory of violence. This is the sort of movie that would bring Binx, the moviegoer, back into the darkness of the theater again and again and again to secretly enjoy. It's too hard to care for family and friends in the light of day, but William Holden or Tom Hanks is another thing entirely.

Through his very serious humor, Percy would try to remind us that it is only the death of Christ that saves Private Ryan or anyone else; but Hollywood is not interested in that, and neither are we. He might suggest that we compare daily Mass attendance at a Catholic college with attendance at a talk by Tom Hanks sponsored by the student activities board. We're more interested in the greatest story ever told.

Almost invariably, one can see the protagonists of Percy's novels as the rich young men of Athens looking for a teacher, the rich young men that Socrates was put to death for corrupting, to whom he had the audacity to say that the love of wisdom is preparation for death. Tom More in Love in the Ruins will never live the romantic life of martyrdom of his ancestor and namesake; how uncivilized in the twentieth century is the thought that one would die for the primacy of the Pope. He has no Erasmus to write to. No, the lot in life of this Tom More, and the lot of all Percy's protagonists, is captured in the marvelous little essay Bourbon: a man [who] comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there's Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb have settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?"

What Percy saw was that this man does not have to kill himself like Percy's father did. He is already dead. What Percy wants to know is whether there is a better death for him. Is there some message that can save him? And how will he know the messenger when he comes? When he asks, Teacher what must I do in order to be good, given the answer, will the rich young man follow the teacher unto a good death, or will he go away sad?

In Plato's Allegory of the Cave the prisoner is set free from his chains and compelled to leave the cave. It is as if Plato is suggesting that coming to wisdom can only take place at the violent hands of another. The prisoner in his ignorance will resist, and even kill the teacher, as he longs to return to the images and shadows on the cave wall. Philosophy professors when they relate Plato's allegory do not often meditate upon this compulsion. It seems a contradiction. How could one be compelled to freedom and wisdom? We do not teach students what to think, but only how to think. Immanuel Kant wrote that enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. To be enlightened each one of us must find our own way out of the cave.

Unfortunately for Percy's protagonists this is just what they find impossible to do. Will Barrett the scientisist, that is, the humidification engineer of The Last Gentleman, stumbles out of the basement of Macy's onto the sunny streets of New York, only to enter into amnesiac fugues, and come to himself on a hill overlooking some Civil War battleground. In the sequel, The Second Coming, as a successful car dealer in North Carolina, with a house on the fairway and miniscule handicap, he is a talented agreeable wealthy man living in as pleasant an environment as one can imagine and yet who is thinking of putting a bullet in his brain. He enters into a historic cave used by the Confederates to hide weapons. He has resolved to prove scientifically once and for all that God exists, convinced that the answer to that question must be the most important for one's life. If the answer is no, then he will leave the cave under his own power, and no longer bother again about all the religion business.

Unfortunately, the booze and anti-depressant drugs he is taking make him nauseous, and he almost dies trying to find his way back to the entrance and out of the cave. In one of the funniest scenes in a Percy novel, he falls unconscious out of an unknown and secret opening in the cave, and through the window of a greenhouse occupied by Allison, an escapee from a mental institution, who has herself lost her memory from electro-shock therapy. In Dante's words, midway upon the journey of [his] life [he] found [himself] within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Allison has left the institution, with the memorable words no more buzzin'cuzzin', as the cure has left her almost incapable of speech. The problem for Will is that his post-modern Beatrice has been buzzed by therapy into silence. But it is through his love for this confused nearly mute Allison that Barrett will find his way to salvation. Even if it is by falling through it, Percy puts humor into the clich6 that when God closes a door, he always opens a window. In the end, asking for marriage as he stares into the eyes of an old uncomprehending priest, we know that he sees in them a truth for which he will live and die. His heart leapt with a secret joy. What is it I want from her and him, he wondered, not only want but must have? Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both, her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have.

The problem for Percy's protaganists is that they have tried Kant's enlightenment and found it empty. In the darkness, they see signs and portents in all things. They need tutelage, but can find no one willing or able to provide it. And when they do, as in the case of Allison, they have been rendered mute by modern therapeutic techniques, or been marginalized like Father Smith in Love in the Ruins, who sits upon a lonely tower in the woods, looking out for sudden forest fires, and with no one to talk to. Without a teacher Percy's characters cannot tell the difference between real and illusory signs, and consequently the reader cannot tell whether they are thoroughly crazy or merely oddball. They stumble about Lost in the Cosmos, asking everyone they meet Do you have something to tell me? How should I live? What should I do? Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him. The answer to their question is always No, no, not me. I have nothing to say. You must pursue your own enlightenment wherever it takes you.

It is in the Last Gentleman that Percy achieves his greatest portrait of these wayfarers looking for a truth for which I can live and die. Here Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Waugh, O'Connor are all woven into one comic narrative of Barrett's pilgrimage. He had promised to accompany the dying boy Jamie wherever he wanted to go, but through a series of comic mishaps, he loses him at nearly every turn, only to join up with him finally at his deathbed in a hospital in the New Mexico desert. Jamie has been brought there by his death loving, suicidal but brilliant pathologist brother, Sutter, who is obsessed with Nietzsche's theme of the death of God. The death of God has made him a religious pornographer, the only honest one of the whole lot, willing to face the facts and move on from there, pursuing aesthetic, erotic, and scientific pleasures, and always on the verge of putting a bullet in his head. He knows everything there is to know about dead bodies, but can make no sense of his brother's suffering.

In the climactic scene taken right out of the death of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited with Barrett in the role of Charles Ryder, he fulfills Jamie's sister's request that a priest be called in to baptize Jamie. Here Percy presents us with one of his most beautiful images, as we see Jamie, in the figure of Christ crucified, being carried to empty his bowels before death, supported on one side by the priest, and on the other by his brother the doctor of death. But in the end it is the priest who will ferry him off to paradise, as his brother sits on the windowsill distractedly and helplessly tapping his shoe against the radiator. To Jamie's question why he should believe that Christ died for him in order that he may see God face to face and be happy with Him forever, the priest responds, if it were not true, then I would not be here. That is why I am here, to tell you. Jamie gives what at best can be called an ambiguous sign of assent, compared to Lord Marchmain's great sweeping sign of the cross, and the priest baptizes him. Son, the priest said, today I promise you that you will be with our Blessed Lord and Savior and that you will see him face to face and see his mother, Our Lady, see them as you are seeing me. Do you hear me? Then I ask you to pray to them for me and for your brother here and for your friend who loves you. At last Barrett has found someone willing to say what is true and needs to be done. The tragedy is that he misses it. In the end he goes running after the suicidal Sutter. Wait, he shouted in a dead run.

Socrates prepared for death, and indeed was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, by challenging the contemporary gods of Athens, politics, poetry, and production, in the name of a god made known to him by means of his friends through the Oracle of Delphi. Percy prepared for death by making fun of the contemporary gods of Western culture, scientism, aestheticism, eroticism, and production in the name of the God of the Cross made known to him by means of his friends in the Church. In this way, it is appropriate to say that for Percy the novelist and essayist, literature is preparation for death. If this concentration on death seems odd for some, it would be good to remember that the reason Christianity found some aspects of Greek wisdom so amenable for proclaiming the Good News was that its greatest figures had recognized that to die well was to have lived well, and to have lived well was to have prepared for a good death. As St. Ignatius Loyola said when asked what he would do if he found out that he was going to die in fifteen minutes, the same thing I have been doing. What St. Ignatius knew that neither Epictetus, Socrates, Plato, nor Aristotle knew is how the Cross of Christ transforms the meaning of a good death, and therefore the meaning of a good life. Enlightenment is not compelled, but in Christ's death and resurrection it is offered, and awaits our response. It is in the Cross of Christ that Percy found a signpost that transformed his love of the wisdom of the Greeks so dear to his forebears, into the Wisdom of the Cross so dear to the saints. He will bear the cross that is his. My epitaph for Percy would be, Walker Percy: he died well.




O'Callaghan, John. Literature as Preparation for Death. Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 13-16.

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

John O'Callaghan is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. He is a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier
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