HARVARD DIARY
Remembering Walker Percy

May 1992By Robert Coles



I write these words as the second anni­versary of Walker Percy’s death approaches, and as my mind still lives intensely with its memories of him, not to mention his six novels, his two books of philosophical reflec­tion, his random essays and interviews — a late 20th-century American with a very special mind, heart, soul. Indeed, many of us came to regard him as a gift of sorts, a messenger, ev­en, from on high: someone graced with a wisdom that was extraordinary; someone, so we sometimes reminded ourselves, given spe­cial abilities by the Lord.

I first met Dr. Percy (he was a physician in early life) through some of his essays, espe­cially “The Man on the Train,” which appear­ed in Partisan Review during the middle 1950s, when I was learning to be a psychiatrist. I read that essay many times; it connected with my life — the relatively affluent self-preoccu­pation and moral drift evoked: plenty of osten­sible success, but no real purpose in life other than going through the usual rounds, so to speak, meaning a compliance with every norm and convention around. At that time, and later, when I was stationed in Biloxi, Missis­sippi, and working at an Air Force psychiatric hospital (all of us had to give two years to the military under the old doctors’ draft law), I went to the movies a lot. While in the Air Force I went to New Orleans many times, attended medical and psychoanalytic confer­ences, visited various fine restaurants, and always took in a movie, or two, or three — to the point that when I started being psychoanalyzed in New Orleans (I decided to stay there after I left the Air Force, and study school desegregation: a whole new life, of course) my analyst called me, jokingly, but of course with some interest in my motives, “an apparently compulsive moviegoer.”

No wonder, then, that I was stunned one day to see a novel on display in a New Or­leans bookstore titled The Moviegoer — a book I quickly bought and eagerly, even hungrily, read, and a book that would become a com­panion of sorts to me for the rest of my life. I have read it through several times; I go back to certain passages in it constantly. I urge it upon my college students, my medical students, and others I teach elsewhere in the university. I would go on to be a committed fan of Dr. Percy’s writing — always on the lookout for his articles, always ready to cele­brate the publication of one of his novels, or a book of essays. Eventually, like in a story, the young admiring reader got to do some occa­sional writing of his own, and one day, when an editor of a magazine for which he was working asked whether there were any “spe­cial interests” that might become, in time, “magazine pieces,” the writer (his heart beat­ing fast, and a gulp in his voice) mentioned a name: Walker Percy — and connected it to the word “profile.” Several years later The New Yorker published a long (two-part) profile of Walker Percy under the title of “The Search” (as in the old existentialist search for meaning in life).

To do that writing meant to get to meet Walker Percy, and (the greatest luck possible) to become friends with him. So it is that I am writing these words now not to offer an exegesis of his extremely important novels and books of philosophical rumination or specula­tion, nor to give a chronicle of his achieve­ments, a sort of late obituary to a wonderful life. Rather, I am sitting at my desk and remembering a very special person, and concen­trating on the very special message he had for late 20th-century American secularists, whose measure he had taken ever so well. “I tell you,” he once remarked to me, “the crazy thing about a lot of us in this here and now is that we sure as hell know how crazy a lot of others are, but we’re not on to how deaf, dumb, and blind we can be to ourselves, about ourselves — how lost we sometimes are, no matter how clever we think we’ve become.” Pure Percy — we’d been sitting and talking about schisms in religious institutions, schisms in psychoanalytic institutions, schisms in uni­versities, in various professional associations, and finally we turned away, in relief, to the great music of Benny Goodman, and then Glenn Miller, and then Ella Fitzgerald, and then Billie Holiday, all heard to the accompa­niment of some good sipping bourbon — and suddenly, in the midst of all that, such a comment, the speaker tilting his head a bit, scratching his head a bit, then lifting his head back, to accommodate another swig.


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