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Attempting to Discredit Walker Percy

Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist

By Kieran Quinlan

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 242

Price: $35

Review Author: Caroline A. Langston

Caroline A. Langston teaches at Rose Hill College in Aiken, South Carolina.

From the subtitle alone — The Last Catholic Novelist — it’s fairly clear what Meran Quinlan’s attitude toward his subject is going to be.

In his Introduction Quinlan sets forth his thesis: “The present study is concerned with the validity or otherwise of the religious, social, and scientific views [Percy] himself held and so consistently argued for in essay after essay and novel after novel. These views were grounded not merely in Roman Catholicism as such, but specifically, in the kind of Catholicism that Percy embraced in the late 1940s.” Quinlan moves chronologically through Percy’s essays and novels to construct a picture of Percy’s emerging and, in Quinlan’s view, hardening Catholicism. Then, once the analysis shifts from the texts to Percy’s own faith, Quinlan’s strategy is to cast doubt on the premises of that belief — to illustrate, in effect, just what are the terms of the “outworn creed” that renders Percy, in Quinlan’s view, the “last Catholic novelist.”

As such, Quinlan marshals an amazing array of references in order to “interpret” Percy’s views and the cultural milieux from which they sprang. The resulting text is a freewheeling, associative spiral through science, literary theory, philosophy, and both high and pop culture. Ultimately, Quinlan’s highly subjective method tells one as much about Quinlan’s own consciousness as it does Percy’s.

Quinlan himself makes his subjectivity explicit: “The reader of the present volume may legitimately wonder what this critic’s stance is…. My background has been in philosophy and theology in a Roman Catholic setting, subsequently in the British and American analytic tradition, and later still in literature. My convictions now, however, are perhaps best reflected in David Lodge’s comment on his own present religious perspective as ‘demythologized, provisional, and in many ways [theologically] agnostic.'” Quinlan’s statement is significant in that it foreshadows two of the means whereby he will seek to make his argument: through appeals to academic status and to nontraditional Catholics whose views Quinlan approves of.

Quinlan’s subjectivity and his intent to discredit Percy’s ideas distract us, in the end, from the work’s more basic and reasonable claims. Like Jay Tolson’s Pilgrim in the Ruins and Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family, both works from which Quinlan draws extensively, The Last Catholic Novelist develops the Stoical attitudes William Alexander Percy impressed upon his nephew, but also questions the lingering effect of the elder Percy’s abandoned Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, Quinlan views Percy’s conversion from a psychological context, diagnosing a “striking need for an authoritative source of religious and moral guidance in [his] life” in the wake of his disillusionment with both Southern Stoicism and scientism. Such a view is tenable, even for those who, like Percy, are Christian believers: Since God is personal, then surely the myriad particulars of an individual’s life condition the manner in which he comes to accept Revelation. Quinlan’s analysis helps establish the conditions of Percy’s world that encouraged him to become a Christian. It’s just that Quinlan’s view is so sterile and reductive.

Partially convincing as well are Quinlan’s points regarding the greater influence of Neo-Thomism on Percy’s thought, rather than the existentialism that has been the focus of several studies. Quinlan carefully develops a portrait of the chief figures and atmosphere of the Catholic Renaissance of the 1940s, including such luminaries as Maritain and Guardini.

Nonetheless, Quinlan takes a highly historicist view of the movement. “The emphasis placed here on the unchanging nature of an ahistorical Church dogma is remarkable,” he exclaims at one point. “It is an emphasis that will be called into question in subsequent decades even among Catholic theologians” [my emphasis], he adds. True perhaps, but throughout the rest of the work Quinlan assumes a condescending posture toward those he views as “ultraorthodox,” whose ideas he assumes are discredited merely because they are “behind the times.”

As Quinlan proceeds through the 1960s and 1970s, analyzing such works as The Last Gentleman and The Message in the Bottle, it’s not his criticism of Percy’s fiction or linguistic theory that in itself gives pause, it’s his tiresome, question-begging assumptions. At one point, Quinlan compares his problems reading Percy by again citing a statement of David Lodge, this time about his difficulties in reading Graham Greene, whose givens “are often based on Catholic dogma and belief, on such assumptions as that there is such a thing as ‘mortal sin,’ that Christ is ‘really and truly’ present in the Eucharist, that miracles can occur in the twentieth century.”

Scattered throughout The Last Catholic Novelist are references, for example, to the “dubious validity of the Catholic church’s statements.” Quinlan also sees no problems in a claim such as this: “the kind of philosophical closure that Walker Percy desired — and that was still available in the 1940s — is no longer viable….” The text is also peppered with allusions to thinkers whom Quinlan does trust: Richard Dawkins on evolution, the philosophy of ex-Jesuit Antony Kenny, the critical theory of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

Indeed, with respect to Percy’s views on deconstruction, Quinlan claims that Percy, “like many other intellectuals of a traditional public mode, was not particularly well-informed about the new movement and tended simply to isolate its apparent contradictions for easy ridicule.” Elsewhere Quinlan points out those intellectuals with whom he links Percy theologically: Witham F. Buckley, Michael Novak, and Malcolm Muggeridge. From the tone he uses to describe these figures, it’s clear Quinlan doesn’t think they’re quite up to snuff, unlike, presumably, Foucault and Derrida, and the persistent Mr. Lodge.

In fact, while Quinlan claims that Percy is limited by the supposed “Catholicism of the 1940s,” in his embrace of critical theory and ecclesiastical “progress,” Quinlan is certainly limited by time and place. He’s a 1980s kind of guy who inhabits a literary/ theoretical critical universe bounded only by play and possibility. But the 1991 publication of David Lehman’s landmark Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man has served as a turning point in the literary culture wars, after which the voices of “progressives” grew ever more shrill, and traditionalists, now validated, became more mobilized. Nevertheless, Quinlan maintains his naively excited, almost intoxicated tone. It is unthinkable, in 1997, that even a progressive academic could so easily utter a statement as assumption-laden as the following: “Because the notion of an ‘absolute’ truth has been shown to be itself culturally and historically bound, it is unlikely that there can be any more ‘Catholic’ novelists….” Clearly, Quinlan has put himself in the fallacious position of making an absolute statement in favor of relativism.

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