To Seek & to Find
Signposts in a Strange Land
By Walker Percy, Edited by Patrick H. Samway
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Review Author: Joseph B. Hudson Jr.
As we used to say in that part of southern Louisiana where I was raised, let’s back up just a bit. I have neither had a drink of Early Times, nor flatfooted a shot of any other good bourbon before commencing this review. Such a starting gesture, however, would have been appropriate as a salute to the now departed Walker Percy, and to the God who graced him with his gifts. With the recent death of this unique and fruitful man, our American critical and moral landscapes have been diminished, and no ready replacement is in view.
Patrick H. Samway, S.J., has performed a salute by assembling, in Signposts in a Strange Land, some 44 of Percy’s occasional and less readily available essays, speeches, letters, and interviews. These pieces stretch from 1935, when Percy was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to May 3, 1989, when he presented the 18th Annual Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fr. Samway has grouped these pieces into three categories which, he states, reflect the basic but interrelated contours of Percy’s concerns: Life in the South; Science, Language and Literature; and Morality and Religion. This is a sensible categorization, which thematically yokes these pieces together in an ascending moral and theological progression. None of these pieces was included in Percy’s 1975 book of essays, The Message in the Bottle.
In their Introduction to the anthology Stories of the Modern South (1977), Samway and his co-editor Ben Forkner (both of whom did their graduate work at Percy’s alma mater) summarized what they considered to be the most important characteristics of Southern literature. “Most would agree,” they stated, “that the Southern cultural and literary heritage stems from an environment where states’ rights are important; where the Bible is read, memorized, and cherished; where decentralized government is seen as something valuable; where families tend to live by traditional agricultural means; where a code of honor and polite manners have been traditionally expected of everyone; where Elizabethan literature and the works of Sir Walter Scott were esteemed for decades; and where slavery and the effects of the Civil War have left a definite mark on mores and attitudes.”
Remarking upon the Southern sense of tradition and bonded attachment to one’s local community, they concluded that despite the New South’s urban sprawl, impersonal shopping malls, and high-rise office complexes, “the South is still nourished by strong folk traditions, traditions that are preserved mainly through music and language…and…especially in the act of speech.”
Focusing on the manner by which Southern language and speech simultaneously serve both as an expression of Southern community and as a primary means of creating that community, Forkner and Samway concluded that perhaps the single factor which most unites the individual histories of Southerners is a need which is particularly met by the very nature of language. It is “a need for language to delight, to give shape to experience, and to reveal meaning. What is most Southern about this and most universal as well lies in its communal foundations, in a recognition…that [each] shares the same need, and that the end of all art is a new communion” — i.e., a renewed community.
This analysis accurately describes the approach to life and experience by which Walker Percy, by virtue of his Southern upbringing, his medical education and years spent in the North, and his ultimate return to his home region, was internally impelled. These factors had coalesced and led him to the grand theme of his writings: the exploration of what he called “the search,” and his descriptions of its true and false pathways.
What is “the search,” which runs through his novelistic work and these essays? And what is its destination? Once again, let’s back up just a bit, this time to the closing pages of Percy’s novel The Moviegoer (1960), his first published work and the winner of the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction. Percy has his character Binx Bolling inform the reader, indirectly, as to what Percy intended to do about the state of 20th-century affairs. Binx Bolling says it is too late to “do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself….”
With reticence being an unacceptable option for someone urgently charged with the conveying of an important message — and having a burning inclination to say as much as possible — Percy’s actual intent concerning “the search” was straightforward: moral education, achieved through satire. Or, in Bolling’s words, edification through “planting a foot in the right place” — i.e., through “asskicking.”
Percy’s methodology was shaped by his training at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and took the form of diagnosis (“Physician as Novelist,” 1989; “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” 1985). He saw satire as the only path with a chance of successfully traversing the modern rubble and minefield of debased language and loss of common values. As he stated in his essay “Novel-Writing in An Apocalyptic Time” (1986): “In such times as these, a time of pollution and corruption of meaning, it is no wonder that the posture the novelist often finds natural is that of derision, mockery, subversion, and assault — to mock and subvert the words and symbols of the day in order that new words come into being or that old words be freshly minted — to assault the benumbed sensibility of the poor media consumer, because anything other than assault and satire can only be understood as a confirmation of the current corrupted meanings of such honorable old words as love, truth, beauty, brotherhood of man, life, and so on. There may be times when the greatest service a novelist can do his fellow man is to follow General Patton’s injunction: Attack, attack, attack. Attack the fake in the name of the real.”
In his essay “How to be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic” (1984), Percy succinctly made the same point in another way, emphasizing the moral and constructive ends of satirical attack: “[The] natural mission [of the Southern novelist] in this place and these times is…to attack, that is to say, satirize. Don’t forget that satire is not primarily destructive. It attacks one thing in order to affirm another…. It ridicules the inhuman in order to affirm the human. Satire is always launched in the mode of hope.”
And attack and satirize he did. After 1960 Percy, like his alter ego Dr. Thomas More in Love in the Ruins (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), strode into the modern Pit and forcefully commenced the presentation of his diagnosis and his uproariously funny “asskicking” of our modern, dislocated society and our hopelessly self-infatuated and nearly hopelessly lost modern man. The latter, although he does not know it, must be all dispossessed of “all manner of demonic hatred and terrors and lusts and envies,” and must rise up from his cripple’s bed of narcissism, despair, and falsely elating self-absorptions, and go in search of his soul.
It was in this way that “the search” was played out in Percy’s novels and essays. Its three component themes were: (1) the vertical search for the relationship between man and ultimate Reality, (2) the horizontal search for the understanding of the Reality of man with his neighbor, and (3) the reconciliation of man with the Reality of his very self, placed squarely at the intersection of the axes of the vertical search and the horizontal search. But, as Percy would have said, there’s a hitch. One must start “the search.” Alas, most do not.
What is the primary obstacle to beginning the search? It can be called many things: anomie, acedia, and what Percy himself calls Alltaeglichkeit, or “everydayness.” This state of spiritual indifference or anesthesia is the natural result of that rationalism and scientific humanism which have taught man that the only thing that matters is matter, and that the only appropriate ends of life are material acquisition, power, and individual triumph.
But how, if the search is to begin, does one rupture this everydayness? Percy’s answer, consistently given throughout his novels and these essays, is that for most people it takes the form of a moment of extreme shock or violent disruption — e.g., the shock of infidelity, bodily outrage, or dislocating trauma: An American serviceman is shot through the shoulder in 1951 in Korea; a man falls down in a sand trap on a golf course, his face pressed and crunched against the gravel, which he sees clearly as though for the first time; a bullet ricochets into a suburban garage, and the owner dives and takes rolling cover underneath his expensive car. In Lancelot, having discovered a proof of the sinfulness of his wife, the hero Lancelot Andrewes Lamar walks into a dark room and sees his own image reflected in a dark and antiqued mirror, and sees the image of a stranger. Although these moments may also take place through sudden aesthetic insight or by the action of grace, Percy’s point is that it is precisely at these moments when the dull round of everyday affairs is broken that the unique and miraculous nature of the Creation is startlingly and self-evidently made apparent, that one stands at the intersection of Kairos and Chronos, of sacramental time and of ordinary time, and that one is allowed by grace to grasp the central mystery of the gift, privilege, and nature of life.
Once having grasped the sacred nature of Being, one immediately drinks from the old well-spring of natural theology. By one path or another, this is where “the search” leads all of Percy’s narratives. The drinking, however, is not done from any sacred Wagnerian Grail, but from the humbler dipper of doctrinal orthodoxy. The corollaries for truthful living follow. Gnostic/dualist ideas of life as being a heroic adventure for an elite few who victoriously trample their fellow creatures are exposed as false — so also, all ideas of life as being something solely pragmatic and material, with no teleological hope deriving from an extra-material source. One sees the end of the search, rather, as being a sacramentally informed life with one’s God and one’s neighbor, lived with everyday thankfulness for the great miracle of Being. Having once truly grasped the meaning of the title of the final essay of Signposts in a Strange Land (“The Holiness of the Ordinary,” 1989), one learns to live with and to cherish “the extraordinary ordinary.” All else — ethics, politics, personal relations — flows outward from that central point.
In the end, as Doc Percy states in his essay “New Orleans Mon Amour” (1968), the triumphant goal of life is not the extraordinary moment of the rare Great Deed — as when Lancelot Andrewes Lamar returns a kickoff 110 yards against the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama — but the “Little Way” as taught by St. Theresa of Lisieux, the way of modesty, humility, and performing everyday duties with love and thankfulness. The hero who finally emerges is in the unlikely image of the self-effacing servant, such as, in Lancelot, the wonderfully named Royal Bonderman Lamar, who humbly carries the water buckets and the towels for Lancelot and his fellow knights of the gridiron, but to whom is given the prize, years later, of a productive, prosperous, and love-filled life.
The sons of Adam, although expelled from Eden, remain the caretakers of the Creation. Doc, rest easy in Elysian Fields. You presented us with no bill; we could not repay the debt in any case. Each of us, however, should return the favor to God and to each other.
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