Walker Percy’s Christian Existentialism
Among American novelists of the second half of the 20th century, Walker Percy has chosen an especially difficult terrain to work, to explore. He is no casual storyteller, no Dixie romancer who wants to spin smart, lively yarns. He is a physician and a conscientious, erudite student of philosophy, who has known life’s down side (when he was 12 his lawyer father committed suicide, and when he was in his middle 20s he became seriously ill with tuberculosis). He is also a man much interested in religious matters. At 30 he converted to Roman Catholicism, and he is known to show up in the Catholic church in Covington, Louisiana, north of New Orleans, where he lives, and sit there meditating and praying — on a weekend morning when no one else is there, the priest included. His novels are meant to be not only entertaining and funny (and they are) but serious examinations of our contemporary, American bourgeois life — a risky venture, because an intellectual and ethical ambitiousness of purpose can all too easily weigh down badly a particular effort, turn it into a thinly disguised textbook, full of assertiveness rather than the delicate suggestiveness a good novel offers.
The great success of Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, was in part a consequence of a certain stubborn determination on his part — a refusal to become authoritative and demanding, the familiar posture of the secular expert, so often trained in some social science, who wants to take over the stage, mesmerize the audience with a lot of postulates and pronouncements, and be declared a (passing) guru. Rather, The Moviegoer is a restrained, even wary evocation of our contemporary, American, secular, upper-middle class situation — the nature of this life many of us live, with all its mysteries, confusions, uncertainties. Percy knows that we are the creature who uses language, whose distinctive glory (and tragedy) is consciousness, who asks in all sorts of ways those utterly rock-bottom existential questions — as in the Gauguin triptych: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? But Percy the novelist doesn’t aim to give us a pedantic or precise answer to such a line of inquiry — a series of psychological or sociological formulations, say, to which we would all eagerly and compliantly give our assent. In every one of his five novels the narrative voice is the same, a wryly amused spectator who misses little with respect to the hypocrisies, banalities, and plain stupidities that pass for contemporary “relevance” — the self-help books, the self-preoccupation of an affluent intelligentsia, or yuppiedom, “the great suck of the self,” as he puts it at one point.
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