Canary in the Coal Shaft
August 18, 2014

Walker Percy died in 1990, but his six published novels and his collections of essays are more relevant than when he wrote them.

Percy was an American Dostoevsky, and that was no accident.  “The European novels,” he says in a 1974 interview, “are more philosophical, more novels of ideas.”  Dostoevsky, he noted, “would be inspired to write a novel because of some incident or newspaper story that made him mad or got him excited and he would set out to write a tract, something ideological.”  Sometimes, the influence of writers like Dostoevsky is explicit: The final scene of The Moviegoer is reminiscent of the end of the Brothers Karamazov, and his fictional worlds are populated by (sometimes literal) underground men.

Following those models, Percy acknowledged that he saw his novels not as pure art objections but as interventions in the world.  He wrote as a “polemicist and moralist,” and often his novels arose from “malice and disagreement,” an itch to fight.  He put characters in concrete situations to see what they would do, but the actions and events of the novel were a means for communicating a point of view.

What roused Percy’s malice most often was the ennui of modern life.  In the lead essay in his collection, Message in a Bottle, he explores the paradox of men existing in perfect comfort, every need fulfilled, yet deeply unhappy, violent, and overshadowed by inexplicable malaise.  How can that happen?

Trained as a medical doctor, Percy pointed an accusing finger at the scientific worldview.  Science claims to explain everything, but cannot account for the peculiarities of individual life.  It leaves out what is nearest and most interesting to us; it leaves out life.  Pressured by scientism, we live “dyadic” lives, split between individual life and the mechanistic universe outside.  We are, as the title of another essay collection has it, “lost in the cosmos.”

The worst of it, though, is that all our comforts keep us from recognizing just how desperate our situation is.  Before we can be healed, we need to admit our sickness, and that required shock therapy.  Percy tried to provoke a “shock of recognition” in the reader: “That’s me. I’ve felt like that. I’m not the only one.”  On the surface, Percy’s novels resemble the existentialist “novels of alienation” from the mid-twentieth century.  But that’s just the surface.  Percy believed that “novel of alienation” was a contradiction: A novel is a communication, and if there is communication then alienation is already overcome.

Though any novel overcomes alienation to some degree, Percy wanted more.  The novelist, he said, is “in league with the individual, with his need to have himself confirmed in his predicament. It is the artist who at his best reverses the alienating process by the very act of seeing it clearly for what it is and naming it, and who in this same act establishes a kind of community.”

Science is one culprit; religion is another.  Deeply impressed with Kierkegaard’s critique of Christendom, Percy, a devout Roman Catholic, believed that Christianity had failed modern man in multiple ways.  The church compromised with tyranny, and has sometimes been tyrannical herself.  The Christian view of sex has collapsed, and with it the Christian view of personhood, and the church hasn’t been able to make a convincing case for its stringent sexual ethics.  Jesus has been trivialized (in Love in the Ruins, a banner for a Christian Pro-Am Golf Tournament proclaims, “Jesus Christ: Greatest Pro of them All”).  And, in the United States especially, racial hatred has been promoted or winked at by Christians.

As a result of the church’s failure, modern people, especially in the US, have turned to alternatives. Again drawing on Kierkegaard, Percy described one alternative as “rotation,” the lust for the new just because it is new.  Perpetual travel, promiscuity, shopping, fad-mongering are different forms of the same quest, the desperate search for that finally satisfying something that may be just around the next bend, or in the next bed.

These are all evasions that lead not to healing but to amnesia and escapism.  Still, Percy finds something hopeful in rotation.  For Binx Bolling, the protagonist of The Moviegoer, the endless round of novelty shows that at least he is dissastisfied with what and where he is, and dissatisfaction can be the beginning of a way out.

Most of Percy’s novels satirize the despair and malaise of modern life, but the satire always hints at a path of redemption.  This rarely takes an explicitly religious form.  Citing Joyce as an example of novelistic “cunning and guile,” Percy explained why he avoided traditional religious categories in his novels: “In my view the language of religion, the very words themselves, are almost bankrupt. If you are writing a technical article on philosophy you can use the correct word for the correct meaning. But writing a novel is something different. In my view you have to be wary of using words like ‘religion,’ ‘God,’ ‘sin,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘baptism’ because the words are almost warn out. The themes have to be implicit rather than explicit.”  Like his fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor, Percy wanted to recover the strangeness and shock of grace.

Again Kierkegaard provided some of the framework.  For Kierkegaard, people living in an aesthetic mode live only for pleasure in art, music, sex; the aesthete (which includes most philosophers and theologians) regards the world from the outside, viewing the pageant of life as a spectacle.  Ethical life moves beyond the aesthetic.  Ethical sees that he has a duty to others, and a duty to the moral law.  In Percy, the ethical life takes the form of Southern stoicism, stern taciturn submission to duty, regardless.

But the religious life is the highest plane.  The religious man submits to the universal ethical law that says “everyone must do X.”  But the religious man also sees himself as a unique person, which is possible only if one is transparent before God.  Because he sees his uniqueness, the religious man is able to break when necessary from the universal norm.  He does so with fear and trembling, but this fear and trembling is the discovery of the self, a prelude to the fear that is the beginning of wisdom.  Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is Kierkegaard’s supreme example of the religious sensibility, since Abraham is called to break radically from universal norm in order to do God’s will.

Percy’s characters typically exist on either the aesthetic or the ethical plane, and the personal drama, the growth of the protagonist, is a growth from the aesthetic to the religious.  Conversions are subtle, but they are there.  A character in the grip of malaise begins to recognize his condition, and to recognize he is a pilgrim, or a knight on a quest.  The quest always involves suffering.  Comforts have to be stripped away so that people can feel life raw.  Through ordeal and trial, the character breaks the cycle of rotation and begins to see the world anew.  In interviews, Percy often referred to the incident in War and Peace where Prince Andrei lies wounded on the battlefield and begins really to see the clouds for the first time.  Through ordeal, characters who are lost in the cosmos can find their way home.

Percy regarded novel-writing as prophecy.  The novelist is a Jonah, “who finds himself stuck with the unpleasant assignment of pointing out to his fellow citizens that something is wrong, that they are on the wrong track.”  Yet, that image doesn’t quite capture the modesty of his goals.  In one of his essays, Percy writes, “the Novelist is less like a prophet than he is like the canary coal miners used to take down the shaft to test the air. When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over.”

Nearly twenty years after his death, Percy continues to sputter and gasp for breath.  His voice is worth listening to, if we want to pull ourselves out from the darkness underground and begin to breathe.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. This essay was first published in Credenda/Agenda in 2009.

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