Walker Percy chose fiction to illuminate his faith in Christianity, discontent with Christendom Novelist as philosopher
WALKER Percy is one Southern novelist who managed, very early, to get out from under the influence of William Faulkner. In writing his placement essay for the University of North Carolina, he imitated Faulkner's style in ``The Sound and the Fury,'' with the result that he found himself in a remedial freshman English class. Years later, when Percy began writing seriously, he bypassed Faulkner, and most other American writers, taking as his first models the European existentialists. That influence has stayed with Percy throughout his career. Although he was born in Alabama, spent his youth in Mississippi, and has lived most of his adult life in Louisiana, and although his fiction is set primarily in the South, Percy is anything but a regional novelist. He is, in fact, the closest thing to a philosopher-novelist his generation of American writers has produced. Not only are his novels motivated by his profound commitment to Christian existentialism, but his numerous philosophical essays, published in respected academic journals, have won him considerable standing in professional philosophical circles. Moreover, Percy has always insisted that his essays, many of which deal with the relationship between language and being, are at least as important as his novels.
This philosopher-novelist started out as neither philosopher nor novelist, but as a scientist. At North Carolina, where he majored in chemistry, Percy took a degree in premed and went on to the Columbia School of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, earning the MD in 1941. A trained pathologist, Percy was initially enamored of the elegance and simplicity of the clinical view of man. In 1942, he became seriously ill and underwent a radical shift in perspective. As Kierkegaard had said of Hegel, Percy found that science ``explained everything under the sun, except one small detail: what it means to be a man living in the world who must die.'' Thus Percy was plunged into an intellectual and moral crisis out of which he emerged a philosopher and a novelist.
The process was a long one, beginning with several years of enforced convalescence during which he read extensively those thinkers concerned with the predicament of modern man -- Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Marcel. Toward the end of his period of recovery he also began to read Maritain and Aquinas, whose ``Summa Theologica'' provided a broad Christian framework for the ideas that had appealed to him in his earlier reading. Immediately after his convalescence, Percy made a series of radical decisions: He married, converted to Roman Catholicism, and committed himself to a life of writing.
The kind of writer Percy has become clearly owes more than a little to his interest in philosophical systems, specifically to the Christian existentialism that he professes and that he sees as an answer to the limitations of the scientific humanism his own experience caused him to reject. At least in his novels, however, Percy's quarrel with science is more Christian than existentialist, informed mainly by the view that scientific humanism ignores the principal theme of Christian faith: that a man's most important business is salvation.
This vision gives Percy's fiction a depth that distinguishes the best of his work from that of his contemporaries. Percy the novelist is always dramatizing the ideas of Percy the philosopher. The result is a kind of fiction that is, at its best, more morally and intellectually provocative than the ordinary run of contemporary American fiction, but that is also, at its worst, less convincing, less aesthetically pleasing, less artful.
The very structure of Percy's novels, always dialectics, is meant to illustrate the superiority of the Christian ideal by opposing it to one of its alternatives. ``The Moviegoer,'' his first published novel (which won the National Book Award for 1962), is more than the story of an extremely likable, ironic, alienated young man living out an existential crisis in a suburb of New Orleans. At the center of the novel is a dialogue between the so-called Christian view of man, represented by the simple-minded Catholicism of Binx Bolling's mother's family, and the stoic, connected to the Old South's aristocratic veneration of honor for its own sake, embodied in Binx's Aunt Emily. The ending of this novel may be ambiguous, but it is at least quite clear that Binx finally rejects his Aunt Emily's values.
In Percy's second novel, ``The Last Gentleman,'' the dialectic takes the form of a struggle between a brother and a sister -- Sutter, an atheistic pornographer, and Val, a Roman Catholic nun -- over the soul, or mind, of their dying brother, Jamie. The novel ends with Jamie's deathbed conversion, which is witnessed by the protagonist, Will Barret, who has been employed as Jamie's companion. Will, as Percy has said, ``misses it.'' But it is the reader, not Will or Jamie, who is Percy's target. It is of the reader that the priest asks, ``Do you accept the truth that God exists and that He made you and loves you and that He made the world so that you might enjoy its beauty . . . ?''
Sutter's thoroughgoing sexual promiscuity -- like that of many of Percy's characters -- represents a perversion of love, and love is one of Percy's major themes. He takes the uncompromising Christian line that human love is a reflection, an anticipation, of divine love, a means for man to know and understand God's love for him. Intention to marry is the only excuse for premarital sex that Percy condones. The contemporary, essentially humanistic notion of love, or sex, as an end in itself Percy sees as a false god worshiped by modern man. The conflict between love of woman and love of God -- sex and religion, human love and divine love, human desire and divine desire -- is one that most of Percy's protagonists undergo, one resolved most effectively at the end of ``The Second Coming,'' Percy's last novel, when a much older Will Barret (Will Bear It) realizes that Allison is a gift, and therefore a sign of a giver. ``Am I crazy to want both, her and Him?'' he asks. ``No, not want, must have. And will have.''
From ``The Last Gentleman'' on, Percy is increasingly preoccupied with the gap that he perceives between orthodox Christianity -- the set of doctrines and ideals that offer a way of living and a concept of eternity -- and Christendom, the geographical realm occupied primarily by Christians, that has corrupted or perverted those ideals. As did Kierkegaard, Percy sees Christendom as having fallen from Christianity. This accounts for the fact, often misunderstood, that so many of his objects of satire are religious figures and institutions: the well-fed priest who preaches to his well-dressed congregation about investments on Property Rights Sunday in ``Love in the Ruins''; the Episcopal minister in ``The Second Coming'' who wears jump suits and eagerly works to establish communities built on the ``caring and sharing'' clich'e that has, unfortunately, gained such currency in our times, but is uncomfortable with any talk of God; the defrocked priest who operates the ``orgasm machine'' in the Love Clinic, where much of ``Love in the Ruins'' is set.
The casebook Sutter keeps, in ``The Last Gentleman,'' to record his evidence against Christianity bears this entry: ``Moderately obese young colored female, circa 13 . . . Cops report subject discovered in basement toilet of Emmanuel Baptist Church following explosion. Church tower fell on her.'' This image, in the hands of a writer like Samuel Beckett, might be an example of black or absurdist humor. But Percy is dead serious here -- as he always is, even when writing in a comic vein -- about so much of Christendom's utter failure to an entire race of people.
Humor, in Percy's work, is always in the service of satire and of a serious moral vision. The targets of his humor and irony -- and he is very much a comic writer -- are all manifestations of the contemporary humanistic view that he deplores; in effect, his argument for Christianity is made in part by exposing the faults and absurdities of Christendom.
The satirical dimension of Percy's novels raises a larger question about his work. In the most recent study of Percy's writings, ``Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age,'' by Patricia Lewis Poteat (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 177 pp., $20), the author considers whether Percy's philosophical essays or his novels constitute the most effective means to convey his vision of contemporary man. But the book does not address the more interesting question of whether Percy's fiction (which Ms. Poteat finds superior to the essays), for all that it gains because of his philosophical interests, is not finally marred by those same interests. It may be impossible to answer this question definitively, but there is no doubt that Percy's work suffers from his compulsion to convert his readers: The same point is made again and again; characterization is subordinated to the need to dramatize types; and a good deal of dialogue, in the service of argument, is improbable.
However we might finally judge the artistic merit of Percy's fiction, it is clear that Percy himself sees no conflict between his mission as a Christian and his profession as a contemporary novelist. To Percy, as he once said, the Christian view of man as pilgrim, ``in transit, in journey, is very compatible with the vocation of a novelist, because a novelist is writing about man in transit, man as pilgrim.''
Jane Ann Mullen is a short story writer living in Oxford, Miss.