In the early 1970s, the Catholic novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) wrote an introduction to a manual for Louisiana State University’s mental-health services, where he was then teaching a course on “the novel of alienation.” In what is possibly the most learned and humane of such introductions — usually prime examples of bureaucratic boilerplate — Percy cut to the heart of what separates human beings from the animals: “Chickens have no myths, but man always knows or thinks he knows what is under the earth and above the earth and what is holding the earth up.
Since the Enlightenment, man knows, or believes he knows, about the world around him through rationalism, an application of certain logical thought processes to facts in a particular method that can be described and replicated. But in considering the most complex beings — ourselves — Percy argued that rationalism, or its practical applications in scientific disciplines, is not enough. We must resort to narratives, to stories that try to explain us to ourselves. Crucially, narratives are not monologues; instead, they emerge form conversation among separate persons. Percy argued that we moderns have lost something in our storytelling; in the language of existentialist philosophy, we have become alienated from ourselves.
Percy seems an unlikely existentialist. He was born of an old and respected Southern family, but one with a dark history — both his father and grandfather killed themselves. After his mother died in 1931, his father already dead, Percy’s Uncle “Will,” William Alexander Percy, took Percy and his two brothers into his home in Greenville, Mississippi. The young Walker trained as a doctor at Columbia University until a bout with tuberculosis caused him to rethink his medical career. After a stint in a sanatorium in upstate New York to recover, Percy returned to the South and left his medical career behind for a literary one.
The modern spiritual condition of man interested him more than the medical condition, though he saw a connection between them through specialties like psychotherapy — using medical means to explore what may ultimately be a spiritual end. Through an intense engagement with certain existentialist thinkers, in particular Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel, Percy concluded that, as the writer Paul Elie has noted, the modern novel could be a tool of diagnosis and treatment for the modern condition of alienation.
Percy’s life and work illustrate three significant currents of American intellectual life. First, as mentioned above, he was a keen student of existentialist writing. Second, there was the Southern literary heritage, represented most significantly by the ever-present example of William Faulkner, whom he and his childhood friend, the writer Shelby Foote, once went to visit. Percy’s own family provided examples: Uncle Will’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941) remains a minor classic. Southern writing represented the tragic history of a region, whose past glories and genteel traditions could not be separated from the inalienable blot of slavery. Percy thought this complex history provided an appreciation of the human condition that had been forgotten elsewhere in the country, especially when reflected in a melting-pot of cultures such as New Orleans, where Percy set some of his work. His Southerners are not the striking figures present, say, in the work of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Rather, they represent, like the protagonist of his Lancelot (1977), average men confronted with the dissolution of certainty and the confrontation with themselves or with others.
Finally, and most importantly, Percy was a participant in the remarkable efflorescence of Catholic writing in America during this period. Beginning in the 1930s, but exploding following the Second World War, the American Catholic writer came into his (and her) own. O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Allan Tate, and Caroline Gordon, among others, contributed some of their best writing in these decades; figures like Dorothy Day, the publisher Robert Giroux, and theologians like the late Avery Cardinal Dulles were becoming influential. For a time, it seemed like Catholicism would supplant main-line Protestantism as an American civil religion.
The Catholic writers of this period engaged the modern world through the eyes of faith, though sometimes those eyes were themselves bleary from the trials of modernity. Percy took a different path. While his viewpoint is unmistakably Catholic, his interest in psychotherapy and linguistic theory sets him apart. The condition of alienation is not the same as sin; it is, in some sense, below sin: For Percy, like Nietzsche’s assessment that we moderns have moved beyond good and evil, we are so divorced from our true selves that while we do not know we are doing evil, we also cannot understand the good.
Unlike Nietzsche, however, Percy was consciously trying to reimagine the role of a Christian novelist in a post-Christian (or, as he writes in the opening of one of his books, “Christ-haunted”) world in order to bring us back to ourselves. This was not easy. “The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are bloody sick of the old house and everything in it.” The old narratives, in other words, may not work. We are not simply Lockean individualist atoms asserting rights, or mere physical beings tossed about by our environment. But nor are we simply ciphers for abstract “natural laws.” Rather, as authors like Marcel wrote in the 1940s and 1950s, there is an irreducible personal core that cannot be generalized, either politically or philosophically. In his novels, Percy sought to express that personalist vision.
Thus his lifelong interest in the philosophy of language and the mystery of speech. Percy locates the importance of language in its ability to name a thing, which is different from the other physical process of uttering sounds, and indeed which cannot be captured by merely explaining what happens, physiologically, in the production of sounds that are understood by another. So, for example, the sounds one makes to utter the word “water” can be described physically, but that is not the same as the experience of recognizing that the liquid flowing in a stream is water, and that that experience can be shared with another through the word itself.
In “The Mystery of Language,” Percy calls speech a “mode of existence”; it explains the kind of thing man is. This unique quality of language-use is not recognized through objective scientific methods, which must reduce it to some physical process or analogize it to animal communications. For Percy, this is not enough; understanding what language really is “means the shattering of how the old dream of the Enlightenment — that an objective-explanatory-causal science can discover and set forth all the knowledge of which man is capable. The dream is drawing to a close. The existentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the sciences of man.”
Percy’s insight in the 1960s and 1970s is now being confirmed by recent neuroscience and language research, which shows that how we understand reality is shaped by how we communicate that understanding through the language we use.
Which brings us back to those chickens and their lack of myths. Percy used this example to explain how it was that therapy — one person speaking with another person — was different from, and could not be made the same as, objective science. “The relationship, therefore, of the psychotherapist and his patient is not primarily that of a scientist confronted by an organism that he seeks to manipulate by this or that technique, but rather that is two human beings inhabiting a world and whose fate it is to understand or misunderstand each other.” Percy, who returned often to the therapist-patient relationship in his fiction and essays, often compared it to the role of a priest-confessor. Lancelot, for example, is structured as a monologue, in which the main character explains the acts that lead him to commit a terrible crime. But not quite a monologue, not quite the modern narcissism of self, for there in the room with the prisoner is the priest, listening to the entire harangue.
But the problem for the modern world arises if its wager that rationalism can explain human nature is proven wrong: What happens if therapy is not enough to diagnose and cure modern malaise? Therapy, after all, is not religious faith, and the priest does not serve the same function as the therapist. In this sense, Percy’s work is perhaps more important now than ever. We live in a therapeutic culture, where every pathology has a (usually medical and, increasingly, pharmaceutical or technological) “solution,” and the therapist has become the unofficial arbiter of society. Yet, according to Percy, we continue to misunderstand what kind of being man is, and so never get our diagnosis just right. We remain alienated from the truth about ourselves and the world. These themes were combined in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome, in which a chemical (deliberately administered by the enlightened elites) is making a town’s inhabitants crazy, yet the scientific method cannot understand — cannot name — the affliction.
The Moviegoer combines all these themes. The book traces the search of a young Louisiana stock broker named Binx Bolling, whose comfortable life is not enough for him. Moreover, Bolling understands, at some level, that it is not enough, but he cannot quite figure out what is. Bolling’s family provides the contrasts: His mother’s family, who is Catholic, prays for Bolling to have faith; while his father’s family, who is sort of Southern Stoic, “think[s] that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it.” Bolling is stuck between them: “I don’t know what either of them are talking about.” Percy had developed and adapted a range of terms to describe alternatives available to someone who wanted to leave or address the modern alienated state. Bolling is looking for what Percy called a “rotation,” which Elie describes as a “sudden departure from the grid of everyday plans and expectations.” This sudden jarring out of normal existence may cause a realignment of vision.
Percy’s characters are normal folk — lawyers, doctors, stock brokers — all seemingly adrift. Percy’s marvelous essay “The Man on a Train” speaks to anyone caught in the nowhere that is the contemporary commute. The commuter is both there and not there at the same time — not unlike our condition in our “postmodern” age. Reality is around us, but technology, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and all the other diversions of life insulate us from it. How many people, he argues, have seen the Grand Canyon on their own, without the hedging about of a hundred experts and postcards and TV specials?
The result is the search by the individual for validation of his own experiences, which both reduces the individual and also increases reliance on others, whom — as we learned in the bloody 20th century, with its false promises of utopia — are not to be relied upon. The path out of this postmodern dilemma is participation; we must leave the train and enter into the world as fully as we can. Knowledge is not out there, held by some set of therapists or experts; we must make it our own.
Percy is simultaneously pointing out the limits of scientific materialism and pointing beyond it. In a postmodern world, the novelist has the opportunity to break out of “positivist proposition,” that is, propositions that are based only on sensory experience. Instead, Percy thought the novelist can now propose a new kind of what Percy calls a “sentence:” “It is the sentence of conveying news of some sort.”
Perhaps, especially in this Advent season, the Good News.