The Depths of Place: Eros as a Dying into Love

It is in relation to Percy as Southerner that we may look at his Last Gentleman (1966) as the most directly autobiographical of his novels. It is autobiographical in respect to family events, but more importantly to his own intellectual development in response to those events. Seen from this perspective, it is as if Percy’s own personal history were exploded into several characters. In sum, those characters tell us something of the person Walker Percy as thinker, especially concerning his attempt to come to terms with place. The necessity for him to resolve the question of place is more subtle than may be characterized by either actual geography or the actual history adhering to that geography. Still, one must begin at the level of the topical. For the problem of person in response to place, in response to the immediate as wrapped in history and anchored by geography, is deeper than the accidents of history or geography. That is a lesson difficult for bare intellect to learn.

In relation to the initiating accidents, the topical, we might observe straight off that underlying them is the centering theme of Percy’s thought in respect to time and place, namely thanatos. To live is to live in a place at a time. But to live is to be dying, willy nilly. Death is the seeming shadow, in relation to which is posed as a substantive surrogate the ideas related to sexual love. The complexity metaphorically possible out of that juxtaposition is richly promising to art, as John Donne recognized in his poetry. We need only remember his “Canonization,” in which Donne asserts against other-worldly counselors that “We can die . . . if not live by love.”

The question which Percy’s dialectician Dr. Sutter Vaught wrestles with is whether to abide the long dying of the body through the erotic or to resolve the matter at once by literal suicide. When we meet him, he has once tried and failed to accomplish actual suicide. He observes in his journal, the central focus of the dialectical burden in the novel: “the certain availability of death is the very condition of recovering oneself. But death is as outlawed now as sin used to be. Only one’s suicide remains to one. My ‘suicide’ followed the breakdown of the sexual as a mode of reentry from the posture of transcendence.” That is the last entry in Sutter’s self-casebook, the passage which Will Barrett is left to ponder at novel’s end.

It is through the play between the highly sophisticated, “scientific” technician Dr. Sutter Vaught and Will Barrett, a spiritually and scientifically naive journeyman, that Percy attempts to advance beyond the intellect’s entrapment between the tensional limits which intellect cannot even be certain are actual external limits. Perhaps they are only self-formulated limits. The poles are represented by the signs “transcendent” and “immanent,” in this novel, the tensional poles to intellect which Percy found explored in the work of Eric Voegelin. He shares with Voegelin as well a recognition concerning signs as they are available to intellect in our century. Voegelin pronounces them “opaque,” requiring the labor of a recovery of sign to the reality they would signify.

Sign as a mystery, then, becomes a central concern to Percy. Questions about signs always intrude upon his attempt to use signs. The uncertainty of sign in relation to intellect on the one hand, and to a reality mediated to intellect by sign on the other, is dramatized in The Last Gentleman, largely through Dr. Sutter Vaught. It is as if through the play of fictional characters, Percy is working out, or attempting to work out, his own tensional entrapment through a science of sign. Should he be able either to reconcile the intellectual arrest between the concepts of transcendent and immanent, or to move on beyond the tensional entrapment, he could lay to rest once and for all that dark presence to his thought, the presence of thanatos.

That presence comes robed more particularly as the phenomenon of suicide. The shadow of death haunts him a long time, both in its phenomenal aspect, in relation to family history, but also in its metaphysical implications as well, in relation to the question of the souls’s immortality. It is, we might speculate, a curiosity about the metaphysical dimension of suicide that most fascinates him, given his intellectual origins in science. Thus Dr. Sutter’s “scientific” investigation of the phenomenon as he has had to deal with it professionally leads to his theory of the impasse between transcendence and immanence, the initiating cause of actual self-destruction, a question of more than dramatic interest to Percy.

Sutter (Dr. Vaught) simplifies the metaphysical by reducing it to the psychological, in defiance of his sister’s religious solution to the mystery of death. The shadow of death is left suspended at the end of this novel, through circumstantial ironies in which the characters, or at least the protagonist, Will Barrett, is left suspended. Having participated reluctantly with Sutter in the baptism of the dying Jamie, Sutter’s brother, Will emerges from that experience a devoted disciple of Sutter.

Sutter, elevated by Will’s deferential address to “Dr. Vaught,” is more resolutely intent on self- destruction. He has failed to reconcile the transcendent and immanent, and the experience of Jamie’s death has proved so intellectually defeating that he would surrender the attempt, against the nagging devotion of Will. His unwelcomed disciple, Will, fascinated by the metaphysical questions raised by the baptism and death of young Jamie, pursues Dr. Vaught relentlessly as mentor, attempting to follow him as his only rescue. Such is the uncertain conclusion of this dialectical novel, full of pointing and counterpointing of characters and ideas, which we may pursue for a moment in the interest of discovering the complexity of unresolved thought that possesses Percy himself in this middle period of his novel-writing.

In pursuing his haunting theme thanatos, Percy poses Dr. Sutter Vaught against his sister Val, who calls herself Sister Johnette Mary Vianney, an “off- brand nun” in Will Barrett’s phrase. Sutter attempts to practice intellectual amnesia, though unsuccessfully in the end, by immersion in sexuality. His compulsion to debate Val in his journal shows his failure. Val, on the other hand, is a forced Catholic. That is, she seems compelled to belief when her intellect tells her she violates that belief by her own compulsive anger against the world, or against that part of it that appears to be her suburban, country club milieu, a world she struggles to reject. Val is haunted by deja vu, as if she witnesses visions within the mundane, within the banal, that speak a continuing Presence despite her rebellious rejections.

Val’s being drawn toward the particular world she would reject, which Sutter characterizes as a psychological phenomenon, deja vu, is deeper than that explanation accounts for, as Val knows though she cannot understand self-consciously the depths she recognizes intuitively. She nevertheless recognizes a reminder of the intrusion of the transcendent into the immanent in her experience, but of a transcendent far different from Sutter’s version: that central event of the Incarnation. Sutter, resisting that temptation, exorcises it through the techniques of psychology, lest intimations of the presence of the transcendent in the immediate world overwhelm him. As for Val’s wavering certainty, as evidence by her own sinfulness, Sutter dismisses that by ridicule. In his journal he debates with her: “Where I disagree with you, Val, is in your peoples’ emphasis on sin. I do not deny . . . that sin exists. But what I see is not sinfulness but paltriness.” (Percy no doubt would have us remember Hannah Arendt’s argument on the banality of evil that results in the Nazi gas chambers.) The battle in him is between two “suicides,” that complete surrender of the self, which Val attempts to accomplish, or the complete refusal of such a surrender through actual suicide.

Will Barrett as protagonist is pulled in the two directions, toward the oblivion Sutter advocates in the name of amnesia, and his temptation to an openness to Val’s transcendent which does not have the support of sophisticated intellect. Val is no “thinker.” Sutter dismisses her position as trans-rational. Will suffers bouts of amnesia at times. He is an “engineer,” as Sutter keeps calling him, capable of effecting disjunction of the past from the present. But he is also buffeted by a disturbing sense of visitations, or revisitations, effected by his encounter with various persons, stirring vague memories. The tension between deja vu and amnesia hovers in him, wherever he happens to be, so that the linear travels through the geography of the United States — from New York city south to Georgia, west through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, to New Mexico — has no power in itself to relieve him of that tensional burden. It is a burden always manifest in place, though place be various. But it is not a consequence of mere place. And that is a baffling circumstance which a reduction to the dimension of the psychological affects not at all.

Will Barrett, a “psycho” undergoing a continuing therapy, seeks to heal himself by his response to these characters, this strange family of Vaughts so strangely encountered in a New York park and then in a hospital. Increasingly, it is as if the Vaughts were intended to speak to him about his psychological disorder, which in the issue proves not simply a psychological but a spiritual disorder. The dialectical contention is dramatized through Sutter and Val, who contend over their afflicted brother Jamie, the boy who has only a few months to live when Will enters the family. Sutter, the trapped “theorist” (Percy’s term for the modernist intellect), contends with his sister Val, a trapped believer in Christ beyond any theory. And Will gradually becomes the center of their contention.

What lies between Sutter and Val is the difference in their understanding of transcendence. Val’s understanding, possible in moments out of time as it were, requires nevertheless the enduring of time. That is, one must endure the long journeying, the buffeting of oneself by time and place, which in the novel is the transit from New York to the South and thence to the arid Western desert. It is the sort of journey, incidentally, paralleled by the narrative progress implicit in Eliot’s Waste Land, which moves the poem’s consciousness through London, down to Margate Sands on the English coast, but then turns abruptly into an arid desert not located on any map, from which the disoriented spirit returns to the shore and sits looking across toward France, with the desire to set its own house in order.

There is also a drowning through water that is the denouement of Eliot’s poem, though the issue is not evident, waiting “Ash-Wednesday” and the Four Quartets. There is a similar drowning as denouement in Percy’s novel, the agitated baptism of Jamie at the point of his death, a scene in which the violence of conflicting beliefs seems to override the violent leave-taking of the world by Jamie in his physical agony. Sutter, Will, the uncertain priest who with some reluctance baptizes Jamie — all are acting beyond belief, under the insistent command of Val, who is far removed from the scene. She wills that Jamie be baptized.

A passage central to the war of words, or signs as weapons used to lay claim to Will’s soul (from Val’s perspective) or his psyche (from Sutter’s perspective), occurs late in the novel. Of course, Will encounters a variety of signs on his journey from New York through the South to the New Mexico desert, but none more arresting to him than those words in Sutter’s journal. The passage is central to his spiritual-psychological fate and reveals Sutter debating Val. (It is, of course, Sutter debating himself, using Val’s remembered words, so that she prevents the amnesia he would cultivate by the act of his remembering. She is a real presence in his memory.) At last arrived in New Mexico, searching for Jamie and Sutter, reading the journal that has fallen into his hands, Will discovers himself the subject of debate in a passage:

Let us say you [Val] were right: that man is a wayfarer (i.e., not transcending being nor immanent being by wayfarer) who therefore stands in the way of hearing a piece of news which is of the utmost importance to him (i.e., his salvation) . . . . So you say to him: Look, Barrett, your trouble is due not to a disorder of your organism [as Sutter would have it] but to the human condition. That is to say, your amnesia is not a symptom.

Sutter’s point is that to speak in such terms to Will is to be misunderstood at once, because “he will receive the news from his high seat of transcendence as one more item of psychology, throw it into his immanent meat-grinder, and wait to see if he feels better. He told me he is in favor of all the World’s Great Religions.”

To speak to Will of sin, and of that “good news” of Christ’s redeeming act, is to speak with signs beyond Will’s grasp. He can neither accept them, nor is he intellectually sophisticated enough to reject them, as does Sutter. Will seems a lost cause between Sutter and Val. At least, that is the argument Sutter would have Val accept. What is significant in the passage is Sutter’s sense of transcendence. It is the willed occupation by consciousness of the Kierkegaardean “spermatic point,” a position of detachment from the immanent world. That sense differs from Val’s understanding of transcendence. For her, Christ rescues the sinful soul beyond the immanent entrapment of that soul. The contest between Sutter and Val over Will becomes a contest over the meaning of transcendence. Sutter would stand witness to a sardonic removal from both the immanent and transcendent, but he is pulled repeatedly into immanent complications to his aberrant species of transcendence. He recognizes all along what he is hesitant to declare: his position is impossible of resolution so long as his “theorist” detachment, maintained by modernist psychology as a sufficient science of intellect, is concerned. The only resolution to that position is suicide.

What Sutter senses but will not confront directly is his concern for two seeming innocents, his dying young brother Jamie and this intellectually naive intruder into the Vaught family, Will Barrett. Sutter would employ eros as an escape from the angelic detachment of his own “transcendence.” But eros will not account for his being drawn again and again into the immanent through Jamie, which requires him to confront Will’s naiveté at last. Love, limited to the immanent by eros, will not account for his relation to Jamie. Will, seeing (but not fully) that relation between Sutter and Jamie, is drawn irresistibly to Sutter as spiritual mentor. This irritates Sutter, the theorist whose theory cannot account for his own entrapment by a love larger than eros.

Sutter, then, drawn by this enlarged aspect of love, is haunted by Will’s open response to this theoretical defense of the intellectual reductions of life to the inclusive province of death, the position Sutter attempts to maintain against his sister Val. Sutter thus discovers himself, in this new dimension of involvement in the immanent, a “suicide” in an order quite separate from his rational literalness, though he cannot accept that new dimension. Nevertheless, his concern for Jamie leads to a “breakdown of the sexual as a mode of reentry from the posture of transcendence.” To admit that his position is a “posture” — a pretense of intellectual detachment — makes the posture no longer tenable. The sexual is an inadequate compensation for the loss of that safe detachment, though Sutter’s response to that inadequacy is an accelerating argument in favor of the excessively “lewd.”

Sutter has arrived at a point, the closest yet for him, at which to listen to the “good news” that Val proclaims as beyond her understanding. His compulsion to defeat Val through words overflows into his journal. And it is through this insufficient device of words set in dialectical opposition, as if in an argument with another intellect, that we begin to recognize the division in Sutter himself. Val is a convenient agent for posing his own counter position, his professed and public address to the immanent world. It is here that we begin to discover that the “love” story unfolding is more complex than Sutter’s reduction of love to the erotic — to the promiscuous pursuit of sex as antidote to stirring psychological questions which his science of “psychology” will not accommodate. It is far more complex than Will’s romantic, monogamous eroticism, roused in him by Kitty from his first sight of her in New York City. Eros, then, is inadequate to counter the dark uncertainty Sutter would embrace.

We are concentrating on The Last Gentleman at a half-way of our exploration of Walker Percy for good reason, given that we wish to understand the spiritual and philosophical dimensions in Percy himself, insofar as we take him as our mentor. There are, for instance, analogues of biographical nature between Percy and his characters, at the level of the topical. The topical is the necessary level of entry into artifact, of course, as any novelist knows. Thus we observe that Percy shares with Sutter an initial entry into spiritual questions out of scientific training. Percy also shares with Val, and with others of the Chandler Vaught family in its Alabama setting, the common characteristics of the deracinated Southerner. When Will first meets Val, she remarks at once, “You know, I was one of the first people to be brought up in a suburb.” That is, she is one of the first Southerners disfranchised from both city and country, a condition of biographical accidents she shares with Will, as both share that condition with Percy. Will has already observed this strange deracination of himself in place, looking at the surroundings of the Vaught mansion, where he is held in his homelessness.

The Vaughts live, he observes, “in this queer not-new not-old place haunted by the goddess Juno and the spirit of Bobby Jones.” The Juno allusion is to a temple-like mansion visible from the Vaughts, modeled on “a Roman structure by Emperor Vespasian in honor of Juno.” Bobby Jones is that international Southerner, the golfing champion, and the several mansions, of which the Vaughts’ is one, are bound tenuously by a golf course. Will reflects that “the purple castle [to the goddess Juno, bathed at night in flood lights] didn’t look much like an antebellum mansion and the golf links even less like a cotton field,” as the land must have originally appeared. It is a place of no place, reflecting Will’s repeated realization that, though a Southerner with deep roots in his Mississippi family, “he didn’t live anywhere and had no address.” Nor is the residual Stoicism, the remnant of noblesse oblige that still clings in old man Chandler Vaught’s deportment (an echo of that Stoicism Percy talks about in his Uncle Will), sufficient to Will’s sense of deracination.

The Vaught family centers its attention on Jamie, the dying son, and the linear narrative line follows Jamie. From New York to New Mexico, by way of Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi. That progress orders the surface actions in the novel. But the dramatic action, as we have suggested, lies rather in the circling dialectical battle over Jamie, into which Will is pulled as a part of the center by his role as Jamie’s companion on the journey to death. In Jamie, and by extension in Will, there seems to lie the grounds for mediating the tensional suspense of Sutter’s amnesia and Val’s deja vu. The action in the end comes to center in winning Will to one transcendence or the other, to Sutter’s or to Val’s. Or so Will comes to understand it.

In this contest, Sutter reminds one of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit (in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He cannot experience with immediacy that “news” of Christ that Val would witness to, and in reaction he would reject even the possibility of such news through deliberately deconstructing the sign transcendence to the advantage of his amnesia. Will’s dogged, not to say puppy-like, fascination with Sutter as intellectual keeps Sutter slightly off balance, affecting his willed amnesia. Like the Misfit, however, Sutter cannot rest, given the repeated intrusions of the possibility of that “news” he speaks of in his journal debate with Val. The latest accusing presence is Will, a vulnerable victim to Sutter’s intentional deconstructions through his adeptness as a theorist of human psychology.

In his journal, then, Dr. Sutter Vaught speaks as if for all mankind, on the authority of his theoretical science, but he does so as if to convince himself of the scientific validity of his position. “We are doomed to the transcendence of abstraction and I choose the only reentry into the world that remains to us . . . the beauty and exaltation of lewd love.” This is the position of Sutter the Misfit, and he articulates the position reflected in the general actions of the deracinated modernists whose names are legion. Still, he feels that he stands accused, not simply by Val, but by Jamie and Will. For Jamie, there is no prospect of a “reentry into the world” through sex. As for Will, he, too, is dying, since all who live may be said to be in the act of dying. Will teeters between Sutter’s uncertain view of transcendence, the isolation of intellect unto itself, and Val’s uncertain view, an openness to the immanent through which there pulses intimations of the transcendent. Val’s center of concern for the necessity of “reentry” is that signal instance, the Incarnation. But Sutter holds that he only, by his willed reentry, may effect his own salvation from that intolerable isolation of his version of transcendence.

Sutter, the theorist, reviews his cases of suicide in the closing pages of his journal, and what he sees by analysis leaves him with no alternative save literal suicide. He once tried that but failed, since he “missed brain, carried away cheek.” He details the specific cases, coming toward a summary statement of the dialectical problem around which the novel moves:

Man who falls victim to transcendence as the spirit of abstraction, i.e., elevates self to posture over and against world which is pari passu demoted to immanence and seen as exemplar and specimen and coordinate, and who is not at the same time compensated by beauty of motion of method of science [as Sutter feels himself sometimes compensated], has no choice but to seek reentry into immanent world qua immanence.

Sutter’s is a species of angelic intellection, then, a presumption of the Kierkegaardean “spermatic point” from which he can be rescued, as he contends, only by the “genital,” through “orgasm.” But the uncertainty persists, as evidence by his case histories, which the words of the theorist cannot resolve to a contentment in him “by beauty of motion of method of science.” The actualities shatter the clever posture of intellectual, angelic detachment of the theorist, Dr. Sutter Vaught, from the actualities in the immanent world. He must observe as scientist: “Of my series of four suicides in scientists and technicians, 3 post-coital . . . , 2 in hotel room. Hotel room = site of intersection of transcendence and immanence room itself, a triaxial coordinate ten floors above street; whore who comes up = pure immanence to be entered. But entry doesn’t avail: one skids off into transcendence. There is no reentry from the orbit of transcendence” (Sutter’s emphasis). Transcendence is revealed as the depths of the abyss, after his initial ironic detachment from which he moves to his physical, sexual act. He makes as his last entry the dark words about his own suicide: “I won’t miss next time.”

What is agitating Will, in The Last Gentleman, is how that possibility of a present openness to transcendence in a present place has been lost to him, a loss he is reminded of through Val. He sees the difficulty as lying in his own inherited manner, his inherited address to place. His is a manner decayed in its intellectual dimension, leaving him as the only escape — or so it seems to him — the necessity of detached irony such as is so richly evident in Sutter’s journal. But that is the manner Sutter speaks of as “transcendence,” another lost cause. Will has recognized his own manner as a family characteristic, dwelling on it much earlier in New York. But he begins to confront it in the isolation of New Mexico, that place which is neither the North nor the South. He had formulated his condition of spirit while wandering among Yankees, where Southerners suddenly rescue him back to a new homelessness in his home country, the South. He reflects on his inherited manner:

Over the years his family had turned ironical and lost its gift for action. It was an honorable and violent family, but gradually the violence had been deflected and turned inward. The great great grandfather knew what was what and said so and acted accordingly and did not care what anyone thought. . . . The next generation, the grandfather, seemed to know what was what but was not really so sure. . . . The father was a brave man too and he said he did not care what others thought, but he did care. More than anything else, he wished to act with honor and to be thought well of by other men. . . . In the end he was killed by his own irony and sadness and by the strain of living out an ordinary day in a perfect dance of honor.

That is, Will’s father committed suicide, an event that burdens Will in his wanderings away from that arresting childhood moment in Mississippi, his suspended Gettysburg. Will’s father could not recover from the pseudo-transcendence of ironic detachment over place. Or rather, he could not reconcile his inherited sense of honor to the “strain of living out an ordinary day,” a day in which the locus provides in each minute the contingent possibility of a rescue beyond “honor.” That older sense of honor has been reduced by residual history to a concern for what others might think about the details of his actions in an ordinary day.

Sutter understands the circumstances to such a deportment, and it leads him to make the most of his own residual “Southernness.” He rationalizes it in proposing his own sort of “saint,” a counter to Robert E. Lee, whom Will reflects on at one point, regretting that gradual loss of Lee as “saint” held by arrested history. “Oh, to be like Ronney Lee” at least. Sutter’s saint is capable of withstanding such nostalgia, but is also capable of withstanding the pressures of the ordinary, especially as concentrated by history in a place called the South. His saint would be the consummate pornographer, who through sex would resolve the dilemma of the immanent and transcendent.

The perfect pornographer = a man who lives both in the anteroom of science (not in research laboratory) and who also lives in twilight of Christianity, e.g., a technician. The perfect pornographer = lapsed Christian Southerner (who as such retains the memory not merely of Christianity but of a region immersed in place and time) who presently lives in Berkeley or Ann Arbor, which are not true places but sites of abstract activity . . . a map coordinate.” [Through such a pornographer, a new sacrament becomes possible, for] “lewdness is a kind of sacrament. . . . The difference is that my sacrament is operational and yours [i.e., Val’s Catholic Mass] is not.

One of the novel’s dramatic ironies, then, is the effect of Will Barrett on Sutter’s own attempt at his perverse version of sainthood. He will insist that Will “wishes to cling to his transcendence and to locate a fellow transcender (e.g., me) who will tell him how to traffic with immanence (e.g., ‘environment,’ ‘groups,’ ‘experience,’ etc.) in such a way that he will be happy.” What we as readers come to recognize is that Will, through his fascination with Sutter as a dark intellectual presence, reaches toward Sutter with a gesture of love beyond Eros. It is a gesture analogous, we might say, to that one by Flannery O’Connor’s grandmother to the Misfit, in that Sutter is affected more deeply than his “technician’s” approach to love can accommodate. That is why Percy thinks of this novel as being a preparation for that advance upon his tendency to write the same novel over and over. The advance he recognizes as accomplished in that third novel after The Last Gentleman, The Second Coming, which has Will Barrett once more as protagonist. It is a novel, he says, which has “a resolution of the ambiguity with which some of my other novels end,” a triumph of “eros over thanatos, life over death.”

But it is in that final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, that Percy’s fiction at last moves beyond eros, into the climate of agape. Meanwhile, there is the continuing struggle in him, reflected in the next two novels, in which the technician, if not exorcised, may become at least somewhat purified, as in the person of Dr. Tom More in Percy’s final work. The Last Gentleman is followed by Love in the Ruins, but then more significantly by Lancelot. Percy, looking back at his earlier work from 1980, observes that “Lancelot Lamar and Will Barrett represent opposite solutions to a similar predicament. Lancelot adopts a destructive one, the way of Thanatos, of death; Will adopts a constructive one, the way of Eros, affirming life. I was very much conscious of the two men being much alike but taking different approaches to their problems.” Lancelot, in this respect, is Sutter Vaught cast as protagonist. Between Lancelot and Sutter, in a tension not resolved till The Thanatos Syndrome, is that other wayfarer, that journeyman through the immanent in search of the way to the transcendent, Walker Percy. That Percy himself recognizes as much is reflected in the playfully serious self-interview. We might observe there, in considering his reflections on the portrait of the author painted by a friend, his suggestion that the portrait is “a kind of composite of the protagonists of my novels, but most especially Lancelot.”

  • Marion Montgomery

    Marion Montgomery (1925-2011) was professor of English at Georgia University. He also published poetry, short stories, and three novels, which focus on conflict between the Old and the New South.

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