Preface Influence, Wayfaring, and the Catholic Novelist
This past June marked the sixth annual Walker Percy Weekend held in St. Francisville, Louisiana, part of the West Feliciana Parish that was the fictionalized “Feliciana Parish” setting for some of Percy’s greatest novels. Limited to four hundred tickets, the two-day festival starts with registration at a bookstore, a casual conversation with organizer Rod Dreher (of The Benedict Option fame), and an opening night party in the cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church, shaded by beautiful oak trees. The second day is the day of substantive intellectual engagement about Percy with nationally known speakers. Past Percy Weekend lecturers include Percy scholars Ralph Wood and biographers Jay Tolson and Patrick Samway, SJ. This year’s speakers were perhaps even more up- market, with New York Times columnist David Brooks, best-selling Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, and journalist Walter Isaacson, best-selling biographer of Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. The final events of the festival are—in the spirit of an author whose celebrated essay “Bourbon, Neat” proposed a few
logos 22:4 fall 2019 6 logos bourbon shots in order to “warm the heart, reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons”—a “progressive front porch and bourbon-tasting tour” and a “crawfish and craft beer celebration.”1 With such a lineup of speakers, culinary offerings, and alcoholic delights in a romantic locale, selling four hundred tickets isn’t hard. One could sell out four hundred tickets with a generic literary festival without mention of Percy. But my guess is that the hard- core enthusiasts who come to the Walker Percy Weekend would also consent to spending their weekend in the public library in Paducah, Kentucky, or a bomb shelter in Sheboygan to talk about Percy’s life, work, and importance. For Percy is one of those writers who is valued not just for the purity of his art—like Homer, he nodded at times—but for the purity of his search for truth. Chesterton observed that one of the problems with news is often that we read about the death of persons we never knew lived. My own discovery of Percy was this way. I had begun reading Flannery O’Connor in high school and happened to read an article in my denominational magazine about another southern Catholic author who had just died in May 1990. While the author, later a professor of mine at Calvin College, “had me at ‘Flannery O’Connor,’” I was doubly intrigued by the story of the writer who had come from a family of suicides, survived, and found strength in a Christian faith that didn’t simply solve his problems but made them understandable as part of a journey. Given that my own father had a history of mental health issues, some of which had flared up again around the same time Percy died, my adolescent concern was that I too would inherit them. At one point in that summer of 1990 I had had a kind of small breakdown about my sanity that lasted several days. My Christian Reformed pastor, a saintly World War II veteran named Charles Terpstra, came over to the house on the second day with some information about mental health issues and some stories about his wife’s family, who also had a history of mental illness. Pastor Terpstra’s help got me out of the house on the third day. I was preface 7 ripe, however, for Percy, who, in the article I read, struck me as the kind of man and author who had faced down the crazy in the world and the crazy within. I immediately went to the library and picked up the Percy on hand, his 1980 novel, The Second Coming. Given that my own father’s long-time diagnosis was schizophrenia, it was perhaps providential that I came upon this volume. The main character, Will Barrett, a retired widower who has tasted of life’s successes but finds them wanting, is haunted both by the suspicion that life is meaningless, because God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, and his family’s history of resolving this suspicion by suicide. He decides that he will hide out in a cave close to his North Carolina home with a supply of barbiturates. If God reveals himself, good, but if he doesn’t, Barrett will kill himself. What brings Barrett out of his miasma after a night of inner turmoil is real physical pain caused by an abscessed tooth. He then falls from the cave into an abandoned greenhouse inhabited by Allison “Allie” Huger, a schizophrenic who has escaped from a mental hospital. Barrett, trapped by the weight of his past, finds Allie, whose condition keeps her firmly in the present and makes her curiously aware of the meaning of words, fascinating and lovable. Upon return to the ordinary world, Barrett is consigned by his daughter into the care of a hospital that diagnoses him with “inappropriate desires” and prescribe for him a drug regime to get rid of them. He eventually escapes to find love with Allie and a new suspicion that “Christ will come again and that in fact there are certain unmistakable signs of his coming in these very times.” I doubt how much of this novel I understood at seventeen. The structure of it vascillates between the perspectives of Will and Allie, only joining up these visions toward the end of the novel. And, frankly, two characters who are slightly off attempting to understand the world makes for a bit of sleuthing. C. S. Lewis was famously averse to the novels of Evelyn Waugh because he thought that one could have a sane person observing a crazy world or a crazy 8 logos person reacting to a sane world, but not an insane person reacting to an insane world. The reader, he believed, would be lost. But like Waugh, Percy understood that the problems in the world are both external and internal. The Second Coming was captivating for all the personal reasons I’ve mentioned and more: the connection between romantic love and the love of God; the questions of how and whether language really does work to connect people to each other and truth; the strange nature of humans in this world who often find themselves more at home and more normal when in excruciating pain or danger than when things are going well; and the sense that the only way to live in the world is as a wayfarer. I was hooked. His novels, essays, and letters became part of the way I looked at the world, and six or seven years after my discovery, his Catholic faith did, too. When I was received as a Catholic, I was joined by my best friend, with whom I had bonded over our shared love of Walker Percy. Percy was born May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, to a family both famous and prone to suicide. Their history goes back perhaps to the Percys of Northumberland, whom Shakespeare himself wrote about. And the family history in the United States goes back to the eighteenth century, to a certain Charles “Don Carlos” Percy, who arrived in 1775, was granted a thousand acres in Louisiana, and settled down. Though he kept to the broader Shakespearean mythology, labeling his plantation “Northumberland,” he was confronted by a son from England, Robert Percy, who came to the New World and revealed that his father was a bigamist. “Don Carlos” committed suicide, and two sides of the family were established through his two sons. Walker was from the American side. The family included a number of high achievers, including a Civil War hero and a U.S. senator, but also a number of suicides. Walker himself was the eldest of three sons of LeRoy Pratt Percy and Martha Phinizy. When Walker was thirteen Leroy committed suicide, and two years later Martha drove off a preface 9 bridge—though not proven such, considered a suicide by Walker himself. The three brothers were taken in by a cousin, William Alexander Percy, a single lawyer and poet who had studied at Princeton and lived a literary life in Greenville, Mississippi. Uncle Will, though attracted to Catholicism early on, had settled into a kind of aristocratic stoicism that Walker would long think of as a foil to his mature Catholic thought. At the time, however, the Percys, raised as nominal Presbyterians, took to his gentle secular moralism quite easily. Will provided a steadying influence on them and access to his marvelous collection of classic books and his literary friends, who often stopped and stayed with them. Walker, prone to hay fever and other ailments, thrived in this atmosphere of reading and writers. He was introduced by Uncle Will to another sharp young man, Shelby Foote, a young man of Jewish heritage who went on to become a famous Civil War historian and novelist. The two at one point decided to drive to the Mississippi home of William Faulkner, but Percy was too shy to get out of the car. They passed from Greenville High School to the University of North Carolina where Percy wrote for the school paper and studied chemistry. When he graduated in 1937 and passed on to Columbia University for medical school, Foote dropped out. But their correspondence continued until Percy’s death. The Percy of medical school was a young man who was in love with the power of science. He believed that it provided an explanation for the world around him—and himself. His studies focused on pathology and psychiatry, and he even underwent psychoanalysis for three years with a psychiatrist recommended by a friend of Uncle Will. This interest in pathology and psychiatry would later be combined as he became one of the premier diagnosticians of the diseases of the modern soul (psyche). After graduation, he caught tuberculosis from cadavers he was working with at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Putting himself in 10 logos a sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains, he remained there for several years, feeling guilty that his brothers were abroad in World War II while he was reading and sleeping, trying to gain weight. Like Solzhenitsyn’s years in the Gulag, however, Percy’s sanatorium years proved to be the turning point for his own life. The young man was allowed to quit medicine and spend his time asking questions about the existence of God and the meaning of life that he had now discovered could not be answered by science. His own sources at the time included Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Sartre, and Kafka. After returning to a different sanatorium in Connecticut, he determined that he would never return to medicine. Instead, he was to be a novelist. Upon recovery Percy returned home to Greenville and set out on the road with Foote for Santa Fe, New Mexico. He decided to contact a pathology student he had met before his illness, Mary Bernice “Bunt” Townsend, and had continued to correspond with in treatment. Upon discovering that she was not married he informed her to get ready for a wedding. Though she admitted she wasn’t sure if he’d follow through until the day of the event, he was serious and they married and settled down in Covington, Louisiana, within the area that had been claimed by Don Carlos Percy so long ago. They also entered the Catholic Church. With the money inherited from Uncle Will, Percy was able to begin a career as a novelist, ultimately publishing six novels between 1961 and 1987, as well as a book of philosophical essays and his best-selling Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. As I observed about my first reading of Percy’s novels, they can be a bit tough to get through. Mentioning that I was writing about Percy to an online reading group, one member observed that she’s tried to read Percy before but found that she needed something to help her out. This is sensible, since Percy’s own goal was to use the novel as a means of bringing the truth to people who were “lost in the cosmos” and often didn’t understand that they were lost or why they were lost. They do not go from being lost in preface 11 the cosmos to being entirely at home in the world. Instead, they discover, as in his first novelThe Moviegoer, that there is a search to be made. And even if, like the novel’s protagonist Binx Bolling, they have entered the Catholic Church and made a discovery by the end, they do not become plaster saints. Binx Bolling moves from “searching to find his way in the world” to a conversion at the end that results in his affirming the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. He does not feel confident to speak authoritatively about faith, but he believes it. The hints are that Binx Bolling is like Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “who was, in the hands of the Russian novelist, to become a great saint. Perhaps Binx too may have such a destiny.” Given the subtlety of the method—the evidence for the sincerity of Binx’s conversion comes in a conversational comment that might be seen as a throwaway line—not everyone will get the Dostoevskyan touch or take it seriously. But for those readers who have tried Percy and found themselves wanting a guide, Jessica Hooten Wilson’s Reading Walker Percy’s Novels, from which I’ve taken the quoted lines in the last paragraph, is an ideal companion for both first-time readers and those who’d like to go deeper.2 After a brief and lively biographical chapter, from which I have drawn in this preface, Wilson examines each of the novels as well as Lost in the Cosmos at chapter length. For each book she provides information about what Percy was aiming at with the book and what influences he was taking in at the time, sorting out the writings of Sartre, Mann, Dostoevsky, and others that appear allusively as foils or touchstones for the novel as well as the criticism passed on to him by his friend Shelby Foote or his literary mentor, the Catholic convert Caroline Gordon. All of this information is revealed in the course of lucid discussions of how the characters and action of the books work. Wilson is a good guide to the books, a fan of Percy but not an uncritical one. She clearly thinks the ending of The Last Gentleman is flawed and finds problems in both the plot and the decision to make so much of the 12 logos action interior to the mind of Will Barrett in The Second Coming. But she is willing to defend the somewhat pornographic nature of Lancelot as falling within St. John Paul II’s notion of literary probing of the mystery of evil (Letters to Artists, #10). Wilson, an associate professor of literature at John Brown University and one of the most popular presenters at the Walker Percy Weekends, is the 2019 winner of the Hiett Prize in Humanities. As an act of full disclosure as well as shameless plugging, I should probably mention that she teaches the course on the Catholic novel for the Catholic Studies M.A. program here at the University of St. Thomas and is my co-editor for Beyond the Soul and Barbed Wire: The Continuing Legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and RussianVoices in American Culture, a volume forthcoming from Notre Dame Press. We are very pleased to have her collaboration because her scholarly work on Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and the Russian literary tradition is not only prize-winning—it actually deserves to be. And its value is seen in her first book on the author at hand, published one year before Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. Walker Percy, Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence does a number of things very well.3 First, while many previous critics focused their attention on the influence of Kierkegaard on Percy, Wilson shows that Dostoevsky was ultimately more important for Percy as a novelist. Second, because she does so, she is able to see that Percy’s method is not simply that of the philosopher but indeed that of the believer: it is the Incarnation that is ultimately at the center of Percy’s aesthetic. Third, Wilson argues for an understanding of what influence is that would right the field. While many modern thinkers have disdained the idea of literary influence because it challenges the notion of “originality,” Wilson argues that originality is not merely overrated but an illusory notion coming out of the modern obsession with autonomy. Writers don’t create ex nihilo but instead shape words and images and ideas that have been shaped and argued over for periods of time long and short. What is much preface 13 more interesting than trying to assess what in a writer is de novo is seeing what a writer has done with the vision gained from sitting on the giants’ shoulders. The best work of authors is “when they humbly recognize those models whom they consciously or subconsciously emulate, and, consequentially for readers, a recognition of this imitation produces greater understanding—with all the humility that word entails (literally, to stand under rather than over such texts).” 4 To put it this way reverses the usual emphasis—the action is not merely on the part of the influencer but of the influencee, who must decide whom to imitate in order to successfully find a proper voice. Percy himself loved Dostoevsky but seemed, early on in his writing, to be consciously channeling Sartre and Mann more than Dostoevsky. It’s always a comfort for writers to remember that most people have to start somewhere. Percy actually wrote two practice novels under Gordon’s mentorship, but neither of them were able to take life or be published. It was only when he realized that he needed to take on a literary model who shared his Christian belief that he was able to successfully create a novel. “Successfully” is an understatement. The Moviegoer did not just get published; it won the National Book Award with that depiction of Binx Bolling that we have already observed ends with the hope of becoming an Alyosha. But where he started, and where Percy started so often with his characters, was as a version of the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel, Notes from Underground, usually known as the Underground Man. Bored and angry with society and the self, he is indeed lost in the cosmos. Apart from the tragic Lancelot, however, in which Percy “Out-Dostoevskys” Dostoevsky, all of Percy’s novels end with some sort of hope. Wilson judges that Percy often took the depths of despair and loss from Dostoevsky but tended to end not with tragedy but the sort of realistically open comedy that shows that in this life we find Christ and yet are still pilgrim people. We seek Christ and find him hiding, certainly in ten thousand places, but still 14 logos not in plain sight. This world is not going to be healed in the here and now. While Wilson’s books examine Percy from a literary and theological lens, another recent book on Percy, Brian A. Smith’s Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer, examines Percy’s books from a philosophical and political lens.5 Smith, a political philosopher who edits the online journal Law & Liberty, is attentive to both the literary artistry and the theological import of Percy’s work, but his focus is on what the bare fact that we have an origin deeper than biology and a destiny beyond this life gives to social and political life. His book is composed of three parts that cover 1) the regnant theories of the self, all of them assuming that there is a possibility of the self attaining to healing and a sense of home in this world; 2) the American approach to community and why Americans love it, idealize it, and then tend to leave it or disrupt it with violence; and finally3 ) how an understanding of human beings as wayfarers might give us a social science that better responds to human beings as they are. In this third section Smith discusses how Percy’s balanced approach to community, churches, and families can help heal the alienation that human beings experience—with the proper understanding that we will always be misplaced persons and that our happiness must be one of hope and not of possession. As Wilson laid out the influence and Christian framework of Percy’s novels, Smith brilliantly organizes and explains Percy’s understanding of man, society, and the world in such a way that those who are interested in probing his thought systematically will find out how deep and coherent Percy was. The late political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler might have been a bit hyperbolic in his back cover blurb that “it might well be the best book ever published on Walker Percy,” but I have to say that it is without doubt the best systematic guide to Percy’s thought I know—and a brilliant study of the political and social situation we face in the twenty-first century no less than in the twentieth. We Americans, and perhaps in an age of globalization, much of the globe, ping back and forth preface 15 between an individualism that isolates and a flight to the collective that suffocates. To know that the world is crazy and we are too, that we will find no abiding or perfect city here on earth, and that we are meant for much more than this life, is already to suggest to us the outlines of behavior and attitudes that make for a good but imperfect society. That, Percy might add, and a couple of shots of bourbon. One of Percy’s great themes was the impossibility of understanding what it means to be human from a purely scientific and immanent standpoint. Such a standpoint will only lead us to suspect that life and choices are meaningless. Thomas Pfau in “Seeing and Being Seen Coincide: Freedom as Contemplation in Nicholas of Cusa and G. M. Hopkins” argues that “human freedom remains unintelligible unless, in laying claim to it, we also acknowledge a dimension of Being wholly transcendent to us, an eternal logos.” To wayfare is to contemplate what is beyond us and thus steer our course for the near future with choices that reflect what is beyond. It is a sacramental and analogical vision. And yet there is always the temptation to see not sacraments but idols. That tension is nowhere more fruitfully seen, Pfau argues, than in the contemplative Hopkins’s greatest poetry, especially “The Windhover.” “What Hopkins achieved during those blissful years at St. Beuno’s seminary in Wales, namely, to fuse visual experience and spiritual contemplation in the medium of sprung rhythm, may have been the last time in modern literature that the lyric word unequivocally achieves an authentic (analogical) relation to transcendence.” The Second Vatican Council famously called the Church a “pilgrim Church,” highlighting that even she is a wayfarer. And what wayfarers do is to help others discover the way they should be faring. Rev. Walter F. Kedjierski in “Papal Contributions to the Development of the Church’s Missionary Spirit: from Ad Gentes to Evangelii Gaudium” notes that some theologians have tried to 16 logos drive a wedge between the Church’s pilgrim identity emphasized at Vatican II and the spirit of the Church in John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s pontificates. Only with Pope Francis, they argue, is there a return to the Council’s “spirit” still present in Paul VI’s reign. “To the contrary, as a result of the continuities between Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis there is now the framework of a pastoral plan for missionary activity that has grown out of the initial insights of Ad Gentes and the ecclesiological documents of the Council.” Part 1 of the article lays out the ecclesiological and missionary thought of Vatican II and shows how the documents of Paul VI and John Paul II can be seen as not only continuous but further developments of that thought. Part 2, which will appear in our Winter 2020 issue, will continue the story with the continuity found in Benedict XVI’s and Francis’s pontificates. It is a commonplace of opponents of the Catholic Church to gesture at her supposed fundamental untruth with the simple phrase “But Galileo!” Galileo is often presented as a sort of secular saint whose scientific probity was beyond dispute. The reality is a bit messier. Christopher M. Graney’s “Omission and Invention: The Problematic Nature of Galileo’s Proposed Proofs for Earth’s Motion” provides a somewhat different story than usually told of the man often credited with “proving” the earth rotates around the sun. “In those parts of the Dialogue where he discusses the subject of proving Earth’s motion, he tends to omit or invent key pieces of information.” What were those omissions and inventions? “Galileo suggested that the ocean tides are evidence for Earth’s motion, but omitted important information about the Atlantic tides that stood contrary to his claims. He suggested that the change in position of the stars against an Earth-bound reference point might reveal Earth’s motion, but within his discussion of this possibility he invented a phenomenon that he claimed to be easily observable, but that actually cannot occur. He suggested that changes in the relative positions of the component stars of a double star might reveal Earth’s motion, were such a double to be found, but omitted preface 17 the fact that he had observed such double stars and had seen no such changes.” Graney’s article is not an apologia for early modern treatment of heretics, but it is an appeal for an accurate and balanced historical understanding of the complexities of cases such as Galileo’s. Evelyn Waugh could often dismissively refer to his work as pushing words around with a pencil. Yet he is justly acclaimed as one of the great verbal craftsmen of the last hundred years, one whose style was no mere ornamentation but the proper frame for the stories he told. Scott J. Roniger in “Platonic Eros and Catholic Faith in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited” demonstrates how one of Waugh’s greatest works matches form with content in depicting “the operations of divine grace” working through eros in the story of Charles Ryder. Roniger carefully walks through the discussion of eros in Plato’s Symposium in the first part before showing Charles’s beginnings as a “lover of beauty” and then the “movements up the ladder of love, but this ladder is now embedded within the Christian narrative of death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of God in Christ in which Christians participate through the gift of grace. Thus, the height of Charles’s ascent does not bring him to a pure vision of Beauty itself, unalloyed and by itself. Rather, the height of his ascent, its apex, is to suffer in the presence of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ with the understanding that his suffering is not meaningless, an understanding born of his faithful awareness of the presence of God in the events of his life and the presence of God hidden under the aspects of bread.” Logos editorial board member James L. Heft, SM, rounds out our regular articles with a commencement address given this spring. “The Vocation of the Theologian.” Relying on the Angelic Doctor, Heft reminds the students why and how they should serve God as theologians and preachers.
Theologians need to learn, as the poet Emily Dickinson re- minds us, to tell the truth slant. Every time students ask me 18 logos
“What exactly does” this or that mean, I remind them that we are dealing with realities that can’t be exactly described or defined. Dogmatic definitions protect the truth more than they explain it. At the heart of Christianity is a person, not a philosophy. There are good reasons why Jesus spoke mainly in parables and paradoxes. Definitions limit the richness of the reality of the divine mystery. In the hands of an amateur, defining the things of God slips into sterile rationalism.
To avoid the sterile rationalism and protect the mystery, he says, “We need to pray before we speak, and to speak with humility, and most importantly, give evidence in our words and deed that we love what we are called to teach.” Finally, in our Reconsiderations feature, we present three essays of Russell Kirk, “The Dissolution of Liberalism”; “The Inhumane Businessman”; and “The Sp’iled Praist and the Stickit Minister.” Kirk biographer Bradley J. Birzer explains in his introduction, “The Christian Humanism of Russell Kirk,”that Kirk had become convinced even before his 1964 reception into the Catholic Church that it was not “Western” civilization that had saving power but Christian humanism. In the 1950s essays reprinted here, we have three of the great arguments of Kirk for aspects of that humanism: a need for myth to live by, a need for education that goes beyond mere technical “training,” and a need for that education to eschew ideology and seek out what is permanent and true in the natural law and what has been passed down by tradition. “A truly humane man,” Kirk wrote, “is a person who knows we were not born yesterday.”
David Paul Deavel Editor preface 19 Notes
1. Percy’s essay can be found here: http://www.claremont.org/crb/article/bourbon -neat/. 2. Jessica Hooten Wilson, Reading Walker Percy’s Novels (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 35. 3. Jessica Hooten Wilson, Walker Percy, Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2017). 4. Ibid., 12. 5. Brian A. Smith, Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).