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2006 "The Nature of the Search": Popular Culture and Intellectual Identity in the Work of Jordan J. Dominy

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A Thesis submitted to the Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

Degree Awarded: Spring Semester, 2006

The members of the Committee approve the Thesis of Jordan J. Dominy defended on April 03, 2006.

Andrew Epstein Professor Directing Thesis

Darryl Dickson-Carr Committee Member

Leigh Edwards Committee Member


Hunt Hawkins, Chair, Department of English

The Office of Graduate Studies has verified and approved the above named committee members.


For my parents, who have always put my goals ahead of their own



I thank the members of my Thesis Committee: Dr. Leigh Edwards for helping me initially narrow my focus, Dr. Andrew Epstein for directing my thesis, and Dr. Darryl Dickson-Carr for his advice and interest in the project. I thank my good friends and fellow students, Amber Pearson, Bailey Player, Alejandro Nodarse, and Jennifer Van Vliet for patiently enduring my droning about Walker Percy as I completed this project. Last but not least, I thank my wife, Jessica, for her enduring support and love.



Abstract ...... vi


1. CHAPTER 1: MIDCULT IN ...... 6



4. CONCLUSION...... 45

ENDNOTES ...... 46

REFERENCES ...... 48




In this thesis, I argue that the works of Walker Percy present a progression from passive to active attitudes toward popular and mass culture and that understanding this progression brings a new perspective to the relationship between intellectuals and popular culture in mid-to- late-twentieth century . I discuss two of Percy’s novels, The Moviegoer and Lancelot, and a book of non-fiction satire and parody, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. The first chapter addresses The Moviegoer. In it, I argue that its protagonist, Binx Bolling, deals with the encroaching mass culture of American suburbia of the 1950’s by combining the best of both his high and low culture identities into a midcult one, a term defined by Andrew Ross and originally discussed by Dwight MacDonald, a contemporary of Percy. The novel’s mere promise of happiness at it’s conclusion reflects an ambivalent attitude toward popular culture and the midcult on Percy’s part. The second chapter explores the ways in which Lance Lamar, the protagonist of Lancelot, violently subverts popular culture’s media by videotaping his wife’s acts of infidelity and murdering her lover. I also relate Andrew Ross’s discussion of pornography’s proliferation in mass media in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and the implications it has for Lance’s anger towards the film company filming an all-but pornographic film at his ancestral home. Lance’s violent reactions certainly reflect a changing attitude for Percy, who is more wary of the open sexuality in popular culture, but certainly does not advocate the violent revolution that his protagonist does. The final chapter reflects yet another change in Percy’s attitude towards popular culture with Lost in the Cosmos. Rather than choosing fiction, he addresses his concerns with his own voice, albeit with parody, caricature, and satire. But beyond ridiculing popular culture, he recognizes the ways in which intellectuals are susceptible to its influence as well and how this makes the existence of Andrew Ross’s “new intellectual” who can speak to both the academic


and popular sphere a near impossibility. Ultimately, the resolution of the conflict between intellectuals and popular culture lies with individuals.


INTRODUCTION: AN AUTHOR IN TRANSITION A black and white photograph taken during the middle 1930s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina shows an assembly of moviegoers waiting in line to get inside a theatre.1 Most of the figures in the photograph have their backs turned towards the camera; a couple of others look towards the camera. One young man, however, looks directly into the camera’s lens, his hands shoved into his pockets and his left leg extended outward from the line as if to strike a noticeable, perhaps even comic pose. This moviegoer standing so different from the others standing in line is Walker Percy (1916-1990). At the time of this photograph, he was a pre-med student at the University of North Carolina who managed to find time for movies alongside his studies. The writer Percy would become twenty years later—after his career as a physician was halted by a tuberculosis infection—always strikes the same pose he did during his college years: as an individual who realizes he is but one in a line of others attempting to buy a fleeting moment’s happiness in an increasingly troubling century. Throughout his career, Percy persistently turned to the issues of popular and mass culture, how their forces lead individuals to lead boring, materialistic lives or to seek validation through popular media (especially film), and how the one person who shows out in line might rise above those influences. Considering the writer the young man in the photograph becomes, perhaps Percy was aware early in life of the possibility of a homogenous culture of followers led by the shepherds of mass culture—radio, cinema, and television, for example. If the critique of popular culture is important to consider in understanding Percy’s fiction, then it is interesting to note that it is a topic largely overlooked by Percy scholars. Most prefer to engage his novels in the light of their existentialist and religious themes. Percy was greatly influenced by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, and Marcel, all philosophers whom he read during his convalescence in New Mexico in the 1940s. He also converted to Catholicism during that decade, and became more and more unabashedly Catholic as he grew older. Later in life when asked to contribute an essay called “Why Are You Catholic” to a collection of essays by writers about philosophy and religion, he


states simply near the beginning of the essay, “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true” (304). These inclinations in his work are difficult to ignore, and a rich body of criticism that reads Percy’s work in relation to his philosophical and religious beliefs has emerged. Critics have always been conscious of his diagnosis of a “malaise” in the modern world and been aware of the “search” on which all of Percy’s protagonists find themselves, and generally this search is equated with a religious or philosophical quest. I propose in this thesis, though, that the searching in Percy’s work extends beyond these thoroughly discussed themes to include a search for identity within and among the mass media that floods the experience of mid-twentieth century Americans. I argue that Walker Percy’s work is worth considering in the context of popular culture because it provides a unique progression in the way an individual’s understanding of the self in the face of the proliferation of mass media becomes a greater and greater crisis during the transition from the mid-to-late twentieth century. He is a distinctive figure in twentieth century American literature for two reasons. Firstly, Percy’s literary career spans the transition from the period of late-modernism into post-modernism. His career began after the Cold War had been underway for nearly two decades, and his work emerged in a literary and intellectual climate that was troubled by the ways in which Americans grew startlingly homogenous in the face of Communism. In his book, American Fiction in the Cold War, Thomas Schaub documents the ways in which American intellectuals were forced to unite towards the political center to fend off the McCarthy witch- hunts of the 1950s. Moreover, Schaub explores how literary critics were obsessed with the ways in which the contemporary American novel represented and commented upon the social history of the times. Percy’s early oeuvre, especially The Moviegoer, which will be discussed at length in chapter one, certainly fits into such a critical framework with its incisive social commentary on issues of the midcult. The novel asks the same question about 1950’s suburbia that Richard Pells tells us that intellectuals of the day asked: “Americans had built a utopia on earth, beyond the most extravagant dreams of Marxists and liberals. Why, then, did the results seem so hollow? Why did the rewards of affluence fail to satisfy” (189)? The Moviegoer was a literary vocalization of these issues; just like the intellectuals of the day, Binx could not accept the movies as mere escapism, but neither could he ignore (Pells 230).


As the mass media encroached upon the intellectual’s status as the source of information through the following decade, Percy shifted focuses in his writing in order to hold faster to religious convictions in the face of post-modern relativism. For example, in the 1970s, Percy clung to the master narratives of his Catholic faith in both of his novels written in that decade. In , the protagonist Tom More is a bad, but still faithful Catholic, who becomes one man on a mission to save the world from its own despair with a medical invention. Lancelot, on the other hand, weaves a tale of horrific retaliation against the oppression of mass media. Both novels indicate a move on Percy’s part from being ambivalent about popular culture’s influence on individuals to a more combative attitude. However, Percy does exhibit postmodern tendencies. His development in this respect may be seen in his experimentation with narrative structures and forms other than the traditional, chronological narratives. Michael Kobre argues that in Lancelot, the narrative constructed by the protagonist, Lance Lamar, which is associative and constructed by Lance as the novel progresses, is an example of metafiction, which comes to be a characteristic of post-modern writing. This development in Percy’s artistic voice could be interpreted as a response to changing cultural landscapes such as the prevalence of the “sound- bite” in late-twentieth-century America. The same could be said of the associative ramblings of Lost in the Cosmos, which actually takes the form of pop culture’s self-help book and reflects the final stage in the progression of Percy’s dispute with mass culture: he actually engages it within its own form to provide an answer that is, again, deeply rooted in his Catholicism. Secondly, Percy is himself a transitional figure in American culture. He is the descendant of a long line of Southern aristocracy, and Percy commented often on how distant he felt from that familial tradition. He may have felt some of this distance because of his father’s suicide that occurred during his childhood while Percy was away at camp one summer. Patrick Samway chronicles in his biography of Percy that his father’s funeral and burial had taken place by the time he arrived home, so in effect, his father disappeared, creating a void in what was a connection to aristocratic roots. It has been documented that while teaching a class at Louisiana State University in the early 1970’s, Percy, in an oddly confessional moment, said, “The central mystery of my life is to figure out why my father committed suicide” (Samway 312). But Percy also grew tired of the associations his readers made between him and southern high culture and Agrarianism. In his self-interview, “Questions They Never Asked Me,” Percy said “I’m sick and tired of talking about the South and hearing about the South,” and expressed displeasure with


those who would ask questions about the Old South and the transition to the New South (398- 399). In another interview, this one with W. Kenneth Holditch, Percy says that he appreciates the culture of the Agrarians, but only to a point: I think it’s a good thing to do, to identify with your region. What happens is, you discover where you come from and reach passionate allegiances to it […]. What you do is you retain affection for your country, your region, but you begin to see how there are more important things than who won that war [the American Civil War] (28-29). Percy also says in this interview that his cousin and adoptive father figure, , a lawyer, planter, and minor poet, was not an Agrarian. Such comments make clear the way in which Percy distanced himself from the Agrarians. But at the same time, Percy was not all that enamored with the new, emerging mass culture that emerged in America in the years following World War II. He finds himself at odds with popular culture in many of the ways Andrew Ross chronicles in his history, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. These points of contention will be more thoroughly explored in the subsequent portions of this thesis, and I will draw on Ross’s account of the conflict between intellectuals and popular culture to explain and historicize Percy’s problems with mass media and the effects it can have on the identity. During his lifetime, Percy produced two unpublished novels, six published novels, two books of nonfiction, and many essays on philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics, some of which are collected in a posthumous volume. In this thesis, I devote attention to The Moviegoer (1961), Lancelot (1977), and Lost in the Cosmos (1983); I have chosen these works because they serve best to illustrate the changes Percy’s style and narrative voice undergo as popular culture proliferates. Concerning The Moviegoer, I argue that Binx Bolling finds himself torn between his family’s agrarian past and the siren song of suburban bungalows, movie houses, and a life of low moral responsibility. Rather than conforming to either, Binx settles into a midcult existence, which Ross explains existed as a way to contain what some intellectuals understood as the spreading contagion of popular culture. In Lancelot, Lance Lamar is also torn between competing cultures. However, Binx’s dealing with mass culture seems quite complacent when contrasted with Lance’s attack on a film company that has cuckolded him and invaded his family home to film an all but pornographic movie in the later novel. The novel’s critique of the


prevalence of sex in popular media is blunt, and I posit that Lance’s anger with the director— who has an affair with his wife and makes her a sexual object in his movie—is best understood in light of Ross’s history of the cultural transition of who was privileged to view pornography. Part of Lance’s goal becomes to take pornography away from the masses and reserve it again for the higher classes. My final chapter analyzes Percy’s most difficult to categorize book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, which mimics the form of self-help genre that grew to be wildly popular in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Despite its use of a popular form and Percy’s intent for the book to be accessible to general readers, I argue that Lost in the Cosmos is instead targeted at the intellectual community in order to criticize those who turn to the outlets of popular media with ambitions to become the unquestioned authorities revered by the mass public, who are already too easily led astray. I make this argument in light of Ross’s comments on the responsibility of intellectuals and the common ground he argues must be met between intellectuals and popular culture. Ultimately, considering these three of Percy’s works together demonstrates an inability of the intellectual to exist outside the influence of mass culture. It cannot be ignored, as Dwight MacDonald proposes (Pells 229); rather, a balance between intellectuals and the masses must be reached if the intellectuals are to matter at all in the twenty- first century.


CHAPTER 1 MIDCULT IN THE MOVIEGOER In 1959, two years before Walker Percy published his National Book Award winning- novel, The Moviegoer, he published an article called “The Culture Critics” in Commonweal, to which he was a regular contributor. Percy’s article reviewed and supplemented the argument of two books: Thomas Griffith’s The Waist-High Culture and Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers. He praises their work, calling Griffith an “acute social critic” who is “aware as anyone of the tendencies towards banality and the second-rate in much of American life” (248). Griffith and Packard both conclude that democracy and the importance it places in the common man’s opinion contributes greatly to the mediocrity of American culture. But Percy mentions that the American intellectual is just as much a part of this failing. “The rest of us are disappointing in our docility before mass culture,” he writes, “and the intellectual is hardly more helpful in his self-promotion to an elite. It is the hardest thing in the world to see the intellectual in any other framework than the class lines he himself has drawn” (248). Percy, just like the writers to whom he responds in his article, frets over the impact mass culture could have on the intellectual and cultural integrity of the United States. Indeed, intellectuals and writers in the mid-to-late 1950s were in a precarious situation in the face of McCarthyism. Thomas Schaub describes a scrambling of liberals and communists in American who, because of Stalinism, were forced to either reposition themselves towards the political center or perform in a “high-wire act” of establishing an anticommunist liberalism, which everyday Americans did not buy (8). Additionally, there was tremendous pressure in American society to be a homogenous, united thriving nation in order to defeat the advance of communism. A Frankfurt School understanding of mass culture, however, provides a more unnerving perspective on this uniting, especially since mass media is inundated with advertising and product promotion in order to maintain the body of consumers the American capitalist system needs to perpetuate itself. However, Andrew Ross chronicles in No Respect that much Marxist rhetoric had been excised from American writing on popular and mass culture by intellectuals wary of it because of the associations those thinkers fostered between the consumer-


controlling, capitalist nature ascribed to mass culture in its Frankfurt school interpretations and the totalitarianism exercised by the Stalinist regime in Soviet Russia. These associations between mass culture and communism spring from the earliest portions of the Cold War, during which intellectuals spoke about mass culture as a disease that would rapidly overtake everything good and American. Everything distinctly American should be exceptional, so a take-over by low, packaged culture might as well be a communist coup. Percy’s critique of the American intellectual in “The Culture Critics”, then, seems to grow out of his disgust with thinkers who believe themselves to be out of reach of the homogenizing effect of American capitalism, chalking it up to class divisions. But by the middle of the 1950’s, as Ross points out, intellectuals had changed their tune and began to notice a new threat—popular culture attempting to improve itself: Earlier metaphors of contagion about the “spreading ooze” of popular culture— “the infection cannot be localized”—were now simply displaced onto the growing threat of midcult, demonized as a parasitical culture that threatens the authenticity of high and popular culture alike. “Midcult” had grown out of the cultural populist movements of the twenties and thirties, aimed at popularizing and democratizing the high arts for the benefit of the “average man,” who was neither patrician nor plebian. Midcult’s institutions included the Book-of-the-Month Club, NBC radio’s “music appreciation” hours, the Great Books series, and many other self-educational programs that [Dwight] MacDonald satirized as Howtoism. (56-57) In Against The American Grain (1962), Dwight MacDonald also includes the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Oklahoma! and its “folk-fakery,” and the Atlantic as agents of the midcult, which is more menacing than mass culture because it poses as high culture (36-39). Ross goes on to argue that this middle-brow culture becomes an excellent model for the “containment” of the virulent, contagious, popular culture feared by intellects early in the Cold War that “results in the formation of new audiences, new cultural identities, and new relations of respect and disrespect” (60). The influence of the “midcult” seems to be the mediocrity under attack in Percy’s “The Culture Critics.” Moreover, I argue that Percy takes issue with the midcult again as he writes The Moviegoer. Other critics of the novel do not so readily address the conflict between high and


popular culture that is part of Binx Bolling’s crisis. Instead, the earliest criticism of Percy’s first published novel and his subsequent work points towards its philosophical and religious aspects. Martin Luschei in one of the first book-length studies of Percy’s work, The Sovereign Wayfarer (1972), explores The Moviegoer as a search for vocation in the midst of modern malaise, drawing much from Percy’s familiarity with existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard and Marcel. Luschei also cites the problem of “inauthenticity” that Percy outlines so masterfully in his first novel, but this “inauthenticity” also relates to problems of mass culture. Because of inauthenticity’s strong presence in the novel, I believe The Moviegoer is just as rich in the context of late-modernist, Cold War models of understanding and coping with mass culture as outlined by Ross. Binx’s identity is in limbo in the novel: on the one hand, the mass-produced and widely-disseminated culture of movies, radio, and manufactured products calls to Binx’s sensibilities, and on the other hand, the noble, agrarian culture of his aunt, Emily Cutrer, beckons. Binx’s “search” in the novel becomes a search not only for some sort of truth of existence or religious faith, but for a way to situate his own identity in the cultures that surround him. I argue that Binx settles in the midcult because it is able to collapse the competing popular and high culture into one, but this is not necessarily a positive ending in Percy’s worldview. Two critics have addressed the issue of mass culture in Percy’s work: Daniel Schenker and Phillip E, Simmons. Schenker points out Percy’s condemnation of American culture as a mediocre, status seeking, immoral business as it appears in all of his novels and some of his non- fiction.2 Still, Schenker problematizes the notion that Percy can be thought of a cultural critic because the doctor-turned-author thought of himself primarily as a religious writer and saw cultural criticism as a discipline that would be stuck dealing with gross generalities: Percy preferred and found more fruitful the study of individuals who create culture. Schenker also aligns Percy with the Southern Agrarian movement, the great arbiters of taste and high culture during the early-to-middle twentieth century. This situates Percy in a late-modern context rather than postmodern, which Simmons points out in his close reading of mass culture in The Moviegoer. Simmons pairs his analysis of The Moviegoer with a close reading of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (1988), which he understands to be much more tolerant of and playful with the supremacy of consumer culture in late-twentieth-century America. In The Moviegoer, though, Simmons sees in the world surrounding Binx “the recent history of the rise of mass culture becom[ing] part of the older mythoi of the fall from grace and the loss of the values of


the aristocratic, agrarian old South” (24). The novel’s resolution, for Simmons, lies in Binx’s “negotiation between high culture and low” and “accommodation between [his] patrician and plebian identities” (27)—an attempt to situate himself among the traditional master narratives of history, an idea which Simmons borrows from Lyotard. Simmons argues that, unlike The Mezzanine’s narrator, Binx “at last finds the exit and is able to reenter the historical patterns of the world outside the theater” (27). He concludes that Binx situates himself more so within his Aunt’s plans, “conform[ing] to the traditional proprieties of professional respectability and family duty.” However, I argue that through the course of the novel, Binx incorporates much more from the popular culture of the cinema and suburban into the old, agrarian ideals of his Aunt Emily, situating himself into a distinctly midcult identity. At the novel’s beginning, Binx is quite comfortable with the life he leads in the suburb, Gentilly. Binx explains: It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I won a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all the spot announcements of the radio about mental health […]. Yesterday, a favorite of mine, William Holden, delivered a radio announcement on litterbugs. “Let’s face it,” said Holden. “Nobody can do anything about it—but you and me.” This is true. I have been careful ever since. (MG 7)3 This passage is a famous one, and a favorite among critics who emphasize Percy’s existentialist bent; Binx is happy, albeit mildly disturbed, too, it seems, to see proof of his being as a picture on a government-issued identification card. Additionally, his collection of all-star consumer goods—the best television, air conditioner, and deodorant available—creates a mainstream, mass culture identity for him. This identity is a performed one, and Binx is more than happy to participate in its underlying capitalist mechanisms. Not only is he happy about his driver’s license, he rejoices at receiving a receipt for “carry[ing] out the duties of a citizen.” Like his neighbors in Gentilly, he causes no trouble in the community, and he does not make himself stand out. He mentions later that he chooses his first car, a Dodge Red Ram Six, because “[i]t


was a comfortable, conservative and economical two-door sedan, just the thing it seemed to me, for a young Gentilly businessman” (MG 121). Binx’s choice of the Dodge sedan is also cited by Luschei in his discussion of inauthenticity in the novel, because Binx imagines himself in the same scenario as the couple in the Dodge advertisement (24). He takes the experience sold to him in the magazine ad in the place of his true experience. This is the first indication that the identity Binx assumes in the context of mass culture is not only connected to the simple purchase of goods, but to mass media. Michael Kobre notes in his book, Walker Percy’s Voices that much of Binx’s speech in The Moviegoer can be read as an example of Bahktin’s “double-voiced text.” Kobre says, “Binx is omnivorous in his use of language, taking in and echoing almost everything he hears in his culture, so that soap commercial blends into sermon” (23). It follows that everything Binx hears and reads filters into his identity as well. Consumer Reports is the magazine that informs Binx’s behavior of consumption, and he is a frequent moviegoer, television viewer, and radio listener. He is not concerned about littering because of a sincere desire for a well-kept neighborhood, but because tells him, perhaps even empowers him, to do something about it. Not only is he aware that mass media and culture have an effect on himself, he is aware of its stranglehold on others: Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man. (MG 7) Simmons reads this passage as an indication of Binx’s wariness that his “personal history” is comprised only of memories of the movies he has seen, and that it distresses him that the movies then are more “significant” despite their fiction than the stories related by “traditional print culture” (32). This reading is problematic, though, because it privileges the moment related with words from a book over Binx’s memories of the movies. Why declare significant any moment from a book or from a movie? Moments from either source are canned expressions of vapid emotion: the person who forms a “relationship” with the loner from Central Park will describe it as “sweet and natural” because that is how “they say it in books.” Moreover, Binx describes his


movements in comparison with the actor with whom he identifies at that particular moment; he mentions that while he is at his office he keeps a “Gregory Peckish sort of distance” between himself and his most recent secretary and love interest, Sharon (MG 68). Binx appears to be fairly immersed in mass culture and media, and it is also an element of mass media that contributes to his identity’s collapse into the midcult. Besides being a faithful moviegoer, he is a faithful listener to the radio program, “This I Believe,” during which “hundreds of the highest-minded people in our country” read over the airwaves their “personal credos” (MG 108). From Binx’s explanation of the program, there actually seems to be little high-mindedness at all. He tells us, “Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod” (MG 109). This, again, is an example of the canned expression from popular media sources, like the memories from books or movies. What makes “This I Believe” different and distinctly an element of the middle-brow would be its promulgation of the “high-minded”: like the before mentioned “music appreciation” hours on the NBC radio network, “This I Believe” fosters high ideals in a wide populace. Still, Binx recognizes the beliefs as cold, empty, and impersonal: “On This I Believe they like everyone. But when it comes down to this or that particular person, I have noticed that they usually hate his guts” (MG 109). Moreover, it is only after the show returns to Binx his recorded beliefs (“I believe in a good kick in the ass”) that he begins listening to the show faithfully. He discovers that the program is not a popular culture outlet because it rejects his lowbrow, physical humor while appropriating the voices of intellectuals, such as the playwright featured the night Binx listens in The Moviegoer. Rather, the show attempts to maintain an air of integrity, and Binx realizes the show for what it is: “self-improving” (to use Ross’s word from earlier), enriching, middlebrow mass culture. This sets the stage for Binx’s collapse into the midcult. A similar impingement by the midcult occurs in Aunt Emily’s culture in The Moviegoer as well. Like the expressions of mass media outlets, Emily’s appearance is cold. Binx describes her as “soldierly in both look and out look,” and “blue-white hair and keen quick face and terrible gray eyes” dominate her appearance (MG 27). She is the figure in the novel for the old nobility of the agrarian South, which as Simmons points out, wanes in the face of industrialization and urbanization (24, 33). Her summons of her nephew the week before Ash Wednesday solicits the reader’s attention at the beginning of the novel, and it is also a summons


for Binx to return to the noblesse oblige ideals of his family. He is the last of the Bollings, and Emily believes that he has inherited the talents and tastes of his father and grandfather. “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain to make a contribution?” she asks Binx on his visit (MG 53). He replies, no, but Emily persists. She attacks the world, trying to make it an “other” to herself and to Binx. She says to him: “The things we [emphasis added] hold dear are reviled and spat upon. […] A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.” (MG 54) This speech is a rephrasing of Marcus Aurelius (Simmons 27) and one that most deeply ties Emily to old, genteel culture. Within her genteel culture, she establishes a conditional identity for Binx: he cannot be, even on the most basic level, unless he follows her wishes and uses the talents Emily thinks he has for the betterment of all, even of those who belong to what Emily looks down on as low culture. But Emily’s noble culture begins to collapse into the midcult as well. The most obvious indication of this comes from Binx’s mentioning that Emily passes her time listening to classical music and is part of a Great Books circle, a group Ross explicitly names when defining midcult (57). Such a collapse might also come from the similarities Binx recognizes between his family’s noblesse oblige culture and his cinema culture. Both require an absence of individual thought, especially visible in Emily’s à-la carte ethical and philosophical beliefs. Upon seeing The Life of Buddha on his aunt’s table upon a visit, he says, “my aunt likes to say she is an Episcopalian by emotion, a Greek by nature and a Buddhist by choice” (MG 23). Such observations indicate to Binx that he must either blindly follow the tenets of a centuries-dead emperors and philosophers or allow the movies to create his memories for him. Both are chillingly impersonal, and since Binx dabbles in both, he is impersonal as well. As Kate, his step-cousin (Emily’s step-daughter) tells him, “You’re a cold one, dear. […] Cold as the grave” (MG 83). Without individual thought, Binx is as being-less and lifeless as a grave. Before coming to terms with the collapse of the two cultures competing for him into the midcult, he returns to what seems at first to be an activity that can provide an escape from the battleground of culture: womanizing. But even Binx’s descriptions of his secretaries, with whom he most often cavorts, explains them as products of mass culture:


I have had three secretaries, girls named Marcia, Linda, and now Sharon. Twenty years ago, practically every other girl born in Gentilly must have been named Marcia. A year or so later, it was Linda. Then Sharon. In recent years, I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. […] Twenty years from now I shall perhaps have a rosy young Stephanie perched at my typewriter. (MG 8) He runs with his newest secretary, Sharon, down to the Gulf to get away, mentioning that his MG, the car he owns after having given up the sensible Dodge sedan, is “immune to the malaise” (MG 122). But Binx secretaries, and Sharon in particular, as Lewis Lawson argues, are figures of both high and mass culture. In one of his essays in Still Following Percy, his second collection of writings on Percy’s fiction, Lawson demonstrates that many of the poses Binx describes Sharon striking while in the office or on the beach bear resemblances with depictions of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, in classical art. Lawson refers to an Aphrodite statue that came into the collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1958 which would have made national news at the time, and he locates the presence of the love goddess in Binx’s subconscious, perhaps even in a remembrance of the statue from news stories (61). He also cites a passage from The Moviegoer in which Binx describes Sharon playing in the ocean foam and calls to remembrance the myth of Aphrodite’s birth from sea foam, as portrayed in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, as well as citing specific, famous statues of Aphrodite from various times during the classical period (69). His compelling essay further establishes Binx as one attuned to the classical arts, just as his Aunt Emily would certainly appreciate Botticelli. When Binx imposes such classical artistic imagery onto one of his cookie-cutter secretaries (even subconsciously), he collapses elements of the high and low together, creating a midcult object for his attention. After romping with the love goddess on the beach, Binx takes her to his step-father’s camp house for what he hopes to be a romantic tryst, but instead happens upon his mother and his family of step-brothers and sisters, all of whom are much younger than him. He admits, however, that his favorite is Lonnie, who is fourteen years old, confined to a wheelchair, and quite sickly. Lonnie likes the movies, too, and during his visit with his family, Binx takes Lonnie to see a drive-in movie. He is also selling magazine subscriptions in the hopes of winning a Zenith Trans-World transistor radio. But beyond being a moviegoer and radio


listener, Lonnie is devoutly Catholic—the most religious of all his family. In fact, despite his infirmity, he wishes to fast in the upcoming Lenten season. This combination of characteristics in Lonnie serves as a foil to the unsure Binx, in whose head a curtain falls at the very mentioning of God. Before Binx returns to New Orleans, he and Lonnie talk some about their faiths: “Wait,” [Lonnie says.] “What?” He searches the swamp, smiling. “Do you think that Eucharist—” “Yes?” He forgets and is obliged to say straight out: “I am still offering my communion for you.” “I know you are.” “Wait.” “What?” “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “How much?” “Quite a bit.” “I love you too.” But already he has the transistor in the crook of his wrist and is working at it furiously. (MG 165) Lonnie has already negotiated an identity for himself by collapsing together elements of popular culture and high, noble culture into a middlebrow one. He enjoys movies and radio programming, but unlike his step-brother, he does not allow himself to be completely captivated by them. On the other hand, he embodies somewhat of a noblesse oblige ideal in his religious fervor. The particular talent that he has—his faith—he uses for Binx’s benefit, for someone poorer in faith than himself. Moreover, he still seeks improvement for himself, as midcult identities do (again referring to Ross’s definition) in his desire to fast during Lent, albeit a very different kind of self-improvement. He does not seek to put on religious airs or use religion in order to earn higher esteem from others. Lonnie’s religious self-improvement is based in a deeply seated faith, and he incorporates these traits into his identity not at the cold demand of the respective cultures, but on his own accord.


Binx’s experience with Lonnie is a first step in realizing that he cannot escape cultural forces by gallivanting with his secretaries. He realizes that he must forge his own identity by merging his moviegoing-culture into his aunt’s aristocracy. This realization becomes an immediate predicament when he allows Kate to accompany him on his trip to Chicago. By the time of this trip, Binx and Kate have all but firmly decided to marry. On the train to Chicago, Kate proposes that they get intimate, but brings up the subject in an odd way. She says she asked her therapist what he might think of her “having a little fling,” and explains what she means by using a comic book: an object of popular media. She uses her retelling of this therapy session as an invitation for intimacy to Binx. However, things go terribly awry in Binx’s mind. In a direct address to the reader, he says that he wishes one of two things had happened: one, that he had left Kate alone, and, metaphorically, went to sleep on the couch—the noble thing to do—or two, “do what the hero in a novel would do. […] give her as merry a time as she could possibly wish for” (MG 199-200). Instead, the two fail at sex. “Flesh poor flesh failed us,” says Binx. This moment in the novel is a failed attempt by both Binx and Kate to situate themselves between Emily’s nobility and escapades of popular romance novels. The act, as Binx explains, did not happen following either model. Binx did not nobly decline Kate’s offer for premarital relations (as Emily would hope they would). Nor did he perform popular culture’s portrayal of romantic trysts. Instead, he miserably failed both. It becomes obvious to Binx now that he must find an agreeable mix of the two to succeed. Before Binx can resolve the issue for himself, Emily summons him again. For this meeting, though, Emily counts Binx as a lost cause. Still, she articulates quite clearly the ideals that she holds to in her desire to uphold the noble Bolling values. Her ranting confirms her alignment with elitist, agrarian culture because of her scathing critique of mass, “mediocre” culture—an obvious jab at midcult. Emily tells Binx she tried to pass along to him the characteristics of the Bolling men, “a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women—the only good things the sough ever had and the only things that really matter in this life” (MG 224). To be a gentleman does not require individuality, but it does require adherence to certain rules and guidelines for behavior, which in turn force an identity upon an individual. After this lecture, Binx conflates the mass culture which had entranced him with the elitism his aunt had been trying to force upon him. When sitting on the playground across the street from the house in which he rents his perfect room, the


playground of a new school building—which he earlier admired for its pristine manufactured- ness and its use of aluminum gutters made by a company in which he owns stock, he says: having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, […] and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb won’t fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire. (MG 228) That malaise is the midcult, the mediocre, suburb dwelling, position seeking culture of the middlebrow during the Cold War—the culture that Percy criticizes in “The Culture Critics” and again in The Moviegoer. This pseudo-identity that Binx forms for himself is recognized in the novel’s epilogue. This is not an identity that Binx forms for himself, but one he establishes to please those closest to him. He and Kate marry, and he acquiesces to Emily’s wishes that he attend medical school, but Binx’s attitude indicates that he would be seeing and treating patients rather than contributing his talent to medical research as Emily wishes. Moreover, Emily realizes that the Bollings “had gone to seed” and that Binx was not “one of her heroes, but a very ordinary fellow” (MG 237). Kate has even found for them an ordinary house, renovated by a cousin and trimmed with suburban fads to Kate’s liking. Binx settles comfortably for a midcult identity. The other option for Binx could be the identity that Lonnie forges for himself because Binx’s does not include religious faith. Hence, Binx seems unsure of how to comfort his step- siblings as Lonnie lies dying in the hospital at the novel’s conclusion. The novel presents two versions of the middlebrow culture, then: a religious one, which Percy sets up for admiration in Lonnie, and a secular one, which Percy depicts as being aimless and despairing in Binx. Since Lonnie dies at the end of The Moviegoer and there is only a promise of happiness for the newly wed Binx and Kate, I think Percy gives an indication of which cultural group he fears is winning control of American culture. Percy’s outlook, then, is somewhat concomitant than with Ross’s evaluation of the situation of culture in the 1950’s, but definitely more urgent. Ross understands the midcult as an indifferent process of containment, but says, “This mechanism of containment is a process of identification” (60, emphasis retained from original). Percy agrees that it is a process of


identification, but he also sees it as an obsession with defeating of communism together to the point of the extinction of the individual that may eventually prove to be for naught: “what people fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb won’t fall.” This leads back to what emerges as one of Percy’s primary concerns in his writing: finding certain identity in an age of uncertainty. Binx is unable to accomplish this. The suburban, midcult life that Binx establishes for Kate and himself, providing only the promise of happiness for them, is still an unstable mix of two cultures Percy would have considered quite disparate. This is a marker for Percy’s frustration with the midcult as an instrument of identity, which will grow into a disgust for the ways in which mass media encourages conformity. Lancelot and Lost in the Cosmos further display the qualms Percy held with popular culture’s influence over the individual.


CHAPTER 2 THE SUBVERSION OF PORNOGRAPHY IN LANCELOT In a 1986 interview, Zoltán Abádi-Nagy queried Walker Percy concerning the morality his fiction in relation to John Gardner’s, suggesting that Percy’s is different from Gardner’s because it is more “cognitive” rather than “morally judgmental.” Percy responded by acknowledging the possibility of similarities, but goes on, saying, “Gardner makes me nervous with his moralizing. […] I think he is confusing two different orders of reality. Aquinas and the Schoolmen were probably right: art is making, morality is doing” (141). 4 Such a statement implies that the making can (and should) inform the doing. Percy also suggested this, perhaps through a veil of irony, in his 1977 self-interview when he called Lancelot (published the same year) “a small cautionary tale” (410). Many scholars and critics of popular American culture might consider Lancelot to be a novel of what not to do when frustrated by excessive sexuality in mass media and culture. The novel is a bit of a rabble-rouser and a departure from Percy’s other novels. Lancelot is a monologue by the novel’s protagonist, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, which relates how he discovered his wife, Margot’s, infidelity and burns down the Lamar family home, Belle Isle, as an act of revenge. Rodney Allen calls Lance “the voice through which [Percy] lets loose his self-professed desire ‘to attack things in our culture’” (111). Indeed, it is through the voice of this murderous narrator that Percy offers the keenest critique of popular culture to appear in his fiction. Lance is a near antithesis to Binx of The Moviegoer. Pamela Freshney in an article on the preponderance of movie imagery in both The Moviegoer and Lancelot identifies the opposition in the characters’ relationships with cinema. She believes Binx understands himself by understanding movies, whereas Lance “seeks to create the world in his own image,” forcing the world of images to understand him (727). Rather than settling for a comfortable midcult life as Binx does, Lance is the first of Percy’s protagonists to turn to violence. Enraged by his wife’s infidelity and the licentiousness of the filmmakers working at Belle Isle, he becomes a megalomaniac who attacks both the individuals and a culture that are offensive to him with cruel premeditation. Lance assumes a much more active role in the dispute with popular culture when compared to Binx, who wanders into the answer to his


problem while walking around the suburbs. Such reflects a more active role on Percy’s part, for underneath the maelstrom of murder, disjointedness, and a disturbed narrator, there is a deep moralizing of sorts that is preached in the reader’s reactions to Lance’s deeds. As we shall see, Percy demonstrates the need to take an active stance against mass culture, but not a violent one. Excluding violence, Lance and Binx do have some similarities. Both are held down by the ennui of modern life, and allow their routines and identities to be affected by media. The effect on Lance is in many ways more acute, especially when considering the disruptions caused by the film crew working at Belle Isle: Bob Merlin (Margot’s former lover), Janis Jacoby (Margot’s current lover), Raine Robinette, and Troy Dana. Lance talks with Percival, a faltering Catholic priest, about how complacent he had become with their take over at Belle Isle. When they first began working on their film about a strange visitor to a southern town who sexually liberates the population despite the disgust of a plantation owner, Margot moved her husband out to the pigeonnier so as to provide solace from the disturbance of late nights reviewing the filming of the previous week (L 43).5 Lance also relates how his personal schedule was affected by his dependence upon television news broadcasts, always retiring to his pigeonnier just in time for the ten o’clock news. He seems to already be slipping from his ancestor’s Agrarian past into the midcult identity that Binx assumes at The Moviegoer’s conclusion: he is himself the last son of an old, rich plantation family (despite his father’s crookedness), a well-educated lawyer who fought on the side of African-Americans in the 1960s, and has written scholarly articles on Civil War battles. In Lance’s narrative, we see Merlin, the film’s producer, ask him for advice on local culture and dialect, even conversing with him on his historical writing and literature. Worth noting here is that Lance, his auditor, Percival, and Merlin all share names with characters from the Arthurian Legends, the hallmark of the courtly, medieval romance.6 But while seeming to embody these high culture ideals, this scion is a desensitized sell-out. To remain financially afloat, Lance’s family resorted to opening Belle Isle to tourists, making his home a relic of a past era and a spectacle for a post-modern world in which, as Susan V. Donaldson remarks, “everything seems to be up for sale” (67).7 Belle Isle exists only as a simulacrum, its authenticity supplanted by popular imagery and its appearance in the film. The more ambivalent Binx Bolling, though, would have viewed this as a “certification” of the mansion, noting how it seemed his fellow moviegoers believed seeing a place they had visited on the silver screen


certified its existence (MG 63). Donaldson also notes how Margot recreates Lance in the popular image of the “gentleman planter,” a fusion of Hollywood personas portrayed by Gregory Peck (an actor also admired by Binx), Clark Gable and the likes (68). His reliance on the television news has been noted, and he additionally finds solace in drinking himself to sleep every night in his pigeonnier. Lance tells how he managed to break free from the trappings of his routine early in the narrative, but he happens across the truth that unbinds him as idly as his routine. He happens to notice while signing a permission form for his youngest daughter, Siobhan, that her blood type is O. He remembers his blood type is AB, and concludes that he cannot be the father. Through this, he discovers Margot’s infidelity, and because of the discovery, he begins to live again, actually paying attention to his surrounding and the words and actions of the film crew that has invaded his home. Lance describes how he can finally begin to be aware of things outside himself again: So anyhow I began my new life then when I stepped out of my life routine worn bare and deep as a cowpath across a meadow, climbed out of my rut, stopped listening to the news and Mary Tyler Moore. And strangely, stopped drinking and smoking. The second I left my old life’s cowpath, I discovered I didn’t need a drink. It became possible to stand still in the dark under the oaks, hands at my sides, and watch and wait. (L 63) He seems conscious of mass culture in this statement, obviously in his mentioning of Mary Tyler Moore and the news broadcasts upon which he is dependent, but he also identifies a mindless following, like that of a herd of livestock by mentioning his “old life’s cowpath.” He has become a commodity to mass culture in two ways. He has become a product to advertisers through television, but more importantly he realizes how his home and ancestral way of life have been appropriated by the filmmakers working on his plantation. As soon as Lance leaves his cowpath, he begins a quest, as he calls it, to capture solid proof of his wife’s infidelity, and he does so by subverting the tools of the mass media that offends him so much. The prevalence of sexuality in popular media appears very early in the novel as a hot button for the psychologically unstable narrator. He expresses to Percival his displeasure concerning an old movie theater they frequented years ago that now screens pornography. From the window of his cell at the Center for Aberrant Behavior, he can see the


poster for the film currently showing, The 69ers. Sexuality remains at the forefront of Lance’s musings even explaining a “sexual theory of history” that condemns the sexual practices of the age: “First there was a Romantic Period when one ‘fell in love.’ Next follows a sexual period such as we live in now where men and women cohabit as indiscriminately as in a baboon colony—or in a soap opera” (L 35). His history sets up a sexual dichotomy between high culture and low culture. Calling the first era the “Romantic” elicits associations with Romantic poetry like Wordsworth, Keats, and other famous love poets. Moreover, the mere mention of soap operas brings to mind melodramatic daytime narratives broadcasted by the large television networks and bolstered by corporate sponsorship On a similar note, Andrew Ross mentions a split between the high and popular culture conceptions of pornography and erotica in No Respect. In his chapter, “The Popularity of Pornography,” Ross provides an account of the shift in cultural perceptions of pornography in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, upper class men were the audience for most pornography, which existed in the circles of high art, away from the view of women and lower classes, who could be “corrupted.” The trend of associating erotic content with high art continued into the early parts of the twentieth century, especially when considering the controversy that surrounded the publication of such modernist works as Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, and Howl, which Ross cites as examples (180). Towards the end of the century, pornography was made available to a wider, lower class, mass audience through the proliferation of home video and large numbers of adult material publications. To demonstrate the shift in the middle of the century, he turns to the most renowned of all men’s magazines, Playboy. First published in 1953, the magazine had for its audience up-and-coming business executives, those who could afford the luxuries of high culture. The popularity of Playboy among this group “usher[ed] in a culture of consumption that represented a revolt against the stability of suburban breadwinning life” (172). By the middle of the following decade, “intellectuals and glitterati” were among the magazine’s readers, and writers like Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, and Arthur C. Clarke were contributors. Ross also explains that Playboy “predate[s] the more radical, democratizing claims promoted by the so-called sexual revolution of the decade from the late sixties to the late seventies” (173). But when the adult film industry proliferated during this decade, hundreds of magazines popped up which were no more than promotional rags for upcoming films. The same thing happened with the advent of home video around the time


Lancelot was published. These large numbers of promotional magazines and adult films reveal the rise of its popularity with more working class people through mass media outlets. This proliferation of sexuality in mass culture as chronicled by Ross is what enrages Lance Lamar most. He is well aware of the lines drawn between art and pornography. On Percival’s second visit to his cell, Lance reminisces indulging in artful eroticism with his friend years ago in the pigeonnier, relating it to the discovery of Margot’s adultery: Do you remember that room? You and I used to sit there on weekends or in the summer and drink and read aloud—you mostly—the dirty parts of Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer. That was a discovery for me too: that there were not only bad dirty books and great clean books but also great dirty books. (17) Lance learned early in life the dichotomy of high art/low art in the realm of pornography. Through reading with Percival he experiences the high and through taking part in a ménage-a- trois with Percival and a prostitute, he experiences the low class, less glamorous side (94). He is also very frank about his sexual experiences with Margot, one of which includes sex minutes before she gives a talk as president of a historical society at a banquet at the Governor’s Mansion (67). Without any regard for the high/low dichotomy of sexual experience, Lance flippantly glosses over his own sexual escapades, but he condemns Margot for her involvement with Merlin and Jacoby and the overt sexuality of the film they are completing on his ancestral home. The movie is clearly a proponent of the sexual revolution, as well, and Lance challenges this facet of the movie during dinner talk one afternoon after his awakening. Margot, Merlin, and Jacoby had been going on for some time about a planned scene in which a sharecropper rapes an aristocratic girl, but the rape becomes as act of erotic passion rather than sexual violence, turning what Jacoby calls a “death-dealing” act into a “life-enhancing” one. As Jacoby says, “the erotic, in any form at all, is always life enhancing” (L 114). Lance challenges this by bringing up another scene in the movie during which the racist sheriff has sex with the daughter of a black sharecropper. The sheriff, Lance retorts to the film crew “is both erotic and racist and therefore both life-enhancing and death-dealing. Having had intercourse with her, which was by no means rape, where does that leave him, canceled out so to speak, half bad half good, back at zero” (L 115)? His reaction exhibits that Lance’s worldview in the novel is a resistance to post- modern models of relativity—good and evil competing in a zero sum game. Jacoby and Merlin grow frustrated for a moment, then Merlin explains, “Wouldn’t you agree, Lance, that there is


such a thing as a sexist violent eroticism which is quite as exploitative as rape itself?” Lance replies, “No, I don’t understand that” (L 115). This relativity leaves no room for the quest Lance declares he is on early in the novel: the search for a sin, and Percy’s demented narrator is particularly interested in the nature of sexual sins. Another objection Lance has against the mass produced sexuality is that making popular culture eliminate the element of shame from it. Sexuality is paraded around in the open, and Lance suggests that if people are no longer ashamed of indiscriminate sexual behavior, the element of sinfulness is eliminated from it as well. The overly sexual movie also turns Margot into a sexual object for the masses, whereas before, her sexuality belong to Lance only. Lance dodges Percival’s implied question in the dialogue of whether or not he really loved Margot. In response, Lance sometimes speaks fondly of his first wife, whom he does say he loves, but every time the topic of Margot and love appear, Lance reverts to talking about the sex he and Margot had. Margot, in some ways, become like the portrait of Nell Gwynn that Charles II of England would reveal from behind a curtain for lucky viewers, as explained by John Berger.8 But one scene in the movie shows Margot’s character, a prudish librarian, being sexually liberated by the movie’s mysterious stranger, played by Dana. The scene is all but porn: Margot’s only line is, “You will be gentle with me, won’t you?,” and Jacoby obsesses over ensuring that the loud sound of Dana unzipping his fly is prominently heard on the soundtrack (153). Now not only is his wife sleeping with another man, but Lance must endure losing control of sexual access to Margot to the mass audience of the film. She and his sexual experiences with her no longer belong to his aristocratic self and his peers, like Percival. Because mass culture and its open wantonness have offended him in these ways, Lance orchestrates a complicated scheme for his revenge. Some critics, like Maria Hebert, propose that Lance is really taking his revenge on women in the novel. She uses his fixation with Anna, the rape victim in the room next to him, as a model of the New Woman, a woman violated to the point that she is de-liberated and put back under patriarchal rule as evidence of this, as well as his less than respectful attitude towards women during the length of the novel (like the aforementioned sharing of a prostitute with Percival). Furthermore, she explores how the women of the novel become a “conduit” forming a homosocial bond between the men in the novel: Margot brings Lance and Merlin together because both men have been dumped by her, the talk about her becomes a conduit between Lance and Percival, and the prostitute Lance and


Percival shared are a conduit between them. While I believe that the perspective of gender brings great insight to Lancelot, I think that the novel is best grasped by understanding Lance’s violence as a reaction against mass and popular culture. This is most evident when considering who dies directly at the murderous narrator’s hands: Jacoby, the director who is most open about sexuality, seeks to make sex a larger part of the movie, and who is currently having the affair with Margot. In a methane and rage induced moment of passion, Lance slits his throat with a Bowie knife.9 Moreover, all the persons who die in the explosion at Belle Isle are directly associated with the all-but-porn movie being filmed there. The violence is directed at the agents of mass media who brought about Margot’s infidelity: she had been away at one of Merlin’s acting workshops at the time Lance calculates his daughter was conceived, ergo her infidelity does not totally lie in her desire for other men. Her desire seems to be for material goods. If Margot were going to cheat on Lance out of mere spite or passion, she might have attempted making love to the fine appointments at Belle Isle. Lance recalls a moment of their love-making: I saw her arm stretch back in a way she had, but now not to grab the bedpost as a point of anchorage or leverage in the storm-tossed sea of love, to hold on for dear life—no, not at all: this time as her arm stretched up her fingers explored the fine oiled restored texture of the mahogany, her nails traced the delicate fluting of the heavy columns. (119) Instead of touching Lance in a sexual way, she caresses the bedpost. In some ways, then, burning down Belle Isle and destroying the things Margot loved was simply a fringe benefit of exacting revenge on those fostering an over-sexed culture. Perhaps the best indication that what Lance desires most is revenge against the movie culture itself is the manner in which he collects evidence of Margot’s affair. A character whose know-how becomes instrumental in the investigation is Elgin, a young African-American who conduct tours at Belle Isle. His family has long been in service of the Lamars, and despite his scholarship at M.I.T. and intelligence, he remains a faithful servant to Lance, partially because he helped him attain the scholarship. Elgin is a complex character because he is at once both part of the old South and of a progressive new era. Lance comments to Percival, “So Elgin was smart, Elgin was well educated. Elgin could read and write better than most whites. And yet. Yet Elgin still talks muffle-mouthed, says ax for ask, sa-urdy for Saturday, chirren for children” (92). He is in many ways like the stock Southern black characters the filmmakers include in


their caricature of the South, but at the same time just as intelligent as them (they often talk about film theory at dinner to exclude Lance). This puts Elgin in the position as a true representative of the South that Lance thinks Jacoby et al. are misrepresenting in their film. Lance uses the embodiment of the caricature against them. Of course, this puts Elgin in a precarious situation. He becomes an object for Lance’s use, but Lance thinks nothing of it because he perceives him as no more than a faithful servant. Elgin seems very aware of his status, though, and desires to overcome it. While sending Elgin away before burning Belle Isle, Lance gives him seventy-five thousand dollars from his and Margot’s funds instructing him that it is for the two things he wants the most: finish his M.I.T. education and to marry his Jewish classmate and live in an affluent neighborhood near Concord “despite all obstacles.” Elgin amends Lance’s phrasing, saying, “Not despite. Because” (L 199). Lance’s reconnaissance begins simply with Elgin keeping lookout at the Holiday Inn where the film crew are staying. After one night’s watching, Elgin reports seeing Margot entering Jacoby’s room for the night and Lance’s oldest daughter, Lucy, spending all night in Dana and Raine’s room. After hearing this, Lance calls the motel manager and uses some clout to get him to close the rooms, expecting the crew to move back into Belle Isle, where they were staying when they began filming. Lance then turns back to Elgin: “Tell me something, Elgin. How would you like to make a movie?” “Movie? What kind of movie?” “A new kind of cinéma vérité. […] Here’s where you can help me. There are a few technical problems.” (128) What Lance proposes to do is rig the rooms occupied by the crew with hidden cameras wired in to closed-circuit television monitors and recording equipment. Of course, the problems with this “cinéma vérité” Lance wishes to make are not just technical. Lance’s lack of trust in anyone but Elgin is solidified. At this point, it is clear Lance has become obsessed with catching his wife in the act of infidelity. He has not confronted her about his suspicions; rather, he sinks a substantial amount of money into equipment that he will use only once to make video news report, perhaps not much different from those from the ten o’clock news that held his rapt attention. His footage will also serve as a sexually charged, voyeuristic film for himself as an instrument of his revenge.


The making of his own movie is how Lance subverts the mass media that manifests itself as the film crew in the novel. On the most obvious level, the subversion lies in Lance’s use of television cameras. He uses the tools of the entertainment industry to entertain the “worm of interest” he has in catching his wife and condemning the movies as part of “this cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland U.S.A.” (L 158), a nation in which pornography has been made available to the masses through the films made by people like Jacoby (Lance notices that even Merlin tires of Jacoby’s talk of film theory and cinematography, and Lance thinks Merlin’s shrugs indicate his belief that the talk is a mere screen for the truth that the film is essentially pornography [L 110-111]). Lewis Lawson also explains that Lance creates a movie that exists as the narration he provides through the novel, which moves forwards and backwards through time and between philosophical ranting, sequences of event, and reminiscing: The hatred that Lance reveals toward the film people with whom Margot had become so infatuated must derive from his belief that they as moviemakers are responsible for the world of The 69ers. Since all the world’s a dirty movie, he will construct his narration à la cinéma, using the film technique of montage, rather than writing, for transition from scene to scene. (207) Moreover, the associations and narrative jumps that Lance makes between discovering Margot infidelity, his mother’s infidelity, his adventures with Percival, and his excoriating criticism of American culture reflect a narrator who is just as unstable and deviant as he perceives the movies to be. After a night of recording, Elgin brings Lance two videotapes. The manner in which Lance talks about the film uses the language of movie theatres and visual entertainment. The section during which Lance views the videotape is titled, “FRIDAY AFTERNOON AT THE MOVIES: A DOUBLE FEATURE” (L 185-192). He tells Percival, “the videotapes […] came out as a movie on my tiny Trinitron and […] I watched as gravely as I used to watch afternoon reruns of Gunsmoke” (L 185). The quality of the tapes is poor, registering only light and dark blotches, but reversed like film negatives. The “first feature” shows Margot’s room, in which she and Merlin embrace and have an argument. Though the sound quality is poor, he is able to piece together that Margot is no longer having her affair with Merlin because he is impotent. He realizes Jacoby is the new man in her life just as he appears on the screen. He watches them


have sex, and Margot’s head “comes off the bed and bends back until her face is looking upside down at the camera. Her eyes close on light, but her mouth opens letting out light” (L 190). By having sex with her and because of her fascination with the movies, Jacoby takes from Lance supreme control over Margot’s sexualty, and her part in the movie shows her sexuality to the masses. Jacoby overturns the dichotomy between high sex culture and low sex culture. With this videotape, however, Lance recaptures her from the sight of the masses, bringing her back to his aristocratic sight, viewing her once again in sexual action, even if with another man. For one final time, Margot is Lance’s Nell Gwynn peering from behind the curtain. After a brief intermission, Lance returns to his Trinitron to watch the second feature, the videotape of activity in Raine’s room. Due in part to poor quality again, what he views is a tangle of red bodies on the bed. He soon realizes the mass to be a ménage-a-trois between Raine, Dana, and his daughter, Lucy. Earlier in the novel, Lance mentions Lucy’s fascination with Raine and Dana’s new age ways, even saying she wanted to go live them and become part of their “threesome” (L 136). But Lance, through his somewhat clinical description of the oral sex he sees on the video, even using a diagram to show the “swastikaed triangle” shape they made on the bed, does not show concern from his daughter’s welfare. Instead his concern focuses on the implications of their sexual behavior; perhaps his description of their shape as “swastikaed” brings to mind again Lance’s worries that Raine and Dana had brainwashed his daughter, as fascism attempts to brainwash whole populations. He notes that the only voice he can hear and shapes he sees on the tape are neither male nor female, just as oral sex eliminates masculine and feminine roles. As soon as he is finished viewing the movies, Lance begins to plot his revenge against the movies. His actions reflect careful premeditation so as to affect only those who are a party to the film. First, he disposes of his tapes and surveillance equipment in the channel near his home. Doing so removes the evidence that he has been cuckolded as well as ensures that his movies of Margot and Lucy will never be available to audiences. He then prepares a shopping list that includes every item needed to pipe the methane from an old gas well underneath Belle Isle to the air conditioning ductwork. An approaching hurricane provides a way for him to convince his father-in-law to leave with Siobhan, as well as for Elgin’s family and, oddly enough, Bob Merlin, Siobhan’s father and the first man with whom Margot had an affair. Many of Lancelot’s critics have glossed over this detail, as Lauren Sewell Coulter has noted in “The Problem of


Merlin’s Pardon in Walker Percy’s Lancelot.” She attributes the pardon to a mutual respect and gratitude on the part of Lance. Margot has shrugged both off, both despise Jacoby, and neither cares for the movie the crew is creating. As before mentioned, Merlin is interested in Lance’s scholarly pursuits, which makes him part of a more educated, limited class than the mass audience of the movies. Very early in the novel, Lance “associat[es Merlin] with an ever- diminishing group of elite” (101). This respect Coulter points out is of the high art and taste that is trampled on by movies like the one being made at Belle Isle. For this, Lance spares Merlin. More importantly, as Coulter again points out, “Merlin’s plan to rush to the Shenandoah Valley in search of a former love and return to the Hemingwayesque life of the hunt and good sex in Africa” (106) has much in common with Lance’s plans for his “Third Revolution,” in which he will move to Virginia with Anna from the next cell to start a new society built on old, chivalrous ideals. Even though Lance ridicules Merlin’s plans, the similarity indicates that both men consider themselves part of a high culture, whether that be one of Hemingway’s aesthetic or of courtly romance. After all those Lance wishes to spare have left, Margot, Jacoby, Raine, and Dana prepare a hurricane party with drugs and alcohol in the belvedere while Lance awaits the hurricane’s arrival in his pigeonnier. After the hurricane makes landfall, he leaves his pigeonnier for Belle Isle’s basement, where he connects the gas well into the ventilation. He proceeds upstairs, where he has sex with Raine, whose sexual desires remained unfulfilled because Dana had overdosed. This sexual encounter is awkward: he is unable to conquer his impotence until he sees that Raine is wearing Lucy’s sorority ring. “I discovered the secret of love,” Lance tells Percival, “It is hate” (235). Sex with the famous actress is impersonal; his own gratification is Lance’s only concern. The act puts a film icon at his disposal for his pleasure, again containing pornography for a small, elite audience. Afterwards, he leaves Raine passed out on the bed and enters his and Margot’s bedroom. He finds his wife and Jacoby in bed. After a brief struggle, he slits Jacoby’s throat. Margot reacts to her husband murdering her lover “in a simple dismay as if Suellen [their maid] had dropped her best Sèvres vase” (243). In a final and somewhat delirious (due to the methane that has filled the house) conversation, Margot suggests that they can start again, but Lance quickly eliminates that possibility when he tries to relight the kerosene lamp he carried into the room with him. Belle Isle explodes, and Lance says, “I was wheeling slowly up into the night like Lucifer blown out of hell, great wings spread against the starlight” (246). With his


malicious designs complete, he finally feels free from the intimate oppression mass media held over him. To some readers, utterly destroying Belle Isle, his family’s home for years, may seem excessive in his plans for revenge. Could he not have simply killed Jacoby, Margot, Raine, and Dana, leaving his home intact? On a practical level, no, because the fire destroyed the evidence of Jacoby’s murder. Moreover, after the invasion of the film crew, Belle Isle was no longer intact. It had become appropriated by a soft-core porno filled with caricatures and stereotypes of Southern life. Hence, Belle Isle’s destruction is a purging of sorts. The destruction of the house with fire is also an element of Lance’s subversion of the movie made by Jacoby and Merlin. One character in the movie, Lipscomb, is a defunct planter, who is displeased with his daughter, Sarah, who has fallen for a mysterious stranger who liberates the town. Lance suspects that Lipscomb is a character created to ridicule him, and he asks Merlin at one point about that character’s fate. Merlin replies by telling the end of the movie: “Just what you might suppose. He is almost reached, first by the stranger, then by his own aunt. But in the end he slips away from both. He gently subsides into booze and Chopin. Sarah opts for life, he for death. The stranger is immolated by a town mob who think they hate him but really hate the life forces in themselves that he stirs. He is the new Christ, of course.” (253) Lance’s revenge creates these scenes; the end of the movie becomes the end of Lance’s enemies. Indeed, the strangers who invade his home bringing the sexual revolution do not reach Lance. He does not so much “slip away” as plan an escape, but he does escape from his alcohol and television addiction. Burning Jacoby, Margot, Raine, and Troy in the fire at Belle Isle brings the immolation to pass, and indeed, Lance does not so much hate them by the novel end as he hates what they stand for. They are sacrificed in the fire as recompense for mass media’s transgressions against Lance and his elite culture. Moreover, his revenge is the conclusion of the movies he made with Elgin’s surveillance equipment. As Lawson explains, “Lance proves himself a better actor than any of the others, for he actually leaps from spectatorship into participation in his movie […]. He completes his ‘cinéma vérité’ (which become very vérité), whereas Jacoby will never finish his movie” (206). At the novel’s conclusion, Lance’s voice becomes intensely moralistic, speaking to Percival (who is by this time wearing his priestly collar again) in absolutes. Of America, he tells


his old friend, “We are living in Sodom” (L 255). Lance goes on to declare that if Percival’s God is real, God will not tolerate it; if God does not exist, he himself will not tolerate it, “us[ing] the sword” if necessary (L 256). He comments on Percival’s “vacant eyes,” indicating an unsettled reaction on his part. Most readers are probably unsettled as well by Lance’s delusional intention to violently battle against the immoral and the Russians. Such action is radical and hyperbolic. Hence William J. Dowie cautions readers to remember that Percy’s voice is not the same as his protagonist’s. Rather, he proposes that Percy is at the same time expressing and parodying his ire with popular culture. More importantly, he surmises the difference between author and character as essential because in all of Percy’s novels up to Lancelot, he was no moralizer. Instead, Dowie argues that “Percy sees contemporary society not as immoral but as amoral, missing the moral dimension and so incapable of acting either morally or immorally” (249). Such an understanding of Percy’s conception of contemporary culture makes the ending of the novel easier to swallow. Ultimately, the protagonist of Lancelot shows the dangers of taking such a violent reaction against mass culture. In an effort to wrestle free of its hold on his life, he loses it again in his self-righteous zeal. Lance often criticizes the other characters in the novel because they spend too much time in the movies or act as if they were in a movie while, ironically, he lives out his own movie of vengeance. The novel lives up to Percy’s description of it as “a small cautionary tale,” since it implies to readers that they should not act as Lance does. And since Lance is the antithesis to Binx’s passive, easy settling into midcult life, there must be a happy medium.


CHAPTER 3 INTELLECTUALLY LOST IN THE COSMOS If a group literary critics were asked which one of Walker Percy’s works would be remembered most in the twenty-first century, the preponderance of them might answer The Moviegoer. It did, after all, win the National Book Award and has garnered the most critical attention of Percy’s opuses. The author, however, had a different idea about his own work. In a 1984 interview which principally discussed Lost in the Cosmos, published one year prior, he told Jo Gulledge concerning its intermezzo, “If I am remembered for anything a hundred years from now, it will probably be for that” (interview with Gulledge 285). Percy’s notion of his own work here seems radical because Lost in the Cosmos is a radical departure from his novels—even from his non-fiction, philosophical essays. The difference is disconcerting to some: Francine Du Plessix Gray wrote in her review of Lost in the Cosmos, “I fear that those who are as enamored as I am of Mr. Percy’s fictions will feel like jilted lovers while trying to find their way in this particular cosmos” (69). R.Z. Sheppard, however, reviews the book more favorably, challenging readers to “[n]ame another voice in American writing that is as beguiling and as civilized as Walker Percy’s” (78). These opinions reflect the diversity of the book, which runs the gamut from wry satire to serious theoretical discussion. The disparate tones in the book make it difficult to categorize; its structure complicates things as well. On the whole, the work is structured like a self-help book: a preliminary six question quiz that determines whether the reader should read the rest of the book and a twenty- question quiz, which is interrupted by the intermezzo Percy himself valued so highly, but the text says could be “skipped without fatal consequences” (LC 83).10 But within this main structure, there are mini-parodies, mini-stories, scenarios, some of which are termed “thought experiments” by Percy. Some are realistic; others are outlandish. Some are absurdly humorous; others are gravely urgent. Despite the disparity of its content, the book is essentially an elaborate satire of the self-help genre in popular books, magazines, television, and radio. Peter Augustine Lawler suggests that Percy’s description of the book as nonfiction to his publisher was a ploy to place it on the shelf in bookstores side-by-side with self-help books it so vehemently ridicules (169);


moreover, its subtitle is The Last Self-Help Book. Such evidence suggests that Lost in the Cosmos openly attempts to subvert the self-help books that Percy believes are complicating individuals’ understandings of the self and its relation to the world. But beyond poking fun at the media outlets like The Donahue Show and Dear Abby, it also seeks to inform readers concerning the state of the self, promulgate the basics of Percy’s semiotic theory of the self (contained in the ambiguously important intermezzo), and presents two somewhat prophetic visions of the near future for a world still in the grips of a Cold War. But despite the manner in which The Last Self-Help Book poses as a how-to guide for understanding the self for the masses and the way it concisely reproduces the philosophical content of his earlier collection of essays, The Message in the Bottle, I argue that Percy’s target audience for Lost in the Cosmos is not the participant in mass culture, the everyday consumer of popular media, but the intellectual, who continually is forced to make his or her voice matter in a growing sea of popular media, but does so by abusing the outlets of mass media. To further describe the dangers I believe Percy sees intellectuals facing, I will turn again to Andrew Ross. In the final chapter of No Respect, “Defenders of the Faith and the New Class,” Ross reveals how the role of the intellectual as a policing agent of culture has changed during the course of the twentieth century. Early on, American intellectuals thought of themselves as the guiding light of the masses. He quotes William James in the chapter’s epigraph, who said that intellecutals’ role “corresponds to the aristocracy in older countries” (209). But as the century wore on, intellectuals were less and less frequently at the forefront of social movements, and “it has been the scientific intellectuals rather than humanists who have been at the forefront of this professional activism” (210). Still, some groups of intellectuals, like Lionel Trilling and the New York Intellectuals, retained an identity by organizing themselves into an “‘adversary culture’ which stands ‘beyond’ and ‘against’ the cultural conditioning of the larger society” (214). Ross describes this group as “transcendent” (214, emphasis retained from original), a term that will turn up in Percy’s theory of the self. Ross discusses this distinction for the intellectual by considering the source of its validation. He recalls the old medieval intellectual’s defense that his responsibility is to “eschew all partisan involvement in the name of a devotional commitment to higher principles—God, Art, Science, and other ‘institutions of truth’” (215). The problem with such an ideal, as Ross explains, is that this rationalization easily masks allegiance to power structures (an issue Percy will address in Lost in the Cosmos). He also


addresses the “responsibility of intellectuals,” which relates to the influence they are able to exert over political and historical courses at particular points of history, and the “new class” which has been defined in varying ways by intellectuals in the later portion of the twentieth century. At the chapter’s end, Ross articulates his idea of the “new intellectual” who “will possess specific professional or occupational skills and knowledges that can be applied within institutions but also in different public spheres and communities” (230). Their strategy is multifaceted; using the outlets of popular culture is as easy as using the outlets of their intellectual or professional field. Such a strategy can be used to find “common ground” between the cultures of the popular and the intellectual, which Ross holds to be of the greatest importance at the end of the century. It seems, then, that Percy was one of the intellectuals using a popular outlet, then, to disperse his notions concerning why the self is broken in American culture and how it could be fixed. This is also a logical step in Percy’s progression as a writer: before Lost in the Cosmos, he was an author of primarily novels and philosophical essays, conveying his points through the media of high, intellectual culture. With his self-help book, Percy actively leaves the established literary forms and attempts to express his philosophical ideas through a popular media. However, it was only later in the process of writing Lost in the Cosmos that it seems he came to this approach. Its original title was Novum Organum, a would-be tribute to the seventeenth- century collection of aphorisms of the same name by Sir Francis Bacon, the empiricist’s empiricist. Percy also originally conceived the book to be similar to The Message in the Bottle, as a collection of essays. This suggests that early in the process of writing Lost in the Cosmos Percy had in mind for his principle audience other intellectuals. In the end, though, Percy claims that he “wrote it as a primer and in a light tone to make it accessible and to avoid academic portentousness” (interview with Gulledge 285). Lawler also calls the book Percy’s “most accessible” and “the best introduction to him as a philosopher and social or political analyst” (169). In that respect, the book could be described as an updated version of The Message in the Bottle told in an associative narrative form—the same ideas wrapped around a frame of reference closely attuned to popular culture. Percy’s complicated relationship with popular and mass culture that we have seen in previous chapters is certainly key to understanding this book. In The Moviegoer, Percy uses a surrogate to portray a passive resolution to the conflict between high and low culture, ending with Binx’s settling into the midcult. The surrogate of Lancelot, though, is disturbingly violent


against the creators of popular culture, the filmmakers who invaded Belle Isle. Lost in the Cosmos, however, is Percy’s most direct criticism of television, movies, and popular books. It is, after all, a parody, and some of the criticism is not always veiled in his vignettes as it is in the dialogue of his novels’ narrators. Moreover, since he described the work as nonfiction, readers are likely to assume the voice of Lost in the Cosmos is Percy’s own voice. But also a target in Percy’s parody are the presentations of scientific or otherwise academic knowledge in popular media. Lawler sums up this aspect of Percy’s criticism by Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion from Democracy in America that: Americans are Cartesians without having read a word of Descartes. […] For Percy, what Tocqueville means is that the Americans are pop Cartesians. They understand the world with explanations given in the language of popularized science, put forth by experts. […] For Percy, that means that the Cartesian experts have become sovereign. They are the source of the allegedly objective opinions, those of Phil Donahue, psychotherapists, counselors, and so forth, to which we turn for guidance (181). With such a consideration, the use of popular culture by intellectuals appears to be the target of this book’s criticism, though the consumers of mass culture do receive some criticism. Very early in the book, the scenario accompanying question seven, “The Misplaced Self,” presents a small Midwestern town that has been invaded by a film crew. The citizens have satisfied every wish of the crew because of their desire to be in the movie; while at the same time, the actors and actresses in the film have altered their personas to become nice because the townspeople commented about how nice they were. In a question that echoes The Moviegoer, Percy asks which group is more real: (a) the actors, (b) the citizens, or (c) both (LC 37-38). The longwinded, presumptuously correct answer is (c), explaining that the film is an illusion that alters each group’s perception of reality, resulting in a change of behavior to match the reality they see. They find themselves somewhere between reality and the illusion. It is only after this noting of the masses’ propensity for attempting to alter their realities to match the ones portrayed on popular media that Percy begins to turn his criticism towards a direct way in which consumers of popular culture absorb the ideas of intellectuals engaged with the media. In the next section, “The Promiscuous Self,” Percy cites statistics concerning the sexual behavior of Americans: the number of divorces, the number of sexual encounters on soap


operas that are between married couples, the number of sexually active teenagers. The section’s question asks why Americans seem to prefer such “sexual variety,” and Percy offers ten choices, ranging from simple biology to social strictures. Most interesting is the “Thought Experiment” that accompanies the section, a sequence entitled “The Last Donahue Show” (LC 45-56). It is certainly a part of the book in which Percy flexes his artistic muscles, providing realistic descriptions of Phil Donahue’s mannerisms on his daytime talk show. The guests on the fictional show are Bill, a gay man from San Francisco, Allen, a married businessman fond of trysts, a pregnant fourteen-year-old named Penny, and Dr. Joyce Friday, “a well-known talk- show sex therapist, or in media jargon: a psych jockey” (46). Right away, all of these character seem to be set up for contempt in their appearance on the imaginary Donahue Show, but especially Dr. Friday, based on her description as a “psych jockey,” sounds a little pejorative, especially that her name is a fairly obvious parody of the popular columnist, Dr. Joyce Brothers. The show opens with Bill’s and Allen’s stories. Bill is a frequenter of Buena Vista Park, where he claims to have held liaisons with over five hundred men despite having a live-in partner.11 Donahue sets him up for some mild ridiculing by the audience by asking for a demonstration of the signals used to communicate sexual interest, making sexual behavior, a once private act, a spectacle for the masses. After telling his story, Donahue “pushes up the nose-bridge of glasses, swings mike over to Dr. J.F. without looking at her” (46). After hearing Bill’s story, the talk show host turns instinctively, it seems, to the intellectual for an opinion or explanation for Bill’s behavior. Dr. Friday really does not explain why Bill enjoys sexual promiscuity, but rather supplies a way for him to perhaps to enliven his sex-life with his partner. A similar pattern follows for the other guests. Allen tells Donahue and the audience about his hobby of having lunchtime rendezvous with female coworkers. When Allen suggests that his wife is happy with their marriage, Allen becomes an object for the audience’s disdain, and again, Donahue turns to the expert, saying, “It’s all yours, Doc” (48). Again, Dr. Friday does not explain the cause of Allen’s desire, but cites studies that suggest “open marriages” could be healthy, which earns some booing from the audience, but that quickly subsides. At first the audience is skeptical, but they soon accept Dr. Friday’s commentary, just as Donahue does. After a commercial break, Donahue returns to speak with Penny, asking if her parents were okay with her being on television. Percy describes the camera panning to them, “settling on a couple with mild, pleasant faces. It is evident that on the whole they are not displeased with


being on TV” (49). This description seems to criticize parents who allow their children to be featured on television shows like Donahue’s in order for the parents to get media exposure or validate their existence through appearing on the omnipresent media of television. During the middle of Dr. Friday’s assessment of Penny’s obvious immaturity, three visitors interrupt the show: John Calvin, Colonel John Pelham (a legendary officer of the Confederate Army), and Cosmic Stranger, dressed “both modern and out-of-date” (LC 50). Donahue asks each of the three visitors for their points of view on the events and discussions of the show (which they had been watching from the green room, of course). John Calvin’s comments are nearly all cut out of the show by a commercial break (because he does not understand the concept of a commercial break, Percy notes). Next of the three strangers to speak is Colonel Pelham, who replies coolly when Donahue asks him what he thinks of the conversations on the show: “Well, I don’t think much of it, sir” (LC 53). He calls the guests on the show “white trash,” citing the ways gentlemen should treat ladies. He also indicates that he does not believe that religion “has much to do with whether a man does right” (LC 53). Colonel Pelham is an important figure here for two reasons. First of all, he is a member of the old, chivalrous South—not much different from Percy’s ancestors and the ancestors of his protagonists like Binx Bolling and Lance Lamar. His commentary on the activities displayed on the show demonstrate just how disparate they are from the ideals of the old South that Percy acknowledges has grown moot in contemporary society. Moreover, Pelham is an example of an intellectual who is not serving an institution like religion; rather, his comments on Richard Coeur de Lion insinuate that he is in the service of ideals (loyalty and honor) that are higher than institutions. However, it is not for these reasons that the audience respects Pelham: “The handsome officer reminds them of Rhett Butler-Clark Gable or rather Ashely Wilkes-Leslie Howard” (LC 54). They applaud and admire him because he appeals to their consciousness of popular media, just like the talk show therapist, Dr. Friday. The last of the three visitors to speak is the Cosmic Stranger, a visitor from another portion of the galaxy. He has assumed the voice of mass media, patterning his speech after radio announcers from the golden age of radio. He comes bearing a message and radical advice, informing the audience that within twenty-four hours, a war of mutually assured destruction would begin. He desires to take Penny back with him to his home for two reasons: “One, she is perhaps still young enough not to have become hopeless. Two, she is pregnant and so we will


have a chance to rear a [human] in an environment free of your noxious influence” (LC 55). Finally, he instructs those willing to take heed to travel to Lost Cove, Tennessee, which will be protected from the fallout by climate patterns, but doubts any will do so because they will more than likely not “attach credibility” to the message. Percy ends the section with a direct question to the reader: “If you heard this Donahue Show, would you head for Lost Cove, Tennessee? (a) Yes (b) No” (LC 56). Percy’s question at the end of the section could be phrased another way: in whom does the reader place the most credibility, the Cosmic Stranger or the intellectual who has used popular culture to assume the position of expert? The question confirms the role of “The Last Donahue Show” vignette as a critique of the popular intellectual who is in reality a pseudointellectual, offering no real explanation of what causes the “symptoms,” as Percy frequently terms them, but merely how to deal with them. Moreover, the guests on the show, Bill, Allen, and Penny, all shrug off Dr. Friday’s advice. Clearly, she gives it only for the entertainment of the masses. And because the consumers of popular media have been conditioned to trust the words of the intellectual, they will be unable to recognize the truth in what the Cosmic Stranger foretells. Dr. Friday becomes the butt of the joke. It becomes increasingly clear that the intellectual becomes the understood audience when the reader reaches the forty-page intermezzo on semiotic theory. As mentioned before, Percy tells the reader that the section may be skipped if so desired. Such a suggestion from Percy operates on the prejudice that the everyday reader would not be interested in semiotic theory; only intellectuals would be. So, it stands to reason that intellectuals must have been whom Percy had in mind when composing the section in the first place. Within this section, Percy outlines his semiotic theory of the self: basically, he theorizes that much of the problems facing contemporary Americans spring from the lack of a sign or symbol for the self in a world full of signs and symbols. Percy notes that he leans heavily on linguistic thinkers like Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce to piece together his ideas, making distinctions between “dyadic” and “triadic” behaviors.12 He argues that triadic behavior separates humans from other creatures because such behavior is the occurrence of language, not merely response to stimuli in the environment. The triadic requires a symbolic level, which other creatures are unable to comprehend.


The problem for humans becomes the self’s great difficulty in determining its place among the signs. “The self of the sign-user can never be grasped,” writes Percy towards the middle of the intermezzo, “because once the self locates itself at the dead center of its world, there is no signified to which a signifier can be joined to make a sign. The self has no sign of itself” (LC 107). Percy believes that an individual can orient the self in the world of signs via one of two avenues: become an “immanent” self in the world, a “consumer of the techniques, goods, and services of society,” or become a transcendent self by joining the “transcending community of science and art” (LC 113). In one fell swoop, Percy reinforces distinctions between high and low culture and separates intellectuals from consumers of mass culture. In elaborating on his definitions, Percy purposefully privileges one over the other. For one, his definition of the immanent self is brief, lumping together “passive consumership” and “discriminating transaction with the world and informed interactions with other selves” on a continuum (LC 113). His full definition of the immanent self takes up a little over one-half page of text. However, Percy spends the remaining eleven pages of the intermezzo to define the transcendent self and tediously divide it into categories of science or art and to formulate the “reentry problems” faced by transcenders upon attempting to return to immanent world after practicing their science or art—that is, Percy attempts to explain why some writers are alcoholic, promiscuous, commit suicide, and so on. What “self-help” that remains in the book guides intellectuals in determining their relationship to the world, how they transcend the immanent, mass culture world, and cope with being an intellectual. Percy clearly thinks that intellectuals are a special group who possess special skills, and this explains the hard line he takes against pop intellectuals like Dr. Friday whom he thinks is giving misguided advice to already misguided consumers. Additionally, Percy takes issue with scientists who are intent upon discovering the use of language in species other than homo sapiens. He recounts famous talking animals in the course of the intermezzo—a chimp using sign language, a talking parrot, and pigeons; later in questions sixteen and seventeen, he questions why intellectuals are trying so desperately to prove that humans are not the only organism in the universe that can understand language. Percy conflates the “dethronement of man” pursued by scientist who seek to prove that dolphins use language with the merging of the intellectual with popular culture or at least a shirking of responsibility to the masses. This especially seems to be the case when he comments on Carl Sagan, whose books about astronomy


and the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence were quite popular around the time of Lost in the Cosmos’s publication: Carl Sagan is right in ridiculing the absurd pseudosciences now so popular. He is admirable in his defense of science as a reliable and self-correcting method of attaining truth. Yet the fact is that nowadays there is no piece of nonsense that will not be believed by some and no guru or radio preacher, however corrupt, who will not attract a following. (172) Despite Sagan’s defense of the intellectual’s place in the search for “truth” against the unmitigated “nonsense” that saturates popular media, he continues a search whose goal is to prove that human beings are not unique among the creatures of the universe; a quest that displaces humans and, again, seems similar to the ways intellectuals are being merged into popular culture. Percy most vitriolic criticism of popular culture and the intellectuals who appropriate and are affected by it comes in question eighteen, bearing the humorously understated title, “The Demoniac Self: Why it is the Autonomous Self becomes Possessed by the Spirit of the Erotic and the Secret Love of Violence, and how Unlucky it is that this should have Happened in the Nuclear Age” (LC 175). In this section, Percy uses Kierkegaard’s discussions of the erotic spirit, referring to Kierkegaard’s comment that it was Christianity that first brought the “erotic spirit” into the world: a sensuous element of the self that responds to art and sexuality alike. Percy says to call it a sex drive would simplistic; rather, it is the “sensual ‘spirit’ and therefore, in Kierkegaard’s word, as the ‘demoniac’” (LC 176). This idea of the demoniac spirit suggests possession of the self, and Percy acknowledges this. Moreover, he conflates the terms “possession” and “informed”; when the self exists in an age not informed by “cosmological myths, by totemism, by belief in God—whether it be the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam—it must necessarily and by reason of its own semiotic nature be informed by something else” (LC 178). The something else that informs the self is popular culture, and it does so in a technologically advanced age described by Percy as “intolerably dull and repetitive” (LC 179). In short, Americans are sad. “Because the Americans are sad,” Lawler says, “they become progressively more restless as they become more prosperous. They work not in pursuit of material comfort but to purchase diversions” (179). Most of the diversions are those of popular media, and Percy says, “The passivity of TV and film watching contrasts with the violence with


which the watcher identifies” (LC 183). Because people live their lives and complete their work so passively, they must be active vicariously through popular media, which increasingly portrays violence and sexuality. These ideas about how individuals use popular culture hearkens back to Percy’s earlier protagonists, especially Binx, who uses the movies not only as a diversion from his carbon-copy life, but as a validation of his experience. However, Binx’s experiences predate the release of A Few Dollars More (1965), the Clint Eastwood film of which Percy describes a scene to provide an example of gratuitous violence. Rather, Binx’s “demoniac” sensualities are served by his cavorting with secretaries. Lance uses alcohol (also listed by Percy in Lost in the Cosmos) and the television news as a diversion from his banal life in the pigeonnier. Percy presents these aspects in these character’s lives without lampooning the characters. He most likely intended readers to identify with Binx and to be horrified by Lance, maybe even pity his deranged sense of reality. But of the characters Percy sketches in his vignettes in the “Demoniac Self” section, two are created as objects of scorn and disgust for the reader, and both of them are intellectuals. The first is another “psych jock” like the before mentioned Dr. Friday, except this one is named Dr. Betty, and she is giving a talk in New Orleans. During her talk she encourages her audience to entertain the child inside them and that “[s]ex is the best play of all. […] There you have the ultimate recipe for happiness, growth, and creativity” (LC 193-194). After her talk, though, a male prostitute privately accosts her, inviting her to sneak up a back elevator to meet him in a room he procured use of from the manager. He tells her, “I don’t want to nurture you. I want to fuck you. I’m going to fuck you till your eyeteeth rattle” (LC 194). Dr. Betty accepts the invitation and becomes a hypocrite because she sneaks away for rough, impersonal sex after giving an affirmative, positive talk about sex as a nurturing act. She is similar in that respect to Binx, who easily participates in meaningless affairs with his secretaries, but is impotent when attempting to share an intimate moment with Kate. Ultimately, Dr. Betty is susceptible to the same sorts of desires that her radio talk show and book are designed to help her audience overcome. The second figure lampooned is more disturbing. The scene is a hotel room in Washington, D.C. during wartime, where a Nobel Laureate scientist, “Dr. F____,” watches a pornographic film and masturbates “almost casually, but not before taking the trouble to fetch a special container from his suitcase to catch the ejaculate” (195). Afterwards, the scientist


receives a phone call, of which the readers receive only the scientist’s side, concerning the start- up of a top-secret chemical weapons program that could kill millions in one strike. He tells the general that he supports the program, suggesting that they call it “Project Peace,” since it is for “the ultimate good of man” (196). After hanging up, the scientist prepares the container holding his semen for mailing to a laboratory that collects the sperm of Nobel Laureates to use for impregnating women who have been screened for genetic defects. At the end of the vignette, Percy poses the question: Do you think the U.S. gene pool and the future quality of life will be improved by the contribution of Dr. F____’s ejaculate? ( ) Yes

( ) No (CHECK ONE) (196) The answer is a given: of course not, and the reader might be disgusted with the scientist for taking such action. But what Percy suggests again with this motif is that the scientist is subject to same effects of the popular media of pornography even though he believes that he is genetically superior to the masses. This scientist’s outlook is the same as Lance’s: Lance wishes to start from scratch with a new, chivalrous society of which he will be the sire. The scientist wishes to do the same, but on a much more radical scale—completely obliterate the less- intelligent population with weapons of mass destruction in order to rebuild a new society of his and other Nobel Laureate’s offspring. Essentially, Dr. F____ desires another cookie-cutter society, but one that he thinks will consist of intellectuals. What is at stake now in Percy’s argument is whether figures like Ross’s “new intellectual,” who reaches both the academic sphere and the popular sphere and has both interests in mind, will ever exist. Percy explores the possibilities at his book’s end. The final sections of the book are called “A Space Odyssey (I)” and “A Space Odyssey (II),” creating an obvious pun on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and its film version. The first, as Percy notes, borrows heavily from Sagan’s writings, and the second one from Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. Both portray a similar scenario: a spaceship from Earth is sent to into the depths of the Cosmos on a search for intelligent life and while on the mission, life on Earth as they knew it before leaving is destroyed by nuclear war. In the first, the human mission finds intelligent life, but the extra terrestrials refuse permission to land on their planet because they fear the humans’ propensity for violence, which they had observed from following transmissions


from Earth (mass media is even a turn-off for aliens!). Moreover, the sampling of humans the extra terrestrials had before them matched the portrayals they had observed in popular culture. Of the mission’s twelve-person crew, consisting of the best and brightest hand-picked astronauts, three of the six men had been killed in fights over the six women, resulting in three highly- unstable, polygamous relationships. The odyssey ends with the Earth crew turned away, dysfunctional and literally lost in the cosmos. The new intellectual is an utter impossibility. The second “Space Odyssey,” on the other hand, provides an opportunity for the new intellectual. In this odyssey’s story, a crew of one man and three women (who are required to live in an polygamous relationship to fulfill sexual needs) are sent away to find intelligent life. In the course of the mission, the humans find no intelligent life, but one of the women, the oldest and the one who was married before leaving Earth, requires the male captain of the spaceship to marry her before having sex with him. After many, many years, the crew returns to Earth, but do not find the technologically thriving countries that existed before they left. Nuclear war has destroyed essential infrastructures, and people live in remote communities scattered across the globe. The fallout has made most of them sterile. The crew meets a pair of interesting characters: an astronomer, named Aristarchus Jones, and an abbot named Liebowitz who runs a Benedictine monastery consisting of himself and three other monks. This pair appears to be the most viable intellectuals remaining on the planet, and they have competing ideas on how to save the human race, which they pitch to the captain: Jones proposes a colonization of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, where he and the captain can lead the creation of a “sexually free and peace- loving society where the sciences and arts can flourish freed from the superstitions and repressions of religion” (246). He wishes to leave those who suffer from defects because of the radiation behind on Earth. Liebowitz, on the other hand, proposes a simple relocation of anyone who wishes to accompany him to the afore mentioned Lost Cove, Tennessee, which should have been least affected by radiation fallout. His religious faith does not allow him to leave Earth. Rather, he wants to reestablish the University of Notre Dame and remain available to any of the remaining faithful to minister them and ordain them into the priesthood should they feel compelled to be ordained. Abbot Liebowitz says he feels compelled to take action because regardless of the nuclear holocaust, he still has a duty to serve God and those among humankind who need him. The section ends by asking the reader to assume the captain’s role and choose a plan.


Clearly, Abbot Liebowitz becomes the model for Ross’s new intellectual. He seeks to put knowledge in the service of both the intellectual sphere and the sphere of mass culture. His reestablished university will hold the “specific professional or occupational skills and knowledges” that will be required to rebuild civilization from the ground up. Moreover, he pledges to make himself available to whoever needs him. Aristarchus Jones, on the other hand, wishes to do something similar to the masturbating Nobel Laureate: start a new society from scratch with the best gene pool available. Moreover, Jones’s concerns are only for art and science, but not the well-being of the individuals he takes with him to Europa, or New Ionia as he calls it. Conversely, of all the characters addressed in this thesis, Abbot Liebowitz most closely resembles Lonnie, Binx’s step-brother from The Moviegoer, who made his religious faith available to Binx and his well being by offering his communion for him. Seemingly for Percy, then, the new intellectual is inextricably tied to religious faith. Apocalyptic scenarios, associative jumps in progression, absurd vignettes, and complicated questions with even more complicated answers have driven Lost in the Cosmos. Yet at the end, as Gary Ciuba explains, the “self-help book in spite of itself helps at last by affirming precisely such heterodoxy as human helplessness, the necessity of helping others, and the essential need to accept divine help” (8). And Percy very directly challenges the reader on this point: after both Jones and Liebowitz have shared their plans, Percy asks the reader to take the position of the captain, the leader of what will be the new masses, and choose which plan to follow. Here, Percy suggests that the success of the intellectual is contingent upon working with the masses (or whatever is left of them) to create a culture that benefits all, as Liebowitz proposes. Moreover, the question places Percy’s intellectual audience of the book into the role of the masses, enacting his contentions from earlier in the book that intellectuals are also an audience of mass media. At any rate, the choice is left up to the reader. The self-help book concludes by providing two possible outcomes to the story in the second “Space Odyssey.” In the first one, the captain colonizes Europa with Jones and the genetic superiors, and in the second one, he moves to Lost Cove with his crew, Liebowitz, and the other survivors. Both vignettes provide some detail about the success of the humans in building a new society in their respective places. The book’s final question asks the reader where he or she would rather be, Europa or Lost Cove, when humanity receives the following message from some sort of intelligent beings in the Cosmos, the first of its kind:


Repeat. Do you read? Do you read? Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? Are you out of trouble? What is the character of your consciousness? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back. (LC 262) There is much desperation in this quotation, implying that in either of his outlandish situations, whether or not conflicts between intellectuals and popular culture are resolved, there will always be a crisis of identity, questioning of the forces that shape it, and endless communication and miscommunication between people, regardless of the dividing lines of culture. Lost in the Cosmos does not guarantee a happy ending, just as The Moviegoer leaves the reader with merely the hope for Binx’s happiness in his newfound suburban identity. It also suggests that something is terribly amiss in the world, as both Lance and Percival sense and the end of Lancelot, yet the rational voice cannot answer the deranged, maniacal one. Ending a progression of more and more open endings, Percy’s self-help book turns out to be not so helpful at all.


CONCLUSION In his comments on Walker Percy’s work and the progression from novel to novel, Harold Bloom calls attention to the increasingly moralized theme that appears in each, which creates a “theocentric anxiety” that detracts from the art of the book (2). Bloom demonstrates this by specifically addressing the closing passages of each but the last of Percy’s novels and Lost in the Cosmos. This progression Bloom notices is of course tied to Percy’s devout Catholicism, which strengthened as he aged, but it is also tied up with how Percy ultimately decides to face the threat of mass culture. The Moviegoer’s ending leaves little cause for anxiety. Little is at stake for the reader in Binx Bolling’s life; either he becomes happy with his midcult existence with Kate or he does not. Quite different from Binx, though, Lance’s plans for violent revolution at the end of Lancelot raises the issue of how the intellectual calling for reform in the face of mass culture conformity might be another equally malignant brand of conformity. In Lost in the Cosmos, though, the livelihood of the whole world is in limbo. Its ending makes it clear the need for balance between intellectuals and mass culture and how that will always be a struggle. With each ending, the urgency increases. As Percy’s attitude towards popular culture progresses from an ambivalent, half-hearted collapse into midcult, to an active, radical reaction, and to a very concerted effort to bring the two into balance, his works make clear that the conflicts between intellectuals and popular culture are an important feature of American culture. As Paul Elie writes about Percy’s motivation, “The problem with most contemporary philosophy, he liked to say, was that it just didn’t apply—it didn’t capture what it felt like to be alive in the United States in the twentieth century” (454). If Percy has made the plight of the twentieth-century American clear in his writing, he has done little to alleviate it, merely suggesting that the conflicts of culture and the self will be a constant struggle. But one thing Percy does demonstrate with his two protagonists and self-help book is that any answers to the problem lie in how individuals react to and situate themselves in the world. Ultimately, individuals decide how they allow the cultural media surrounding them to affect their identity.


ENDNOTES 1This photograph is published in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), and is part of the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina Library. 2Schenker’s commentary does not include Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, which was published the year prior to the publication of Schenker’s article. 3Quotations from The Moviegoer will be cited with the abbreviation MG. I quote from the 1998 Vintage International edition of the novel. 4Gardner, it seems, was aware of this difference of “making” and “doing,” a difference apparent in his contrast of his own writing and Percy’s. “The Quest for the Philosophical Novel” (1977), his review of Lancelot for the New York Times Book Review, reprinted in J. Donald Crowley and Sue Mitchell Crowley’s Critical Essays on Walker Percy (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989), demonstrates how frustrated he was with what he understood to be a lack of answers or closure at the novel’s end: Fiction, at its best, is a means of discovery, a philosophical method. By that standard, Walker Percy is not a very good novelist […]. Like Tom Stoppard’s plays, it fools around with philosophy, only in this case not for laughs but for fashionable groans. Art, it seems to me, should be a little less pompous, a lot more serious. It should stop sniveling and go for answers or else shut up. (61) 5Quotations from Lancelot will be cited with the abbreviation L. I quote from the 1999 Picador edition of the novel. 6These connections between Lancelot and the Arthuriad are interesting, but somewhat tangential to the topic at hand. They have, however, been deeply explored by John Bugge in two articles: “Arthurian Myth Devalued in Walker Percy’s Lancelot.” Lancelot and Guinivere. Ed. Lori J. Walters. (New York: Garland, 1996. 255-277) and “Merlin and the Movies in Walker Percy’s Lancelot.” Studies in Medievalism 2 (1983): 39-55. 7This theme is one that Percy takes up himself in his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” in which he argues that people have been trained to understand art, literature, history, place, and


landmarks through an “educational package”—the way culture and even intellectuals have dictated for these things to be understood. He uses the example of the Grand Canyon, which cannot be seen for the park service’s regulations and postcards. In the same manner, the film makers are dictating for the public the way the South, and in particular, Lance’s home, should be viewed. 8Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin, 1988). 52. 9Hebert understands the Bowie knife as a phallic image, for with it, Lance “can again assert his masculinity, his domination, and the meaning of his name” (133). 10All quotations from Lost in the Cosmos are noted with the abbreviation LC. I quote from the Picador printing of the novel. 11Percy was criticized in some of the reviews of LC for having harsh words for members of the gay and lesbian community. Percy responds to these concerns in regards to “The Last Donahue Show” the interview with Gulledge when she mentions them: There is such a thing, after all, as a promiscuous homosexual. But look at the next guy—a promiscuous heterosexual. The next guy is a business man who is a connoisseur of the ‘lunch-hour liaison.’ He’s heterosexual and sure doesn’t come off any better than the homosexual. (286) It seems that Percy tried to lump all sexual promiscuity in his comments here and in Lost in the Cosmos together in order to avoid discussing his particular beliefs regarding homosexuality. These issues are the most problematic in Percy’s writing. 12A Thief of Peirce, a collection of letters exchanged between himself and an expert in Peirce’s writing, Kenneth Laine Ketner, provide some further understanding of Percy’s fascination with and overall philosophical debt to Peirce.



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Jordan J. Dominy was born in and grew up near Dublin, Georgia. He received his B.A. (summa cum laude) from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia in 2004, where he majored in English Literature and Creative Writing. He completed his M.A. at Florida State University in 2006. He will begin work on his Ph.D. in twentieth-century American literature at the University of Florida in the fall of 2006. In addition American literature, he has academic interests in popular culture and cultural studies.