Walker Percy's Vision of the Christian Artist
By Mathew Woodley
Copyright © Mars Hill Review
"Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?"1
"My next novel shall be mainly given to ass-kicking for Jesus' sake."2
"My next novel shall be mainly given to ass-kicking for Jesus' sake."2
--Walker PercyWalker Percy, the son of a southern lawyer, was born in 1916. At the age of eleven, Walker's peaceful childhood was shattered by his father's suicide, an event that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. Two years later, his mother died. Walker and his two brothers moved to Mississippi to live with their Uncle Will Percy, a lawyer, war hero, poet, and romantic agnostic.
Encouraged by his uncle, Walker graduated from college in 1937 and entered medical school at Columbia University, with the goal of becoming a psychiatrist. It was this scientific training and his Uncle Will's influence that steeped Percy in a confident and intellectually satisfying worldview of secular humanism. In 1942, however, while serving as an intern of pathology, Percy's worldview crumbled under the strain of a personal crisis: he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis.
Much later in his life Percy would call tuberculosis "the best disease I ever had." It was during this time of inactivity and solitude that Percy read widely in existentialism--Sartre, Camus, and more importantly for Percy's spiritual formation, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. After his recovery, Percy, who never lost his wonder for the beauty of the scientific method, jettisoned the all-encompassing nature of scientism, a meta-narrative that "explained everything under the sun, except one small detail: what does it mean to be a human being living in the world who must die." He married, converted to Catholicism (marching into his confirmation with 300 school children) and devoted himself to writing. "There was never a doubt what I wanted to do," Percy would later say. "It was always writing." He spent most of the 1950s writing two novels, both of which were rejected by publishers. But his persistence paid off: in 1962 his novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award. His next novel, The Last Gentleman, was nominated for the same award. Prior to his death in 1990, Walker Percy published six novels, two books of essays, and a satirical "self-help" book entitled Lost in the Cosmos.
The Christian Artist's Dilemma
According to Walker Percy, every Christian artist faces a dilemma. Postmodern men and women are sad, bored, confused, and alienated--from God, themselves, and others. The Christian artist certainly has something to say to this alienation; we have the redemptive news of reconciliation. Although he warned against the danger of a novelist's trying to draw a moral, Percy readily acknowledged "my worldview is informed by a certain belief about man's nature and destiny which cannot fail to be central to any novel I write." "Much of what I write," Percy said, "is informed by a Christian view of human nature, which is, in a word, fallen.3
This worldview is nothing less than historic Christianity, or in Percy's words, "that unique Thing, that Jewish-People-Jesus-Christ-Catholic-Church." This message is the clue and sign of our salvation. In Percy's view, this good news can save our souls, save the world and nourish our art. But here's the rub: nobody cares about our story anymore. "The Christian view of man as a wayfarer in search of salvation no longer informs Western culture,"4 according to Percy. He attributed this to Christendom's twin failures. Firstly, he believed, he believed, over the years our words have become so devalued that they are practically meaningless: "The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips."5 The Christian novelist is like a man who discovers a treasure in an old house, but the owners moved out to the suburbs long ago and "they're bloody sick of the old house and everything in it." The Christian artist believes the good news, but for most of the world this news has become like a weary canned commercial.6
Secondly, Christendom has failed not because of a deficient metaphysic, but at a more fundamental level--our moral hypocrisy and, according to Percy, the church's complicity in a vile and systemic racism. "White Americans have sinned against the Negro from the beginning ... and it is churches which, far from fighting the good fight against man's native humanity to man, have sanctified and perpetuated this indifference."7 Herein lies the dilemma of every believing artist: how to tell the story of redemption when nearly everybody lost interest a long time ago? Or, in Percy's pointed question, "How does he (the Christian novelist) set about writing, having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having inherited a defunct vocabulary?"8
Proclaiming Bad News: The Artist as Prophet
According to Percy, the Christian artist must begin by assuming the role of the Old Testament prophet, bearing bad news, proclaiming that something is desperately wrong. In this role the artist can be likened to the canary that coal miners used to take into the shaft to test the air: "When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over."9 In another context, Percy also likens the work of the artist to that of a pathologist: "Something is indeed wrong, and one of the tasks of the serious novelist is, if not to isolate the bacillus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable, speakable."10
What is the bacillus infecting post-modern man? Why is the canary gasping for air and urging the miners to head for the surface? Or, in Percy's own words, "Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, and mass murders can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?"11 For many of the characters in Percy's novels, life in post-modern American society is so unbearably sad, fragmented, alienated, and absurd it can only be labeled a living death. "I am surrounded by the corpses of souls," laments Father Smith in Love in the Ruins.
In Percy's first novel, The Moviegoer, this living death is described as an all-pervasive malaise. The narrator of the story, Binx Bolling, an upwardly mobile young suburbanite who is successful in every way--especially financially and sexually--who is nevertheless obsessed with the absurdity of his own life. Reflecting on the "triumphs" of his middle-class existence, Binx sarcastically comments,
It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and 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 own 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 on the radio about mental, the seven signs of cancer, and safe driving...This is the malaise or the "everydayness" of post-modern life. Every experience is neatly wrapped and packaged, every physical need met, every challenge carefully extracted, and yet, it is precisely these "triumphs" that, for Binx Bolling or any of us, suffocate interest in this world or the next. Percy believed that his generation of Americans had become uninteresting, passionless people-- "terminally nice," he once said. Sadly, sometimes only the haters seem truly alive. In parallel with Kierkegaard, whom Percy quotes at the beginning of The Moviegoer, most of us have sunk so deeply into despair that we don't recognize it. This despair is so great that we don't even have enough passion to sin properly, according to Percy: "(Christians) keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner," says Binx Bolling, "when the truth is that nowadays hardly anyone is up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human."
Like Percy's characters, occasionally we find ourselves cognizant of this quiet despair, usually at unlikely times and places. While driving leisurely on a nice Sunday afternoon, Binx sees "a beautiful boulevard, ten thousand handsome cars, fifty thousand handsome, well-fed, kind-hearted people, and the malaise settles like a fallout." With every physical need met, anyone can become a "warm and creative person" and "prosper like a dung beetle" but still remain dead at heart. In Percy's novel, The Second Coming, the protagonist Will Barrett experiences a similar sense of malaise. Will is a multi-millionaire, a recent pick for man-of-the-year, "a talented, agreeable, wealthy man living in as pleasant an environment as one can imagine who is thinking of putting a bullet in his brain." Will continues to eat, sleep, copulate, work, and grow old, but he remains a stranger to himself.
Of course the malaise, the drag of "everydayness" without adventure or a search, isn't just limited to individuals. Percy believed the social and ethical fabric of our lives to be torn. Will Barrett refers to his age as the "century of love and death," this "age of madness," in which the American people are the best and dearest people on earth and at the same time the most restless, pleasure-loving, and selfish. Why is it, Percy asks, that in this "cult of the naughty nice" we have unleashed an "orgy of war, murder, torture and self-destruction unparalleled in history in the very century when he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?"12
In the midst of this individual and cultural malaise, where does one turn for a whisper of redemption? Percy analyzes two options, both of which he ultimately finds wanting: scientific humanism and Christendom. Due to his training as a scientist and his upbringing with his Uncle Will, Percy maintained a profound respect for the beauty of the scientific method13, but he also knew its limits. Science is not a religion and it cannot heal humanity's wounds. Although science can provide us with more information about the universe, it cannot give us the ability to truly know ourselves. "Why is it possible," Percy asks, "to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, then you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?"14
In The Moviegoer it is Binx's Aunt Emily who preaches a doctrine of self-reliant scientism that excludes God but still demands ethical action. This is in spite of the fact that she claims to know nothing about the meaning of life ("I don't quite know what we're doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe") and that goodness is "destined to be defeated." These brute facts do not dissuade her. "A man must go down fighting," she proclaims. "This is the victory."
But for Binx (and for Percy), this blind devotion to a goodness that lacks an ultimate basis is an uncompelling reason to "go down fighting." Besides, in the "great shit house of scientific humanism, where very conceivable need is satisfied," Binx still lives like an exile yearning for something beyond the reach of materialism.
Will Barrett, an unbeliever himself, cannot fathom the contemporary secular man who "Finds himself in a world of endless wonders, having no notion of how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps ... works, grows old, gets sick, and dies and is quite content to have it so. Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind that his situation is preposterous." The unbeliever wanders blithely through life, reading Dante for its poetic structure, and living his life "for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him after all."
While the unbeliever explains too little, the second possible prescription for our contemporary malaise, a defunct Christendom, usually explains too much. As a result, many believers are generally shallow or obnoxious. Following his mentor Kierkegaard, Percy distinguished between Christianity, the central body of living Christian truth, and Christendom, a worn-out, sterile, defunct shell of that living truth.
Percy saw Christendom everywhere. Will Barrett, the seeker, finds himself surrounded by Christendom: America is the most "Christian" nation in the world and the South is the most "Christian" part of America. Christians are, by and large, a "pleasant and agreeable lot." And yet, Will Barrett wonders, if Christ came to bring life, why do the churches reek of death? And why is the present day believer so lukewarm, or if fervent in faith, why is he so obnoxious? Thus, Jack Curl, the mainline minister in The Second Coming, is noticeably vacuous in theological content; Leslie, Will's fundamentalist daughter, is noticeably obnoxious in her approach to faith--a faith which Will describes as a "crisp business transaction" between her and Jesus. In the nominal faith of Binx Bolling's mother, God is merely used as a tool for the "canny management of the shocks of life." But in the process of striking this bargain with God, she "settled for a general belittlement of everything, the good and the bad."
So why is man so sad in this present age? And how can the believing artist offer any hope of redemption? Percy knew that we must, first of all, carefully, honestly, unflinchingly, diagnose the sickness, declaring the bad news to the patient. This is Percy's concept of "ass-kicking for Jesus' sake." We are, in a sense, dead. Scientific humanism will provide interesting information but it will not bring us to life. Nor will a defunct, discredited Christendom. And yet, as Will Barrett discovers, knowing as much at least allows for the possibility of resurrection.
Proclaiming Good News: Our Search and God's Grace
According to Percy, the Gospel is the only news that will bring us to life. A human being is not just an animal with needs and drives, but a "sovereign wayfarer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher."15 However, many of Percy's characters--like us--require a catastrophe to be jolted out of the great "suck of self." Binx Bolling's friend, Kate, asked, "Have you ever noticed that only in time of disaster or illness or death are people real?" Thus, the worst of times (think of our recent experience with the September 11 attacks) in some ways become the best of times.
If human beings can manage to awaken from the stupor of routine existence, they can embark on "the search" --not just the search for meaning, but also a deep longing for God. According to Binx Bolling, "To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." Binx discovers that the movies are onto the search, but they usually end in despair: the characters always slink back into "everydayness" and forget the search.
For Will Barrett the search takes on a more desperate tone. Jacob-like, he wrestles with God and demands a sign of his presence. He establishes the "first scientific experiment in history to settle once and for all the question of God's existence." He is a seeker who must have an answer. Thus, in a wild fantasy, he sees himself, in Nietzschean fashion, frantically disrupting a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner scene:
Where is it? What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest. Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!In Percy's view, then, God is the missing party who must be found. Those who find him must be wrested from everyday life and, Jacob-like, grapple with God, refusing to let go. When asked how he was given the gift of faith, Percy said,
The only answer I can find is that I asked for it; in fact, I demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it.16And when this gift is given, it must not be rejected. In Love in the Ruins, Percy warns that this is the unforgivable sin: "If God gives you the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse."
This is the only narrative that will heal our loss. This story in which
The self sees itself as a creature, created by God, estranged from God by an aboriginal catastrophe, and now reconciled with him. Before the reconciliation, the self is, as Paul told the Ephesians, a stranger to every covenant, with no promise to hope for ... But now the self becomes a son of God, a member of a family of selves, and is conscious of itself as a creature of God embarked upon a pilgrimage in this life and destined for happiness and reunion with God in a later life.17Of course, a Christian writer cannot just sermonize in novel form. "If you get caught writing a religious novel about God ..." Percy said, "you are dead. You'll be read by a few people. As one of my characters says, Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, 'Whenever anyone says God to me, a curtain goes down in my head.' I have to be damn careful when I talk about grace. I have to be extremely allusive."18
Percy believed the Christian artist and novelist to be more like a castaway than a preacher. Like Robinson Crusoe, the novelist combs the beach, searching for signs and clues, perhaps for bottles with messages in them. The writer must know how to send messages and decipher them. "The messages may not come in bottles but rather in the halting and muted dialogue between strangers, between lovers and friends. One speaks, the other tries to fathom his meaning--or indeed to determine if the message has any meaning."19
Percy the artist combs the beach looking for clues, trying to decipher the messages in the bottles. With a great deal of wit and subtlety, his novels offer a taste of redemption. God in his importunate grace seeks his lost and wayward children through the most unlikely means. For Binx Bolling it is Lonnie, Binx's severely disabled step-brother, who becomes a vessel of God's grace to a sick world. In contrast to Binx, whose life is free from suffering but devoid of purpose, Lonnie's entire life is entwined with suffering and yet charged with God's purpose. Lonnie has the "gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men's terence to the pierced heart of Jesus." In his simplicity of heart, Lonnie's words are not worn out. Confined to a wheelchair, Lonnie still inhabits a sacramental universe, receiving extreme unction because it strengthens him physically and spiritually, receiving the Eucharist as the "sacrament of the living." Binx would gladly trade places with Lonnie.
Will Barrett, the searcher and wrestler, also encounters God's surprising, grace. After Will's experiment, which was to prove conclusively whether God exists or not, is met with a maybe, it is God who woos Will. A young woman named Allison, a recent escapee from the mental hospital, becomes a symbol of God's presence. Will befriends her and the two fall in love. It is the first time for both of them that the word love, the most worn out word in the English language, has ever had any meaning. In the last paragraph of the novel, Will's own experiment having failed, he suddenly becomes aware that Allison may be the sign he was demanding. Will asks, "Is she a gift and therefore a sign of the giver?" Percy would like us to say yes.
But this gift of faith doesn't preclude all doubt. There will be wrestling with doubt, with unidentified despair, and particularly, with God. But there will also be signs, perhaps in the form of a deep longing, of God's grace. Tom More, the main character in Love in the Ruins, speaks for Percy and all those who are onto the search, when he prays
Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it at other times, that it is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs nor angels.
1 The Message in the Bottle, p. 3.