Rod Dreher on Walker Percy

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Walker Percy and our deranged world by Rod Dreher, blogger and columnist

Thursday April 8, 2010

It's startling to realize that we're coming up on the 20th anniversary of Walker Percy's death (May 10, 1990). Has he really been gone that long? What would he have to say to us today? I wish he were still here. By the way, I heard the other day from Win Riley, the New Orleans documentarian who's working on a film about Percy. I've learned that he's short of funds to finish the movie. If you're a Percy admirer and can help, by all means follow the link in this item and contact Win. What a gift to his memory to mark the anniversary of the great man's passing. Click here to watch two short clips from the as yet unfinished film. We've got to get this thing made, people!

Below is a clip of the speech Percy gave at Notre Dame when he received the Laetare Medal. Here, an excerpt from that speech, and a point so important to us today:

In my last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails, the abstract and technical truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what would appear to be reasonable short-term goals. It's no accident that I think that German science, as great as it was, ended in the destruction of the Holocaust.

The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out. It's his pleasure and vocation to reveal, with his own elusive and indirect way, man's need of and openings to other than scientific propositions.

The novelist, I think, has a special calling to truth these days. The world into which you are graduating is a deranged world. It is his task to show the derangement.

UPDATE: Some remarks from an e-mail Win Riley sent me, about his fascination with Percy, below the jump:

I first read The Moviegoer when I was a teenager living in New Zealand, longing for New Orleans. The novel hit me like a depth charge. I quickly read The Last Gentleman, then a few essays-- missing most of what Percy was up to, of course--and came away from it with a strong desire to know more about Percy, and a sense that I had much to learn. I finished up a degree in philosophy and found myself back in New Orleans as a documentary filmmaker, with an opportunity to spend a few years studying Walker Percy, talking to people about this man I'd been curious about for so long. George Steiner wrote of "the indiscretion of serious art, literature and music which queries the last privacies of our existence," an invasion into "the small house of our cautionary being... afterward the house is no longer habitable in the same way." If this is what serious art does then Walker Percy's work is grave indeed. His words pointed to things previously ineffable to me, that I'd somehow thought but never given shape or voice to before reading his books--all tinged with his unique wry humor.

And humor is key. "For him, by the way," Robert Coles says in the film, " humor was an instrument of introspection. That's what he beautifully combined. That lighthearted sensibility merged with a grave, seriously introspective side. This takes a genius."

A few weeks into making the film about Walker I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic. I thought: but this is madness. How will I ever explain this doctor-turned-writer-and philosopher in one-hour, to people who may never have heard of Walker Percy?

Years later, when the film was near completion and after talking to dozens of people who've spent a great deal of time thinking about Percy, I thought how fortunate I'd been.

And then, in another sleepless night--there have been many-- it hit me. I had been fortunate. But there was more to this. This community of Percy scholars, family and friends that had gathered to name the things that Walker Percy had done, offered a path through the thicket of ideas and contradiction and complexity of his work to a clearing beyond--relevant to not just those with an interest in literature or philosophy, but to any who's ever wondered: Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?

At least that's my hope. Jay Tolson, in an interview for the film, sums up some of this:

"He took quite literally the words from the gospel of John: In the beginning is the word. The word for Percy is the clue: Language, symbolic behavior, is the clue to the mystery of the individual. Language, the freedoms of language, made him wonder about human freedom. Humans aren't completely determined, and why are they free? And for him this became a theological question. It's the core question for him. He came to the view that the divine, God, was the enabling condition of human freedom. It's the source of human freedom. The source of human individuality. And that this was a unique thing expressed in our symbolic activity. Language. Written language, spoken language, yes, but also the language of art, music, dance--all symbolic forms that express meaning. That express being. That assert that we are. We exist. No other creature, in Walker's view, engages in symbolic behavior like this. He took this symbolic behavior as the sort of indicator of a distinction and a difference that leads us to God." I've never had a good understanding of what people want to watch on television--I know, a strange confession from a tv and film producer--but I think even I have underestimated the difficulty of convincing programmers and funders of the importance of Walker Percy. I have a completed film, a rejection letter from the NEA, and several expenses yet to pay for before "Walker Percy: A Documentary Film" can be released. Looks like I'm in for a few more sleepless nights. Comments (12) Filed Under: Walker Percy, Win Riley posted by Rod Dreher

Add Comment ยป Comments Judd April 9, 2010 4:00 PM I used to really enjoy Percy, but now I just don't get it. I think his writing made more sense in the midst of a balanced cultural debate - where the culturally conservative outlook made as much sense, and even more in many cases, than what was being offered by the secularists. Now though it seems like Percy's team has very clearly gone off the deep end, and no longer offers any arguments of substance. I'm almost glad Percy is gone - how would he have addressed the growing acceptance of gay marriage, or how would he have faced climate change, Church scandals, etc? My guess is that he wouldn't have aged well, and he would have looked like a jackass and wound up sounding ill-informed, crotchety and irrelevant. It's better I think to not know what he would have thought. He probably would have wound up like PJ O'Rourke.

Looking back I think the warning was in Signs in the Cosmos, and Signposts in a Strange Land (and in his novels where his semiotic deductions bled into the story). Taking half baked ideas from the likes of Karl Popper and Charles Saunders Peirce, and using them to buttress something like Christianity is just retarded. Here was one of my favorites - Jewish folks are an insubsumable sign, and as such are proof of God's existence, because unlike an Irishman or a Pole no matter where a Jew goes he will always be a Jew, regardless of whether or not he believes. What a bunch of bullshit!

Percy is forgotten because he made hokey and bad-faith arguments in defense of something that was doomed to begin with. One of his compatriots - Flannery O'Connor - won't be forgotten on the other hand, mainly because she was smart enough to pack enough Jerry Springer grotesquery into her stories to keep folks coming back for generations to come, God or no God. Percy on the other hand gave us the truth - more or less - about a certain breed of new South yuppie who anguished over whether or not his life could have meaning without God. No one gives a shit. The hero in every Percy novel is the same guy, and could have only existed in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s - when the culturally conservative outlook was capable of sounding reasonable. Let Percy rest - he's a literary side note. And he was never that funny to begin with.

Rod Dreher April 9, 2010 4:36 PM Percy on the other hand gave us the truth - more or less - about a certain breed of new South yuppie who anguished over whether or not his life could have meaning without God. No one gives a shit. The hero in every Percy novel is the same guy, and could have only existed in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s - when the culturally conservative outlook was capable of sounding reasonable.

Boy, you really don't get out much, do you? How do you know that nobody gives a shit? You don't give a shit, your friends don't give a shit. But a lot of people give a shit about that stuff.

I don't happen to like Percy's novels that much, and I wouldn't vouch for everything he said on philosophy. But it really is ridiculous to say Percy is not worth paying attention to because of Sarah Palin. Anyway, the professor who taught the Walker Percy novels course in my high school was and is quite liberal. Are you sure you aren't making huge assumptions about Percy's cultural orientation because of his Catholicism? You do know, or should, that it wasn't so long ago that most Catholic Democrats were pro-life. Remember Percy's criticism of the religious right and his fears of how American nationalism would infect Catholicism? Hardly the sort of thing you'd expect from proto-Palinistas.

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