Printer Friendly

Servile leisure: Walker Percy's the last gentleman and the philosophy of Josef Pieper.

THE WORD "GENTLEMAN," WHICH FIGURES PROMINENTLY IN THE TITLE OF Walker Percy's second published novel, simultaneously calls to mind the social world of manners and morals and the economic world of money and class. Percy scholars who study the concept of the gentleman generally limit their focus to the former aspect, emphasizing the stoic code of behavior that characterized the male plantation elite in the old South. (1) In one way or another, these critics argue that Will Barrett--and characters like him in Percy's other novels--refashion or reject Stoicism in order to survive in the postmodern South. While Percy undoubtedly engages with his "Uncle" Will's stoicism in the novel, its prominence in both Percy's fiction and nonfiction tends to overshadow any study of the economics of being a gentleman. Though Will Barrett is almost universally identified as the novel's titular "gentleman," landed gentlemen are not janitors--or "humidification engineers." If they have any profession at all, they are planters, doctors, lawyers, or generals. The Last Gentleman does not limit itself to these categories, however; its almost encyclopedic catalog of occupations depicts people wealthy enough to travel for weeks at a time, play golf, buy fancy telescopes, and read Wittgenstein, as well as people who work for hire as janitors, butlers, gardeners, cooks, coroners, nurses, companions, and hunting guides. Labor, race, and social stratification, therefore, unavoidably interact in Percy's treatment of the gentleman.

Deeply influenced by the thought of the "Catholic Revival" that peaked in the 1940s and '50s, Percy would have been aware of contemporary theories of labor and leisure. As an active participant in the intellectual climate of the Catholic revival, when "it was . . . common for Catholic intellectuals to pay close attention to the reigning philosophies of the day"(Quinlan 58), Percy probably encountered the most prominent exposition of Catholic thought on the subject: Leisure, the Basis of Culture, by German philosopher Josef Pieper. (2) Pieper was well respected in the 1950s and 1960s as an ethical philosopher and student of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. When the English translation of Leisure, the Basis of Culture--still Pieper's most well-known work in English--was first published in 1952, T. S. Eliot admired the convergence of philosophy and theology in Pieper's work in his introduction. Eliot argues that Pieper "restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom. By affirming the dependence of philosophy upon revelation, and a proper respect for 'the wisdom of the ancients,' he puts the philosopher himself in a proper relation to other philosophers dead and living" (16). In the United States, Allen Tate's favorable review in The New York Times Book Review drew additional attention to Pieper's ideas. (3) Josef Pieper's thought clearly influenced the climate in which Percy matured as a writer.

The Last Gentleman (1966) followed Walker Percy's first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961). Their plots are broadly similar. Both follow an intelligent, but dislocated, male protagonist as he embarks on a search for meaning apart from his family's past; both novels end with the death of a teenage boy. The Last Gentleman differs, however, from its predecessor and even its sequel (The Second Coming, 1980) in its examination of labor and leisure--an examination illuminated by reading Percy's novel alongside Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Though there is no evidence that Percy read Pieper's book, The Last Gentleman reflects major elements of Pieper's thought. As a homeless wayfarer whose peculiar perspective on reality makes him unusually receptive to both people and things, Will Barrett echoes Pieper's picture of the gentleman of leisure with startling accuracy. The issues of labor and face, however, disturb any tidy parallel between the two authors. Percy associates the characteristics of Pieper's philosophical gentleman with those engaged in servile labor--an activity that Pieper deemed incompatible with authentic leisure. Thus, Percy does not accept the reigning Catholic theory of the day uncritically. He rattles it to see where if cracks, flips if upside down to see how that looks, and cuts it up to see if a part will stand alone. Testing if out in the thorny circumstances of the postmodern South, Percy forges a new sort of "leisure class" that relies on Pieper's homelessness and receptivity for its insight, bur critiques the artificial boundaries of social and economic privilege.

Though he is concerned with leisure and the culture of "total work" that opposes if, the title of Pieper's book is misleading--his real object is to define a philosophical and distinctively Christian approach to reality. Pieper defines leisure as a pose of philosophic receptivity that begins in wonder and ends in celebrating the joys of everyday life (53, 131, 135). If is "leisure which leads man to accept the reality of the creation and thus to celebrate if, resting on the inner vision that accompanies it" (55). The leisurely gaze requires two things: homelessness and freedom from "servile work." Only the homeless, the wayfarers, have the sense of wonder necessary "to preserve our apprehension of the universality of things in the midst of the habits of daily life, and to see 'the world' above and beyond our immediate environment" (122). Servile work, on the other hand, enslaves the worker to its utilitarian dictates. Thus philosophical leisure is necessarily distinct from everyday labor. Pieper labels the class of workers "entirely subject to economic forces" the "proletariat" (65). (4) He cites three causes of this "binding": lack of ownership, the dictate of the state, and spiritual poverty. While the first two are social and political problems commonly associated with the plight of the proletariat, the last is unique: "everyone whose life is completely filled by his work ... is a proletarian because his life has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing" (65). When the circumference of life itself shrinks, the only remedy lies in renewing the entire culture, "enlarging the scope of life beyond the confines of merely useful servile work, and widening the sphere of servile work to the advantage of the liberal arts" (66). The whole ideological structure of a society must be re-ordered, leisure and the liberal arts taking first place.

In spite of their radically different audiences, Pieper's thought tallies well with Percy's portrait of Will Barrett, the "last gentleman*" Will is "a watcher and a listener and a wanderer," precisely the condition that Pieper identifies as "so essentially human and so essential to human existence" (Percy 10; Pieper 137). Wanderers are afflicted with homelessness, an essential trait in the thought of Romano Guardini, a German theologian and the author of the epigraph to The Last Gentleman. In his discussion of Guardini's influence on Percy, Farrell O'Gorman call homelessness "the necessary condition for escaping despair" (155). Rita's gift of Ulysses, the Trav-L-Aire camper "in the world yet not of the world," confirms Will's homelessness (Percy 153). As with the iconic traveler of Western literature, thousands of miles, ridiculous predicaments, and more than one woman hinder Will's journey to Ithaca--which happens to be his hometown in Mississippi. Unlike Homer's pagan hero, however, Will cannot find rest even there. The South, ostensibly his homeland, only alienates him further: "it is much worse to be homeless and then to go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there" (186).

Will's homelessness unsettles him even from his ancestral home; at the same time, if gives him a fresh perspective on the world: "Much of the time he was like a man who has just crawled out of a bombed building. Everything looked strange. Such a predicament, however, is not altogether a bad thing. Like the sole survivor of a bombed building, he had no secondhand opinions and he could see things afresh" (11). This coincides with Pieper's contention that "to anyone raising such a [philosophical] question the things 'before his eyes' become, all at once, transparent, they lose their density and solidity and their apparent finality--they can no longer be taken for granted. Things then assume a strange, new, and deeper aspect" (128). Will Barrett dwells almost permanently in this strange new world, stripped of prefabricated explanations.

Despite the active seeking involved in a quest, the object of that search is receptivity, which is essentially passive. As Sutter reasons to Val in his notebook, "Let us say you were right: that man is a wayfarer ... who therefore stands in the way of hearing a piece of news which is of the utmost importance to him ... and which he had better attend to" (353). Though a wayfarer, a man merely "stands in the way" of his news; he must listen rather than pursue. Pieper calls this "listening to the essence of things" receptivity (33). He argues that "To contemplate ... to 'look' in this sense, means to open one's eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one's vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them" (31).

In spite of Percy's affinities with Pieper, The Last Gentleman is not a fictionalized version of Pieper's philosophy. Although less than twenty years apart, the cultural and economic situations of postwar Germany and 1960s America posed strikingly different challenges to leisure. When Pieper first wrote the essays that constitute Leisure, the Basis of Culture, his condemnation of a society of "total work" responded to the nationwide determination to rebuild an economy devastated after the war. Two decades later, technological advances and burgeoning wealth gave Americans more "free time" than ever. With extra time, however, came increasing opportunities to fill if with commercial entertainment, as the title of Percy's first published novel, The Moviegoer, suggests. Likewise, The Last Gentleman presents a world in which people fill their free time with golf and bourbon. In this setting, the receptive posture of true leisure is replaced by the pure passivity of entertainment. With such differences in cultural context, Percy cannot simply adopt Pieper's perspective on leisure.

Percy recasts the receptivity of his listening protagonist in technological terms, as a radar.

He is waiting for a sign, and has "the knack of divining persons and situations." ... But Sutter, in his way, Val, Fr. Boomer, Jamie Vaught, even Kitty Vaught all know something he doesn't know; and knowing this he is extraordinarily open to the signals they send. It doesn't hurt being "all antennae" either. And it certainly doesn't hurt to be a watcher and a waiter. (Schwartz 114)

Will attributes his unusually acute perception at least partly to his illness and dislocation: "I'm not well ... and therefore it is fitting that I should sit still, like an Englishman in his burrow, and see what can be seen" (191). "What can be seen" turns out to be the wonderful extravagance of the tiny details of ordinary life--details that can only be seen with the keen reception of "an Englishman in his burrow." As he contemplates his father's suicide, Will realizes that "if was not in the Brahms that one looked and not in solitariness and not in the old sad poetry but ... here, under your nose, here in the very curiousness and drollness and extraness of the iron and the bark" (332). Receptivity requires openness to the things "under your nose"--it is not ah abstruse appreciation of Brahms and Matthew Arnold to be savored only by the elite.

Percy's radar, though it bears striking similarities to Pieper's receptivity, diverges from the philosopher's depiction of totally passive appreciation. The radar provides only limited insight; while Will can instantly detect the mode in which someone operates, be "cannot hear what people say but only the channel they use" (93, cf. 91). Moreover, Will's radar fails entirely--"boggles," as Percy puts it--when it encounters sex and Catholicism (137, 209). Finally, Will can (and does) misuse his gift. Receptivity overpowers his personality. Will's dislocation makes him particularly vulnerable to a total loss of individuality as he melds seamlessly into his various groups:
 So thoroughly in fact did he identify with his group companions of
 the moment, so adept did he become at role-taking ... that be all
 but disappeared into the group.... As a consequence this young man,
 dislocated to begin with, hardly knew who be was from one day to
 the next. There were times when he took roles so successfully that
 he left off being who he was and became someone else. (19-20)


Percy's treatment of receptivity, therefore, is not as rhapsodically positive as Pieper's. Though he acknowledges the benefits of what he calls Will's "sole gift," Percy recognizes its limits and its potential for misuse in a troubled person trying to make his way in a bewildering society (50).

Will's expensive German telescope also aids his perception. The telescope is essential to the narrative: Will falls in love with Kitty through its lens in the opening scene, precipitating his epic journey from New York to Santa Fe. In an atmosphere polluted by "ravenous particles" (26), the telescope's lenses can "recover" ordinary objects:
 Not only were the bricks seen as if they were ten feet away; they
 were better than that. It was better than having the bricks there
 before him. They gained in value.... Beyond any doubt, he said to
 himself, this proves that bricks, as well as other things, are not
 as accessible as they used to be. Special measures were needed to
 recover them. The telescope recovered them. (31)


Through the telescope, Will overcomes his dislocation--at least momentarily by seeing extraordinary things in an ordinary way. Although "recovery" seems to imply direct action, which would conflict with Pieper's insistence on passivity, Will maintains an appropriately receptive posture. Percy displaces active discovery onto the telescope itself, which "penetrate[s] to the heart of things" (29), thereby allowing Will to accept its revelation.

Nevertheless, as in the case of Will's radar, Percy questions Pieper's model of receptivity while he echoes it. Rather than making an external world more accessible, the telescope merely produces another world, interposing one more layer of glass and metal between Will and reality: "If was as if the telescope created its own world in the brilliant theater of its lenses" (5). The pricey German telescope distances Will not only from his physical environment, bur also from his fellow human beings, by indicating his privileged economic position. Though his plantation is less than impressive, Will still has more than $1,900 (in cash) to spend (29). Perhaps the medium of Will's first encounter with Kitty seals the late of their relationship--since he sees her at a distance, through the lenses of his telescope, they remain emotionally and mentally distanced, "still out of phase, their fervors alternating and jostling each other like bad dancers" (168).

Percy's more critical approach to Pieper's ideas intensifies in the novel's portrayal of race. African Americans are the only people other than Will who have a radar:
 They of course lived by their radars too. If was their special
 talent and it was how they got along: tuning in on the assorted
 signals about them and responding with a skill two hundred years in
 the making. And not merely responding. Not merely answering the
 signals but providing home and sustenance to the transmitter,
 giving him, the transmitter, to believe that he dwelled in loving
 and familiar territory. (194)


Will, too, uses his ability to make other people at home. When he first meets Mrs. Vaught, "In the space of seconds he changed from a Southerner in the North ... to a Southerner in the South, a skillful player of an old play who knows his cues and waits smiling in the wings.... They were onto the same game" (55). As a result, every member of the Vaught family, as in the story of the blind men and the elephant, settles on a different definition of Will's identity (64-65). A century before Percy wrote his novel, British convert to Catholicism John Henry Newman cited the ability to make others feel at home as one of the characteristics of the quintessential gentleman:
 The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may
 cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is
 cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all
 restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern
 being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes
 on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle
 towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can
 recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable
 allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in
 conversation, and never wearisome. (145-46)


The behavior of both Will and the African American servants fits perfectly with Newman's description of gentlemanly conduct. Nevertheless, while Will's attention to others' feelings is part of his mannered upbringing, the African Americans' tour-de-force of civility arises from the raw need to survive--a slip, an intrusion of unfamiliarity or unpleasant independence could cost them their lives.

By associating classically "gentlemanly" qualities with Will Barrett and the Vaught servants, Percy diverges from Pieper, who argues that "servile work" is incompatible with philosophical contemplation. In The Last Gentleman, Will and the African American servants are identified primarily by their role as workers. When the book opens, Will is a "humidification engineer"--a lowly profession according to Mr. Vaught. "The engineer wished he would mention a salary. 'You and Jamie can go to college--or go round the world! Now isn't that better than being janitor?'" (86). Will's profession and his concern for wages tie him to the working process, marking him as a member of Pieper's "proletariat." His economic dependence places him in a position akin to that of the African American employees: "The engineer nodded and asked no questions, since he understood that the 'boy' was a Negro and Mr. Vaught was embarrassed lest if should appear that the engineer was being offered a Negro's job" (80). The conclusion must be that, in Percy's thought, servile labor does not necessarily preclude the leisure previously reserved for the wealthy upper classes.

Nevertheless, the distinction between Will's place in the Southern economy and the exploitative situation of African Americans should not be passed over. The systematic poverty of African Americans and the dependency on personal labor that it causes makes them far more likely to be reduced to an economic cipher than Will's sporadic need for employment--after all, he has the soil bank. In Pennsylvania, Will notes, there are "no Negroes to cut the grass" (140). His observation highlights both the demeaning practice of identifying black people with their labor and, simultaneously, how dependent the Southern way of life still is on that labor. The economic oppression of African Americans, alongside the perilous stake they have in the success of their radar, underscores the deep disparity that remains between a white man--even a white man as sensitive as Will--and the African American community.

Even so, Will's identification with African Americans runs deeper than economic status or even his radar capacity: they resemble each other psychologically. Dr. Gamow, describing a member of the "group" he wants Will to join, mentions an "extremely sensitive Negro who is not success-oriented--a true identity problem there" (40). This description perfectly fits Will, who is far from "success-oriented" and certainly in the middle of an "identity crisis." Hall of the time he cannot even remember his own name. Additionally, "Negroes" have Will's ability to play a role so well that they disappear into it. Like Will when in a group, they can present themselves as whatever the people around them wish them to be; they are "so black and respectful, so absolutely amiable and well-disposed that it was possible to believe that they really were" (172). Altogether, Percy seems to suggest that Will and African Americans have essentially similar approaches towards identity, achievement, and interpersonal relations.

The strong parallels between Will Barrett and the novel's African American characters finally resolve into an African American character who is almost Will's double--the playwright traveling with Forney Aiken when Will meets them in Ithaca. "For once the engineer felt as powerful and white-hot a radar beam leveled at him as he leveled at others. This fellow was not one to be trifled with. He had done the impossible!--kept his ancient Negro radar intact and added to it a white edginess and restiveness" (319). Will and the playwright each possess qualities that Will associates with both races. Both men are primarily identified by their respective professions rather than by their names, but Will's double operates on the other end of the occupational spectrum; while Will works as a utilitarian humidification engineer, the playwright is an artist. Thus, two characters with the receptive capacity Pieper associates with leisure cross racial boundaries and the traditional line between servile labor and the liberal arts.

Will's radar allows him to see African Americans as other white people cannot: "Here came this strange young man who transmitted no signal at all but who rather, like them, was all ears and eyes and antennae. He actually looked at them" (195). However, his gaze does not lead to his personal enlightenment but to even greater confusion for both sides. The Vaughts' servants are unsettled by Will's perceptive gaze: "He liked to sit in the pantry and watch them and talk to them, but they, the Negroes, didn't know what to do with him. They called him 'he,' just as they used to call the madam of the house 'she'" (195). Will, by the same token, "was the only white man in the entire South who did not know all there was to know about Negroes" (194). With the "old patriarchal and patronizing relation of white to black, the defining action of the old southern gentleman" broken down, the old mode of communication has been cut off, and a new relationship has yet to replace it (Prenshaw 92). When Will meets a young black man his own age outside of his childhood home, therefore,
 There was nothing to say. Their fathers would have had much to
 say.... But the sons had nothing to say.... You may be in a fix and
 I know that but what you don't know and won't believe and must find
 out for yourself is that I'm in a fix too and you got to get where
 I am before you even know what I'm talking about and I know that
 and that's why there is nothing to say now. Meanwhile I wish you
 well. (332-33)


The arresting likeness in their respective situations allows them to wish each other well, but the chasm separating their experiences of the economic system and of social interaction impede real understanding--"you got to get where I am." Overall, Percy's treatment of Will Barrett's relations with the African American community sets them both on the path to authentic, contemplative leisure as philosophical wayfarers. At the same time, though the paths they travel may run closely parallel, they will never intersect as long as the drastic disparities in their situations exist; the unexorcised demon of radical inequality limits the capacity of even philosophical leisure to transcend racial, economic, and class boundaries.

While Will and the African Americans move along the trajectory of leisurely enlightenment, those traditionally considered part of the leisure class are left to stagnate. Initially, however, the novel appears to reinforce the wealthy's claim to a monopoly on leisure. The Vaughts have apparently unlimited free time; moreover, like Will, they wander compulsively. The tone of conversation during the golfers' break at the Vaught's country-club home seems to cement the correlation between leisure and money:
 The tone of the sixth-hole break was both pessimistic and
 pleasurable. The world outlook was bad, yes, but not so bad that it
 was not a pleasant thing to say so of a gold-green afternoon, with a
 fair sweat up and sugared bourbon that tasted as good as it
 smelled. Over yonder, a respectful twenty yards away, stood the
 caddies, four black ragamuffins who had walked over the ridge from
 the city....

 The golfers gazed philosophically into their whisky and now and
 then came out with solemn Schadenfreude things, just like four
 prosperous gents might have done in old Virginny in 1774. (192-93)


Percy associates their philosophical attitude with the "prosperous gents" of "old Virginny." Nevertheless, disturbing currents of labor and class trouble the pleasant surface their conversation. The wealthy men have so much leisure time that they can afford to work up a sweat in pursuit of pleasure; at the same time, they employ "black ragamuffins" to shoulder--literally--the burden of their pastime. The caddies must travel from "the city," presumably because they are unwelcome in the suburbs unless they come as servants.

Pieper's ideological lenses illuminate the precise nature of the tensions in this passage. The greatest enemy to leisure, according to Pieper, is not work, but idleness: "Idleness," he claims, "so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible: it might be described as the utter absence of leisure, or the very opposite of leisure. Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being" (51). Idleness, or the "break," merely rejuvenates workers so that they work better when they return; it arises, therefore, only when the human being is seen as a worker rather than an active human subject. Idleness emerges from a culture "where the religious spirit is not tolerated, where there is no room for poetry and art, where love and death are robbed of all significant effect and reduced to the level of a banality" (96). This is precisely the kind of culture in which Will Barrett attempts to find his place, a culture in which cars have "Confederate plates on the front bumper and plastic Christs on the dashboard" (186). In this atmosphere, Pieper concludes that the idle person, though "face to face with the divine good within him," is still "prey to sadness" (49). (5)

Sadness, ultimately, quietly unmasks the camaraderie of the sixth-hole break; the sadness of the idle pervades the "gold-green afternoon." Their pleasantry is simply schadenfreude, pleasure in another's misfortune. Such sadness saturates popular culture throughout the novel. Sutter, a morbid cultural critic, says in his notebook that everyone in soap operas is "decent (and also sad, you will notice, as sad as lewdness is sad)" (293). Will calls Kitty's "horsy conjugal way"--and the suburban marriage it implies--"sad poilu love" (256). Will responds to sadness very early in his life, running away from the "pure sadness" of the "games and group activities" of his childhood summer camp (13). He can only recover himself by hitchhiking home and riding out the summer in a tree house built by him and his "Negro friend." As an adult, only catastrophic events like hurricanes restore him (and other people, he notices) to himself: "The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky" (25). In its most extreme manifestations, sadness can be deadly: Will's father "was killed by his own irony and sadness and by the strain of living out an ordinary day in a perfect dance of honor" (10). In counterpoint, the sign of Will's status as a searcher--Ulysses the camper--is immune from sadness; it "sampl[es] the particularities of place yet [is] cabined off from the sadness of place.... peeping out at the doleful woods of Spotsylvania through the cheerful plexiglass of Sheboygan" (153). Idleness, therefore, and its concomitant sadness, afflicts the wealthy in Percy's novel and shuts them out of the effortless wonder of true leisure. (6)

Percy takes the sadness of the idle one step further, from the golf courses of the Sunbelt South to the halls of Princeton. Pieper, a staunch advocate for the "liberal arts," notes that liberal education is properly "the knowledge of a gentleman" (101). (7) He explicitly mentions universities as sites of genuine philosophical education (46). In The Last Gentleman, on the other hand, institutionalized education offers even less hope for leisure than the Birmingham suburbs:
 But what a sad business it was for him, this business of being a
 youth at college.... He envied the janitors. How much better it
 would be to be a janitor and go home at night to a cozy cottage by
 the railroad tracks, have a wee drop with one's old woman, rather
 than sit here solemn-and-joyous, feierlich, in these honorable
 digs. (14)


Will's sentimental phrases aside, he notices that the working class can escape the sadness of the Princetonians imprisoned in their "honorable digs." The university he attends in Alabama is even worse. Will's, Kitty's, and Jamie's studies are divorced from reality of any kind: "how strange it was that school had nothing whatever to do with life. The old talk of school as a preparation for life--what a bad joke" (201). Indeed, the physical properties of the books and slide rules are more appealing than the intellectual information that they are supposed to impart. Any value in the courses is carefully negated by extravagant praise that sends it "out the window ... kit and caboodle, cancelled out, polished off, even when you made straight A's. Especially when you made straight A's" (204). Already worthless as an educator, the university erupts into racial hatred when the first black student arrives.

At the same time, however, Percy's overwhelmingly negative picture of the university system partly coincides with the view of one of its foremost apologists--John Henry Newman. In his Idea of a University, Newman pointed out that, as pleasant as a gentleman can be, his code of ethics is insufficient for virtue (89). Liberal education unaided by any moral or theological education cannot "contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man" (90). Newman's description of a liberally educated gentleman is almost a point-for-point diagnosis of Will's predicament: "they shut themselves up in themselves; it is misery to them to think or to speak of their own feelings; it is misery to suppose that others see them, and their shyness and sensitiveness often become morbid. As to confession . . . to them it is impossible.... They are victims of an intense self-contemplation" (135). Percy and Newman, therefore, do agree on the shortcomings of even a properly functioning liberal university education.

The end of The Last Gentleman can be read as a graceful summary of Percy's difficulties with both Pieper's philosophy and postmodern culture that, at the same time, extends hope to the eternal wayfarer:
 But as the Edsel took off, spavined and sprung, sunk at one
 corner and flatulent in its muffler, spuriously elegant and
 unsound, like a Negro's car, a fake Ford, a final question did
 occur to him and be took off after it.

 "Wait," he shouted in a dead run.

 The Edsel paused, sighed, and stopped.

 Strength flowed like oil into his muscles and he ran with great
 joyous ten-foot antelope bounds.

 The Edsel waited for him. (409)


Sutter's dilapidated Edsel encapsulates The Last Gentleman's troubling issues. Broken down and falling apart, it calls to mind the economic stratification so prevalent in the novel. "Spuriously elegant and unsound, like a Negro's car," it will not let the reader forget, even in New Mexico, the realities of racial oppression that undermine Pieper's vision of universal leisure. The Edsel, as a "fake Ford," epitomizes the hollow culture of the "Sunbelt South" where Mr. Vaught peddles his wares with a slouch hat and a cane at Confederate Chevrolet. At the same time, Will's enthusiastic pursuit of the car comprehends both the essence of the philosophical journey and the hope for its continuance. Will's "joyous ten-foot antelope bounds" reflect the effortless extravagance that characterizes authentic leisure. "The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in 'celebration.' Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure emerge together: effortlessness, calm and relaxation" (Pieper 71). Finally, Will chases Sutter because be has one more question; as Pieper points out, the philosopher always has one more question because "a philosophical question ... can never be finally answered and disposed of" (140). The eternal "not-yet," rather than being disheartening, orients the philosophical journey towards hope, since philosophy "aims at a type of wisdom which is unattainable, though not, of course, in such a way that it has no relation whatsoever to its aim. it is simply that wisdom is the object of philosophy, bur as lovingly sought, and never fully possessed" (142).

The conclusion of Percy's novel thus sketches, in miniature, the entire trajectory of his re-examination of the Catholic philosophy of labor and leisure. Though The Last Gentleman reflects the core of Pieper's theory of leisure in the characters of Will Barrett, the playwright, and the other African American characters, Percy critiques Pieper's absolute separation between labor and leisure. Economic status and a receptive philosophical posture unite African American characters and Will Barrett, undermining the economic superiority of the gentleman of leisure, while Pieper's philosophical categories highlight the enforced servitude of the African Americans, casting the hollow idleness of the wealthy into vivid relief. In spite of their differences, their insistence on leisure for its own sake sets Walker Percy and Josef Pieper apart from a culture that allocates "free time" for increasing productivity, consuming entertainment, or reducing blood pressure. Since Pieper's time, idleness has further displaced genuine leisure; common speech associates the language of leisure with mere entertainment. Wonder, the starting point for leisurely contemplation, is now the appropriate response to impressive computer-generated special effects. The passivity of watching television or movies precludes passive receptivity. Though Pieper's terms have been perverted, the indictment of the "leisure class" in The Last Gentleman retains much of its power. Nevertheless, Percy's sober look at the divisive wounds of racial inequality does not prevent his ending where Pieper does--in "the joy of the beginner, of the mind and spirit that is always open to what is fresh, new and as yet unknown" (137).

I would like to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement of Brannon Costello in preparing this article.

Works Cited

Aguiar, Mark, and Erik Hurst. "Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades." Working Papers. January 2006. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. 15 Apr. 2007. <http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/wp/wp2006/wp0602.pdf>.

Ciuba, Gary. "Percy's First Gentle Man." Mississippi Quarterly 61.2 (1988): 131-45.

Donaldson, Susan V. "Keeping Quentin Compson Alive: The Last Gentleman, The Second Coming, and the Problem of Masculinity." Walker Percy's Feminine Characters. Ed. Lewis Lawson. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1995. 62-77.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. Pieper xi-xvii.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. 1899. Ed. Frank Turner. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

O'Gorman, Farrell. Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2004.

Percy, Walker. The Last Gentleman. 1966. New York: Picador, 1999.

Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. New York: Pantheon, 1952.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman. "Elegies for Gentlemen: Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman and Eudora Welty's 'The Demonstrators'." Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher. Ed. Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 84-95.

Quinlan, Kieran. Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996.

Schwartz, Joseph. "Life and Death in The Last Gentleman." Renascence 40.2 (1988): 112-28.

Tate, Allen. "In Search of the 'Wisdom Possessed by God.'" Rev. of Leisure, the Basis of Culture. New York Times Book Review 24 Feb. 1952: 12. Rpt. Zeisure, the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper. Trans Gerald Malsbary. South Bend: St. Augustine's, 1998. 147-48.

RACHEL FABER HUMPHRIES

Louisiana State University

(1) See, for example, Ciuba, Donaldson, and Prenshaw.

(2) Chapter 2 of O'Gorman's Peculiar Crossroads discusses at length the interdisciplinary ambiance of Roman Catholic intellectual life in the '40s and '50s. Incidentally, Quinlan mentions Pieper as a major influence on modern converts to Catholicism (219).

(3) The book was also positively reviewed in the Chicago Tribune, the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, Commonweal, and The Nation.

(4) Pieper acknowledges that be is using loaded terms here (61), but be forges ahead with his discussion. He briefly cites Stalin and Sartre as counter-examples; be mentions Marx only in passing.

(5) For this definition, Pieper draws on Kierkegaard, an acknowledged influence on Percy (O'Gorman 128).

(6) Percy's perspective has been seconded from a surprising source: a sociological study that found that "higher incomes are associated with lower levels of leisure" (Aguiar and Hurst 3).

(7) Pieper draws heavily on J. H. Newman's Idea of a University for this concept.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Humphries, Rachel Faber
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
Words:6134
Previous Article:Panopticism and the use of "the other" in to Kill a Mockingbird.
Next Article:Diabolical evil and "The Black Cat".
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters