Walker Percy's Bible notes and his fiction: gracious obscenity.
A survey of the Walker Percy Library in the Rare Book Collection at the University of North Carolina indicates at least the following biblical volumes: two paperback copies of the New Testament, one hardbound copy of the Douai-Rheims Bible, and one hardbound (two volumes of the Old Testament; one volume of the New Testament) Bible translated by Monsignor Ronald Knox. (1) All scripture references in this article will come from the three-volume Ronald Knox translation, hereafter referred to as the Knox Bible or Knox NT. Percy left more than 600 penciled notes, underlines, and marginal marks in his Knox Bible.
Reading Percy in light of the Bible is hardly original. Patrick Samway relates how Percy reported the importance of the Bible to his work (470). Gary Ciuba has considered Percy's novels in relation to biblical apocalyptic (23), and Lewis Lawson has noted the use of the Bible in Percy's introduction to "The Delta Factor" (3). Yet, little if any work has been done on correlations between Percy's Bible notes and his novels. While critics have examined Percy's sacramental orientation, no one has stressed Percy's juxtaposition of the sacramental with the obscene. Alan Pridgen has studied Percy's "sacramental landscapes," but has taken little notice of the obscene (23-24). For his part, Farrell O'Gorman has noted that Percy and Flannery O'Connor share a "sacramental vision" (146), but does little more than affirm that, "The here and now is worth writing about because God is present in it" (148). Commenting on Lance Lamar's loss of a sacramental view, John Desmond writes that, "A sacrament represents the interpenetration of the divine and the physical world, so that the physical becomes mysteriously an instrument or medium of grace" (69-70). This essay will carry these insights further by suggesting that the power of Percy's sacramental imagery derives, at least in part, from the scandalous interpenetration of the holy and the obscene as noted in his Knox Bible.
Following his notes in the Fourth Gospel, Percy stresses the issue of the Incarnation, God's participation in human flesh, including suffering, and death. Percy's notion of sacramental obscenity may derive from his reading of John 9--the story of "the man born blind." In his Knox NT, at John 9.6 ("With that, he spat on the ground, and made clay with the spittle; then he spread clay on the man's eyes ..."), Percy writes in the fight margin, "Sensible", and then with a line connects Sensible to the text ("made clay with the spittle"), and beneath Sensible he writes, "Power, obscenity, Belief." Percy graphically notes the relationship between Christ's power displayed via the earthy combination of spit and dirt applied as clay to the man's eyes. This he terms "obscenity." The obscenity manifests itself in the use of spit and dirt in the communication of divine grace in the form of healing. In the Fourth Gospel, earthy-human stuff becomes the medium of divine power leading to the insight that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. Thus, in John 9, divine grace operates within an obscene nexus of human bodily fluid, dirt, blindness, the divine power of a heterodox rabbi, and faith. In the Gospel, the confluence of grace and obscenity offends religious authorities who disassociate grace from obscenity and, moreover, assume such healing is not a sign of grace, but of sin. In the end, those whose eyes need no healing are blind to grace. They cannot see divine power at work in the earthy obscene--they cannot see Christ in human flesh.
But how does Percy employ obscenity in relation to belief? John Edward Hardy has noted that Percy's fiction boasts a "new bestiary," which "is a good deal more reliable as natural history than are the medieval models but is never so clear in the dimensions of its moral and theological meaning" (147). Yet, recalling the peregrine falcon that led The Last Gentleman's Will Barrett to Kitty Vaught in New York's Central Park, Hardy can say,
Still, a plainly labeled significacio is hardly required for us to see, at least in retrospect, an emblem of Christ in the triumphant falcon--something to return to modern sources, a shade more Hopkinsian than Yeatsian, though accommodating both--and perhaps, even in the victim pigeons, another aspect of the Godhead" (147-48).
Hardy is surely onto something in his analysis of the falcon--Christ or perhaps the Spirit--present in the form of a ferocious raptor. In Percy's personal bookplate--which he designed--a haloed bird-fish combine to depict the entry of Christ and the Spirit into an open book. That image seems to corroborate Percy's use of non-human creatures to illustrate the entry of the Divine through creaturely flesh. It is my contention, however, that Percy utilizes an even wider range of things than birds and fish to suggest the incarnational breakthrough of the Divine. I will argue that Percy employs various obscene things, images, and events to depict the incarnation of the Holy.
Consider, for instance, the dung beetle, which first awoke Binx Boiling to his search in The Moviegoer. In relation to Binx's beetle, Hardy says:
The importance of all other distinctions not withstanding, the paradigm is clear. The beetle may have no power of language, no memory and no foresight, no conscious intention in its seeking, and the very thought of what it seeks may be, for a human being of normal adult sensibility, disgusting. But the beetle can and does move about from one place to another, albeit within a narrow range, can and does go in search (143-44).
"... the very thought of what [the beetle] seeks may be, for a human being of normal sensibility, disgusting." Hardy smells disgusting dung, but he may miss the power of Percy's sacred obscenity. Percy's connection of "Power, obscenity, Belief" with the "Sensible" in John 9, leads me to suspect that The Moviegoer's dung beetle may carry a greater mystery than Hardy's limited observation that the beetle moves and searches. Hardy's recognition of normal sensibility's disgust in relation to the beetle's search only hints at the obscenity Percy connects with power and belief.
In another note, on John 1.14, Percy underlines "Word" and "flesh" in the text and writes "Word [right arrow] flesh" in the margin. The arrow indicates direction or motion of the sacred Word into mundane flesh, a dynamic Percy sees in the whole of creation, and especially its more profane dimensions. In other words, Percy views John's conjunction of the divine Logos with human flesh as the generative nexus of the obscenity, power and belief he later notes in John 9. Only in John 9, the presence of the Word in human flesh generates power and belief by means of spit and dirt. But why employ a dung beetle as the catalyst in Binx's search?
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, the scarab beetle is the "Sacred dung-beetle of ancient Egypt" (1010). Percy appears to have been well aware of the prominent role dung beetles played in the religious mythology of ancient Egypt. For example, in volume two of his Knox Bible, Percy has drawn a beetle in the right margin of Wisdom 11.16-18. The section begins, "So lost to piety were these Egyptians, such foolish reasonings led them astray, that they worshipped brute reptiles, and despicable vermin. And swarms of brute beasts thou didst send to execute they vengeance." A related footnote reads in part, "The Egyptians, who were credited with worshipping beetles, were punished by plagues of insects" (vol. 2, 987). In drawing a beetle, Percy draws our attention to the object of his interest: the Egyptian worship of dung beetles as signs of the immortal sun god.
At least two additional volumes in the Percy Collection at UNC refer to dung beetles or scarabs in ancient Egyptian culture: Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard, and The Archaeology of Palestine, by William Foxwell Albright. Percy's textual marks in The Archeology of Palestine may help clarify his interest in studying the archeology and religion of the ancient Near East. On page 248, he has marked the following passage:
Egypt has yielded early written evidence of pagan, Jewish, and Christian religion; it has also preserved the recently discovered works of Manichaean and other Gnostic sects, all considerably later than the rise of Christianity ... Christianity thus appears in the light of archaeology as a unique historical phenomenon, like the faith of Israel which had preceded it.
Here it seems clear that Percy intended to demonstrate for himself the authenticity of Albright's claim--that Christianity is indeed "a unique historical phenomenon, like the faith of Israel which had preceded it." In fact, Albright also discusses scarab beetles and especially their use in dating archeological finds in ancient Palestine (84). For Albright, and perhaps for Percy, the scarab serves as a crucial link between the archeology of ancient Palestine and the religious culture of ancient Egypt.
Percy's notes in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament further illumine his pursuit of things Egyptian. There, he has left densely written notes inside the book's front and back covers. Among other things, he writes, "Abraham--Egypt--12D--middle kingdom," and "Exodus "about" (a line over the letter "c") 1290--19D--Ramsees II." His notes follow the biblical narratives of Abraham and Israel in Egypt. Percy appears interested in the relation of Israel's faith to the religious mythology likely encountered by ancient Israelites in Egypt. In this connection, he has made extensive underlining in the text, and especially in the sections, "Egyptian Myths, Tales, and Mortuary Texts," (32-33) and "Mortuary Texts: Life after Death," (through 155). Percy takes special interest in the morning sun-god Khepri "who is in his sun disc" (Percy underline, 4) who "cannot be destroyed." (4, note 9). In addition, he has marked "Khepri was the morning sun-god, conceived as a scarab beetle. In the following context there is a play on the name and the word kheper 'come into being'" (6, note 3). As the beetle emerged from its generative ball of dung and pushed the fecal mass across the Earth, ancient Egyptians saw an image of Khepri's heavenly path as an earthly sign of celestial immortality.
Jac Tharpe thinks that "The most important misapprehension of The Moviegoer was the failure to see that the novel was by a Roman Catholic novelist writing about immortality" (ii). If Tharpe is correct, it may be that Binx Boiling's dung beetle is a sign of immortality in The Moviegoer. If so, the disgusting dung beetle may display Percy's sense of gracious obscenity, that is, God's participation and presence in brutal human events like war. A creature born in dung scratching around on a battlefield moves the wounded Binx Bolling toward a search that culminates with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the season of repentance, the death of Binx's half-brother, Lonnie, a discussion of Christ's return, and the resurrection of the dead.
But how does a dung beetle scratching around in the leaves signal God's participation in the human obscenities of war, injury, and pain? The words of Binx Boiling may be illuminating:
I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside-down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn't hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search" (MG, 16).
Binx's comment that "everything is upside down for me," serves as a lens through which to view Percy's use of the dung beetle scratching around on the face of the war-ravaged Earth. If everything is upside-down for Binx, then a creature like a beetle at the low end of existence is at the high end, and that which appears nearest the Earth is really nearest heaven. For Percy, then, the dung beetle functions as a precursive sign pointing toward Christ's crucifixion in which all that is high is made low and all that is low is lifted up. Binx's upside-down orientation enables us to view the dung beetle as a sign of Christ's participation in human suffering and death, grace enmeshed in the obscenities of human misery. The crucified Christ, after all, bears no outward sign of holiness. Yet, following Christ's "lifted up" prediction of his crucified death (John 12.33), Percy underlines and makes a star at John 12.45, "to se me is o see him who sent me." For John and for Percy, the offense of a crucified man reveals the presence of God.
With such an upside-down perspective in mind, we may read Binx's second reference to a dung beetle in reverse light:
Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies--my only talent--smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead ... (MG, 180).
"Everyone becomes anyone ... and prospers like a dung beetle." Percy uses the dung beetle in two ways. First, the beetle serves as an example of the stimulus-response, life-as-organism existence proposed by scientific humanism. Second, in light of the crucified Christ--Binx's reverse orientation--the beetle may also serve as a sign of transcendent possibility. Overtly, of course, Binx smells and sees only shit, but covertly he senses something else. He is onto the sensible conveyance of power, obscenity, and belief via the medium of a dung beetle--he is onto divine grace enmeshed in the stuff of creation. Like a dung beetle, Binx finds more than the stench of death and decay in the great shithouse of life. He finds a search--for what, he can not exactly say. The dung beetle yields the possibility of a future born out of death and decay.
A similar dynamic emerges out of Lonnie Smith, Binx's anointed--literally Christed (MG, 189)--half-brother, whose suffering and death give birth to word-signs of Christ's promised resurrection. According to this dynamic, the ninety-eight percent of people who believe in God may, in fact, believe in something else--something a good deal less troublesome than the God of gracious obscenity revealed in the dying Lonnie and a dung beetle. In such reverse light, people who are "dead, dead, dead" may yet find hope not in the limited vision of scientific humanism, but in the love which emerges like a dung beetle from the shitty misery of Lonnie's death. Even so, the dying Lonnie instructs Binx to tell his surviving siblings not to be sad and to give them a kiss (MG, 189). As Lonnie dies, Kate receives a word and a kiss from Binx. The anxious Kate walks down a street with nothing but a quarter in her hand and a cape jasmine pressed against her cheek. The sacramental bloom signals not only Binx's love, but also Christ himself, whose obscene death reveals grace in the very fashion that dung brings forth both a fragrant flower and a disgusting beetle.
Thus, Percy moves from the spit and dirt of John 9 to the dung beetle and shithouse of The Moviegoer as an expression of the reversed relationship between perceived obscenity and revealed grace. For Percy, the power of Christ's gracious obscenity transfigures both the dung beetle and Lonnie's death into signs of grace, and not the other way round. The crucified Christ has been raised from the dead, and Pharaoh has not--or, at least, not yet. To the extent the dung beetle signifies immortality in the religious texts of ancient Egypt, it remains dead, but to the extent it signifies death and decay within the shadow of Christ's crucifixion, it conveys sacred obscenity, the enfleshed grace of immortality in the body of a crucified Jew. The dung beetle signals that the crucified Word of God transfigures obscenity--including the Holocaust of the Jews, dung beetles, and dying children like The Moviegoer's Lonnie Smith, Jamie Vaught in The Last Gentleman, and Samantha More in Love in the Ruins.
There may be no greater obscenity in the work of Walker Percy than the deaths of children. Even the profanities of Will Barrett's father's suicide and the verbal rants of Lancelot Andrews Lamar diminish in the face of Lonnie Smith's death by a "massive virus infection" (MG, 187) that leaves Kate Cutrer blind with tears such that she exclaims,
Oh my God, how dreadful ... It was like a blow in the face ... That poor little boy--he's so hideously thin and yellow, like one of those wrecks lying on a flatcar in Dachau. Why is he so yellow? (MG, 188).
Percy conjoins two obscenities: a child's death and the Jewish Holocaust--Lonnie's body reminds Kate of "one of those wrecks lying on a flatcar in Dachau." Yet, from Binx's reverse orientation and Percy's notes in John 9 and 12, we suspect that the twin obscenities of a child's death and the Holocaust may be viewed within the reverse light of Christ's death and resurrection--the same light within which Percy's Father Smith views the Jewish Holocaust in The Thanatos Syndrome. It is precisely within the holocaust of Lonnie Smith's death that resurrection hope appears. By joining Lonnie's death with images of the Holocaust, Percy suggests that the Lord himself is present in the most extreme obscenities of human existence. Moreover, by putting echoes of Flannery O'Connor's famous dictum in the mouth of Father Smith ("Do you know where tenderness always leads? To the gas chamber. Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer." TS, 128), Percy may suggest a further reversal: the Lord himself may be absent from tender sentiment, yet present in genocidal madness. O'Connor famously observed,
If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in the forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas-chambers (830-31).
Percy utilizes the obscenity of senseless death to explore the distorted faith that God may be absent from tender sentiment yet present and active in human suffering, even as God was present and active in the suffering of the Jews and the crucifixion of Christ. Both are of a piece with the same divine obscenity.
Jamie Vaught's death in The Last Gentleman may serve as a further example of Percy's use of the obscene in the communication of divine grace. Taking up Binx's merde theme, Percy goes out of his way to emphasize the grossly distasteful quality of Jamie's baptism on the verge of death. As Ft. Boomer prepares to baptize him, Jamie moves his bowels:
After a moment there arose to the engineer's nostrils first an intimation, like a new presence in the room, a somebody, then a foulness beyond the compass of smell. This could only be the dread ultimate rot of the molecules themselves, an abject surrender. It was the body's disgorgement of its most secret shame. Doesn't this ruin everything, wondered the engineer (if only the women were here, they wouldn't permit it, oh Jamie never should have left home). He stole a glance at the others. Sutter and the priest bent to their task as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. The priest supported Jamie's head on the frail stem of its neck. When a nurse came to service the cabinet, the engineer avoided her eye. The stench scandalized him. Shouldn't they all leave?" (LG, 386).
Percy places Jamie's baptism and death within "a foulness beyond the compass of smell ... the body's disgorgement of its most secret shame." The stench of the dying boy's excrement scandalizes Will Barrett. Exercising Hardy's "normal sensibility," Will feels that the foulness of shit ruins everything. Barrett speaks for the religious world's expectation that the obscene excludes the Holy. However, with Jamie's baptism, Percy contradicts normal religious sentiment. He suggests a sacred presence amid the obscenely foul.
In the most repulsive of odors, Will Barrett notices "an intimation, like a new presence in the room, a somebody ..." If Percy is correct in his association of "Power, obscenity, Belief" with the "Sensible", then it may also be correct to suggest that Christ himself is that new presence, the "somebody," who enters the hospital room amid the "body's disgorgement of its most secret shame." If so, Christ makes his sacramental entry into the world amid the stench of death and fecal decay. This stinking Christ scandalizes a reading public disabled by sanctimonious religion. Normal religious sensibility is blind to the presence of holiness in the scandal of human shit. Hence, Percy places a second movement of Jamie's bowels immediately prior to the baptismal event, thereby doubling the scandalous continuity between the Holy and the obscene. Lancelot Lamar later notes the same scandal, as he stumbles upon his wife and her lover embraced in an adulterous polarity of blessing--curse ("God. Sh--God. Sh--"): "Who else but God arranged that love should pitch its tent in the place of excrement? (L, 238)."
In Love in the Ruins, the death of a child once again provides the catalytic context within which Percy engages the controversial notion of divine grace present in the obscene. The death of Samantha More, the perceptive child of Dr. Tom More and his (then) wife, Doris, forms the aching question by which More reflects on life and death: "Is it possible to live without feasting on death?" (LR, 374) For Thomas More, a Schadenfreude-like "feasting" on his daughter's death tears him away from participation in the Eucharistic feast. One feast displaces another as More wrestles within Percy's "San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind," between the pain of dyadic (material, stimulus-response) loss and the triadic (non-material, transcendent) hope of sacramental life (Signposts in a Strange Land, 271-94). Until the story's very end, the morbid feast prevents More from feasting on Christ. Dr. More says,
Here in the old days I used to go to mass with my daughter, Samantha. My wife, an ex-Episcopal girl from Virginia, named our daughter Samantha in the expectation that this dark gracile pagan name would somehow inform the child, but alas for Doris, Samantha turned out to be chubby, fair, acned, and pious, the sort who likes to hang around after school and beat Sister's erasers (LR, 12).
Pious Samantha is a messenger of truth and sacramental hope. Her Eucharistic piety combines with suffering and death to pose the most profound arguments both for and against God. As Flannery O'Connor observes,
One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. The Alymers whom Hawthorne saw as a menace have multiplied. Busy cutting down human imperfection, they are making headway also on the raw material of good. Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus' hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the Innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision (830).
Walker Percy challenges our "gain in sensibility and our loss in vision." Discussing the role Samantha's death plays in Thomas More's struggles, William Rodney Allen says, "The death of a child is one of the most disturbing events in human experience, and writers have often focused on the phenomenom [sic] in order to explore the ultimate mysteries" (91). The ultimate mystery Percy illumines via the death of Samantha More is the offensive insight that divine love courts us amid the ruins of life. Tom More struggles with the mystery of love present in a world of death and, moreover, the perverse role of his own sin in dealing with death--
If only we hadn't been defeated by humdrum humming present time and missed it, missed ourselves, missed everything. I had the foreknowledge while she lived. Still, present time went humming. Then she died and here came the sweet remorse like a blade between the ribs (LR, 374).
According to A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, "missing" may be one definition of sin--"missing the mark" (41). Percy uses "missed" three times in quick succession in order to underscore Tom More's peculiar sin in relation to his daughter's death and dying, his Schadenfreude as expressed in the confession,
Samantha, forgive me. I am sorry you suffered and died, my heart broke, but there have been times when I was not above enjoying it (LR, 374).
Thomas More may be a "bad Catholic," and especially in his occasional enjoyment of sweet remorse at his daughter's death, but he still knows how to confess his sins, and the question Percy seems to press is whether Tom may have committed the "sin against grace," what The Baltimore Catechism terms "mortal sin" (17). In a recollected conversation, Samantha catechizes her father, the terminally ill child playing the role of confessor / catechist:
"Papa, have you lost your faith?"
("Samantha asked me the question as I stood by her bed. The neuroblastoma had pushed one eye out and around the nosebridge so she looked like a Picasso profile.")
"Then why don't you go to mass any more?"
"I don't know. Maybe because you don't go with me."
"Papa, you're in greater danger than Mama."
"How is that?"
"Because she is protected by Invincible Ignorance."
"That's true," I said, laughing.
"She doesn't know any better."
"Just promise me one thing, Papa."
"Don't commit the one sin for which there is no forgiveness."
"Which one is that?"
"The sin against grace. If God gives the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse, the sin will not be forgiven you."
"I know," (LR, 373-74)
Has Dr. More committed the sin against grace? At times it may seem so, especially as he enjoys his daughter's death, chases his Nobel dreams, attempts to satisfy his musical-erotic needs with a harem of three women, and deals with the devilish Art Immelmann over the future of his "lapsometer." Yet, near the end of the book, as he tries to confess his sins, More only manages to report that he feels sorry for not feeling sorry at all. Even so, he says he believes "in the Catholic faith as the Catholic church proposes it" (LR, 397). Moreover, he performs acts of contrition, and (as Father Smith says mass) reports that, "I eat Christ, drink his blood" (LR, 400). In other words, Samantha's instruction has taken hold. The dying child has served as an agent of the Holy Spirit in preventing the sin against grace. Samantha's disfigurement, suffering, and death ruined her parents' marriage and left her father a pathetic figure like David following the death of his son by Bathsheeba. In fact, it may be the tragic character of David that Percy has at least partly in mind when he gives us Thomas More, a gifted man afflicted by sin and the death of his child. Percy thrice (LR, 13, 138, and 402) echoes 2 Samuel 6.14-23 (Knox, 2 Kings 6.14-23) when he describes Tom More in terms of King David cutting the fool before the Ark, and each reference occurs within a post-communion context. In other words, participation in the Eucharist--eating and drinking Christ--restores the kind of joyful abandon David had before his adultery with Bathsheeba, the murder of Uriah, and the death of his infant son.
Yet, with the tale of Thomas More, Percy adds the sacramental appearance of love amid the obscene ruins of a child's death. The death of a child and the end of a marriage can certainly ruin a person, but they cannot destroy the love conveyed in the obscenity of Christ's flesh and blood--both of which, according to biblical law, convey divine curse and not blessing. Consuming flesh and blood amounts to a grotesque obscenity. But it is precisely the eating and drinking of Christ's flesh and blood that Tom More recalls:
The best of times were after mass on summer evenings when Samantha and I would walk home in the violet dusk, we having received Communion and I rejoicing afterwards, caring nought for my fellow Catholics but only for myself and Samantha and Christ swallowed, remembering what he promised me for eating him, that I would have life in me, and I did, feeling so good that I'd sing and cut the fool all the way home like King David before the Ark (LR, 13).
Here Percy has more in mind than 2 Samuel's dancing King David, as Tom More cites Christ's obscene promise in John 6:
I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is the bread which I am to give? It is my flesh given for the life of the world ... Believe me when I tell you this; you can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood.
Percy has underlined John 6.54 in his Knox NT: "you can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood." Tom More did indeed have a kind of life in him so long as he swallowed Christ, his daughter lived, and Doris remained at home. But Samantha's death breaks More's joy and destroys his marriage such that he teeters on the edge of living death. Quoting Doris, More says, "She said I was like a Polack miner coming up out of the earth every night with no thought but to fill his belly and hump his wife" (LR, 72). Doris anticipates Ewell McBee's celebration of "Lawyer Barrett's" anthropology: "A man is born between an asshole and a peehole. He eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, gets old, and dies. That's all he does. That's what a man is" (SC, 176). Such a man appears little more than flesh, dung, and death. As such, More no longer swallows Christ; he no longer has life in him; he no longer dances like David before the ark, but lives rather like a subterranean creature solely for the satisfaction of biological need. In a word, More no longer has eternal [zeta][omega][eta] in him, but only biological [beta]io : his daughter's death has deformed him into a dyadic creature of need satisfaction.
Is this the unforgivable sin? Doris apparently thought so. She left him, Tom says, "because she never forgave me or God for Samantha's death" (LR, 72). She could not accept the obscenity of divine love within the context of her child's suffering and death:
That's a loving God you have there," she told me toward the end, when the neuroblastoma had pushed one eye out and around the nosebridge so that Samantha looked like a two-eyed Picasso profile. After that, Doris went spiritual and I became coarse and disorderly. She took the high road and I took the low (LR, 72).
Percy uses Doris' spiritual rejection of divine obscenity--the participation of God in human flesh, suffering, and death--to illumine human sin, the rejection of God in spiritual or higher terms. For Doris, it is not that God is dead, but that the God of Judeo-Christianity falls short of divine elevation by getting mixed up in the obscenity of flesh and its dirty-dying consequences. From the story's outset, Tom More says that, "Principalities and powers are everywhere victorious. Wickedness flourishes in high places" (LR, 5). He later reports that,
My poor wife, Doris, was mined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty books but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places (LR, 64).
As a priestess of the high places, Doris seeks the Divine in all that is "spiritual" but not "physical." For Doris, "love" is not physical, but a spiritual abstraction. Preparing to leave Tom, Doris asks him, "Who was it who said the physical is the lowest common denominator of love?" (LR, 66). Tom replies, "I don't know. Probably a Hindoo." In so saying, Tom voices Percy's doubt concerning "Eastern religion," and its general lack of signs pointing to the God of history. By introducing the debate between spiritual and physical in relation to love, Percy presses the incarnational obscenity of the Christian faith, which affirms the participation of the spiritual within the physical, the abiding presence of the Divine within the material stuff of creation and, as we have seen, especially in the profanity of human suffering, decay, and death. Thus, contrary to Doris's exalted views, a marriage which suffers alienation "like a burnt-out star which collapses into itself, gives no light and is heavy heavy heavy" (LR, 66), becomes a painful locus for the redemptive light that shines in the darkness. Yet, apart from participation in Christ, apart from eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist, the light remains hidden and marriage dies beneath the grievous weight of obscene death.
In Love in the Ruins, Percy examines two kinds of spirituality. One seeks the Divine in high places but finds only empty death; the second, a more earthy faith, eats and drinks the obscenities of Christ's flesh and blood amid the fullness of life's joy and sorrow. Doris holds that "love should be a joyous encounter," and Tom replies, "I'm joyous" (LR, 66). But he may be dissembling. Tom says that Doris' "mournful spirituality had provoked in me the most primitive impulses" (LR, 66). Percy distinguishes between triadic joy and dyadic need-satisfaction; Tom's "joyous" may express less of the former and more of the latter. With Samantha's death and Tom's giving up eating Christ in the Mass, love's orientation vanished, and triadic joy with it. Doris, with her heathen English gurus, is exalted into the upper mansions of mournful spirituality, and Tom is reduced to the bestial quid-pro-quo of dyadic need-satisfaction: food, sex, and the lust for scientific glory.
The novel's end, however, suggests that Tom and his second wife, Ellen, do share triadic love amid the ruins of Christ's Eucharistic flesh and blood. Yet, this still involves a struggle. Like Doris before her, Ellen manifests "an ancient Presbyterian mistrust of things, things getting mixed up in religion ... For she mistrusts the Old Church's traffic in things, sacraments, articles, bread, wine, salt, oil, water, ashes" (LR, 400). Ellen's arid protestant ethic, of doing fight while not believing in God, will not allow her to taint herself by getting too close to a God mixed up with the stuff of a fallen creation. Only Tom sullies himself in a sacramental tryst with things. Tom reports, "Father Smith says mass. I eat Christ, drink his blood" (LR, 400). Tom's continued use of graphic eating and drinking language in connection with Christ again reflects John's Gospel, and especially 6.55-57,
The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood lives continually in me, and I in him.
When Tom says "I eat Christ and drink his blood," he affirms the promise of eternal life conveyed in the obscenity of the Christ who commands his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. In other words, fleshly obscenity confers eternal grace, and Tom enjoys the gift of eternal life. Percy demonstrates as much in the novel's epilogue, which pictures Tom and Ellen in bed on Christmas Eve, "twined about each other as the ivy twineth ... home in bed where all good folks belong" (LR, 403). By physically joining Tom and Ellen together as husband and wife, and by calling them both "good folks," Percy echoes the Genesis pre-fall view of marriage ("That is why a man is destined to leave father and mother and cling to his wife instead, so that the two become one flesh. Both went naked, Adam and his wife, and thought it no shame."). Percy indicates that Tom and Ellen have transcended "any such humbug as marked the past peculiar years of Christendom" (LR, 403) and have re-entered a kind of Edenic paradise. After all, in pre-fall Genesis, God repeatedly affirms the goodness of creation, and especially the creation of humankind as "very good." Thus, Tom and Ellen entwined round one another as "good people" may manifest the new creation envisioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5.17. Moreover, since Tom alone has eaten and drunk Christ, it may be that Percy utilizes Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.14, that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse. In other words, in Tom's return to eating Christ in the mass, twined about his wife, a kind of restoration has occurred. Christ in Tom has entered Ellen through her physical union with Tom. A new creation has formed. This, indeed, is a vision of sacred ordinariness communicated by the intersection of Eucharistic obscenity with marital physicality: the flesh and blood of Christ in bed with Tom and Ellen.
The grace of divine life enters by means of sacramental-incarnational obscenity--eating and drinking the flesh and blood of a crucified man--enters by means of the low places or it enters not at all. Percy anchors Tom More to life through John's radical Eucharistic obscenity. Thus, the life Tom and Ellen share is the life Tom receives by eating Christ and drinking his blood. While the novel's end certainly bears romantic overtones, Percy utilizes romance as an expression of the sacramental intersection between flesh and spirit, the marriage of Christ to his church in the Eucharistic feast, and the consequential goodness of the marriage consummated by Tom and Ellen. The life they share is a love in the ruins of Christ's crucified body and blood. It is the eternal life of Christ himself amid the patched-up ruins of daily life.
If Walker Percy is correct, then the sensible does indeed convey power and belief by means of obscenity. Like a dung beetle, faith enters the world in conjunction with the obscene. Neither the foulness of shit nor the death of a child, nor even genocide itself, can destroy the power of faith, which, like a cape jasmine, depends on gracious obscenity to live and communicate the Holy amid the profane ordinary.
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Allen, William Rodney. Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1986.
Barrett, C.K. The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, Second Ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978.
Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Translated and edited by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.
Ciuba, Gary M. Walker Percy: Books of Revelations. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.
Connell, Francis J. The New Confraternity Edition of the Revised Baltimore Catechism. No. 3. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1949.
Danby, Herbert, trans. The Mishnah. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.
Desmond, John F. At The Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy. Troy, NY: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1997.
Hardy, John Edward. "Man, Beast, and Others in Walker Percy." In Walker Percy Novelist & Philosopher, ed. by Jan Nordby Gretlund, and Karl-Heinz Westarp. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.
Knox, R.A., trans. The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ A New Translation. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948.
--. The Old Testament in English Newly translated from the Vulgate Latin by Msgr. Ronald Knox at the Request of His Eminence The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Vol. I, Genesis to Esther. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950.
--. The Old Testament in English Newly translated from the Vulgate Latin by Msgr. Ronald Knox at the Request of His Eminence The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Vol. II, Job to Machabees. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950.
Lawson, Lewis A. "The Cross and the Delta: Walker Percy's Anthropology." In Walker Percy Novelist and Philosopher, ed. by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 3-12.
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Percy, Walker. The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
--. Lancelot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
--. Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
--. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
--. The Moviegoer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960, first Bard Printing, Mar. 1982.
--. The Second Coming. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
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--. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
Pridgen, Allen. Walker Percy's Sacramental Landscapes. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2000.
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Walker Percy Library, Rare Book Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
(1) The Percy Library held at UNC enumerates Percy's Knox Bible as follows: Knox I (Genesis to Esther, # 211), Knox II (Job to Machabees, # 130), Knox NT (# 1731).
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|Author:||Wilson, Franklin Arthur|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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