Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist.
KIERAN QUILAN'S STUDY of Walker Percy jumps out at the reader from its very title. The "Last" Catholic novelist or the "Last [American] Catholic" novelist, the reader may ask. Fortunately the author explains quickly and clearly: "Walker Percy is the `last' Catholic novelist, then, in the sense that his vision of the world has been profoundly shaped by a particular period in recent Catholic history, and such a vision (as will be argued) is no longer viable" and despite his uniqueness, Percy "heralded the death of a certain type, or tradition, of Catholic novel writing" (9). Although Percy as an "American" Catholic novelist is not addressed here, the overall emphasis brought out--"Southern American" Catholic novelist--might apply, although to Percy's chagrin. Thus Quinlan's argument in the beginning reads cogently: Percy's Catholicism is central and undisputed because he wrote as a polemicist who was out of step with his time and even with some of his fellow Catholic intellectuals: "taking into account Walker Percy's embattled stance [against scientific humanism], then, his being at odds with the `wisdom' of the age, the present study is concerned with the validity or otherwise of the religious, social, and scientific views he himself held and so consistently argued for in essay after essay and novel after novel" (5; my italics). Quinlan demonstrates that Percy was a Roman Catholic of the "1940s" who started out as a "progressive" (6) and ended up as a conservative, as Percy himself came to realize. In addition to debating the viability of Percy's views for readers today, Quinlan also questions many of Percy's self-assessments. Quinlan's skepticism and openmindedness makes his book both timely and provocative to current Percy readers.
In "trying to understand Percy in his totality" (10), both as a philosophical essayist and as a novelist, Quinlan approaches Percy's works in an unusual way: "My interest here ... is to confine each story to its thematic essentials without losing sight of whatever narrative detail is relevant to this purpose. I am aware that this search for theological structure rather than theological texture implicitly denies one of the strongest elements in Percy's religious outlook, his celebration of a sacramental universe" (10-11). Instead Quinlan wants to answer these questions: "Is Percy's anthropology ... convincing? ... coherent? And if he is right, then is everyone else ... wrong?" In other words, Quinlan wishes "to bring Percy into clearer confrontation with some of the ideas and people he is attacking--or with alternative positions on the thinkers he is sympathetically expounding" (11). As Quinlan's argument progresses, he brings out with admirable objectivity the gaps or lapses in Percy's views; however, this study would have been more interesting and valuable if the critic had not lapsed himself into generalization and vagueness at several crucial points in his discussion, particularly toward the conclusion of the study. Nevertheless Quinlan makes clear why this analysis of the writer's viability is important when he says, and I agree: "Walker Percy is one of the few contemporary novelists who has made a difference in the lives of many of his readers" who represent "a well-defined, if eclectic, audience" (13). Despite his objectivity Quinlan frames his arguments with a revealing self-portrait of his own "contesting emotions" (14) in writing a book which may also be about the critic's own wayfaring. Percy seems to cause this reaction, because Edward J. Dupuy, the author of the second book under review, also professes how he identified with the characters from almost the very beginning. Even allowing for the current personal style of literary criticism, Percy's critics seem compelled to testify as to why and how they read him.
But first let us return to Quinlan's study. Once Quinlan settles down to canvass Percy's career as an essayist and novelist he covers familiar, but essential, information on the Percy family history, the stoicism of Percy's cousin, William Alexander Percy, and the trauma of Percy's father's suicide. Then in a masterful expository essay, "Science, Sickness, and Salvation," Quinlan pursues the meanings and ramifications of Percy's religious conversion--which he contends has been neglected by recent Percy critics--within what Sidney Hook described as "`a tidal wave'" (48) of conversions among American intellectuals paralleling similar occurrences in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England and France.
Next Quinlan addresses the old question, "Novelist or Philosopher?" locating Percy's philosophical and semiotic essays between 1954-1961 within the cross-currents of debate and rebuttal between "experts" of that period while confirming that Percy was less concerned about academic currency and specialization than he was about claiming an empirical base for his ideas concerning man's existence in terms of uniqueness in language use and communal intersubjectivity. Quinlan effectively sorts out Percy's positions and their weaknesses, the counterarguments and their implications concluding: "The crux of the matter is that empiricists, positivists, and semanticists will not allow that there is a real relation between word and thing, that the person experiences `cognitive joy' because of the real knowledge of the world that symbols provide, whereas those in the Scholastic or Thomist tradition will grant this" (72). Quinlan casts doubts on these shifts in Percy's positions in terms of philosophical consistency by showing how Percy combined arguments based on scientific empiricism with those dependent upon metaphysical speculation. Percy's argument that the study of the social sciences does not explain or even often include "a functional validity to the proposition of religious faith" (76) figures significantly in Quinlan's views. Since Percy believes that the "relativism" of the social sciences is "nonsense" (77), Quinlan concludes by echoing Percy's language: "the hearer of the news is not a scientist but rather a man in a predicament, and the news cannot be verified.... More fundamentally, one must ask how the recipient is to judge between the competing messages without some resort to verificatory procedures" (81).
A chapter which will capture the interests of readers of Utopian Studies is "The Existentialist," in which Quinlan qualifies what he sees as an over-emphasis on Percy's existentialist "interests" (33). Nevertheless, Quinlan ends up discussing the well-established view that "the novels would be designed to fulfill the role that the essays previously had: to make a persuasive argument for a particular (religious) point of view" (86-87). Percy's "overall plan ... generally combines insights from modern, scientifically oriented semiotics with elements of a rather outdated Catholic Thomism and with existential philosophy, all in the service of some kind of affirmation of faith, usually of questionable philosophical merit" (91). This somewhat down-in-the-mouth tone indicates Quinlan's difficulty with "Percy's plan": Percy uses philosophy to serve fiction and religion but for Quinlan the fiction sometimes fails to serve philosophy and religion. Offering what he describes as a somewhat mechanical reading of The Moviegoer, Quinlan finds it "remarkable both how interested [Binx Bolling, the protagonist] is in religion and, at the same time, how little he expects from it" (95). Quinlan implies Percy shares this disjuncture and sense of disillusionment with his anti-hero, but clearly that the critic himself shares these conflicts. Having re-established that The Moviegoer raises difficulties both for believers and non-believers, Quinlan introduces a "closer reading" which reveals a "strong ... Catholic subtext" in the novel along with frequent "apocalyptic allusions" (96-97), but then he truncates and sidetracks a promising discussion of both subtext and allusion by introducing an underdeveloped comparison with Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, citing previous insights by Mikhail Bakhtin and Michael Kobre without expressing any new perspectives of his own.
Utopists will also appreciate Quinlan's analysis of the religious and Southern contexts of The Last Gentleman which includes a much clearer and more focused discussion of the theme of the apocalyptic than in the previous chapter. This time The Idiot along with The Sound and the Fury and The Magic Mountain serve intertextually to place Percy's ambition, if not his accomplishment, in its proper literary and philosophical context. Quinlan neatly examines Percy's "almost sexist" (109) castigation of the "quintessential ... liberal conscience" (110) in the character of Rita Sutter, the estranged wife of the protagonist, Will Barrett. Quinlan's conclusion about The Last Gentleman is both well put and intriguing: "Whatever the truth of matter, Percy's own religious intent is certainly more obvious now than it had been when The Moviegoer seduced a not-yet-polarized audience in 1961" (116; my italics). Quinlan speaks here of the National Book Award given Percy's first novel and the critic appears as unhappy as a current Southern Baptist over the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the White House to see the publishing literati celebrate a Christian book without understanding it as such; of course, Percy himself continually felt the novel had been misunderstood as a secular novel by its readers.
One of the best discussions in Quinlan's book, again especially for Utopist readers, is "The Rhetoric of Faith," his chapter on Love in the Ruins, a novel sometimes taught in Utopian courses. Quinlan does an expert job of placing the novel in its religious context: the reverberations of the 1960s within the Roman Catholic establishment and the emergence of the "new theologians," both Catholic and Protestant--developments which troubled Percy. Quinlan also relates cogently Percy's conception that the novelist is "`as pre-occupied with catastrophe as the orthodox theologian with sin and death'" (123). Joining with most other readers of the novel, Quinlan agrees the novel's ending is artistically and thematically disappointing, but Quinlan's overall conclusion is once again aptly stated and supported: "What we have here, then, is a movement within the Christian believer to a rediscovery of his faith" (134).
Returning to the philosophical essays published or collected in the 1970s, Quinlan explains they represent a reaffirmation rather than a new presentation of several of Percy's favorite themes and questions, especially those concerned with the very real alienation felt by many people today. Quinlan reviews how Percy misunderstands and sometimes misappropriates various modern linguists and philosophers such as Noam Chomsky and Charles Peirce in his rush to "make current linguistic findings ... fit prior theological convictions" (150). Thus the collection, The Message in the Bottle, in Quinlan's view needed better editing to minimize the repetitiveness of the individual pieces and received more attention than it deserved because of Percy's novels; nevertheless, the book perpetuated the religious emphasis which Percy wanted. This religious dominance causes Percy "to continue to have problems with professional critics" (151). Much of what Quinlan is saying about the philosophical essays is not that new, but he pulls the material together in the readable and worthwhile manner. On the other hand Dupuy as we shall see below will argue that the repetitiveness of Percy's writings serves thematic and structural purposes which Quinlan, of course, did not choose to consider.
His analysis picks up again in a shrewdly constructed chapter contrasting the narrative strategies of Percy's novels, Lancelot and The Second Coming. After returning briefly to the apocalyptic, Quinlan then moves to an excellent discussion of how Percy's limiting of the point of view of Lancelot to the protagonist "allows a monomaniacal rage to dominate the narration even as it subverts its force" (156) and reveals "the whole point ... is to show that Lancelot's approach [to good and evil] is wrong" (158). Quinlan continues: "in fact the whole novel can be seen as a brilliant and consistent example of reversal: it is the unspoken ideals that are the important ones, and it is the very radicalness of the reverse alternatives that both alerts us to their unacceptability but also to the seriousness of our predicament" (161). Quinlan argues The Second Coming--Percy's "first unalienated novel"--embodies "a constructive rendering of a true belief" [with] "an unambiguous ending." The novel differs from Percy's earlier ones in having "a kind of alternative, even antiphonal, search going on with the character of Allie, the daughter of Kitty from The Last Gentleman" (165). The duality of positions results in "a willed conclusion, more a manifestation of its author's own faith and intentions than an artistically achieved development." Without meaning to, the "ultraorthodox" Percy produced a kind of "New Age style" Christian Gnostic novel which appealed to an audience the novelist disavowed (172). Quinlan draws two conclusions about which he admits he has "deep skepticism and professional hesitation": 1) "Percy deemed that the most theologically obtuse of his protagonists was unworthy to become a member of the church of the great St. Thomas Aquinas!" [choosing Episcopalianism instead] and 2) "the Catholic faith is most present by its relative absence [in both novels]; [therefore] the radical inadequacies of all alternatives reinforce its supreme necessity" (173). Quinlan's uneasiness with Gnosticism is well addressed in Dupuy's analysis below.
After the excellence of this discussion, an element of anti-climax might well have set in, but Quinlan avoids it in the chapter on Lost in the Cosmos, because he looks closely at the implications of Percy's last book of philosophical essays which evidently the novelist considered "his most important work, his Novum Organum" (177). Quinlan emphasizes that Percy "nowhere refutes the specific arguments of his acknowledged opponents," because "perhaps the most important motivation for the book was the fact that Percy's own involvement with philosophy and fiction had arisen initially from the realization that science took no account of the individual, the person, the self, the soul" (178). Noting in particular what is omitted or slighted in Percy's arguments, Quinlan finds Lost in the Cosmos "a very unusual book," because unlike Percy's earlier essays and novels which aimed at "shocking the reader into an awareness of his [sic] own situation and provoking him to make a commitment," this book seemed finally only "to require the reader ... to move beyond the realm of a comfortable skepticism" (190). This position, Quinlan argues, contradicts the orthodox core of Percy's Catholic beliefs. Quinlan is less enthusiastic about the book than Edward J. Dupuy will be; the latter believes that time will make Lost in the Cosmos as exciting as Percy believed it to be.
In "Final Exit," Quinlan tries to cover too much in only twenty-three pages including Percy's philosophical essays in relation to deconstructionism, The Thanatos Syndrome, the sequel to Love in the Ruins, and the last stages of Percy's life and work. This brevity results in Quinlan's skimming over the views of Jacques Derrida, "the later Foucault," Paul de Man, Louis Althusser, Frank Lentricchia, and "(perhaps Jean Baudrillard's most of all)" in order to agree simply with Tzvetan Todorov's verdict about the "antihumanism" of contemporary literary thought (197-198). So too Quinlan leaves his discussion of Percy's last novel fragmented and elliptical, resulting in the opinion that the novel reflects an "ignorance of the complexity of the problem" (206). Even the theological and ecclesiastical questions that Quinlan has stressed in defining Percy as "the last Catholic novelist" seem shortchanged in this chapter, leaving this reader at least wanting more detail and clarification. This sense of hurriedness becomes especially crucial in Quinlan's conclusion when he returns to his justification of his characterization of Percy as "the most self-consciously Roman Catholic novelist in America during the past several decades" (219). Not only is Percy's Catholicism that of a particular time, the 1940s, but his works fail to explore either in personal terms or intellectual terms issues of doubt or "spiritual intimacy" because Percy's conversion provided such a "sense of [religious and philosophical] closure" for him (223-224). The works represent a kind of "willed" "defense" (227) (to combine two of Quinlan's favorite terms) that no longer speaks to many contemporary readers who "hunger" (226) for such "closure" but cannot find it (Dupuy will value this lack of "closure" in his analysis). Quinlan can only hope finally that instead of being read wrongly as a New Ager, Percy will be recognized as "a wayfarer more than even he himself ever imagined" (227). Ultimately the occasional unevenness of Quinlan's study is overridden by a combination of candor and skepticism which characterizes his personal, yet relatively objective, approach to Percy.
Edward J. Dupuy prefaces his study, Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery, and Redemption, with a warning and a story: the story recounts how he came first to buy Love in the Ruins in 1979 for a friend, but only later came to read the novels himself and to recognize that Percy was writing about him: "It was not an altogether pleasant realization, for if you know Percy's characters, you know that they are a rather wounded lot. How could he know me so well? How could he show me my own wounds?" Dupuy warns the reader he is "undertaking an exploration into my life" in an attempt to answer those questions and others fourteen years later (xi, xii).
Although ostensibly personal, Dupuy's book takes a far more theoretical stance than Quinlan's, beginning with the work of James Olney on autobiographical writing as memory and interplay in time. Dupuy professes to see "an uncanny similarity" between Percy's existential question: "`How does one live through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?'" (2) and Olney's theory that autobiography as a creative form of literature represents "`a humanistic study of the ways of men [sic] and the forms taken by human consciousness'" (3). With these two "autobiographical theories" in mind Dupuy says, "I explore the `fun' of transforming experience at a more general level. I look at Percy's ... (fiction and nonfiction) to discern their relation to the autos, bios, and graphein of autobiography.... What interests me, rather, is Percy's continual and repetitive "picking of the bone" of the same issues theorists of autobiography pick.... My study ... sets forth not so much an `autobiographical reading' of Percy's works but a reading of autobiography in light of his works.... Repetition comes to be understood as an effort to redeem time, to make it once again inhabitable" (4). Dupuy relishes the recency of autobiographical theory, its role in the "shift" from New Criticism to deconstruction and beyond, and "its self-reflexive nature" (5-6) as an ideal approach to Percy. Dupuy sees Percy as combining modernism and postmodernism in his desire to have "it both ways. He wants the density of meaning and the space for the disclosure of meaning. He wants a self that displays itself as inter esse, being between and conceived in time.... Language repeats, retrieves, and transforms experience into art while at the same time it points toward future possibilities. This study strives for the same thing" (11), the author says.
Dupuy begins his chapter on "Autobiography, Repetition, and Percy" by steering away from a definition of autobiography preferring to emphasize "function" over form (13, 14). Autobiographical writing deals not with the "where" but with the "who" or "the semiotics of the self" (17)--the very subject of Percy's fiction and essays. The "wholeness," "eternalness" and "closure" of a piece of writing that the New Critics sought will not be found in Percy (18, 20, 21). At this point Dupuy turns to the deconstructive theories of William Spanos primarily with respect to repetition because he admires Spanos's explanations of deconstruction as a positive method which opens up new possibilities along the lines of Heidegger and Kierkegaard. But on the specific issue of the Incarnation which Spanos tries to avoid, Dupuy disagrees, seeing Incarnation "as a call to decision" in much the same way Kierkegaard did (24-25, 33-34). In this light Dupuy argues that Percy was a self-defined postmodernist who also continued a tradition of novel as a diagnostic tool as old as the novel or for that matter autobiography themselves (38-46).
In his next chapter, "Repetition and Autos: The Unformulability of the Self," Dupuy finds Percy in his semiotics essay "`de-structs' ... the closure imposed in `specialization' in `fields of study' with the hope of retrieving possibilities that have been foreclosed or overlooked by conventional methodologies" (47). By not following chronology as Quinlan did, Dupuy reaches Lost in the Cosmos very early in his study. While Dupuy also acknowledges the lack of enthusiasm for the book by current critics, he believes that time--the one hundred years that the author suggested--may prove that Percy's "excitement about this work" will be borne out (51). Instead of seeing Percy's views as invalid as Quinlan does, Dupuy argues Percy "offers a fresh view of consciousness" (56). Dupuy examines how for Percy "the transcendence of art" relates to the "placement" of the "self"--modernist, indeed Joycean, issues, rather than postmodernist ones (58-44). Dupuy presents postmodernist readings of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman focusing on "the openness of the sign" and "the placement in consciousness" respectively. He argues that since the self cannot name itself, Binx Bolling in the first novel must use self-irony and self-evasion in order to distance himself from "romantic and transcendent closure into form" (73). Percy asks the reader to make a final judgment on Binx's mental state and authenticity. Dupuy argues that Will Barrett in the second novel represents "the dislocated self," both in language and place, concluding that Will, unlike his father, "is still building.... For in the telescope that is the novel, the reader sees and knows something that Barrett does not. We see him as a fledgling autobiographer, capable of living now, without the whole story. This parley succeeded in its failure" (87).
Dupuy's third chapter, "Repetition and Bios: Surviving Life in a Century of Gnosticism and Death" will be of interest to Utopists. Dupuy contends that Percy "strives to retain the unity of the dialectic" and in doing so returns to comments he made in the essay, "The Loss of the Creature," in The Message in the Bottle about the "`savage'" in Brave New World. Percy sees the "`savage'" as more ideally suited to recover Shakespeare than a "Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II." Dupuy finds this "recovery of what everyday contexts too often foreclose" the basis for Percy's "de-structive project" (90), then argues that despite the establishing of the influence of Gnosticism in Lancelot by Cleanth Brooks and Lewis Lawson, Percy's "corpus [including Lancelot] counters a Gnostic attitude" (92). Whereas Quinlan worried about a New Age Gnostic and non-Catholic misreading of particularly The Second Coming, Dupuy draws on the arguments of Harold Bloom and Eric Voegelin as well as Percy's own essays and speeches to show that Percy indirectly opposes the dualism, totalitarianism, and closure of Gnosticism (97-105). Just as Quinlan thinks Catholicism was discussed by omission, Dupuy points out Percy wrote about the Holocaust in his first two novels by "`not writing about it'" (108, 117), but became more explicit in three later novels: Lancelot, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome resulting in the question: "why write explicitly about `the dead weight and mystery of the horror'"? The answers lie in the timing and "alien" quality of Percy's last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. This book "reflects the `either/or' that Percy writes about throughout his career, the choice between eros and thanatos," and fulfills the "repetitions" of time and theme from novel to novel (117-8) which culminate in an "apocalypse [which] implies recovery; an end [which] offers a new beginning," qualities which characterize confessional autobiography, Dupuy concludes (119). Both Quinlan and Dupuy take Percy's last novel seriously; while Dupuy's argument stressing openendedness proves more fruitful than Quinlan's disappointment in the novel, either way these critics suggest the final novel deserves another look.
Even though Dupuy's study ends with a "Coda," the real summing up appears in "Repetition and Graphein: Metaphor and the Mystery of Language and Narrative" where the author admits he must repeat himself "with difference" (123). Dupuy suggests repetition works both a theme and a narrative style in Percy and that "graphein provides the link between the autos and the bios. It enacts the repetition ... (the `what'), while it also engages in its own repetition (the `how')" (124). Dupuy focuses his argument on Percy's "linking of possibility and limitation [which] forms ... the mystery of language and narrative" (125). Applying the ideas of J. Hillis Miller, Caroline Gordon, Paul Ricoeur, and Paul John Eakin to Percy's own theories of language and narrative, in this chapter Dupuy looks more closely at the use of the metaphor of the hawk in The Second Coming. In a richly complex reading of the novel, Dupuy finds that by reading the novel backwards according to Ricoeur's approach, the book proves through Percy's intentional use of repetition to be "an act of memory," "an act of language; experience transformed into symbol"; and "a constitution of self" (146). Dupuy concludes "autos, bios, and graphein are different elements of one word, so the self, life, and writing of Percy do not find a simple unity" (152), but a complex one which "derives from the strange unity of repetition and the limited possibility of autobiography" (155).
As Dupuy says, "Percy's place remains elusive" (154), but with help of this postmodernist critic Percy's works appear to have more potential and to be more openended to further interpretations than perhaps Percy himself would have expected. Valuable critical works by authors such as Kieran Quinlan and Edward J. Dupuy help to foster this continued interest in this important American novelist who deserves to be understood beyond the too frequently easy categories that he and his works have been assigned to.
Jim Wise University of Missouri-Rolla
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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