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Traveling with Walker Percy

June 25, 2015 2:12 pm | 2 Comments


In the summer of 1995, my wife and I––both Evangelical Protestants at the time–-took a trip with the Catholic novelist Walker Percy.

He had died in 1990, but his presence was very much evident in Signposts In A Strange Land (Noonday Press, 1991, 1992), a posthumous collection of essays and interviews we took along with us and read to one another as we drove from the Pacific Northwest up into Canada on a weeklong vacation.

The title was fitting––not because of the scenery along the highways, but because at the time we found ourselves in a strange land between the familiar, but frustrating, homeland of Evangelical Protestantism and the largely unknown vistas of Catholicism. While others, including Pope John Paul II, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, and G. K. Chesterton, would escort us into the Catholic Church a couple years later, the melancholy and brilliant novelist from the Deep South journeyed with us for an important stretch of that pilgrim’s road.

More than a novelist, Walker Percy was a fellow wayfarer and seeker, as well as a self-described “diagnostician” of the “modern malaise” and a builder of signposts in a strange land.

Out of the Shadows of Southern Tragedy

Born in Georgia in 1916, Walker Percy was shadowed by tragedy from the beginning of his life. His paternal grandfather committed suicide with a shotgun in 1917. Percy’s father, a highly intelligent and successful lawyer who was prone to deep depression, killed himself in the same manner in 1929, just as Percy was entering his teens. Percy later addressed his father’s suicide, at least indirectly, in his second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966). Unbelievably, two years after his father’s suicide, Percy’s mother drowned when her car ran off a bridge not far from their home.

Walker and his brothers were taken in and adopted by their enigmatic and well-educated “Uncle Will,” their father’s cousin, and a lawyer and author. Walker loved Uncle Will dearly and gave him credit for changing his life. In Pilgrim in the Ruins, his biography of Percy, biographer Jay Tolson notes, “If it hadn’t been for Uncle Will, Walker Percy once said, he probably would have ended up a car dealer in Athens, Georgia.” Uncle Will was a Southern gentleman who held to a Stoic idealism and a Romantic view of the Old South. Though deeply affected by Will’s beliefs, the shy and studious Walker soon embraced a cynical agnosticism and the conviction that modern science held the answers to man’s origins and future. Spurning the life of the lawyer –– a profession highly esteemed in the Percy clan –– Walker chose to pursue a career in medicine. After completing undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina, he went on to Columbia to pursue studies in pathology.

From Doubt to Faith to the “Diagnostic Novel”

An anonymous corpse carrying tuberculosis changed Percy’s life forever. Attending medical school at Columbia, Percy contracted the disease while performing autopsies. Bedridden for three years, he was exhausted and often depressed. Yet later in life he admitted that despite the difficult ordeal he was secretly relieved at being able to leave medicine behind. During his lengthy rehabilitation Percy spent much time reading works of the existentialists Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, as well as the writings of Catholic thinkers Blaise Pascal, Romano Guardini, and St. Thomas Aquinas. An insightful observer of human nature and relationships, Percy had growing doubts about his scientific, materialist view of reality. Years later he wrote,

“What did at last dawn on me as a medical student and intern, a practitioner, I thought, of the scientific method, was that there was a huge gap in the scientific view of the world. This sector of the world about which science could not utter a single word was nothing less than this: what it is like to be an individual living in the United States in the twentieth century.” (“Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” p. 213)

This realization led Percy to make three major decisions in short order in his mid-thirties: to become a full-time writer, marry, and become Catholic. Percy and Mary Bernice Townsend, (affectionately called “Bunt”), were married in 1946, and entered the Catholic Church the following year. Not long afterwards, they moved to the small town of Covington, Louisiana, where Percy wrote and lived until his death in 1990.

Initially, during the 1950s, Percy wrote technical articles on semiotics – the study of language – for various scientific and theological journals, as well as pieces about psychiatry, culture, and the South for Commonweal, America, and other magazines. Many of these articles were later collected in The Message in the Bottle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1975, 1986), subtitled “How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other.” In the author’s note, Percy wrote that his “recurring interest over the years has been the nature of human communication and, in particular, the consequences of man’s unique discovery of the symbol . . .”

Convinced that he needed a different literary vehicle for taking his observations to a larger audience, Percy wrote two novels during the 1950s. Neither were published (Percy apparently burned one of the manuscripts), but his third novel, The Moviegoer, was published in 1961.

Initially ignored and selling poorly, the novel was the surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1962. Over the course of the next three decades Percy wrote five more novels, published The Message in the Bottle, wrote occasional articles, and produced the most unique and insightful “self-help” book ever written, Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983). Each of these works, in their own way, grappled with entwining anthropological concerns: the pervasive influence of scientism on modern man, the resulting “modern malaise,” man’s need and quest for life-giving symbols and signs, and man as wayfarer and homo viator. Percy pursued these issues with the belief that the modern novelist is meant to be a sort of “diagnostician,” probing and testing the human condition through his literary craft.

The Cartesian Split and the Failure of Scientism

Percy rightly dismissed the notion that people can live without an anthropological vision, that is, a specific understanding of who man is and what he meant for. “Everyone has an anthropology,” he wrote in the essay, “Rediscovering A Canticle For Leibowitz.” “There is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question.” His own conversion was due, in large part, to the realization that scientism –– the belief that the scientific method and the technology it produces can provide answers to man’s deepest questions and longings –– was untenable and, in fact, was a lie. As a trained physician, Percy had respect for science when properly practiced and understood. But he saw many theories making claims to being “scientific,” but in reality were ideological positions based on a subjective and self-serving view of reality. In the essay “Culture, The Church, And Evangelization,” Percy wrote,

“The distinction which must be kept in mind is that between science and what can only be called ‘scientism.’ . . . [Scientism] can be considered only as an ideology, a kind of quasi-religion––not as a valid method of investigating and theorizing which comprises science proper––a cast of mind all the more pervasive for not being recognized as such and, accordingly, one of the most potent forces which inform, almost automatically and unconsciously, the minds of most denizens of modern industrial societies like the United States.” (“Culture, The Church, And Evangelization,” p. 297).

Percy traced scientism back to Continental philosopher René Descartes, believing the Cartesian distinction between the thinking mind and the rest of the physical world had finally produced its evil fruit in the twentieth century. This radical dualism shaped the ideologies of Communism and Naziism, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and secular humanism. Each of these belief systems, however well or poorly articulated, rejected God and set up man as the ultimate reference point for all of human activity, whether that activity was political, social, or sexual. Now freed from the confines of the supernatural order and objective truth, man could create and customize his own reality: totalitarian, egalitarian, hedonistic, or consumer-oriented.

Percy often noted the paradoxical fact that man can form a perfect scientific theory explaining the material world –- but cannot adequately account for himself in that theory. Man is the round peg never quite fitting into the square hole of scientism. “Our view of the world, which we get consciously or unconsciously from modern science, is radically incoherent,” Percy wrote in his essay “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind.” Again, science must either recognize its own limits or create confusion: “A corollary of this proposition is that modern science is itself radically incoherent, not when it seeks to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks to understand man, not man’s physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human. In short, the sciences of man are incoherent.” (“The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault In The Modern Mind,” p. 271). In a self-interview, “Questions They Never Asked Me,” he put the matter more bluntly:

“This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i.e., God.” (“Questions They Never Asked Me,” p. 417)

The Modern Malaise

In each of Percy’s novels the main character realizes that something is seriously wrong, but cannot identify the source of the anxiety. These characters suffer from the “modern malaise,” an unknown but palpable dis-ease –– a sense of despair not easily brought into focus and identified. The epigraph at the start of The Moviegoer quotes from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death: “…the specific character of despair is specifically this: it is unaware of being despair.” In The Moviegoer, the young movie-going Binx Bolling states that “the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” A successful stockbroker, Binx is unsettled by his own gnawing emptiness and is finally compelled to seek out the solution. When considering whether or not God exists, Binx reflects that, “as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics — which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker. . . . Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?”

This malaise, Percy makes clear, is not simply the corruption and abandonment of Judeo-Christian morality. Immorality is a symptom, “not a primary phenomenon, but rather an ontological impoverishment” (“Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” p. 214). The real issue is more basic: What is man and who am I as a specific man? The average person is led by the dominant culture to believe that everything is fine and life is set –– a comfortable existence is for the taking. “But something is wrong,” Percy notes. “He has settled everything except what it is to live as an individual. He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. . . . What does this man do with the rest of the day? the rest of his life?” (“Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” p. 213).

This is the predicament of Dr. Tom More, first introduced in Love in the Ruins (1971), and reappearing in The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). A self-described “bad Catholic” and a psychiatrist, More is a widower falling apart at the seams, filled with terror, anxiety, and lust. He confesses that he is “possessed by terror and desire and live a solitary life. My life is a longing, longing for women, for the Nobel prize, for the hot bosky bite of bourbon whisky and other great heart-wrenching longings that have no name.” As potential catastrophe threatens to overwhelm him, More must come to grips with the “malaise” infecting “the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world.” Similar challenges confront the characters in Percy’s other novels. While the “malaise” which Percy describes is distinctly modern, it is inherently ancient in nature; it is the longing of man for meaning in a world that has abandoned any real notion of transcendent truth.

Man as Wayfarer and Homo viator

Although influenced by the work of Sartre and Camus, Percy’s “existentialism” is not a despairing, atheistic sort, but a hopeful, theistic sort. This can easily be missed due to the darkness that often fills the pages of his novels. An example of this is Lancelot (1977), Percy’s most raw portrayal of man’s decadence and loss of self. A read could easily misunderstand the book, for it turns on one single word, uttered at the very end. That word is the difference between Lancelot being nihilisitic and being theistic. Man’s existential crisis –– his confusion and despair over his own existence –– can only be satisfactorily addressed by Catholicism and its incarnational, sacramental vision. In “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” Percy writes,

“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening––and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding. Such a view of man as wayfarer is, I submit, nothing else than a recipe for the best novel-writing from Dante to Dostoevsky.” (“The Holiness of the Ordinary,” p. 369)

Percy explained that his anthropology is “scriptural” and embraces “Gabriel Marcel’s Homo viator.” (“An Interview with Zolta´n Aba´di-nagy,” p. 375). Man’s search is for himself and for the Other. In the end, finding one means finding the other, for we cannot see our humanity rightly unless we see ourselves in relation to the Creator. In several of Percy’s novels, the main character begins to see himself more clearly at he embraces unexpected love. This human love eventually points him beyond himself to the ultimate source of sacrificial love. Percy’s depictions of these moments of recognition and transition are masterful, always understated, quietly observing the ordinary nature and commonness surrounding such significant (and sign-filled) events.

The Diagnostic Novel

While many novelists are content to be literary dermatologists, Percy was a literary surgeon — or, better yet, a literary coroner — cutting beneath the skin and examining the very blood and guts of the modern man:

“To the degree that a society has been overtaken by a sense of malaise rather than exuberance, by fragmentation rather than wholeness, the vocation of the artist, whether novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker, can perhaps be said to come that much closer to that of the diagnostician rather than the artist’s celebration of life in a triumphant age. Something is indeed wrong, and one of the tasks of the serious novelist is, if not to isolate the bacullus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable. Not to overwork the comparison, the artist’s work in such times is assuredly not that of the pathologist whose subject matter is a corpse and whose question is not ‘What is wrong?’ but ‘What did the patient die of?” For I take it as going without saying that the entire enterprise of literature is like that of a physician undertaken in hope. Otherwise, why would be here? Why bother to read, write, teach, study, if the patient is already dead?––for, in this case, the patient is the culture itself.” (“Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” p. 206).

In describing his novels as “diagnostic,” Percy turned to Aquinas and drew a careful distinction between art and morality. He once explained that “art is making; morality is doing…. This is not to say that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense — if it is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you’re writing a tract — which may be an admirable enterprise, but it is not literature.” He goes on to say that what interests him as a novelist is the “looniness” of modern man, “the normal denizen of the Western world who, I think it is fair to say, doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing. This unprecedented state of affairs is, I suggest, the domain of the ‘diagnostic’ novelist.”

Here lies, I think, the greatness of Percy’s writing. Although a brilliant stylist, he provides far more than a mere description of the epidermis, but cuts into the sinew and fiber of the human soul. Once there, he honestly names the disease and confusion he sees, and also indicates that a cure does exist. He works in a world of curious messages, sorting through ciphers and codes, plunging the depths of human language in search of further clues. “The contemporary novelist, in other words, must be an epistemologist of sorts,” Percy explains, “He must know how to send messages and decipher them. The messages may come not in bottles but rather in the halting and muted dialogue between strangers, between lovers and friends.” (“Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” p. 217).

 Note: This article was originally published at Ignatius Insight in 2004

Carl E. Olson

Carl E. Olson

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind" (Ignatius), co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, and other publications. In his spare time, he collects books and music, plays tennis, and helps edit

Tags: literary criticism Walker Percy


  1. June 25, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Great article. The full quote from Questions They Never Asked Me (see below) had a major impact on my own reversion to Catholicism. For a Catholic in the South, outside of a few Catholic hot spots, being Catholic is rather like an ethnic description as much as a religious one.

    The quote with the line about wrestling with God like Jacob hit home with me, and so I did indeed grab aholt and haven’t yet let go:

    This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

  2. Kate Casper

    August 8, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Terrific article. An excellent piece of work on Walker Percy the man, his thinking, and on his process of working all that into his novels.

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