Walker Percy

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Walker Percy (1916-1990) was one of the few authentic existentialist writers in ... A novelist, philosopher and moralist, Percy produced books that combined ...

Walker Percy Walker Percy (1916-1990) was one of the few authentic existentialist writers in modern American literature. A novelist, philosopher and moralist, Percy produced books that combined rigorous character studies, biting satires and profound metaphysical explorations of the human condition. He left behind a body of work that has proved as influential for the originality of its prose as for the relevance and resonance of its ideas. Percy shares a close kinship with such writers as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existential loners navigate a barren, generic terrain. Unlike Camus and Sartre, however, Percy was neither an atheist, nor a nihilist. The struggles that inform his writing -- to overcome spiritual doubt and reaffirm a viable relation to some higher power -- have a distinctly religious dimension. A Catholic convert, his beliefs were rooted in the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard whose 'irrational' criticisms of the Enlightenment, and equally irrational espousal of faith in the face of absurdity, are widely regarded to be the precursors of twentieth-century existentialist philosophy. In the light of these influences, Percy's work could be viewed as a 'literature of catharsis' that examines the dichotomy between scientific fact and human perception by peeling away appearances to uncover an underlying reality that is inscrutable, troubling, and yet ultimately redemptive. In addition to having a reputation as a serious thinker, Percy was also a brilliant stylist. Percy used his deep sympathy for humanity, ironic sensibility and sharp wit to create some of the most memorable protagonists in American literature after 1950: Binx Bolling, narrator of The Moviegoer and Percy's original existential 'anti-hero'; Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming; the alienated scientist Tom More, the central figure in Percy's pair of futuristic novels, Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome; and Lancelot, the troubled, jealous husband from the eponymous novel. These characters ruminate constantly on their predicaments, have problematic relationships with women, and are obsessed with the symbolic nature of language and signs. Despite their similarities to one another, the characters remain convincing as individuals. As Andre Dubus noted, 'It's not repetition we're hearing, but the resonant sound of a writer grappling with his theme.' Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 28 May 1916. His father, Leroy Percy, was a lawyer, and his mother, Martha, came from a distinguished family in Georgia. When Percy was thirteen his father committed suicide; his mother died suddenly in a car accident two years later. Percy went with his two brothers, Phin and Roy, to live with his father's cousin, William Alexander Percy, in Greenville, Mississippi. William Alexander was intelligent and sophisticated, and in 1941 published his well-received memoir Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. He had a lasting impact on young Percy, who excelled in school, particularly in science. Percy studied chemistry at the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1937. He went on to study at Columbia University Medical School, earning an MD in 1941. Percy accepted an internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he performed autopsies on indigents and alcoholics, which exposed him to numerous illnesses. In 1942 Percy contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, which interrupted his medical career for the next two years.

During his illness and convalescence Percy's perspective underwent a radical shift. He passed his time in reading literature and philosophy, and studying the works of Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Soren Kierkegaard. During his brief medical career Percy had viewed science from an empirical standpoint, as something clear and rational with definable, concrete ends. His studies in philosophy troubled him, however, and he began to recognise an apparent schism between technological progress and humanity's increasing alienation in the world. On one side he saw a self-assured, determining science; on the other, the always-questioning, seeking individual. In a short time, Percy began to understand that no scientific argument was compelling enough to convince man to shrug off strong, disquieting metaphysical doubt. These discoveries resulted in a complete transformation of Percy's world view and ambitions. After recovering from tuberculosis he abandoned his medical studies and began writing essays on philosophy and psychology. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townsend, and a year later he converted to Catholicism. The couple moved to New Orleans, then settled in Covington, Louisiana, where they lived on an inheritance. Percy and his wife had two daughters, one of whom, Ann Boyd, was born deaf. The difficulties of communication that confronted his young child impelled Percy to begin investigating the nature of language, in particular the role of symbols in human consciousness. It became clear to Percy that language was the crucial factor in determining the philosophical foundation for existence, and that empirical science and human identity were somehow incompatible. The prominence of science in the twentieth century generated a proliferation of highly specialised yet inexpressive and opaque jargon. For Percy, the paradox lay in the fact that this heightened specificity has somehow brought with it a greater inexactitude in expressions of more complicated aspects of human experience: philosophy, morality and emotion. Under these circumstances, the act of naming becomes essential to man's efforts to distinguish and identify himself. Percy first explored these ideas in a number of essays published throughout the 1950s, many of which were collected in several works, notably The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos (1983), and the posthumously published Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). Percy achieved the full realisation of his thinking in The Moviegoer, published in 1961. The novel concerns the life of John Binkerson 'Binx' Bolling, a respectable but unmotivated stockbroker who passes his time indulging in meaningless sexual affairs, writing occasional letters to editors, and watching movies. Although Binx is far from happy or satisfied with his life, he finds a strange contentment in his persistent feelings of alienation and detachment, as if the certainty of this condition is somehow reassuring. Over the course of the novel circumstances intervene to jar Binx out of his routine and force him to confront the thornier aspects of existence. The story, which takes place during Mardi Gras, finds Binx fending off a series of unwelcome disruptions of his usual routine: his aunt chides him about his lack of ambition; his secretary and latest paramour, Sharon, presses him to make a stronger commitment to their relationship; his chronically depressed, inconsolable step-cousin, Kate, and his terminally ill half-brother, Lonnie, demand more and more of his time. Although Binx struggles to maintain his distance from these weighty concerns, his conscience leads him to end his affair with Sharon, marry Kate and apply to medical school.

Although the publication of The Moviegoer passed unnoticed by the majority of the reading public, it gained sudden acclaim when it was the surprise winner of the National Book Award for 1962. Over the years since critics have praised the seriousness and intellectual scope of the work; Alfred Kazin called the work a 'tragic and curiously noble study in the loneliness of necessary human perceptions', while John F. Zeugner delivered the following encomium in the Mississippi Review: 'The Moviegoer seems to have been composed in joy -- a muted celebration of Bolling's departure from despair. Written in the first person, shaped with a tranquil irony, The Moviegoer hums with the exhilaration of a man who has argued his way out of darkness.' Writing in the New York Review of Books, Robert Towers declared the book 'a perfect small novel whose themes, though important, are never allowed to overload the fictional craft'. Percy's second novel, The Last Gentleman, appeared in 1966. The work echoed many of the themes of The Moviegoer, though in a rambling, less cohesive style. The protagonist, Will Barrett, is a humidification engineer at Macy's who abandons his job and his life to pursue a beautiful stranger, Kitty. He leaves New York to follow Kitty's family to the South, where he rediscovers his own roots while becoming embroiled in the personal crises of his adopted family. Uncertain about the significance of his actions, Barrett shares Binx Bolling's dread and fundamental isolation from the concerns and problems of other people; like Binx, Barrett has embarked on a modern quest to break out of his malaise without possessing the capacities to recognise how he can achieve this goal. In the end, he makes a leap of faith, committing to life with Kitty and her family, and reenrolling in school; however, it remains unclear whether or not Barrett understands the consequences of choosing this path, and the novel ends on a note of ambiguity. Will Barrett featured again in the novel The Second Coming (1980). Over the next 20 years Percy wrote four more novels, all revisiting similar themes. Love in the Ruins, subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, appeared in 1971. The novel tells the story of a scientist, Tom More, who invents a device designed to cure humanity's crisis of conscience, the 'Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer'. In dubious mental health, More struggles to gain widespread acceptance for his invention while an imminent apocalypse looms. In the end, More's grandiose expectations give way to minor moral victories -- choosing the right woman and committing to marriage. In this way he is a direct descendent of Binx and Will Barrett, whose metaphysical anguish finds similar grounding in a renewed embracing of the present reality. In his next work, however, Percy temporarily abandoned this sense of hope. Lancelot (1977) consists of a dialogue between Lancelot, a jealous husband who has been committed to an institution after blowing up his own house, and another patient, Percival, who merely mutters monosyllabic, infrequent responses. Unusual in its format and structure, Lancelot is Percy's darkest, most pessimistic work; the central character is a clear reference to the Lancelot of Arthurian legend, but the quest itself has become inverted, and Lancelot, far from reaching higher and higher towards the divine, only plunges further into despair and madness.

In 1987 Percy traced the further adventures of Tom More in The Thanatos Syndrome. More fantastical in conception, The Thanatos Syndrome finds Dr More battling a vast government conspiracy that aims to alter the human race by lacing public water supplies with chemicals. Reviewing the work in the New York Times Book Review, Gail Godwin praised Percy's 'gift of being able to dramatise metaphysics', while Jonathan Yardley praised the book as 'a novel about ideas and issues that matter, a novel that looks beyond its own confines to the larger world outside, a novel that challenges the reader to think and imagine [. . .] Its expansiveness and humanity are welcome reminders of what fiction can accomplish when it is written for more than the celebration of self or the adulation of a coterie.' Percy died after a long battle with cancer on 10 May 1990.

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