Walker Percy and the Modern Malaise

Walker Percy

Walker Percy (1916-1990), born and raised in the South, was a member of that rare breed of southern Catholic writers. His grandfather and later his father committed suicide. Then followed a car accident in which his mother died, Percy concluding on his own that this was yet another suicide. Out of the ashes of such biographical material another William Faulkner might have gloriously arisen, and some would say Percy came close to fulfilling that destiny. But this was a hopeless task, for as Percy himself once remarked, “If you want to be another Faulkner, you have to spend a good deal of time hunkered down on courthouse lawns listening to old-timers talk about the way things were…. The only stories I ever heard were jokes in the locker room.”

Percy was an important novelist whose best works include The Moviegoer (winner of the National book Award), Love in the Ruins, The Second Coming, and The Thanatos Syndrome. He was also a formidable essayist and chronicler of his troubled generation. In youth he studied medicine at Columbia University and underwent psychotherapy to deal with the family suicides. He then contracted tuberculosis, which cut short his career as a physician. It was perhaps inevitable that following so much trauma to his physical and mental systems, and with a great deal of recuperating time at hand, he would choose to abandon medicine and dive rather deeply into another field of endeavor, such as the writings of Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, who so thoroughly influenced much of the existentialist writing of the mid-20th century.

From Physician to Writer

According to fellow Louisianan R.B. Williams, O.P., “Percy was an existentialist in his view of life. His characters seem tortured about making decisions, e.g. the main character in The Moviegoer. Although his novels are set in the South, the characters are less “Southern” than the other three giants – Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. One interesting characteristic is that he wrote while lying down in bed, a habit he developed when a tuberculosis patient in North Carolina where he had trained as an MD in pathology…. Percy had an eclectic mind. I really think he was the protagonist in most of his novels.”

At first, as a writer, Percy had chosen the genre of the philosophical essay. He was published frequently enough, but the pay was poor and he could never be certain anyone was reading his work. Then he discovered that Sartre and Camus, both philosophers, were successfully integrating their philosophies into their novels, and these novels people were definitely reading. Though Percy disagreed with Sartre’s philosophy, he was grateful for the example that Sartre had set and that he was able to follow in his own deeply philosophical novels.

Though early in life an atheist or agnostic (he very much liked H.G. Well’s book The Science of Life) Percy married Mary Townsend in 1946 and together they entered the Catholic Church in 1947. Percy in later years recalled that Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, the account of his own conversion, was published about that time, and that it helped Percy in his adjustment to being Catholic. Percy also remembered something very telling about his own conversion: “That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.”

Most writers are remembered for a certain writing style. Faulkner assaults his readers with obscure terminology and stream-of-consciousness syntax. Chesterton could hardly resist a paradox on virtually every page of his writings. What may strike many readers of Percy is that he was capable of being simultaneously clear and obtuse, or at once serious and funny. Three sentences will demonstrate. “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Again. “Why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” And again. “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the cosmos – novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes – you are beyond doubt the strangest.” Percy liked to ask such questions that penetrate into the very heart of our wondering. Some readers will find themselves not interested in the questions he asks, or they will conclude that he fails miserably at  answering them. Others will be satisfied that such interesting questions have at least been asked when no one else was asking them, and have been offered as proverbial food for thoughtful devouring.

Percy on Scientism

In 1977, having established a sufficient reputation that would allow him to do so, Percy published an article in Esquire of himself interviewing himself. One of the questions he asked himself was about how he could possibly believe in Jesus Christ in this day and age, to which he replied in a way that is beyond challenging: “This life is much 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 anybody should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed a hold of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”

Percy’s Signposts in a Strange Land contains some of his most intriguing essays and reveals much about his religious views. He was a lifelong conservative Catholic and became a secular oblate of St. Benedict shortly before his death. Some of his readers, in particular those lacking a spiritual sensibility, may find his entire world-view intolerably strange. Others will recognize that the traits they like in Percy stem from his search for a way out of the colossal malaise of hedonism and philosophical confusion that has overcome the world; that search being inseparable from his growth as a person of deep spirituality who conveyed to others keen insights, often wrapped in disarming humor, with a touch of what Percy himself called “impersonal malice.” Percy as satirist, it seems, had adopted the view that one may with slight impunity comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

The dictionary definition of “malaise” offers several synonyms; the one most relevant to Percy is “disease.”  In his acceptance speech for the Laetare Medal at the Notre Dame commencement exercise in 1989, Percy said to the students: “The world into which you are graduating is a deranged world.” In that same speech Percy explained his fear of only one kind of truth prevailing at the expense of all other kinds of truth … for example, the truths of science prevailing at the expense of the truths of religion. He noted that this was precisely the problem of Germany under the Nazis, a highly scientific but also ruthless culture of dominance, destruction and death for all who objected on religious grounds, particularly the Jews, but also many Catholics who perished in Hitler’s concentration camps. Percy today could have gone on to point out that those who believe in the “truth” of atheism are actively seeking in the courts and through widespread propaganda to obstruct those who wish to freely and openly practice their religious convictions. If anyone doubts this, google “atheist protests” and find about 81,200,000 results.

Percy was curious about the new theology of scientism that intended to displace the old theology in which the universe was created for Man who is ontologically at its center. Citing the major revolutions in thought introduced by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, Percy considers what the scientist’s point of view might be. “I think there is a theology involved. The scientist is trying to get rid of God, he’s trying to get rid of the uniqueness of man. He does not like a break in the continuum, the proposition that man may be qualitatively different from other species. That’s part of the scientific effort of the last four hundred years. Where does the scientist stand vis-à-vis this continuum? He wants to stand outside of it…. His consciousness of it does not fit into the continuum.” It would probably be fair to say that not all scientists think as Percy describes them thinking. Increasingly, major thinkers in the scientific community (Einstein included) have come around to the realization that a great Intelligence resides behind the creation of the universe and its unfolding through time. Moreover, the once popular notion that only scientific knowledge reveals truth has taken a beating just by the fact that science is constantly correcting itself, and even correcting its corrections. This fact alone reveals a certain humility in the scientist when he faces the laws and behavior of the material world. Yet, humble for himself as a medical scientist, Percy recognizes the basic limitation of the scientist when he says with characteristic bluntness, “Scientists tend to be smart about things and dumb about people.”

Percy as Existentialist

The problem with modern atheistic existentialism, Percy concluded, especially the variety promoted by Sartre and Camus, was that it was full of contradictions. Atheism assumes the absurdity (irrationality) of existence. We exist without a purpose because there is no God to give us one. Then the existentialist proceeds to give himself (in the case of Sartre anyway) a richly compensated existence by demonstrating to others, in his interesting books, how purposeless he and they really are. Sartre made a very comfortable life for himself hawking this new and fashionable theology … at least until he arrived on his deathbed and began to have decidedly second thoughts. Suddenly and unaccountably the purpose of life revealed itself to him when he realized he was about to be (hopefully) visiting with the Creator on the other side of the curtain.

As to the theme of alienation that is common in so much existential literature, for Percy its source in a general way is easily identified: “… alienation, after all, is nothing more or less than a very ancient, orthodox, Christian doctrine. Man is alienated by the nature of his being here. He is here as a stranger and a pilgrim, which is the way alienation is conceived in my books.” And so, very succinctly, Percy has hit the nail very hard on its proverbial head. By original sin man was banished from his happy home in the Garden to foreign lands where he became the stranger par excellence, who by anxious searching throughout life must find the way back to an eternal Eden not of this strange world. Strange indeed, and a thing to dread. “The old modern age has ended…. The present age is demented…. As the century draws to a close, it does not yet have a name, but it can be described. It is the most scientifically advanced , savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.”

Percy, throughout the many interviews he granted, talked constantly about Kierkegaard’s influence on his thinking. One aspect of existentialist angst that he found in Kierkegaard was his insight into the fact that some people experience despair without realizing that it is despair they are experiencing. This is, of course, the worst kind of despair because it is the kind that, hiding deep in the recesses of the psyche, refuses to be found out and confronted for what it is. This kind of despair (here I am interpolating Kierkegaard and Percy) might be attributed to people who deny their immortality and seem to be very comfortable with the view that death is nothing more terrible than going to sleep without waking up. The so-called benefits to be accrued from such an interpretation of death (some might see this as one of the things that is meant by the expression “positive atheism”) is that no matter how deeply we might be sunk in our sins, or even in our crimes, in the end there is no eternal consequence to face. But this alone is reason for despair since the human heart cries out for justice as well as mercy. And so we have the frequency of deathbed conversions, in which simultaneously both the cry for justice (the admission of sins and crimes along with the need to atone for them) and mercy (the forgiveness of those sins and crimes) are given their chance to be heard.

Percy Debunks Materialism

In Percy’s essay “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise” (found in Signposts) the disease or derangement identified in the Notre Dame speech is diagnosed as rooted in the bold appropriation by science and technology of the soul of modern man. That is to say, science and technology, because they deal merely with things, have made of man’s soul a mere thing. The scientist can do all kinds of wonderful things, from fixing the digestive track to psychoanalyzing the psychotic. But these activities do nothing to address why a man is alive; or what he is to do with himself each day and all the days of his endlessly unfolding and seemingly aimless life, now that science has stripped him of any hopeful theology and spirituality that might have filled and  given meaning to the empty hours.

The materialist defines the living soul as strictly a physical manifestation or function of the human brain. When he reduces the human spirit to the 100 billion cerebral neurons of images and memories loaded on metaphorical freight trains running back and forth between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, he manifestly tries to demolish any hope man might have of his very special place in nature. The chapter in Signatures cleverly titled “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind,” grapples with the critical question materialists have never been able to answer convincingly: how does the materialist know for a fact that matter is all there is? Does he discount the existence of spirit because he cannot see it or touch it or smell it? But spirit by definition is not supposed to be seen, touched, or smelled, even though it functions with the body delivering sensations of the beautiful, the true, and the good. No surgeon, for example, can remove such a thing as the physical sentence “I am a sinner” from the brain, and thereby remove the sinner’s guilt. Indeed, how does the science of neurology begin to understand why sin and guilt even exist? Is it unreasonable to postulate another realm of being besides matter? Are we not able to reasonably infer a realm that exists in a manner immune to sensory perception, but not immune to logic and intuition and belief in the principles governing that realm? And so, if that other realm is allowed to possibly exist, it is no more possible for the materialist to prove that the soul does not exist than it is possible to prove that God does not exist. The possibility of God must render also the possibility of the human soul, made in the image and likeness of God.

Though modern science seems befuddled about the problem of the mind/matter nexus (that is, figuring out the point at which matter leaves off and mind begins) Percy saw some hope in the study of a long dead philosopher, C.S. Pierce. “Pierce saw that the one way to get at it, the great modern rift between mind and matter, was the only place where they intersect, language. Language is both words and meaning. It is impossible to imagine language without both.”

Percy, following Pierce, breaks all events up into two kinds: dyadic and triadic. Dyadic events are the events science can deal with because the movement of cause to effect leaves no doubt as to which is the cause and which the effect. But a triadic event is decidedly more complex. This introduces us to the science of semiotics, or the science of understanding the meaning of things. Insight, not deduction, is at the heart of semiotics. There is no scientific explanation for insight. When the blind and deaf child named Helen Keller at the pump house suddenly realized that the word “w-a-t-e-r” spelled out on one hand referred to the water actually running over the other hand, she began to understand the meaning of things. It is not that her ensoulment began then, but that she began to realize that she had a soul capable of understanding signs and their meanings. While there are many creature who can be trained to understand signs, no other creature on earth but humans have the power to understand meanings. There is a sea change between reading signs and understanding meanings; that sea change exists because the human soul can literally rise above the sea, look down upon it, and even know why it exists. A computer is the perfect dyadic machine, but a human is the perfect triadic machinist. Scientists do not understand the difference, and therefore are indifferent to the difference, or deny that a difference exists. Two short sentences from Percy sum up his whole thesis about the unique quality of the human soul. “Words can tell the truth or lie. Lying is something new in the cosmos.” Scientists can surely detect this fact about the uniqueness of the human soul, if they can detect nothing else.

Percy on Curing the Malaise

As for anyone’s inquiry into the purpose of life, science and technology are useless. They can provide us with electronic toys and endless diversions, while at the same time they render us forever asking the dreadful question that anyone with a brain has to ask: “Is that all there is?” Is there not something more visceral that I need to give meaning to my life? And so along comes a really visceral diversion: pornography. Again, that wandering road down which one travels endlessly looking for the spiritual home, only to find a dark room enclosing the flicker of luridly colorful pictures of copulating genitalia. The phenomenal rise in the production, popularity, and consumption of raw pornography signals the very spiritual derangement into which modern man has fallen. The modern man’s death of soul is personified in the suicide and sexual obsession haunting Marlon Brando’s character in the movie Last Tango in Paris, itself a hollow movie about hollow people in their hollow modern world.

Percy laments the tired literary scene we have come to know in our post-Christian era, the dominance of empty negativity celebrated by such novelists and playwrights as Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Beckett and Pinter. That world, he wrote more than thirty years ago, has begun to pass us by. “For the challenge now is nothing less than the exploration of a new world and the re-creation or rediscovery of language and meanings. The Psalmist said sing a new song. And for a fact, the old ones are pretty well worn out…. I take it for granted, by the very nature of things and how things are known, it lies in the province of art – literature in particular, and not the natural sciences – to undertake this exploration…. The point is that, in a new age when things and people are devalued, when meanings break down, it lies within the province of the novelists to start the search afresh, like Robinson Crusoe on his island.”

Another essay in Signatures that reveals Percy’s diagnosis and prognosis for the present malaise is “The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry.” By 1957, when this essay was written, Freudian psychology internationally had come under fire not only from outside the profession, but more intensely so, from inside. And why not? Freudian psychoanalysis (nor any other school of psychology for that matter) has done anything to assuage the growing cultural malaise that dominates Western civilization. Freud, in fact, given his leadership role in the atheist movement of his day, very likely contributed to the malaise. As Percy notes, “The very men whose business is mental health have been silent about the sickness of modern man, his emotional impoverishment, his sense of homelessness in the midst of the very world which he, more than the men of any other time, has made over for his own happiness.” Ironic, is it not, that the very utopias envisioned by Victorian optimists have instead become the dystopias of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in which the single person is horribly swallowed up in the collective? Equally ironic it is that modern psychologists have little to offer as the reason for the collapse of collective sanity that anyone can see all around us today. And why is this?

Very likely because psychiatrists, in order to understand the present malaise with any kind of competency, would have to leave off being psychiatrists and become philosophers, moralists, and theologians to boot. This cannot happen with respect to treating individual patients because such a broad adoption of epistemological avenues for investigation is denied by the scientific method itself. If psychiatrists are going to call themselves scientists, they can no more deduce mental illness from theological data than a physicist could deduce gravity from the Fall mandated by original sin. Now this does not mean that the psychiatrist cannot be a philosopher or moralist or theologian. It only means that, by his own necessary admission, he has no scientific authority for being one.

The False Physicians

So either the psychiatrist makes intellectual links between the patient’s illness and the patient’s morality, philosophy and theology, or he just shuts up on the matter because he knows the patient is entitled to his own philosophy, morality, and theology. This would certainly account for why the psychiatric profession is notably silent on the cultural malaise of our time. It has no authority in the matter. In brief, if there is a God, which psychiatry as a science cannot decide, and if our collective alienation from ourselves and from each other is tied somehow to our collective alienation from God, the psychiatrist as psychiatrist is powerless to prescribe any medicine that will remedy that state of alienation. If psychiatry has an appropriate role in curing the cultural malaise, it should be at least to point out that a malaise, exists – the malaise of alienation from ourselves, others, and God. Once the malaise is pointed out, it becomes the job of philosophy, morality, and theology to apply themselves to finding the cure.

As Percy notes, the malaise can be wrongly identified. Such was the case with the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who found in our modern obsession with owning material things the root cause of our malaise. Capitalism, he alleged, was the villain. Or communism was the villain. In any case, modern man had degenerated into Homo economicus. If modern man has become more obsessed with consuming, as opposed to producing, creating, and loving, how is it not inevitable that inner anxiety will explode out of its confines and wreak havoc upon others and the world at large? How is it possible that things will not dominate us as opposed to us dominating things? But Fromm’s analysis and solution to the problem seem somehow vague and empty. A productive life is surely desired; a loving life is surely desirable; but if God is absent from the equation, as God seems to be in Fromm’s playbook, how does that resolve the problem of the ultimate anxiety and alienation that plagues every human ever born? We can see Fromm’s contribution to the present Age of Anxiety just from a quotation in his 1947 book Man for Himself. “If faith cannot be reconciled with rational thinking, it has to be eliminated as an anachronistic remnant of earlier stages of culture and replaced by science dealing with facts and theories which are intelligible and can be validated.” And so, Percy notes, Fromm “concludes that the worship of God is itself idolatry and alienation.” Yet another instance of scientism once again on the march.

The True Physicians

Clearly, what Percy is getting at is the irreligious dimension of the modern malaise. The poet, the novelist, the musician might explore that irreligious anxiety, and so give us a way to focus on it as a problem in need of a solution. But none of the creative artists can cure us of the malaise. Rather, the root cause of the malaise is a decline in the right kinds of philosophy and morality and theology that would address the need to have the ultimate mysteries of life and death explored with answers that satisfy our longing. We must identify not the psychiatrist as the guide to unfolding these mysteries, but rather the people who are most versed in the study and mastery of philosophy, morality, and theology. It so happens that the Catholic priest is trained specifically for serving this role in society. The seminarian passes through several years of a curriculum called Philosophy before he enters a final four-year curriculum called Theology, and these studies help him to identify the right way and the wrong way to think about morals and the meaning of life. It should not surprise us to learn that Walker Percy in 1983 addressed a small class of seminarians who were being trained for the priesthood. After pointing out to them particular challenges they will be asked to meet, there followed the soulful closing remarks of his address, included in Signposts under the title “A ‘Cranky Novelist’ Reflects on the Church.”

“I don’t know how many of you will become parish priests. But I know how welcome you will be. I have mentioned the challenge only to emphasize the opportunities. The opportunity is simply this: that never in history has modern man been in greater need of you, has been more confused about his identity and the meaning of his life. Never has there been such loneliness in the midst of crowds, never such hunger in the face of satiation. Never has there been a more fertile ground for the seed and the harvest the Lord spoke of. All that is needed is a bearer of the Good News who speaks it with such authenticity that that it can penetrate the most exhausted hearing, revive the most jaded language. With you lies the future and the hope. You and the Church you serve may be only a remnant, but you will be a saving remnant. I salute you and congratulate you. God bless you.”

Amen to that. Sometimes seen in a physician’s office or waiting room is a picture of a white-robed Jesus seated opposite an elderly physician at his desk. They seem to be consulting as to what may be done about a patient. The artist subtly renders the impression that the physician is attentive to the comments of Jesus, who is likely a reliable authority on the patient’s malady. As for treating the malaise of a deranged civilization, that artist’s scene suggests a wholesome remedy psychiatrists might consider recommending when all the usual scientific remedies have failed.



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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics