The Most Important Person in the World
Walker Percy is a writer given to big, bold and baggy generalisations, which might seem like a big, baggy and bold generalisation itself. But Percy's generalisations seems of a specific sort: humorous, imagistic and oddly metaphysical. To justify the first two shouldn't be too difficult - to justify the third might take a bit more work. However, before getting properly started, we can offer a few of these generalisations to get an understanding of Walker's sensibility. Since our focus is mainly on The Moviegoer, let us start here. "He wears a jacket with lather elbow patches. Pipestem pants, dirty white shoes, and affects the kind of rolling seafaring gait you see in Northern college boys." "Kate parses it out with the keen male bent of her mind and yet with her woman's despair." "Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching, rinsing sadness of the cities of the North." But we see similar generalisations in other books too. "The TV studio audience laughed with its quick, obedient, and above all grateful Los Angeles laughter..." (The Last Gentleman) "The only cure for depression is suicide." (Lost in the Cosmos) "School is disappointing. If science is exciting and art exhilarating, the schools and universities have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of rendering both dull." (Lost in the Cosmos)
Lost in the Cosmos it should be said is a book of propositional generalisations, subtitled the last self-help book it often offers multiple choice answers to various questions and generalisations that Percy offers. For example, to the question "Do Americans, as well as other westerners, prefer sexual variety, both heterosexual and homosexual because...and offers five possible answers the reader can choose from. But in all three books, whether first person (The Moviegoer), third person (The Last Gentleman) or essayistically authorial (Lost in the Cosmos), there is a need to generalise from the particular without losing the particular. But this is where we can distinguish the particular from the singular: that unlike other southern writers including Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, Percy is interested in finding the particular out of the general, not the singular out of the specific. Thus when O'Connor insists that "fiction has to be largely presented rather than reported. Another way to say it is that though fiction is a narrative art, it relies heavily on the element of drama", she acknowledges the dramatic art over the philosophically inclined musing (Mystery and Manners) Welty, who knew Percy well, says "I plan a story by its dramatic sense, not by a particular pattern." (Southern Literary Journal) In contrast, when interviewed too in the Southern Literary Journal, Percy reckons, "if you want to call me a philosophical Catholic existentialist, I would not object." Many a writer resists labels, Percy is quite happy to work from them, as if accepting himself as a generalisation whose particularity he seeks. He may offer it with an air of humour, but what interests him is the philosophical conundrum that fiction can help to identify, not the dramatic that fictions usually insists upon.
It is no surprise then that Percy has offered a lengthy interview concerning his interest in Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, nor that he says in the interview that "I worked hard on Sickness Unto Death. I knew he was getting at something very important, very important to me, and I finally got it. Strangely enough, the harder you work at it the more important it seems to be to you when you finally do understand what he is getting at. "(Journal of Religion) Indeed, Percy was much happier with the abstract label than the concrete one. "Throughout his career he disliked being labelled a Southern writer" according to biographer Patrick Samway, and his writing cannot be read with the Southern accent so easy to adopt in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and O'Connor's Wise Blood. One reason is that Percy's books exist on the edge of the social and suggest an interest in the interior thought over the actually expressed. When friend and writer Allen Tate read his first work he said "the main thing wrong with it is that it doesn't have enough action." (Mississippi Quarterly) Reading The Moviegoer it isn't that characters don't become vivid; more that they remain perceived rather than conceived as we see them from behind central character Binx Bolling's eyes. We could see this as inevitable given its first-person narration, but many books seen from one point of view have plenty of action. Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Charles Bukowski's Women are all works that are decidedly first person and yet which contain lots of action, whether it happens to be the numerous perplexing situations the central character gets himself into as he wanders around Kristiana in Hunger, the sexual adventures of our hero in Paris in Tropic of Cancer, or the often abject fumblings, failings and occasional sexual victories in Women as the central character adjusts to being a well-known writer who women suddenly like. These are all in different ways books that suggest a high degree of self-absorption, but madness, poverty or desire keep the books moving. The Moviegoer barely moves at all, as though Percy wants to produce a work of reflection rather than action - a humorous, generalised work of quiet metaphysics.
We can see this in two areas for example - the familial and the sexually sentimental. There is potentially an epic here as the narrator fills in the family picture over the course of the novel. There are numerous aunts and uncles, as well as Binx's late father (one of four sons) and his mother who is now remarried -with seven children, all of whom are described and one of whom is dead. There is baby John Paul, the disabled Lonnie, the twins, Clare and Donice, Therese, Mathilde and the late Duval who drowned. That is enough of a family for one novel, but this is more or less Blinx's half family, folk he hasn't seen for six months and who only get a few pages in the novel. They are introduced, described but not really narrativised, and a writer seeking drama from their fiction might ask from Percy more than he is willing to provide. The jumble of names, the teeming flow of family life, seems to serve the moment when our narrator observes his mother. "Sometimes when she mentions God, it strikes me that my mother uses him as but one of the devices that come to hand in an outrageous man's world, to be put to work like all the rest in the one enterprise she has any use for: the canny management of the shocks of life." She would seem to need God as an organising principle, having a brood of children, one of whom she has lost, another who is disabled, and a husband who has died. That is a lot to be getting on with, but while our narrator is a twenty-nine-year-old man with time on his hands, his mother is a woman with numerous children on hers. Yet the mother's is not a life Percy cares to dramatise; only one he briefly chooses to delineate. He wants to give us a sense of tragic chaos that might just need a God to make sense of it all. The family drama is secondary to the metaphysical proposition.
The same indifference to family drama appears evident when addressing the various family aunts and uncles. One uncle was a doctor (Blinx's father), Oscar a storekeeper, Alex a soldier. There is also Jules, a lawyer. Then there are the aunts: Edna who is married to Oscar, and Emily married to Jules, who actually isn't one of the brothers; it is Emily who is the sister and thus the narrator's direct blood relation. Who really matters here is his cousin Kate (Jules's but not Emily's daughter), who is engaged to Walter, but who lost a great love to a car accident, and will break her engagement not least because she is very fond of our narrator. There is potentially a great deal going on in the novel but most of it goes into reflection rather than dramatisation, goes into Blinx offering up their lives to us in what would be called diegetic rather than mimetic form. He muses over their lives rather than showing us the incidents of that life. When Blinx discusses Alex's war history he does so looking at a picture on the mantelpiece. Blinx says "his death in Argonne (five years before) was held to be fitting since the original Alex Bolling was killed with Roberdeaux Wheat in the Hood breakthrough at Gaines Mill in 1862.
What all this familial detail offers is a milieu quite at odds with the narrator's existential search. Everybody else seems locked into familial relations and obligations except for cousin Kate (the daughter of Jules and Jules' first wife) who is still half-crazy with grief and has earlier attempted to kill herself. The book seems less an account of the various comings and goings of living, breathing people than a book about possible affinities - who can understand us and who cannot. One might see this as a solipsistic wish but we can instead view it as a spiritual need. Not religious, necessarily, perhaps not at all, but demanding a type of nourishment the readily social cannot easily provide, often cannot even countenance. When we suggest that Percy is interested in particulars rather than singularities, it is the desire to search out the hunger in a self that means other people are way stations towards self-understanding. While O'Connor is a brilliantly anagogical writer who searches for the spiritual in the epiphanic, Percy is a writer more concerned with the restless enquiry. O'Connor can say that for her the heart of a story lies in "an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I'm talking about would have to be on the anagogic level, that is the level which has to do with divine life." But she also says "fiction writing is very rarely a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things." (Mystery and Manners). O'Connor is a great writer of singularities, describing in detail her characters as they fill out the milieu. Percy is a writer interested in particulars who finds the spiritual in the enquiry. In the fine interview with Zoltn Abdi-Nagy, he says "It is true I am interested in philosophical, religious issues and in my novels I use the particular in order to get at the general issues." (The Southern Literary Journal)
In The Moviegoer, Binx isn't immersed in the milieu but he belongs to it, navigating and negotiating it, trying to find ways in which he can be himself but aware that he is part of a tradition he cannot easily escape. The irony of the book is that he simultaneously conforms and counters at the same time. The woman he ends up marrying is none other than his cousin Kate, but Kate is also the person with whom he may have the greatest affinity and also not a direct blood relation. She is both the path of least resistance and greatest resistance. She is the person whose stepmother is his own aunt, the woman who will give him a lengthy and problematic pep talk when she finds out about their engagement. But Kate is also the woman who has unequivocally gone through a crisis of her own that can match the crisis Binx has gone through, a man who has returned from the war in Korea none the better for wear. Is it a conformist act to marry Kate or a realisation of a deeper affinity? Is it even a useless rebound after he fails to win the woman he has been lusting over for a great chunk of the book? Sharon joins him as his personal secretary and looks like she will follow in the tradition of Marcia and Linda, employees whom he would date, and who would eventually leave, resentful and unsatisfied. Mentioning Sharon he says, "although she has been working for me for two weeks, I have not asked her for a date nor spoken of anything but business." Yet he hopes for more, saying "she is one of those villas beauties of which the South is so prodigal...she has the most fearful soap clean good looks. Her bottom is so beautiful that once as she crossed the room to the cooler I felt my eyes smart with tears of gratitude." Yet she is an object of beauty but not a figure of affinity and so when she rejects his advances with a witty ambivalence, he seems capable of indecision himself. When he puts his hand "on the thickest and innerest part of Sharon's thigh...she bats me away with a new vigour." He reckons gloomily that he is as "willing not to mess with her as mess with her"as she gives him a kiss and tells him she has got his number too. There is a flirtatious frisson but he has been there before with Marcia and Linda, and in time the sexual tension just turned into tension, as if it had nowhere deeper to go.
Though Percy talks about the similarities between the epilogue at the end of The Moviegoer and that of The Brothers Karamazov, we can see similarities too between Crime and Punishment and The Moviegoer: that Binx's burgeoning awareness of his feelings for Kate resembles a little Raskolnikov's for Sonia. The idea that there is constantly present someone who may be the person whom we love but that we cannot yet know it, only a path will reveal it. This has nothing to do with love at first sight but instead a love that works on the inside rather than the outside, that realises slowly an affinity of being rather than chiefly an attraction towards the physical. Kate, after all, is no beauty, and definitely not seen as one by Binx who early in the book, looking at a photo where she is queen of Neptune reckons: "everyone said that Kate was a lovely queen, but she wasn't. When Kate gets her hair waved and puts on an evening gown, she looks frumpy; the face in the picture is as plain as pudding." Binx would seem to be more striking as Percy gives us what we might assume is a fair description of his looks even if the book happens to be a first-person account. Towards Sharon, "I keep a Gregory Peckish sort of distance. I am a tall black-headed fellow and I know as well as he how to keep to myself, make my eyes and my cheeks spare, tuck my lip and say a word or two with a nod or two." Sharon would seem physically closer to a match, but that is in the world of appearances.
Perhaps literature has an advantage here over film (even if Terrence Malick was reputedly interested in adapting the book): its natural habitat is the interior while film's is the exterior. Looks matter in film not least because film is all looks; it is an art form of appearances, and while it is very easy to say almost nothing about someone's looks in a book, and thus leave us focusing on an interior beauty over an external image, in film no matter how much one wishes to make a character attractive, that figure constantly walks around on screen with their physical appearance as wells their inner beauty. Part of the path towards realisation for Binx might rest partly on this aspect of film as he namechecks numerous film stars throughout the book, and even has the briefest of indirect encounters with one of them: William Holden. Amongst those mentioned are Dana Andrews, Joseph Cotten, Merle Oberon, John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Adolph Menjou, Keenan Wynn, Jose Ferrer, Richard Widmark, Jane Powell, Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine and of course Gregory Peck. The names are mainly men, and on occasion it would seem that Binx models himself on their behaviour, evident when he talks about Peck but also when he says "it is possible to stand at the window, loosen my collar and rub the back of my neck like Dana Andrews." As in the Peck moment, here we see it is part of both a potential seduction and a moment of movie mise en scene. Binx is playing his part, a role he gets from the movies and one modelled on various actors he admires. The movies offer Binx an escape from his life but also we would be unlikely to see such an escape as part of his search. When he invokes Peck or Andrews he wants to perform the role of the movie seducer; when he wonders about his search for meaning he sees the absurdity of such roles. Movies can remove him from social conventions but they are likely to generate conventions of their own, and Binx falls into these conventions when he seduces his secretaries as if they are in a movie.
Early in the book, Binx comes across a poll that indicates 98% of Americans believe in God and 2% are agnostic or atheist. Binx wonders, "am I, in my search, a hundred miles ahead of my fellow Americans or a hundred miles behind them? That is to say: 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?" From one perspective he may seem behind them; from another far ahead. His interest in the movies may suggest the former; his interest in eschewing familial and social conventions closer to the latter. But if Binx doesn't quite know whether he is ahead of or behind his fellow Americans, how can one know whether a search is a meaningful enquiry or an escape from responsibilities? By the end of this short novel, Binx will start medical school and will have married Kate. He will also witness his half-brother Lonnie die. But in seeing Lonnie pass away he will also know the importance of the medical profession in keeping people alive, and in marrying Kate knows that he will make another person's life an awful lot happier. As she says, "I am frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I'm not frightened is when I'm with you. You'll have to be with me a great deal." Binx replies, "I will." This is a variation of the marital "I do" but given not the social obligation expected of the married, but the personal obligation of one person unique to another. Binx is made properly special and wishes to honour that role in another's life. Some might see it as a developing dependency issue but that isn't how Percy frames it. If at the beginning of the book he doesn't know whether he is ahead or behind 98 percent of his fellow Americans, sunk in everydayness, it would seem that while he too, like most of them, will marry, he will do so not by sinking into that everydayness but by finding in another a value that recognises the value in himself. It is as though he steps out of the screen and into life. Dating his secretaries, half imitating Gregory Peck and Dana Andrews, he was falling into convention rather than escaping from it. Marrying Kate and going to law school might seem like conforming from one point of view but Percy would seem to suggest that from another it is a decision.
In this sense 98% of Americans fell into their lives; Binx can seem slow because he wants to find the purpose in his. We know he was in the Korean war, was injured and saw people die - all reasons enough for him to be suspicious about getting on with things. But the point wouldn't be that terrible circumstances slow him down before he adjusts to normal living again; more that he must find in life a principle for its continuance. He must involve himself in a search. Commenting on it in the epilogue, Binx says, "as for my search, I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than the edifying." The philosopher Percy is invoking is, of course, Kierkegaard, but while the philosopher informs the book he doesn't dictate it. As Percy says in the Abdi-Nagy interview, "writing a novel is something different. In my view you have to be wary of using words like 'religion,' 'God,' 'sin,' 'salvation,' 'baptism' because the words are almost worn out. The themes have to be implicit rather than explicit. I think I am conscious of the danger of the novelist trying to draw a moral. What Kierkegaard called 'edifying' would be a fatal step for a novelist." Yet Percy adds, "but the novelist cannot help but be informed by his own anthropology, the nature of man. In this respect I use 'anthropology' in the European philosophical sense. Camus, Sartre, Marcel in this sense can all be called anthropologists. In America people think of somebody going out and measuring skulls, digging up ruins when you mention 'anthropology.' I call mine philosophical anthropology. I am not talking about God. I am not a theologian."
The philosophical anthropology attends to the particular, not the singular - it finds in the work an equivalent enquiry into the nature of being but with a quite different lexicographic apparatus. We might see this as a soft novelistic lexicography against the hard language of the philosopher. We can expect to find in philosophical discourse words like ontological, phenomenological, existential, being, aesthetic, imperative, categorical, utilitarian, nothingness, deconstruction, immanence, transcendence, becoming, reification, the Real and alienation. Soft words might be equally obscure, often even more so, but they describe the world rather than conceptualise it. There are numerous words in Percy's work that someone may have to look up in a dictionary, but they remain 'soft', even if from The Moviegoer there are relatively few. The Last Gentleman, for example, offers many: senescent, puissant, cotillon, chatelaine, rime, meniscus, pedicle, spirogyra, venules. One may or may not know these words but few would be inclined to come across them in everyday language. Yet they remain soft words serving a descriptive purpose rather than showing an analytic intent.
Yet one reason why we see Percy as a particular writer rather than a singular one, why we see him as quite different from O'Connor, for example, is that he is lightly conceptual, that he does show an interest in the conceptual in novelistic form. In The Last Gentleman along with the obscure soft words he uses a few hard ones too. Transcendence and immanence crop up along with passages of semi-theoretical enquiry. "Lewdness ="sole concrete metaphysic of layman in age of science =sacrament of the dispossessed. Things, person, relations emptied out, not by theory, but by lay reading of theory... (Cf. Whitehead's displacement of the Real)" In The Moviegoer, Binx offers up a theory as he and Kate talk about what happens to the "phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification." "Nowadays", Binx says, "when a person lives somewhere, in a neighbourhood, the place is not certified from him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighbourhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere." In Lost in the Cosmos, a work that hovers between fiction and not fiction at all, Percy offers a section forty pages long that he calls an intermezzo, discussing semiotic theory. While we can read A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories knowing they are clearly fiction, and read Mystery and Manners knowing the essays are undeniably non-fiction, Percy possesses a mischievous need to dissolve the categories.
It seems however that the dissolution takes a particular form, quite distinct from a European existential traditional that asks philosophical questions within the fictional, from Dostoevsky to Camus, Sartre to Handke, and it rests on, and resides in, humour. "To me. Abadi Nagy says, the most striking difference between the European and the American absurdist view is the ability of the American to couple the grim seriousness with hilarious humor, to turn apocalypse into farce.. Intrigued by the observation, Percy mentions Kierkegaard and notes that the philosopher "said something that astounded me and that I did not understand for a long time. He spoke of the three stages of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, the religious. When you pass the first two you find yourself in an existentialist predicament which can be open to the religious or the absurd." Percy notes that Kierkegaard "equated religion with the absurdity. He called it the leap into the absurd. But what he said and was puzzling to me was that after the first two the closest thing to the third stage is humor." But Percy thought that there was another explanation too why he was drawn to the humorous. He was an American writer and thus using humour seemed natural to him. "Hemingway once said: all good American novels come from one novel written by a man named Mark Twain. With Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain established the tradition of this very broad and satirical humor. I think the American writer finds it natural to use humor both in his satire and in describing even the worst." (Southern Literary Journal)
Much has been made of the fact that while Percy is an important American writer, few would be inclined to regard him as one of the most significant, acclaimed or talked up of post-war American figures, even if he would appear to be closer than any of them to the Twain tradition. Roth, Bellow, Updike and Mailer would usually be names mentioned long before Percy's. Salinger, Vonnegut, Malamud and Carver too. Yet Peter Handke, seen by many as the most important of post-war German-speaking writers, alongside Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass, translated a couple of Percy's novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. Handke is not an obviously comic writer, someone whose books, like Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Slow Homecoming, Across and The Afternoon of a Writer, struggle with language rather than play with it, contain an internal frustration with words over a facility to use them well. One interview with Handke is called 'Nauseated by Language'. In a Die Zeit interview from 2010, Handke says: "According to Goethe, humor is a sign of diminishing art." Handke's sensibility would seem to be quite distinct from Percy's, yet just as we might talk of an affinity between Binx and Kate, so also there would seem to have been a deep affinity between Percy and Handke. Percy was published by Farrar Straus and three of Handke's novellas, published as one book, caught Percy's attention, especially A Sorry Beyond Dreams, an account written in the early seventies about Handke's recently dead mother, who took her own life. Both Percy's grandfather and father took their own lives, and perhaps his mother too, depending how people choose to interpret her driving the car off a county bridge. Percy was 13 when his father killed himself; fifteen when his mother died. "Percy shared Camus's sense that in an age of waning belief the question of suicide is central to the meaning of life..."John F. Desmond notes in 'Walker Percy and Suicide'. Binx and Kate may share a sense of humour but even more they share a sense of despair, and it is as though Handke and Percy could see that it was something behind the humour that mattered. As Handke says in another Die Zeit interview from 1989, when the interviewer reckons he has become more humorous as he has got older: "that's gallows humour. I learned it in the course of life." Humour has its place but should know its place. For Handke it has a place in life but not in literature, but what he sees in Percy's work is first of all a mystery. "And the secret is not made, cooked - it is not a cheap mystery. It is felt and developed with writing, work." (manwithoutqualities.com)
The same could be said of humour in Percy's novels. It comes not out of the need to entertain a reader but out of the absurd problem with belief. Both Handke and Percy are very concerned with this problem of belief but while Handke makes it a question of language, insisting that words are there chiefly to serve great literature, "language exists to become language in the great books." (New York Times), Percy plays up the absurdity behind the Kierkergaardian and links it to the American tradition of humorous prose. Handke is Percy's ideal translator from one point of view; perhaps not from another - but knowing Handke's interest in Percy, and knowing of Percy's interest in Handke, isn't unilluminating.
Percy's sense of humour, however, appears linked to his interest in generalization. When Percy says "as it sometimes happens between two young men, a kind of daredevil bargain was struck in which the very outrageousness of a request is itself ground for obeying" (The Last Gentleman) we read in the claim a truth that is partial rather than absolute. One of the things that humour can offer is partiality: the idea that a truth has been expressed but we needn't universalise it as a principle but instead often see it as a provocation. If someone says people from working class backgrounds lack the natural inclination for study of their middle-class counterparts, it is a generalisation that serves prejudice. But if someone were to claim as Oscar Wilde does that "work is the curse of the drinking classes", the humour forces upon us a rethink rather than confirmation of a thought. Much of Percy's work insists on the humorous generalisation, asking us to rethink presuppositions. It is partly why his work is interested in the notion of polls, surveys and stats, which he then insists turning around or reading tentatively. It is there in his remarks about 98 percent of Americans believing in God, but it is also often there in Lost in the Cosmos. "During the week following Pearl Harbour, the incidence of suicide declined dramatically across the nation. Was this decline a consequence of..." as he offers the reader a choice over a rise in patriotism or a new sense of interest in something happening." Elsewhere in Lost in the Cosmos he notes, "a recent survey disclosed that the symptom of depression outnumbered all other medical symptoms put together" as he offers a series of numbers on personal despair as impersonal statistic. Percy for all we know could be making the statistics up, but he is making them funny - asking us to take them with a pinch of perspective as he frets over a positivistic world view, one that means everything exists in the general rather than in the particular. It is that place of particularity we believe Percy constantly seeks, evident in a claim made by another philosopher sometimes namechecked by Percy, Jacques Maritain, who notes that "with regard to my subjectivity in act, I am the centre of the world ('the most important person in the world')." (Existence and the Existent) Maritain, an existential Christian, thinker goes on of course to justify such a claim as he notes that worthless as I know myself to be. I am more interesting than all the saints. There is me, and there are all the others. Percy, the philosophically inclined Catholic existential American novelist's work gives an ongoing semi-comic perspective to it.
© Tony McKibbin