Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ralph Wood's Critique of Walker Percy

Ralph Wood in his review of Signposts in a Strange Land, provides an overall assessment of the work of Walker Percy. This book is a collection of Walker Percy essays that was published after his death. It is one of my favorite books by Walker Percy.

Wood suggests that excellent minds "think once in their lifetime, but that "great minds think twice." He asserts that most of us do not think at all; we simply "repeat or modify the thoughts of others." I have problem with this definition of great minds. C.S. Lewis said that those who try to be original end up not being original, but those who try to communicate old truths in new ways are truly original. C.S. Lewis did just that and I would argue that Walker Percy did too.

According to Wood, Percy had an  "excellent mind and thought one thought over and again, in six novels, two books of nonfiction and more than two dozen interviews." What was this one original thought? It was "that this most prosperous and progressive of all centuries is the age of a massive spiritual disaster." In other words, Percy diagnosed the disease of modern life. There was something wrong with men and women and modern culture.

Walker Percy did say that his method was to put a person in a situation and see how he worked himself out of this situation. Wood notes that Percy was a "man with a message." This is true. There are two elements in Percy's writings: art and apologetics. These elements are often in tension with one another. I would suggest that he wants to deliver a message, but his novel is also exploratory. This is the aspect of art. He seems to have been successful as both an artist (National Book Award) and an apologist.

Wood argues that Percy critique of modernity is not without fault. The reason for this claim is that he faults modernity for an "obsession with theory;" however, he "seeks a more adequate theory." He asserts that Percy first thought was so great that Percy did not have to think again. This does not seem to be true. Based on interviews with people who knew Percy, he never stopped asking questions and seeking "the truth of things." Woods does say that "Percy had glimpses of a second and gladder revelation--of the Mercy that undoes sin and death, of the Good Tidings that lure us into pilgrimage and wayfaring." In addition, Wood asserts that these last essays by Percy shows him to have thought twice.

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