Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Read Walker Percy Part I

While a graduate student at Southeastern Louisiana University, I heard a person on the radio talk about the writings of Walker Percy. I was vaguely familiar with the fact that Percy had died a few years previously in 1990. He went on to say that he thought that Walker Percy was a moral prophet through his novels. This person on the radio made me want to read the books of Walker Percy. I read first Percy’s The Moviegoer. I became quite interested as I started reading the book because the book took place in New Orleans. An important aspect of the book is the idea of the “search” or the quest. The idea of quest or wayfarer has held my interest for a long time. The idea of a pilgrim on a journey I have found in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Josef Pieper, and the writings of Walker Percy. It is an interesting part of The Moviegoer. I went on to read all the novels of Percy and his non-fiction writings too. I loved the collection of his non-fiction writings in The Signposts in a Strange Land. There is a statement in that book that I especially love and have kept with me: “…  It is not a small thing to turn your back on two thousand years of rational thinking and hard work and science and art and the Judeo-Christian tradition” (Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, 249). 
 Many writers have noted the religious themes explored in Percy's writings. For example, Andrew Smith ("Soteriology According to Walker Percy") noted that “salvation” “is a major theme running through all of Percy’s writings,” even if it is approached in an in-direct way ( 251).  Once Percy turned his back on scientific humanism, his “only nonreligious alternative . . . . Was the stoicism of his uncle Will.” Percy felt that stoicism would not work for him “because he lacked the strength of character, the virtue, that was necessary for upholding of such an ethic” (Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins, 200). Percy turned to Christianity instead. Percy thought the particular “brilliance” of the “Christian anthropology was that it put human corruption and inadequacy at the center of its picture of man, and furthermore, that it taught that recognition of this inadequacy was the first step in hearing the Christian message” (200).
          Walker Percy converted to Catholicism when he was thirty-one years old. He was a scientific humanist before this time. He contracted tuberculosis as an intern at a hospital in New York. This illness kept him from practicing medicine and forced him to spend about three years in two sanatoriums. In the first sanatorium, Percy debated a Catholic man who was very knowledgeable and skillful in apologetics. This challenge motivated Percy to read Augustine, Aquinas and Kierkegaard. Tolson wrote that Percy’s “love for the elegant rationality of the ‘pure’ sciences never ceased, but after medical school, Percy began to doubt that they held all of the answers to life’s questions” (Tolson 39).  Percy believed that science could “account” for the generalizations of man, not for the individual. Percy thought science could account for the science, but not the scientist. Kierkegaard noted that “Hegel knew everything and said everything, except what it is to be born and die” (Dewey 109). Percy came to a similar conclusion about scientific humanism. “This theme of the limitations of science is crucial to understanding Percy, as it is the bedrock of his own thought and a recurring theme throughout his essays” (Smith 254). 
End of Part I. I will add another part later.


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