Thursday, July 18, 2013

Walker Percy: The Writer as Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers Part 2

In the first part of this blog we summarized the process of Percy's conversion to the Catholic faith. In part two we want to summarize Percy's life after conversion and his role as a "Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers."

After becoming a Catholic Percy would move to Covington, Louisiana where he will spend the rest of his life. Covington is a suburb in New Orleans. I am very familiar this area since it is about twenty minutes from where I attended Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. I even have relatives that live in this area. Nisly says that when Percy settled in Covington in 1948 the city had a population of 6,000 people. Nisly points out how Covington is on the "margins" of the Bible Belt and the Catholic South. Nisly notes, "Covington is strategically located on the border between the Bible Belt and the Creole-French-Italian-German South. The two cultures interpentetrate. Living on the line between Catholic southern Louisiana and the Protestant Bible Belt northern section allows Percy a vantage point from which he observes and critiques both cultures" (147). From Percy,s writings one notices his familiarity with both Protestant and Catholic culture. Actually, two protestant cultures are seen in his writings: Liberal and fundamentalist. Though he disagrees with fundamentalism, he seems to share certain sympathies with them.

Percy's biographer Tolson "argues that Percy specifically decided to write from within a community" (147). Percy did not want to be like other writers who purposely separated themselves from community. Nisly writes, "Thus, despite the fact that Percy wanted and needed to maintain his space so that he could write, he and his family forged significant relationships within the community and the local Catholic church" (147). Percy was both a member of the community but keep enough space to view the culture critically. Nisly notes, "Percy was both engaged in and separate from his larger community; he was both an involved participant and an outside observer and critic" (147). Is this Percy acting in the analyst role?

Percy wrote to Shelby Foote in 1970: "If it weren't for Ann [his daughter] and her attachments here, in fact, I'd be long gone. After twenty-three years here, I am more of an outsider than the first day I arrived" (151). Nisly, however, thinks "Percy's choice of Covington, with its liminal position, models well his own sense of the writer's position--living on the edge, observing those around him, critiqing what is amiss. Because of this stance, Percy saw himself as writing for people in a similar position, readers without a firm home but in need of solid moorings" (151). Maybe, this is why some people argue that Percy never found his answer. Percy's life seem to be faith seeking understanding. The condition of the wayfarer is a prominent theme in the writings of Percy. Even his brother observed in an interview that "The Search" was Percy's constant theme or central theme.

Percy believes the church is a "Pilgrim Church." Percy saw that the Church had survived for over 2,000 years and he believed it would "continue to do so." Percy saw his role as "both committed member and outsider . . . to attack satirically the wrongs he sees inside and outside the Church" (154). One thinks of Erasmus, but also Sir Thomas Moore who is a major character is some of Percy's novels.

Nisly points out that unlike Flannery O' Connor Percy "envisioned a greater affinity between himself and his audience than did O'Connor"(154). According to Brinkmeyer, "Percy seems to have imagined two potential audiences: "an alienated reader who knows he is alienated and an alienated reader who imagines that he is not" (155). This is one of the reasons that Percy uses indirect communication. He also thinks words wear out so Christian vocabulary loses its meaning and effectiveness. Nisly thinks Percy sees his reader "much like himself before his conversion, a reader who is uncertain about the way forward but is unable or unwilling to admit, perhaps even to him or herself, that he or she finds no clear meaning in life" (155). Percy's fiction tends to put the main character in a predicament where he finds a way out. He likes to leave the end of the novel open. Percy seems to be in a conversation with the reader. He wants them to realize their predicament and the need to turn to God. Percy, however, does this through indirect communication. Percy wrote about this very thing in More Conversations with Walker Percy (942):
     My theory of literature and art is that the best transaction that can take place is when the reader or viewer      is told something he doesn't know he knows. The good thing that happens is that the reader has the shock      of recognition. He says, "oh yeah, that's the way it is." It's a curious combination. My medical career has        something to do with it. [...] It was a diagnostic search I made, to find out what had gone wrong, and I          found unconsciously I transferred that mind-set to writing novels and other kinds of writing where there is
     something wrong in the world, something wrong with society, something wrong with the times. [...] What
     makes [writing] really exciting is that I'm exploring the novel for myself as well as the reader. [155]

Nisly thinks Percy's writing became more explicit over time. Nisly notes, "His earlier novels are more intent on connecting with his wayfaring reader and hinting at the way to avoid despair; his later novels more clearly point toward Percy's belief that Christian conversion is the antidote to our culture's rootlessness" (155). This is true to a point. Percy, throughout his writings are pointing to the good news of salvation. On the other hand, his writing is exploratory, exploring different ideas in his writing. It is hard to know if Percy is shooting straight. He probably learned this from Kierkegaard.

The last part of this chapter Nisly describes Percy as "The Writer as Canary." Percy mentions this role in different parts of his writing. The idea is that the mine workers took a canary with them down in the mines. The canary would issue a warning if anything goes wrong and they need to get out of the mine quick. Nisly notes, "Percy describes his role as writer to serve as a canary in a mineshaft, to sound a warning when problems arise" (156). In a letter to Caroline Gordon Percy writes, "Actually I do not consider myself a novelist but a moralist and a propagandist" (156). One must balance this statement with other statements made by Percy. He did see himself as a novelist and what he was doing was art. Percy continues: "What I really want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live" (156). Like the other, this statement must be taken in context with other Percy writing. In other places, he writes that he doesn't want to edify, alluding to Kierkegaard. Nisly notes, "he [Percy] says numerous times that as a novelist, his role is not to 'edify the reader' but rather to participate with the reader in his or her journey" (156).

Percy often noted that his work as a novelist was "informed by his Catholic faith" (156). Nisly states that throughout his career Percy gave different viewpoints on what he was doing in his writing. Percy writes, the "novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn about present ills and so avert the end" (156-157). This seems to be the role of the prophet. Percy thinks the novelist should "explore the darker recesses of the human heart, there to name and affirm the strange admixture of good and evil, the action of the demoniac, the action of grace" (157). Percy also sees himself as a "diagnostician, a person who stands toward another person in the relation of one who knows that something as gone wrong with the other. He, the physician-novelist, has a nose for pathology" (157). It seems that Percy saw himself serving different roles throughout his writing life. Percy thought that "the role of a serious fiction writer in our time is" 'nothing less than an exploration of the options of [...] a man who not only is in Crusoe's predicament, a castaway of sorts, but who is also acutely aware of his predicament" (157). Percy saw his role as pointing out that something has gone wrong and point the way out of this fix.

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