L. Lamar Nisly, "Percy's Edgy Satiric Fiction."
Percy's satire aims at four broad targets: southern Stoicism, Scientism, Modern Culture, and the Church. Percy described his use of satire to Shelby Foote: "Sometimes I think the creative urge comes from malice--a strong desire to attack one's enemies or at least those in the culture one considers to be wrong-headed and injurious--from one's own malice, envy, pride, and capital sins" (160). Percy confesses multiple times in interviews and essays that malice is a major motivation for his writing. He wants to point out what is wrong in modern society to correct it. Nisly notes, "Percy reminds us that is fiction is life-giving, for satire 'attacks one thing to affirm another. It assaults the fake and the phony in the name of the truth. It ridicules the inhuman in order to affirm the human. Satire is always launched in the mode of hope' (161)."
Percy described his writing in a self-interview in 1983:
"I'm always writing on the narrow edge between psychosis and neurosis and the norm. My characters always have something apparently wrong with them and apparently they are living in a normal world. The question is always that delicate balance: Who is crazy and who is not? Who is right? The inkling is that the so-called neurotic or crazy person is on to something that normal people are not" (161). Percy seems to want to wake people from their slumbers. He seeks to do this indirectly through satire. He does this because he believes "that the religious establishment has largely emptied the Christian language of meaning through overuse and abuse of these terms" (162-163).
The targets of Percy's attack are not his ultimate concerns. They are symptoms of larger problems. Percy believes that Stoicism, Scientism, and other beliefs become substitutes for God. Percy notes, "It becomes possible, whether one believes in God, or not, soul or not, to agree that in an age in which the self is not informed by cosmological myths, by totemism, by belief in God--whether the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam--it must necessarily and by reason of its own semiotic nature be informed by something else" (163). I think Percy saying if that we do not believe in God, we create our own gods. Nisly notes, "Because he recognizes that a person must believe in something, even if it is not God, Percy attacks the substitutes for God as a means of directing his readers to God" (163). For example, modern science or more specific, Scientism has become a modern idol, a god. It is believed that it will answer all our questions and if it cannot answer it, then the question is not a valid question.
Percy believes all novelist are concerned with original sin. Percy writes, "Is it too much to say that the novelist, unlike the new theologian, is one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrine of original sin . . . " (163). Percy thinks the novelist is pointing out what is wrong. Percy's ultimate goal is to point people to belief in God. Nisly writes, "Because humans cannot find fulfillment short of God, Percy believes, he satirically exposes, undercuts, and indicts elements of American culture that humans turn to in place of a belief in God" (164). We find this in the Bible itself. There is no need for a savior if sin does not exist. Because human beings are fallen creatures, they need a Savior.
After showing the general theme of Percy's satire, Nisly summarizes the four targets. The first target is southern Stoicism. Percy wrote of southern Stoicism in essays and fictionalize it in his novels. Percy described it as a commitment "to duty, to honor, to generosity to his fellow men and above all to his inferiors--not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself" (164). Percy's Uncle Will would be an example of a southern Stoic. Percy admired southern Stoicism and the commitment to duty, but felt it could not pass muster. He believed it was ultimately spiritually empty.
The second target was Scientism. This is a theme that was close to Percy's heat. It is one that is attacked often in his writings. Percy in early life thought science held all the answers. He later became convinced that this wasn't true. Nisly notes, "Again growing from his own experiences when he expected to have his fundamental questions answered through science, Percy shows the limits of science in providing life's meaning" (164). Percy would assert that like science, art was a form of knowing too. Unlike science, the novelist spoke of the individual. Percy though that science could become a kind of idolatry "when people assume that science can answer the most foundational questions" (164).
A third target of Percy's criticism was the "excesses" in modern society. Percy spoke against the death-culture. He spoke out against abortion and euthanasia. Percy believed we must affirm life. He also spoke against our sex-crazed culture: "Percy is also concerned about the diminishment of the individual that he sees resulting from the sexual revolution" (165). A good example of his satire of this sex-observed culture is in Lost in the Cosmos.
The fourth criticism concerns the failure of the Christian church "to live up to its own best ideals" (165). For example, Percy speaks of the failure of the church to speak against racism. Nisly notes, "Percy laments the 'failure of love' in the churches, particularly to African Americans" (166). Percy also saw the Church as failing "to live up to their [its] potential of serving as a voice of love and hope to an unbelieving world" (166). Tolson speaks in his biography of Percy being disenchanted with the Church because of the disconnect between beliefs and actions.
"If he is a believer [the Southern novelist], he is in a different kind of trouble. He finds himself in bed with the wrong bedfellows. What makes it difficult for him is that they are proclaiming the same good news he believes in, using the same biblical words, speaking of the same treasure buried in a field, then what manner of treasure is it? " (165). Percy doesn't think it matters if the writer is Protestant or Catholic. Percy says both Prostestant and Catholic "is equally unhappy" (165).