Friday, September 20, 2013

In Search of Self: Life, Death & Walker Percy

Jerome Taylor, In Search of Self: Life, Death & Walker Percy. Cowley, 1986.

Taylor's In Search of the Self looks at the quest for self-hood through the writings of Percy and Kierkegaard. Percy wrote of this book which was published a few years before his death. Percy writes, "Quite brilliant, both in its unerring dead aim on my characters, but also in his treatment of Kierkegaard. Jay Taylor makes him more accessible than any writer in memory."

Taylor does an excellent job of comparing the works of Kierkegaard and Percy. Kierkegaard is a hard writer to understand, but Taylor makes him understandable. He illustrates many of Kierkegaard's ideas by illustrations from the characters in Percy's novels.

In chapter one Taylor discusses Existentialism and the self. Kierkegaard is considered the father of modern existentialism. He claims that "Percy is a modern-day seer who sees and tells what he sees in contemporary life" (4). He asserts that these things Percy sees Kierkegaard also saw. So it is helpful in comparing the writings of the two authors. Taylor notes, "Kierkegaard and Percy believe that we are in danger of becoming mass men and women" (4). Percy thought the central task in our life is to become an individual.

Taylor describes Kierkegaard's stages of life: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. These stages are prominent in the novels of Percy. These are basically three ways of existing. Taylor explains his thesis: "The essential purpose of this study is to show one perceptive modern novelist's view of what new and recovered life is like, and of what is required of the person if he or she would it. What Percy describes as the final position of the protagonists is certainly what Kierkegaard would have called religious faith or 'selfhood before God,' even though Percy's characters seem not necessarily to have conscious awareness of God" (9).

In chapter two Taylor analyses the ascetic and transcendent sphere in Kierkegaard and Percy's thought. Both emphasize that life is outer-directed instead of inner directed. Kierkegaard helped Percy to see the shortcomings of science.
The flow of the book is that Taylor discusses certain ideas of Kierkegaard and then fleshes these ideas out in Percy's novels in the next chapter. Some of the key ideas from these chapters: The beginning of selfhood begins with personal choice. A true choice is to act for his own self. Accepting despair is a path to the true self. "A human," says Kierkegaard, "is neither a beast nor an angel, but a wayfarer on the move to the only relationship that can enable the individual to live: the relationship to God" (88). Kierkegaard states, "religious existence is a way of living, not a matter of believing the right things" (126). Despair is the link to both the ethical and religious sphere. Despair is the condition that all is not well with oneself. Despair leads to the search. This search is an inner call to find oneself. Kierkegaard thinks that suffering is the primary characteristic of religious existence.

Taylor's Search for the Self is a good read. It shows the similarities of of both Percy and Kierkegaard's thought. It shows how many of Kierkegaard's ideas are fleshed out in Percy's novels.

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