Monday, September 9, 2013

Walker Percy's Rhetoric of Time, Apocalypse, and the Modern Predicament

Thomas F. Haddix, "Walker Percy's Rhetoric of Time, Apocalypse, and the Modern Predicament," in Hard Sayings: the Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, 2013, 125-160.

Thomas F. Haddix in  Hard Sayings analyzes the works of Flannery O'Connor, Muriel Spark, John Updike, Walker Percy, Mary Gordon, and Marilynne Robinson. The book is about these writers relationship to "Christian Orthodoxy." This post will focus on what he says in his chapter on Percy.

Haddix says of Percy: "Among avowedly Christian writers of merit in the late twentieth century, Walker Percy is distinguished not only by his novelistic achievement but also by the range and sophistication of his intellectual interests" (125). This is quite true. Percy was an excellent writer and thinker. His knowledge of various subjects was quite immense. He was truly interested in the "truth of things."

Kieran Quinlan writes, " Walker Percy is one of the few contemporary novelists who has made a difference in the lives of many of his readers" (125, n.1). There is much evidence that proves this point. Much of the literature on Walker Percy mentions how Percy made a difference in their lives. Many noted that he pointed them to Christian faith. The interesting thing is Percy is liked by both believers and Non-believers. There is something in his writing that resonates with many people.

Haddix agrees with Lawler in seeing Percy as a postmodern thinker. Haddix notes, "In Percy's view, Enlightenment promises of liberation cannot succeed, because consciousness and language, the very things that most distinguish human beings as species, remain inexplicable if viewed through the frames of positivist science and utilitarian philosophy. Consciousness and facility with linguistic signs are the only things that allow humans to place themselves in the world, yet there very existence is absurd, an unaccountable 'leftover.' Scientists can explain distant phenomena in the universe more fully than they can explain the most mundane daily experiences (Lost 1), and their failure to legitimate experiences as such leads both to a preoccupation with the self and to impoverishment of daily life" (128). In other words, the human being finds himself an alien in the world. He does not fit in the world. because of this he either turns to transcendence or imminence. There is a third option. He can turn to God.

Percy's first rhetorical principle "is to assume that his readers will find their own experiences 'certified' in such a description, no matter who or where in modernity they may be" (128). The Percy reader will see themselves in Percy's description of the modern predicament. They will feel they are alienated, unable to place themselves in the world.

Haddix thinks Percy is successful "in persuading readers that they share a general predicament of boredom and meaningless in the twentieth century (and this particular claim has been seconded by many non-Christian writers) (130). He does not think Percy is as successful in "persuading readers that conversion is the only effective remedy" (130). I have mentioned this is something Percy does indirectly. There is a difference between preaching and writing a novel.

Haddix suggests that some of Percy's readers are unhappy with his lack of "closure" in his novels. Haddix notes, "With the exception of The Second Coming (1980), Percy's novels tend to end with their plots resolved but with their characters left nonetheless in a state ambiguity--in some cases, possibly having converted or on the cusp of a conversion to Christianity (as in The Moviegoer and Lancelot), but without decisive clues that would confirm such a judgement, and with an overarching sense of irony that even had such an event taken place, life goes on (131)." I find this insight quite remarkable. It agrees with Percy's idea that we are wayfarers on earth. We never achieve absolute certainty. We walk by faith, not by sight. This idea would contrast with some Evangelicals who say Jesus is the answer to every problem. Just believe in Christ and all your troubles will go away. What do you do after you believe in Christ? Percy would probable ask, How do you get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?

Haddix continues: "It is understandable that such ambiguity would frustrate both Christian readers who want a clearer affirmation of Christian dogmas and all ordinary readers who seek the pleasures of closure. Yet Percy's endings in fact represent both the predicament he diagnoses and the necessity of accepting temporary change. The only genuine closure in human life is death, and novels traditionally impart their sense of meaning in human life through their selection of an end that retrospectively determines this meaning--either death or something that functions as its structural equivalent, such as marriage" (131). This is an interesting insight since marriage is important in many of Percy's novel. Percy often implies that we come to God through loving others. In many ways, Percy's novels are a search for community as observed by John Desmond.

In addition, "Until the moment of death, the story remains open: even those who have become Christians may fall away, and even the most confirmed atheist may come to believe. The greatest difficulty for Percy's wayfarers is not merely to accept Christianity--or at least the necessity of something like it, since Percy is more explicit about this in some novels than in others--but to continue to live in the ordinary, dreary world after having arrived at this knowledge" (132). This is a great evaluation of Percy's lack of closure. I do not think Percy was completely happy with a lack of closure. It seemed to bother him when readers did not understand what he was doing in the novel. Percy was often caught in the dilemma of producing art and delivering a message. He sought to do both.

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