Arts and Culture

Philosophical Novelist and Freedom

MY RELATIONSHIP with Catholic novelist Walker Percy has been evolving during the last few years. At the end of a course last semester at St. John’s University, I gave an assignment to students that they had to read one of three novels by Walker Percy and write a reflection on what they read. The essays were quite good and actually led me to admire even more a writer whom I had already admired so much that I had written a book about him.

Many years ago, I read a philosophical essay by Percy in the magazine Commonweal. A few years later, I came upon an ad for a new novel, “The Moviegoer,” his first of six. Recalling the earlier essay, I quickly read the novel and eventually read the next five novels Percy wrote. I had a manuscript that I had written on the author/director Ingmar Bergman, and I wrote to Percy asking him to write a statement about the manuscript that might be placed on the cover once my manuscript appeared as a published book. He responded quickly and encouraged me to send him the manuscript. I did but never heard from him. A few months after he had written to me, Percy died.

I felt as though I had lost a friend. The day after I learned of his death, I offered a Mass for him and a few days later decided to write a book about him. Writing the book led me more deeply into his thought. But now, more than 20 years after the book was published, I feel as though I am seeing more deeply into his thought and appreciating more the contribution he made to American literature.

I have come to believe that his novels are even more important today than they were when he wrote them. At that time, I believed that I understood Percy’s philosophical vision pretty well, but I have come to see what Percy was doing is what I try to do in several philosophy courses at St. John’s: help others to appreciate more deeply the mystery and sacredness of a human person.I once heard someone say that Walker Percy had written one novel six times. I don’t agree, but I think I know why the person said it. The reason the remark was made was that in novel after novel Percy dramatized the obstacles to people achieving a deep freedom that would help them love God and their neighbor. Among the obstacles are consumerism, secular humanism, the sexual revolution and scientism. A typical Percy hero is someone who is searching for meaning. Lost in what Percy refers to as the “malaise,” the feeling that nothing is important, nothing is exciting and challenging, nothing deserves a life commitment, nothing has ultimate value, a Percy hero yearns to commit freely to something or someone who will give his life meaning.

Two philosophers, whose thought greatly influenced Percy, were Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1978). I think that Marcel’s view that one way we find God is through loving another person is at the heart of several Percy novels.

Kierkegaard claimed that every person was living on one of three stages. He called the first the aesthetic, which involved a commitment to sense pleasure with no sense of the transcendent. The second stage, the ethical, which emphasized living morally was better than the aesthetic. The third stage, the religious, involving a leap of faith to God, was the best and the most fulfilling and liberating. It involved risking everything on God’s love. On the third stage a person reaches a new level of freedom. A person who has made the leap of faith has a new relationship with God – the person is called to bear witness. There was a time in my life when I thought bearing witness was not very important. Now I wonder if there is anything more important. We cannot force people to make a leap of faith, but our lives can be powerful signs that a leap of faith can lead to the greatest human fulfillment.

Percy really was a prophet trying to call us above and beyond what was wrong with our society. In novel after novel, Percy brilliantly depicted the mystery and magnificence of the human person and he did it through telling stories. Walker’s wife once told me that Walker said that he thought he had something to say and he was going to say it. I am grateful that he did say it in six excellent novels and helped me, and I suspect countless others, to better appreciate the gift of freedom.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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