The Catholic novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) first appeared in print writing scholarly essays about the nature of language. However, such essays did not reach a wide audience. Percy believed that he had something important to say and he wanted to reach a wide audience so he turned to writing novels.
After his death Percy’s wife told me that he said, “I have something important to say and I am going to say it.” He said it brilliantly in six novels without slipping into either proselytizing or preaching. Percy’s novels are works of art and whatever their themes or “messages,” those themes and “messages” emerge from the plot and characters. Part of Percy’s extraordinary talent was to convey philosophic and religious truth in his novels and yet never allow his work to become propaganda rather than art.
I know from personal experience that scholarly essays, even very important ones, frequently do not reach wide audiences. As a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University I am expected to write and publish scholarly philosophical essays. I cannot recall people who have read any of those essays ever mentioning any of them to me.
Years ago I had several essays about film published in The New York Times. Just from comments made to me I knew they had reached a much wider audience than any scholarly essay I had ever written. Without denying the importance of scholarly works, I understand why Percy turned to writing novels.
About 20 years ago I started assigning one of Percy’s novels to freshmen classes at St. John’s. I wanted the students to see that philosophy can be present in a novel. The first time I made the assignment I was not certain it was a good idea, but the reaction of the students was so positive that I have continued the practice of assigning a Percy novel every semester. Stories can have a special power to communicate meaning.
One of the best experiences I have had in teaching philosophy at St. John’s University involved the power of story.
I was teaching the philosophy of the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. I had the students read Sartre’s powerful play “No Exit.” I persuaded the dramatic society at the University to put on a production of Sartre’s play. Actually
it is a relatively easy play to produce: one room, three characters, running time less than two hours. Three people
have been condemned to hell and they seem to prefer an eternity of hell rather than bear the burden of freedom in the world. The play contains the most well known statement in 20th century philosophy: “Hell is other people.” After viewing the play with about 30 students from my class, we adjourned to a classroom and over pizza and soda discussed the play. What a great evening it was!
It may be a sign of a great writer when an author’s insights seem to be more important and profound as years pass. This is my experience of reading Percy. In several of his novels Percy depicts his main character as being stuck in what Percy calls the malaise. By the malaise Percy meant living without any sense of ultimate purpose, no sense of transcendence, nothing to be enthusiastic or excited about, sort of surviving rather than living. The pervasiveness of
the malaise might be more widespread today than when Percy wrote. I think the best depiction of a Percy character
stuck in the malaise is Binx Bolling in Percy’s first and best novel, “The Moviegoer” (1960). Here is how Binx describes himself in the opening pages of the novel:
“I manage a small branch office of my uncle’s brokerage firm … I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take
pleasure in doing all that is expected of me. My wallet is full of identity cards, library cards, credit cards. Last year I purchased a flat olive — drab strongbox, very smooth and heavily built with double walls for fi re protection, in which I placed my birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates … It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to receive my
auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink.” (pp. 6-7)
In Binx Bolling’s description of himself, I wonder where the person is. Reading Percy’s novel about Binx’s search to find out who he is, we may be motivated to engage in our own search.
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.