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Archives for December 1990

The Needle’s Eye: Walker Percy’s Conception of Language, Limitation and Sacrament

In partial fulfillment of the degree of Master of Arts in English, University of Washington, December 1990.

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

— Matthew 19:24

To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.

— Walker Percy, Lancelot

Part I
Overview: Percy’s World

In his essay “The Mystery of Language,” Percy quotes Heidegger’s definition of the human self as “that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.”[1] The spatial image touches upon a certain persistent ontology of limitation in Percy’s fiction. Percy’s characters dis­cover freedom only through limitation. Being is named only by providing a clearing for it, establishing its boundaries.

That Percy’s own achieve­ment as a novelist fulfills the Heideggerian edict is an underlying assumption I feel obliged to confess at the outset. The truth of the matter is there is no place I feel more at home than in a Walker Percy novel, any Walker Percy novel. And the mission of what follows will be in large part devoted to a more or less personal effort to try to discover why that is. Why do I feel so at home with Binx Bolling et al, chasing women and God, drinking bourbon and gin, gripped by everydayness and morning terror? Why else but that in the course of any one of his novels Percy some­how manages this rare miracle: he hits upon a name for Being and invites me to join in clear­ing a space for it. [2]

Percy, his protagonist and I form a kind of triple al­liance it would seem, a “three musketeers” of sorts, wield­ing shovels against the excremental pile-up in this “the very century of merde.”[3] What is the merde? It is all that would obfuscate our senses, dim our awareness (of even the merde itself), deprive us of meaning. It is that abstract­ing and devaluing force which would subsume us and turn us into the living dead. Violence and satire — what Percy has spoken of as the element of malice in his writing[4] — thus arise as a necessary means of providing the clearing for that mystery which Heidegger refers to as Being. Lancelot, the most shadowy of Percy’s protago­nists, states the case thus: “Don’t talk to me of love un­til we shovel out the shit.”[5] Shovels in hand, we dig with Percy and his protago­nists. Our secret delight, though, is in the naming and knowing and clearing a space for further revela­tions of the mystery lurking under our very noses.

In Percy’s novels such revelations occur first as small glimmerings of awareness, of seeing, which ultimately blos­som into some larger vision of and participation in reality.

* * *

The world of a Walker Percy novel is not the one we find described in newspaper headlines. The predicament Percy alludes to is not charac­terized by the turbulence, brutality, sinfulness or deprav­ity of the modern world — except insofar as our hunger for the shock of such headlines bespeaks a graver predicament.[6] No, the world of a Walker Percy novel is our own standard stuck-in-the-mud-and-only-dimly-aware-of-our-wheels-spin­ning-ever-more-deeply-into-their-ruts, Wednesday-afternoon-weary world. It is a world of not much account, more paltry than sinful (a point Sutter explicates at some length in his “casebook” in The Last Gentleman), more to be pitied for its mediocrity than con­demned for its evil, more befogged by noxious particles and psychic fallout than delineated by clear sign-posts of truth and action, good and evil. In short, it is a world in de­spair. And the specific character of the despair is, as the Kierkegaardian epigraph to The Moviegoer states, that it is unaware of being despair.[7]

The world Percy posits is also essentially linguistic in nature. It is “a world of signs.” We know the world, not directly as the angels know it, nor strictly mechani­cally as organisms responding to an environment, but indi­rectly and mysteriously as symbol-mongers, laying word and thing side by side and coupling them in the act of language to form what Percy suggests might be termed “concrete con­cepts” or “abstract percepts”[8] — akin to Hopkins’s “inscape.” Most all of the vast and subtle interactions of the universe may be understood in terms of dyadic relation­ships, e.g. “particles hitting particles, chemical reac­tions, energy exchanges, gravity attractions between masses, field forces.”[9] At a more complex level “the interactions of organisms with each other, whether sexual, combative, or predatory, could be similarly understood.”[10] The coupling of word and thing, however, can only be understood with ref­erence to a triadic framework. According to this scheme, the terms of which derive from Charles Peirce and Ferdinand de Saus­sure, the signifier is not a stimulus which sends the hearer looking for the signified — as, for example, my neighbor’s dog goes hunting for his favorite tennis ball when the word ball is spoken. Rather the three elements — name, named and namer — form an irreducible triangle whereby not a chain reaction but a coupling of name and named occurs, and meaning arises.[11]

Percy’s favorite emblem for the wondrousness of the language event is Helen Keller at the well-house. In her autobiography Helen tells of having learned to make the signs for cake or doll when she wanted these things. She was at this early stage, Percy points out, responding as a creature in an environment. Then came the breakthrough. Helen felt the water rushing over her hand, felt the teacher spelling the word water in her other hand and suddenly made the connection: “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant that wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand…. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.”[12] What Helen found at the well-house was noth­ing less than the world of signs, the human community. What Percy found there was a startling paradigm or touchstone for both the individual process of language-acquisition which occurs in most two-year-old humans and the collective pro­cess by which “man became man by breaking into the daylight of language.”[13]

The world of the novels, however, is one in which the linguistic daylight has grown depressingly dim. Words have been deprived of their meaning, says Father Smith in The Thanatos Syndrome. And it is precisely this deprivation which lies at the heart of the plague of unawareness and malaise constantly threatening to infect Percy’s protago­nists. Things have long since ceased to quiver with the life bestowed by language. The world is cut off from the self who finds himself (or herself, as in the case of Allison Huger in The Second Coming, the nearest Percy came to creating a full-fledged female protagonist) in the world but painfully separated from it as a kind of Banquo at the feast.[14] Hardly better off are these alienated misfits than was Helen before her discovery at the well-house.

In thus portraying our alienation, as I think Percy of­ten succeeds poignantly and genuinely in doing — in the mere portrayal — already something like a renewal of Helen’s breakthrough begins to occur. The sore spot is lo­cated, touched, named. A reversal occurs. In his essay, “The Man on the Train,” Percy cites Kafka’s Joseph K. as a primary example of this reversal of alienation through its portrayal. Kafka simply affirms “alienation for what it is and as the supreme intersubjective achievement of art set[s] forth the truth of it: how it stands for both of us…. pointing at and naming alienation has already reversed it, healing the very wound it re-presents.”[15] Percy’s artistic strategy falls largely into such a Kafkaesque vein. Yet, unlike the case of Joseph K. whose only glimpse of hope comes as an ambiguous hand beckoning from an ambiguous win­dow shortly before he is murdered, Percy’s protagonists themselves partake of the reversal. In one way or another, by fits and starts, Percy’s protagonists “come to them­selves,” begin to see their predicament and catch a glimpse of that mysterious life which Helen discovered at the well-house.

As William Dowie points out, these glimpses form the basis of a kind of concrete or sensual substructure of Percy’s novels. “All of Percy’s protagonists,” says Dowie, “become watchers, wanderers, listeners — thus open­ing them­selves primarily to the sensual experiences of things around them.”[16] While this is a valid observation, it is also im­portant to note the manner in which the protagonists watch and listen and wander. They open themselves, yes, but this opening comes only as part and parcel of a simultaneous set­ting of boundaries, marking of zones, accepting of limita­tions. Binx Bolling wakes up one morning, not just in the ordinary sense, but in the more radical sense of recovering the vitality of things newly named. Making a frame with forefinger and thumb, he discovers he can actually see the little pile of belongings emptied from his pockets the night before. Will Barrett similarly discovers that the bricks of city buildings ordinarily lost to him are made available when delimited and encapsulated in the lens of his $18,000 German telescope. Lancelot Lamar claims that the narrower the view, the more you can see, and Tom More looks out upon the ruins through the narrow turrets of his allergy-swollen face. All of these awakenings to the sensual and the con­crete are attended with a concurrent parcelling out of space — not a broadening but a narrowing of horizons; or, perhaps more accurately, a narrowing of horizons through which a broadening and a blossoming out occurs — much as Helen’s experience narrowed down to that one word, water, only to flourish outward like a fountain to encompass every object she subsequently encountered — as, in a similar fashion in The Second Coming, Allison insists she must go down to her Sirius dwarf-star self before she can hope to blossom out into her genuine self and live an ordinary life. Life is made manageable by capturing a small segment of it and pro­viding for it a clearing.

But there remains a problematic pressure exerted by the world outside of these small clearings. In one of his long footnotes in Lost in the Cosmos, Percy dismisses decon­structionism as a “whimsical stepchild” of French struc­turalism.[17] Nevertheless, as evinced in Patrick Samway’s provocative essay on the centrality of the “purloined let­ter” in Lancelot, deconstructionist concepts may provide a useful way of approaching Percy’s narrative strategy — es­pecially with regard to the constant framing and delimiting in which I am suggesting Percy’s protago­nists, and Percy himself as author, are en­gaged. “In a Derridian mode,” ac­cording to Samway, “Percy’s ways of fram­ing help us see the artistry before us, knowing, as we do, that any framing de­vice will be partial and never satisfac­tory insofar as one referent opens out and generates other referents and sys­tems.”[18]

Where Derrida “wants to avoid making the signifier the signified,” however, Percy sees a coupling and an integrated inscape. For Derrida, a frame “delineates both the within and the without, and thus can set up contradictions.” Percy is concerned with the potential for contradictory shifts of signification only insofar as such shifts take on an exis­tential character indicative of an existential predicament. Ultimately, it seems, Derrida sees the duplicitous character of language as its own indictment. Language is illusory. There is finally no meaning at all because all meaning con­tains its own contradiction. Percy, on the other hand, views the situation in light of radically different assump­tions. The struggle with shifting signifiers is part and parcel of the struggle of the human self with freedom and limitation. It is the struggle of Adam and Eve with the temptation to become like gods, to transcend the concrete world of fixed names and attain a view of reality in terms of abstract dichotomies such as “the knowledge of good and evil.”

In the Genesis story, God brings every creature to Adam to be named; then Eve is created and all is well: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”[19] To name one’s world, and to accept a name one­self, is to accept the limitation of designation and experi­ence the mysterious “inscape” of things as Helen Keller re­turning from the well-house. Striving to deny or escape such limitations, the Genesis story as well as Percy’s own narratives seem to suggest, brings on disorien­tation, con­tradiction, alienation and shame. Thus at the heart of Percy’s semiotic and fictional concerns is an awareness of linguistic duplicity and Derrida’s problematic “play of dif­ferences.” Yet this problematic situation is “informed by a certain belief about man’s nature and des­tiny,”[20] that is, the doctrine of original sin and the possi­bility of redemp­tion.

The play of differences faced by Percy’s characters as­sumes the nature of a sundering force driving them away from edenic awareness and self-complacency into a dead-end realm of inflated possibility. According to Binx, Mercer seems to “dissolve” when he fails to see himself as either faithful retainer or expert on current events and instead seeks guid­ance from a Rosicrucian pamphlet entitled How to Harness Your Secret Powers.[21] Lancelot Lamar sees the present as a tape head: “There is too much feeding into the tape head — the new tape is too empty — too many possibilities — but the recorded tape is too full.”[22] When Will Barrett arrives in New Mexico it seems to him that “what a man can be the next minute bears no relation to what he is or what he was the minute before.”[23] Twenty years later Allison sees her­self as the giant red star Betelgeuse “trying to expand and fan out and take in and please the whole universe.”[24] In Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome Tom More is caught up in a struggle to locate the center that has not held in a world polarized and dehumanized in its extremes of what he calls “angelism-bestialism.” Each of these cases indicates a struggle with freedom and limitation, a struggle with naming and accepting a name. The human self is hemmed in, by the beasts on one side and by the gods on the other. In his novelistic worlds, Percy explores and sometimes bru­tally satirizes the ways we seek, as Adam and Eve of old, to escape this condition; the spiritual anomie and despair that results, and the signs of hope that mysteriously arise (and here is where the satire often blends into a comedy of grace) offering to reawaken us to life.

What these signs, appearing amid the general squalor, these small framings of reality and gleamings of awareness, ultimately point toward is perhaps the most Catholic aspect of Percy’s fiction; that is, his sense of the sacramental. In this respect Percy acknowledges a debt to the Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

And this is a much more, I guess, consciously Catholic attitude [in contrast to the Kierkegaar­dian vein in Percy’s writing] toward nature — na­ture, created nature, as a sacramental kind of exis­tence. Hop­kins made a great thing in poetry of being able to look at a cloud or a leaf or even a piece of rock and see in it what he called a cer­tain “inscape,” and thinking always that if your gaze was suffi­ciently fresh and if you could see it sufficiently clearly, you would see it as an act of existence, a gratuitous act of existence which was evidence of God’s existence. [25]

Percy’s protagonists may not go so far as to see evidence of God’s existence in nature (except in the irony, as Binx says, that all evidence however convincing cannot alter our “invincible apathy”). Yet they are onto something. And that something is, as one explanation of the catechism states it, part of “the pattern of God dealing with man ac­cording to his nature”[26] — man’s nature being not that of a beast or an angel but rather a complex mixture of the two, a muddled symbol-monger and fallen sojourner, fitful amnesiac and exile of Eden.

The loss of meaning and awareness, the inflation of the self and anarchy of the soul which characterize the world of a Walker Percy novel have not of course left God’s sacra­mental pattern nor Christendom itself unafflicted. “The old words of grace,” says Percy, “are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.”[27] A second fall seems to have oc­curred, a restructuring of the human consciousness “which does not presently allow [the self] to take account of the Good News.”[28] Accordingly, Percy, “having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having inherited a defunct vo­cabulary,”[29] sees it as his task not merely to clear such small spaces as can be cleared for the renewed apprehension of Being — Heidegger’s somewhat vague term won’t quite suf­fice — but also to at least point or hint at a larger sacramental pattern of God’s dealings with humankind.

How does Percy approach this daunting task? In one of the finest essays on Percy I have encountered, Richard Pindell outlines an answer in terms of style: “Precariously maintaining itself in its cool savvy, its puckish verve, and lyric vigor, undersung withal by the rhetoric of a lost love, the style engages the modern loss by keeping the right desires active and the courageous dis­tinctions unblurred.”[30] Although Pindell refers exclusively to The Moviegoer, I think his comments apply just as well to Percy’s entire pro­duction as a novelist. Percy keeps the right desires ac­tive: the desires of the castaway washed up on a strange new shore, open to each small thing he (or she) may en­counter but especially looking for the message in the bottle containing news from across the sea which might somehow ex­plain and alleviate his predicament. Percy keeps the coura­geous distinctions un­blurred: the distinction between man and beast, the dis­tinction between man and angel, the dis­tinction between life and death-masquerading-as-life. Percy’s style locates us in such a way as to touch our wound and at the very same time touch that pattern, that “thread in the labyrinth,”[31] of God acting sacramentally in history — through the Jews, through the incarnation and crucifix­ion, and through the Church — to heal our wounds and wake us up and carry us through the nar­row way and the needle’s eye.


1. The Message in the Bottle (hereafter referred to as MB), p. 158. See “Works Cited,” p. 46, for specific editions. In Part I of this essay, I am using footnotes ex­clusively. In Part II, the references to The Moviegoer and Lancelot appear parenthetically within the text.

2. Cf. Percy’s use of this expression in “The Man on the Train,” MB, p. 83.

3. The Moviegoer, p. 228.

4. See “Questions They Never Asked Me, So He Asked Them Himself,” Conversations With Walker Percy, p. 170 (also reprinted in Critical Essays on Walker Percy).

5. Lancelot, p. 179.

6. Ibid. p. 292.

7. Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, p. 178.

8. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 102. See also “Metaphor as Mistake,” MB, p. 82: “We know, not as the angels know and not as dogs know but as men, who must know one thing through the mirror of another.”

9. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 85.

10. Ibid., p. 88.

11. The problem of solipsism is answered here by the fact that a namer implies a co-namer, that language is social in nature: “you have to point to an apple and name it for me before I know there is such a thing — and the existence of a world of apples outside ourselves.” Lost in the Cosmos, p. 102n.

12. “The Delta Factor,” MB, pp. 34-5.

13. Ibid., p. 45.

14. The figure of Banquo at the feast is an example of what one might call Percy’s personal ty­pology. Another that comes to mind is that of Crusoe stumbling upon the footprint in the sand. Percy appropriates these images from Shakespeare and Defoe and makes of them fitting emblems for the states of being and intersubjectivity he is describing.

15. MB, p. 97. See also, Lost in the Cosmos, pp. 120-22, on the tran­sience of this reversal.

16. “Walker Percy, Sensualist Thinker,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 160.

17. Lost in the Cosmos, p. 87. As for structuralism, Percy accuses certain of its proponents — namely, Levi Strauss and Michael Foucault — of denying, “on what seem to be ideological grounds, the very concept of the human sub­ject.”

18. Patrick Samway, S.J., “Another Case of the Purloined Letter (in Walker Percy’s Lancelot),” New Orleans Review, 16:4 (Winter, 1989), p. 44. Subsequent quotations referring to Derrida in this and the following paragraph are also from Samway.

19. Genesis 2:25 (King James Version).

20. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 111.

21. The Moviegoer, p. 24.

22. Lancelot, p. 108.

23. The Last Gentleman, p. 356.

24. The Second Coming, p. 93.

25. “Walker Percy Talks About Kierkegaard: An Annotated Interview,” Conversations With Walker Percy, p. 124.

26. John Gilland Brunini, Whereon to Stand, p. 165.

27. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 116.

28. Ibid., p. 113.

29. Ibid., p. 118.

30. “Basking in the Eye of the Storm: The Esthetics of Loss in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 113.

31. Love in the Ruins, p. 254.

Part II
The Moviegoer and Lancelot

In his early study of Percy, Martin Luschei points out the danger inherent in the critic’s task of making explicit what the novelist, especially one whose method is as essen­tially “phenomenological” as Percy’s, has left implicit: “To describe these realities explicitly, even where that is possi­ble, would be to fall into abstraction and lose the live re­ality.”[1] Here I will consider two of Percy’s novels, with the intention that by mirror­ing one work in the light of the other some insight will emerge that would otherwise be lost to abstraction. Implicit in my present strategy is a view of a larger pat­tern according to which Percy’s entire literary enterprise may be under­stood.[2]

Percy’s last two novels, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome, are quite deliberate textual extensions and ontological revisitations of their respective progeni­tors, The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins. The pattern thus established puts one in mind not only of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition, but also of Percy’s epistemological emphasis on language as the coupling of disparate elements such as word and thing, subject and predicate. Percy’s conception of language as the knowing which arises when we place one thing alongside another seems in fact to apply to his oeuvre as a whole: the last three novels form a kind of predicate which answers to the subject established in the first three. In this sense Percy fits his own description of the contemporary novelist’s concern with “sequelae”: “What happens to Dodsworth after he lives happily ever after in Capri? What happens to the thousand Midwesterners who settle on the Riviera? What happens to the Okie who suc­ceeds in Pomona and now spends his time watching Art Linkletter? Is all well with them or are they in deeper trouble than they were on Main Street and in the dust bowl?”[3] Percy keeps going back. He continues to ques­tion, not only the assumptions of the culture which would set a thousand Midwesterners down on the Riviera, but also his own assumptions which would lead the novelist to set Will Barrett down in a Buick dealership in Georgia or set Tom More down on his new Sears Best with his new wife to twine about each other as the ivy twineth. Percy continues to ask: “What happens after?” Years pass and the sequelae follow.

The Moviegoer and Lancelot, though they do not form a direct sequence, share striking features which suggest the tendency toward sequelae which the Will Bar­rett and Tom More novels exhibit more explicitly. The figure of Lancelot Lamar could not really be said to be an exploration of the aftermath of Binx Bolling’s fate in The Moviegoer. Instead, Lance represents an exacerbation of certain person­ality traits which by the end of The Moviegoer Binx seems to have abandoned. The Second Coming addresses what happened after The Last Gentleman; in relation to The Moviegoer, how­ever, Lancelot addresses what would have hap­pened. What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who did not abandon his despairing “Little Way” and in fact lived that way for years reading Raymond Chandler novels and watching the news every hour? What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who actually married one of his Marcias or Lindas or Sharons? What would have happened to a Binx Bolling who took to heart his aunt’s grim stoicism? And what manner of quest would have ensued had this Binx been startled into awareness, not by a mortar shell in Korea, but by a wife’s infidelity in Louisiana? In this way Lancelot Lamar’s madness may be viewed as a kind of sequela to Binx Bolling’s moviegoing.

To a greater extent than Percy’s other protagonists, Binx and Lance share a certain monkish solitude and irony-laden separateness from the community. Binx’s basement room in Gentilly and Lance’s “pigeonnier” at Belle Isle (or, later, his cell at the Center for Aberrant Behavior) are places of exile, snug habitations where the pain of loss, as Binx describes it, may be felt less acutely. “The world is lost to you,” Binx tells us, “the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost” (120). Yet one may take measures to cope with this loss. Binx and Lance do so by enclosing themselves in their snug cocoons, by simpli­fying and narrowing and performing modest daily ritu­als against the dissipating and abstracting onslaught of in­formation, facts, theories, slogans and advertisements. Like the worldly man of faith Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio describes in Fear and Trembling, Binx and Lance might be mistaken for average citizens, at home in their roles as stockbroker and lawyer, useful members of the com­munity. Behind their disguises, however, these two southern gentlemen are holding on for dear life. They are ghostly but watchful ex­iles, ever on the alert for an opening whereby they may en­ter the concrete world of the here-and-now. They are in stable but critical condition. Binx refers to this precari­ous stabilization as the Little Way: “not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh” (135-6).

The time existing before the present tense of The Moviegoer is, as Binx occasionally recounts it, made up largely of the failed attempts at “the big search,” failed efforts on Binx’s part to fit himself into the world in the manner of his forbears. As embodied in Aunt Emily, these forms of conduct are part and parcel of a kind of overarch­ing Southern-aristocratic-gnostic-stoicism. Included under this rubric, is the two-fold variation of it which Binx later says killed his father: science and romanti­cism [4]. Binx tries to accept these forms of conduct as his inheri­tance, but finally cannot abide in them.

The pursuit of science Binx describes as his “vertical search,” wherein he read “fundamental books” and “stood out­side the universe and sought to understand it” (70). When he had come to what seemed the end of this enterprise, how­ever, he found that although everything in the universe had been explained or was in theory explainable, he himself was left over [5]. Similarly, when Binx was to spend one summer engaged in a scientific inquiry into “the role of acid-base balance in the formation of renal calculi,” he found that “the mystery of summer afternoons” was of more vital concern to him than the outcome of the experiment. He left the pro­ject in the hands of his lab-partner, Harry Stern, who was content to hide his ghostliness in a lab coat: “absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time and place … no more aware of the mystery which surround[ed] him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in” (52). Binx seeks, not knowledge per se, but awareness. Like the amne­siac in the movie mentioned in the novel’s opening pages, Binx has a vague recollection of an accident, a clouded awareness of something having gone wrong in the world; the untempered at­titude of scientific objectivity, Binx discovers, only wors­ens the amnesia.

“Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is a left-over from his own science?” Binx asks (88). Further examples from his past seem to suggest such a dialectic at work. Binx’s excursions into romanticism oc­cur after he returns from the war in Korea. First, he joins Walter Wade [6] and other comrades on a houseboat to drink fine liquor, eat duck Rochambeau and play cards all day and night. Later Binx sets out with a couple of fellows on what his aunt would call a “Wanderjahr”: hiking along the Appalachian trail, sleeping under the stars and spieling “about women and poetry and Eastern religion in pretty good style” (41). These attempts to deal with the left-over self, however, aim too high. Binx feels “the stretch of the old tightrope, the necessity of living up to the friendship of friendships, cultivating an intimacy beyond words” (40). The effort is too distracting and only exacerbates the pain of loss.
Both of these extremes, the science and the romance, abstract from and thereby exclude the ordinary mystery and wonder of human existence in the concrete here-and-now of Wednesday afternoon. The essence of Binx’s Little Way, his “secret existence among the happy shades in Elysian Fields” (99), is wonder [7]. It is a valiant struggle to re­main open, in the face of manifest distraction and malaise, to Helen Keller’s well-house wonder. Binx orga­nizes his life around this principle. He spends all his time “working, making money, going to movies and seeking the com­pany of women” (41) because these activities do not dis­tract from the wonder — they may not enhance the wonder ei­ther, but at least they do not distract from it — “and not for five minutes will [Binx] be distracted from the wonder” (42).

The possibility of wonder, even in the depths of the malaise, carries with it the tenuous hope of a recovery, a cure for the pain of loss. People often ask Binx “what is wrong in the world and also what [he does] in Gentilly” (39). The answer to the latter is intimately related to the former. Romanti­cism and science, 19th- and 20th-century variations on old Adam’s sin, have left the world “dead, dead, dead” (102); dead to the wonder and mystery of ordi­nary life which per­haps holds the secret of something more. Binx therefore resolutely maintains his Little Way, shielded and secure, if not by the faith which 98% of the population claim to pos­sess (14), at least by a sincere (albeit ironi­cal [8]) instinct for wonder [9].

Lancelot Lamar’s exile figures as a more desperate one. The previous decade had been spent working for equal rights: “The blacks after all were right, the whites were wrong, and it was a pleasure to tell them so. I became unpopular. There are worse things than being disliked: it keeps one alive and alert” (59). During the following years, however, after his first wife died and he married his second wife, Margot, Lance underwent what he describes as “a grad­ual, ever so gradual, slipping away of [his] life into a kind of dream state in which finally [he] could not be sure that anything was happening at all” (57). Margot had re­stored the pigeonnier at Belle Isle and converted it into a study, complete with “plantation desk and chair made by slave arti­sans,” for Lance to inhabit in her vision of him as a type of Jefferson Davis writing his memoirs. There was one prob­lem, however. Lance “had no memoirs. There was nothing to remember” (18).
Like Binx, who uses movies, women and money to cheer himself up in his exile, Lance has his panaceas. The “joy of falling in love” (122) with Margot has given way to “the bottle — a different love story” (119). Instead of writing his memoirs, Lance sits in his pigeonnier and drinks, lis­tens to Beethoven, reads Raymond Chandler novels. In fact, reading one such novel for the fourth or fifth time was, Lance says, the one strand keeping him from the pit of des­peration: “it didn’t just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life” (24). Perhaps the image of “Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking alone” (25) represented and in some measure reversed Lance’s alienation. Or perhaps, as Percy says of the man who has fin­ished his twentieth Perry Mason novel, Lance was “that much nearer total despair than when he started” [11]. At any rate, Lance’s exile in the pigeonnier has deteriorated into a more criti­cal state than Binx’s basement displacement.

Binx and Lance are both waiters and watchers, but Lance’s watchfulness is a degenerated sequela to Binx’s in that it has become rigid and abstracted. When Binx “hardens” himself against his Aunt’s music “which once united [them] in a special bond” (47), it is precisely be­cause he is suspicious of the romantic abstraction charac­teristic of such emotions. Lance, on the other hand, has hardened himself into abstraction: “For years, I realized, I had lived in a state of comfort and abstraction, waiting for the ten o’clock news, and had not allowed myself to feel anything” (66). The evening news, which “one watched as one watches a lewd act come to climax” (72), provides Lance with the same keen expectancy and “worm of interest” which had first possessed him when, as a child, he discovered his fa­ther’s dishonorable money-dealings (42). The pattern es­tablished by this event continues with the death of Lance’s first wife which “seemed simply curious” (84), and the dis­covery of Margot’s infidelity which Lance describes as an “interesting horror” (32). Lance decries the present as “the age of interest” (138) and concludes “that the only emotion people feel nowadays is interest or the lack of it” (21). In his pigeonnier exile, however, he has outdone the age in veritably making of the interesting, as Binx Bolling makes of the wonderful, an organizing principle for his ex­istence:

I had actually made a path. My life had fallen into such a rut that it was possible to set one’s watch (Suellen told me this) when I walked out the front door at night. It must be two minutes to ten because he likes to get there [to the pigeon­nier] just in time to turn on the ten o’clock news. News of what? What did I expect to happen? What did I want to happen? (52)

The foreboding vigilance with which Lance watches the evening news echoes Binx’s insomnia, the “dizzy dutiful alertness” (189) which calls Binx from sleep: “Not so fast now. Suppose you should go to sleep and it should happen. What then?” (84) Yet there is a subtle but crucial differ­ence in orientation.

Binx watches from his basement, which Luschei and oth­ers have pointed out is a Kierkegaardian image describing the “aesthetic” or sensual stage of existence, but which also signifies that he is firmly anchored and, if not caught up in, at least in touch with the fray of human affairs. Citing a sociologist’s report that “a significantly large percentage of solitary moviego­ers are Jews” (89), Binx iden­tifies his exile with that of the Jews, which is to say, it is an exile which longs to re-enter the lost homeland. Passing a Jew on the street for the first time “is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach” (89). Binx’s sense of wonder, though it may in isolation lead to Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic damnation,” is character­ized by a certain humility and humanness, an ac­cepting of limitations and a desire for a sign or message which will help him make sense of his predicament and re­cover what has been lost.

Lance similarly seeks a recovery. The orientation of his pigeonnier vis-a-vis the world, however, forms a note­worthy contrast to that of Binx’s basement. The pigeonnier suggests a kind of cerebral tower from which “even the hor­rors of the age translate into interest” (21), a narrowing and limiting of the self which is accompanied at the same time by the elevated Cartesian ratiocination of the solitary scholar in his tower. The evening news becomes the text through which Lance seeks to “know” the world without par­ticipating in it. Binx, on the other hand, spies on the world from within, rising from his bed at night “to try to fathom the mystery of this suburb at dawn” (86). Lance’s version of the Little Way, then, is one that does not quite rid itself of the disease of abstraction. Even as Lance rebels against the “milksoppery” (179) and “triumphant medi­ocrity” (23) of the present age, his rebellion is in­formed by the very same abstracting spirit which he abhors. Lance’s exile is a repetition of Binx’s, with the difference that “something went wrong” (107). The present-tense frame­work of the novel, in these terms, is therefore a repetition of the repetition — in which Lance, once again exiled in a little room looking down on the world, exhibits the same self-defeating tendency toward abstraction, but this time in relation to Percival’s quiet presence con­stantly calling him back to the actual and the human.

All of this, however, is anterior to the central events that would make up a plot summary of either The Moviegoer or Lancelot. Binx’s habitual worrying wonder and Lance’s chronic apprehensive interest present themselves as two sim­ilar (though essentially divergent) modes of exile whereby the individual existence comes to a point of tension fol­lowed by sudden awareness and expansion — the pattern of Helen at the well-house once again. The “Little Way,” both Binx’s and Lance’s, forms a kind of coming to a head, a gravita­tional concentration of consciousness which suddenly shakes loose, unfurling into the action of the novel like an ex­panding universe. One may also conceive of it according the geome­try of Percy’s semiotic triad: Binx and Lance fo­cus them­selves upon the corner of the triangle where signi­fier and signified join, struggling against the malaise and lethargy which invade even that small corner; then the en­tire dia­gram shifts, revealing the sides of the triangle opening outward to encompass, as Samway says, “other refer­ents and systems” — the sprawling, problematic world.

Binx insists that what he remembers are not moments from his past but the heightened reality of such mo­ments as “the time John Wayne killed three men with a car­bine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man” (7) [13]. Nevertheless, it is the recollection of a very real event from his past which suddenly alters the perspec­tive from his basement window.

But things have suddenly changed. My peaceful ex­istence in Gentilly has been complicated. This morning, for the first time in years, there oc­curred to me the possibility of a search. I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient. I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush…. My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. (10-11)

Notably absent here is the usual adroit movement of merci­less irony, the cold eye which Binx is capable of casting upon anything falsely idealized, whether it be a “larger-than-life” image from the movies or a nostalgic reminiscence from one’s past. The reference to “the search,” in spite of his pervasive sense of irony, is a serious and critical mo­ment. What Binx says of the movies, that they “are onto the search, but they screw it up” (13), applies as well to his own “tidy and inge­nious life in Gentilly” (191). The movies, Binx says, “like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place — but … in two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead” (13). Similarly, Binx’s Little Way — though its virtue is in its response to scientific and romantic abstraction — is in itself a dead end. Hence Binx’s momentary relapse into irony as he continues recount­ing his wartime discovery of the possibility of a search: “Naturally, as soon as I re­covered and got home, I forgot all about it” (11). Now he has remembered, however, and the recollection is not charac­terized by romance or nostalgia — which only blind one to the ordinary and remove one yet fur­ther from the present — but is, instead, marked by a pro­found reawakening to the commonplace and the here-and-now. The scales fall from Binx’s eyes and the search becomes pos­sible.

It is not a memory which jars Lance’s vision loose, but rather a radical revision of memory which suddenly al­ters his perception and heightens his awareness of the pre­sent. The earthshaking event — discovering that his daugh­ter could not actually be his — does not land him on the ground among the dung beetles. It does open up a new world, though, suddenly clearing away the dross of ex­istence like the layers of pigeon droppings Margot had re­moved from the pigeonnier:

How strange it is that a discovery like this, of evil, of a kinsman’s dishonesty, a wife’s infi­delity, can shake you up, knock you out of your rut, be the occasion of a new way of looking at things! In the space of one evening I had made the two most important discoveries of my life. I discov­ered my wife’s infidelity and five hours later I discovered my own life. I saw it and myself clearly for the first time. (51)

This new clarity of vision, moreover, makes it possible for Lance to give up his addictions to news and alcohol and “become watchful, like a man who hears footsteps behind him” (46). He awakens to the concrete world of the present in a strange sort of inversion of Binx’s sudden sense of the ac­tuality and presence of the smallest usually invisible de­tails: dung and dung beetles, the contents of one’s pockets piled on the bureau, one’s own hand. Lance awakens not to the presence of such details, but to their absence: “I lis­tened. There was no sound: no boats on the river, no trucks on the road, not even cicadas. What if I didn’t lis­ten to the news? I didn’t. Nothing happened. I real­ized I had been afraid of silence” (66).

Silence figures here as part of a complex pattern of negation in Lancelot, an undercurrent of nullifica­tion which continually informs Lance’s ravings. His having “nothing to remember” (18) and later “nothing to say” (85), Siobhan’s O blood type (20), the absence of emotions in the present age (21), the “sheer negativity” (81) between Margot’s legs, the sheriff in Merlin’s movie who is both erotic and racist and there­fore “canceled so to speak, half bad half good, back at zero” (115), Merlin’s remark that Dana is “a perfect cipher” (147), the references to words and actions which “do not signify” (105, 115) — all culmi­nate in Lance’s silent watchfulness. He seems to have ar­rived, through the shock of his discovery (which is itself a kind of negation of his paternity), at a place in which Derrida’s “play of differ­ences” has finally brought itself, as Lance says of the sheriff in the movie, back to zero.

Where Binx sees the little pile on his bureau with the vitality of the newly named, Lance sees the raw vitality of negation, of the sweeping away of the old worn out words and things which “do not signify.” Not having explored and re­jected his stoic-romantic heritage in the way Binx had, Lance falls prey to it at this point in the form of what Cleanth Brooks and Lewis Lawson have pointed out is a modern form of gnosticism. Instead of accepting the vitality of limitation which Binx had discovered in the dirt in Korea, Lance, thrown into a darker pit by his discovery of be­trayal, chooses to take the route of “the Gnostic impatience with human limita­tions which can [and does in Lance’s case] con­vert into a hubristic denial of one’s own limitations” [15]. Newly awak­ened to the blank slate of his negated world, Lance reintroduces his own play of differences, his own cos­mic search for the knowledge of good and evil, which he refers to as his quest for “the Unholy Grail” (138) — an inversion, in more ways than one, of Binx’s search.

The search, Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” He goes on to describe his sudden awakening out of everyday­ness as being like that of a castaway washed up on a strange shore. “And what does such a castaway do? Why he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick” (13). For Binx, this means first of all to “listen to people, [to] see how they stick themselves into the world” (233).
Everyone Binx encounters has some “trick” for living, or, more likely, failing to live. Most people, it seems, live a “shadowy and precarious existence” (16) ameliorated only on rare occasions, such as when one encounters a movie star in the flesh or when one’s neighborhood becomes “certified” (63) by appearing in a movie. In these in­stances one’s existence falls within an “aura of heightened reality” (16), a momentary brightening which quickly fades. In the face of this dilemma, this dissolution of the fabric of meaning, people strive after other, often illusory means of certifying or just surviving existence. Nell and Eddie Lovell pull the fabric together “into one bright tex­ture of investments, family projects, lovely old houses, little the­ater readings and such” (18); to immerse them­selves thus solely in hobbies and consumerism, however, is to be “tranquilized in their despair” (86). Mercer, on the other hand, turns to a “volume put out by the Rosicrucians called How to Harness Your Secret Powers” (24). Instead of accept­ing the limitations of his concrete exis­tence, Mercer, suf­fering from a mild case of gnostic hubris, wishes to con­jure a new self out of thin air. He wants a new name, but a “secret” name, which has no connection to the reality of himself as he finds himself on this ordinary Wednesday af­ternoon in Louisiana. Then there are others: Uncle Jules and his “deep dumb convictions” (177); Binx’s mother, who has “settled for the general belittlement of ev­erything” (142); the romantic on the bus, who finds himself under the necessity of “slumping in an acceptable slump, reading an acceptable book on an acceptable bus” (215); the salesman on the bus, who lives his life as a “one-track metaphysician” (217); the cliche-ridden populace of believ­ers transmuted through the airways on the radio show “This I Believe” (109); the writers of rival political journals whose hatred for each other strikes Binx “as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world” (100). Finally there is Aunt Emily, who in her stern stoic recti­tude triumphs over the “going down of the evening land” even as she de­spairs of it.

Binx’s keen observance of the manifest self-deception and trickery by which people live their lives is at first tinged with irony. He listens to and watches the lives and foibles of others as a primarily selfish means of shoring up his Little Way, to avoid “the danger of slipping clean out of space and time” (75). As the Little Way gives way to the search, however, Binx’s ironical exuberance is superseded by more serious concerns:

The search has spoiled the pleasure of my tidy and ingenious life in Gentilly. As late as a week ago, such a phrase as “hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences” would have provoked no more than an ironic tingle or two at the back of my neck. Now it howls through the Ponchitoula Swamp, the very sound and soul of despair. (191)

Binx’s armor of irony begins to wear thin as the manifest trickery by which people make their way in the world is re­vealed in its despair. None of these tricks is good enough for Binx. Even the most astute insight imaginable, by which one could “find the cure of cancer and compose the greatest of all symphonies” (158), would not be good enough. But at the same time Binx begins to catch a glimpse of a more pro­found sort of trick which might indeed be good enough: the “dim dazzling trick of grace” (235) by which God breaks into our mundane lives.

Yet the search falters at the question of God. The search halts before God because “God” does not signify: “The proofs of God’s existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn’t make the slightest difference…. I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head” (145). Even God, especially God, falls prey to ev­erydayness and devaluation, because too much has been said and news of God has become “more commonplace than the Exxon commercial.” Binx’s crippled half-brother, Lonnie, to whom we are introduced when Binx brings Sharon to his mother and step-father’s fishing cabin, is the primary catalyst through whom Binx begins to penetrate the commonplaceness in which God has been lost.

He [Lonnie] is my favorite, to tell the truth. Like me, he is a moviegoer. He will go see any­thing. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his suf­ferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business. (137)

Through a bond of sympathy and affection, Binx at least ten­tatively accepts Lonnie’s terms; subsequently echoing, with specific reference to him­self, this statement concerning the indifference of humankind. It is important to note that Binx’s reflections come when he has woken in the mid­dle of the night to discover that his own little tricks, his “rotations” and “repetitions,” have failed him and left him in the grip of everydayness — because “places get used up by rotatory and repetitive use” (145). Perhaps Binx has been heartened by talking to Lonnie who seems, like the Jews, to be a kind of sign, a footprint in the sand. It seems, moreover, that Lonnie helps draw aside the curtain in Binx’s head; because of his halting speech and simple faith, Lonnie’s “words are not worn out” (162), and he therefore helps expand Binx’s newly discovered ability to see which had prompted the search in the first place. At any rate, Binx turns from his aes­thetic game-playing and vows “not to move a muscle un­til [he] ad­vance[s] another inch in [his] search” (146). Instead of seeking a new rotation with Sharon, Binx tena­ciously holds on, in “a death grip with ev­erydayness” remi­niscent of Jabob’s wrestling match with God. Finally, be­fore going back to sleep, Binx sits up and scrib­bles in his note­book:

Starting point for search:
It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.
Yet it is impossible to rule God out.
The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one’s own invincible apathy — that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.
Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am onto him. (146)This represents a crucial turning point in Binx’s search. Instead of merely placating himself in the aesthetic diver­sions of his Little Way, he is accepting suffering. By cun­ningly enlisting his own indifference in opposition to it­self, Binx is in a very limited but important sense join­ing in Lonnie’s suffer­ing offered “in reparation for men’s in­difference.” He is beginning to invest himself and par­ticipate in the sense of wonder he had heretofore only rev­eled in.

Thus, in the following chapter, Binx turns his atten­tion to Kate Cutrer, his aunt’s step-daughter and the one person, other than Lonnie, with whom he has an emotional at­tachment that is not a mere dalliance of the Little Way. Kate shares Binx’s awareness of despair, but faces it per­haps more squarely — and certainly falls prey to it more radically — than does Binx; she is the one person that is “onto” Binx (in the same way he seems to be “onto” everyone else) and is able to see through and call into question the diversions of Binx’s Little Way: “all your gaiety and good spirits have the same death house qual­ity … I’ve had enough of your death house pranks” (192). At the same time, nevertheless, Kate admits that she needs Binx: “The only time I’m not frightened is when I’m with you” (234). Her ironic but sym­pathetic reference to him as “the unmoved mover” (197) and her dependence on him to help her set lim­its and give order and meaning to her life seem to indicate that Binx is becom­ing for her a kind of sign, a sacramental intimation however faint and tenuous of that reality which is the subject of Binx’s search.

The sacramental quality of the relationship between Binx and Kate is qualified and developed during their train ride to Chicago and the subsequent turmoil of their return to face Aunt Emily. On the train, as Aunt Emily later phrases it, Binx and Kate are “intimate.” With what Kate sees as the failure of everything else, she turns now to plain-old bawdy sex in the manner of the “Tillie the Toiler” comic book one of Aunt Emily’s maids had shown her: “So — when all is said and done, that is the real thing, isn’t it?” (199) This desperate bid for “the real thing,” how­ever, only leads to further desperation:

Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit (for despising is not the worst fate to overtake the flesh), but un­til this moment seen through and canceled, ren­dered null by the cold and fishy eye of the malaise — flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope — quails and fails. (200)

Yet this failure is not irreparable — though, when they re­turn to face the music at Aunt Emily’s the following day, Binx seems irrevocably defeated: “My search has been aban­doned; it is no match for my aunt, her rightness and her de­spair, her de­spairing of me and her despairing of herself” (228). Now it is Binx’s turn to “fall prey to desire” and it is Kate’s turn to rescue him. Her positive assent to his previous marriage proposal now introduces the prospect that flesh poor flesh might indeed be “hallowed by sacrament” in spite of its failure.

The possibility of a sacramental relation­ship between Kate and Binx is underscored at this point by Binx’s sudden realiza­tion, as he sits in Kate’s car and watches a black man in the rear-view mirror, that it is Ash Wednesday. The man’s forehead is “an ambiguous sienna color and pied” (echoing Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”), obscurely suggesting that he has received the penitential ashes:

It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? (235)

The emphasis of the Lenten season in the Catholic Church, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is on the sacrament of penance — “dealing with the restoration of the soul from supernatu­ral death.” It is the mystery of this restoration, of God’s “dim dazzling” invasion of our mundane lives, that Binx’s search has finally come upon. Binx cannot explain the event he has just witnessed, he cannot even be certain of it; he can only experience and affirm it in the manner of Helen Keller experiencing and affirming the quickening of the thing water by the word “water” — hence the closing scene of the novel, an echo of Dostoevsky’s sacramental vi­sion in The Brothers Karamazov. Binx, although he has be­come reti­cent about his search, nevertheless affirms to his young half-siblings the hope of the resurrection, the ulti­mate culmination of God’s sacramental infusion of life and mean­ing into desolate matter and monotonous history.

Lancelot Lamar’s inversion of the search, his “quest for the Unholy Grail,” also figures as an attempt to estab­lish a sacramental union of spirit and matter. Unlike Binx, though, Lance ultimately rules God out of the equation. Lance undertakes in his quest not to affirm God’s incarna­tional union with humanity, but to somehow gain a cognitive appre­hension of such a union through his own effort. In discov­ering Margot’s infidelity, Lance has woken from a state of alcohol-numbed abstraction and disconnection; a way seems to have opened up whereby he may re-enter the concrete world and actually live his life. In Samway’s words, “Lance searches for his own way of making the abstract concrete.” Yet in his Hamletesque brooding and plotting, Lance never really abandons abstraction, never really integrates the ab­stract and the concrete. Instead Lance demonically imposes abstraction upon the concrete world, arriving only at a fur­ther negation of meaning in the act of violence by which he had hoped to find some dark significance: “Violence … is hor­rible not because it is bloody but because it is meaning­less. It does not signify” (105). With the murder of Margot, Jacoby, Dana and Raine, Lance’s via negativa quest for meaning comes to a dead end: “There is no unholy grail just as there was no Holy Grail” (253). In the telling of it, the quest therefore becomes a complicated and elusive double-quest: a reliving of the failed quest for evil, and at the same time the introduction of a new quest, an effort to discover what went wrong (137).

In Lance’s view, an inquiry into “whether there is evil in the world” (139) figures as the only quest appropriate to an age which defines evil Ä- according to a behavioristic model — as sickness or “aberrant behavior,” emptying evil of any meta­physical dimension. The point of departure Lance thus chooses for his quest seems to be rooted in his childhood discovery of his father’s dishonorable business practices. Dishonor, as opposed to honor, “holds a secret” (213). Having discounted God, Lance has reference only to this eth­ical distinction informed by his stoic heritage to provide him with a meta­physical clue. The sacramental di­mension of Lance’s quest is further suggested by his conclu­sion that the locus of “the secret at the heart of dishonor” (213) must reside in human sexuality:

Could it be possible that since the greatest good is to be found in love, so is the greatest evil. Evil, sin, if it exists, must be incommensurate with anything else. Didn’t one of your saints say that the entire universe in all its goodness is not worth the cost of a single sin? Sin is incom­mensurate, right? There is only one kind of be­havior which is incommensurate with anything what­ever, in both its infinite good and its infinite evil. That is sexual behavior. The orgasm is the only earthly infinity. Therefore it is either an infinite good or an infinite evil. (139-40)

Lance is correct in his view that the human self partici­pates in a mystery which is incommensurate with and cannot be explained by materialistic theories. Yet his identifica­tion of the orgasm as “the only earthly infinity” is itself a distorted and reductive attempt on Lance’s part to catego­rize that which he has already said “belongs to no category at all, is unspeakable” (16). As John Desmond has pointed out, Lance contradicts himself in, once having admitted an irreducible mystery, proceeding to “collapse metaphysical mystery into empirical categories.” Epistemologically, Lance is thus beset by a typical Gnostic dilemma. He in­stinctively re­jects a purely materialistic categorization of the human self, yet he also abhors the possibility that he may partic­ipate in a mystery that is beyond his comprehen­sion. Once again, Desmond’s comments on this point are es­pecially lu­cid: “Thus [Lance’s] frustration is with the very essence of human existence and its limitations. Instead of accept­ing these limitations, he becomes an Ethan Brand and Roger Chillingsworth in modern dress, consumed by a demonic pas­sion to plumb the heart of the mysteries of evil and sexual­ity. But to attempt to penetrate these mys­teries is to ex­ceed human limits, and this results in a per­version of the human and the sexual.”

Like Updike’s irreligious couples, Lance thus makes a mock-sacrament of sex, a kind of idolatrous or mimetic re­placement of the devalued symbols whereby Christianity main­tains God communicates grace to humanity. Lance ironically employs sacramental terminology to describe his earlier sex­ual practices with Margot: “That was my communion, Father — no offense intended, that sweet dark sanctuary guarded by the heavy gold columns of her thighs, the ark of her covenant” (171). Later, on the night of the storm and ex­plosion at Belle Isle, Lance engages in sex with Raine and describes it in terms of metaphysical gnosis: “The Jews called it knowing and now I knew why. Every time I went deeper I knew her better. Soon I would know her secret” (236). Kneeling outside Margot’s door to listen to Margot and Jacoby, Lance describes himself as “an unconsecrated priest hearing an impenitent confession” (238). In these instances Lance opts, in a more maniacal fashion, for the way of Binx and Kate on the train. Flesh is neither hal­lowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit; the only option left therefore is for flesh to serve as an object of wor­ship, gnosis and confession. In short, Lance becomes guilty of idolatry.

As with Binx and Kate, moreover, the burden is too great. In defining sex as the absolute and only earthly in­finity Lance sets in motion a dialectic whereby he careens from idolatrous hedonism to Manichaean rectitude:

I won’t have it. I won’t have it your way or their way. I won’t have it your way with your God-bless-everything-because-it’s-good-only-don’t-but-if-you-do-it’s-not-so-bad. Just say whether a sweet hot cunt is good or not. I won’t have it your way and I won’t have it their way, the new way. A generation stoned and pussy free and de­valued, pricks after pussy, pricks after pricks, pussy after pussy. But most of all pussy after pricks. Christ what a country! (177)

The proposition with which he begins his inquisition of Margot’s infidelity is that sex is either infinite good or infinite evil; any mystery which would blur this either/or proposition is intolerable. Never mind that human nature is fundamentally characterized by such a mysterious and ulti­mately irreducible blurring and blending of elements — of honor and dishonor, nobility and cowardice, spirit and mat­ter, good and evil. Lance criticizes Percival’s “old toler­ant Catholic world-weariness” for blurring distinctions by loving everything (131). Yet one hears in this complaint the echo of a more fundamental epistemological grievance reminiscent of the semanticists who are scandalized by the interpenetration of signifier and signified: “Say whatever you like about a pencil, Korzybski used to say, but never say it is a pencil. The word is not the thing, said Chase; you can’t eat the word oyster.” Lance is similarly scan­dalized by this mysterious blurring and blending and loss of distinction which occurs in the innermost sanctum of human knowledge and on a grander scale is expressed in the sacra­ments of the church as represented by Percival. Therefore, where Binx apparently opts for flesh hallowed by sacrament, Lance chooses to despise flesh — he chooses to keep the thing separate from the word by reviling the thing. His en­tire monologue is in fact an exercise in the isolation of words.

Counterpoised against Lance’s torrent of words is Percival’s silent presence. In Percival, Lancelot is once again confronted with the silence he had feared and had sought to evade by watching the news and reading Raymond Chandler novels. Percival’s silence serves finally to con­summate and alter the pattern of negation in the novel. It is a silence framed by Percival’s increasingly sacerdotal presence; thereby silence itself becomes a persistent commu­nication of the existential mystery and sacramental vision which so scandalizes Lance and which he seeks to evade through his reductive rav­ing. In spite of Lance’s at times arrogant resistance of Percival, moreover, there nev­ertheless arises a bond of sym­pathy within the context of Percival’s silence:

I don’t know why I want to talk to you or what I need to tell you or need to hear from you. There is something … about that night … I discovered something. It’s strange: I have to tell you in order to know what I already know. I talk, you don’t. Perhaps you know even better than I that too much has been said already. Perhaps I talk to you because of your silence. Your silence is the only conversation I can listen to. (85, Percy’s ellipses)

… something went wrong. I am glad you are sim­ply listening, looking at me and saying nothing. Because I was afraid you might suggest either that I had done nothing wrong — like the psychologist here: no matter what I tell him, even if I break wind, he gives me the same quick congratulatory look — either that I had done nothing wrong or that I had “sinned” — and I don’t know which is worse. Because it isn’t that. I don’t know what that means. (107-8)

Lance maintains an attitude of abstraction which finally culminates in the “feeling of numbness and coldness” (253) which had overcome him as he cut Jacoby’s throat and which persists now at the end of his monologue. By remaining silent, Percival meets Lance in that vacant space created by the explosion at Belle Isle. In suspending judgement, Percival allows Lance space to name his own being, to come to terms with his limited and flawed yet sacred nature, and to receive grace if he should choose to accept it. Whether Lance will accept it is doubtful; but there are signs that, for all his ranting and raving, Lance has listened atten­tively to Percival’s silence and will now perhaps listen to Percival’s words.

Precisely what Percival the priest will say is a burden Percy the novelist consigns to the reader’s imagination. As in the case of The Moviegoer — as in the case of all of Percy’s novels, for that matter — Percy thereby aligns the reader with a consciousness that does not pontificate any simplistic answers, but indirectly and tentatively manages to affirm and convey a sense of mystery and life. Lance’s vow that he will “no longer tolerate Sodom” (255) and Binx’s rejection of the “shithouse of scientific humanism” (228) are violent reactions to the deplorable predicament in which they find themselves. Yet these outbursts against death-in-life merely serve to wipe the slate clean, clear a space and delineate the territory wherein life may reemerge. Through our complex interactions with Binx and Lance, our sympathy and our aversion, Percy finally leaves us where he found Helen Keller: on the verge of a discovery that we must make for ourselves.


1. Martin Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise, p. 74. It is interesting to note in this connection that, since writing his critical study of Percy, Luschei has turned his own efforts largely in the direction of novel writing.

2. Percy suggested this division when, after completing his first three novels, he characterized them as “a gloss on Kierkegaard” and said he would never again write anything like them. As it turned out, of course, he returned quite explicitly to his earlier protagonists, not to continue wor­rying Kierkegaard (though as Martin Luschei points out in his wonderfully parodic, “Confessions of a Huguenot Yankee,” Percy is an avowed Kierkeholic and it is a hard habit to shake) but rather to re­turn, in a very Kierkegaardian way but also in a way that is rooted in Percy’s semiotic episte­mology, to retrace and more deeply explore the established situation. In fact, Percy’s two books on semi­otics, The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos, partake of this same pattern, the latter be­ing a splendid and outra­geously provocative blossom on the philosophic vine estab­lished by the former, not an exploration of new territory so much as a new exploration of old territory. In the Kierkegaardian terminology of “The Man on the Train” and The Moviegoer, Percy’s is more a literature of repetition than of rotation. Though Kierkegaard himself might applaud this (somewhere he says it is a greater achievement to write the same book twice than to write two different books), some of Percy’s critics have taken exception on this point. One not entirely unsympathetic re­viewer, for ex­ample, did Binx Bolling one better and called Percy’s corpus of fiction an exercise in “everynovelness.”

3. “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 103. Percy’s use of the term “sequela,” with its medical connotations, underscores his conception of novel-writing as a diagnostic enterprise and harks back to his training as a physician. See Percy’s es­say “The Diagnostic Novel: On the Uses of Modern Fic­tion,” Harper’s Magazine, 272 (June 1986), 39-45.

4. See Lewis A. Lawson, “English romanticism … and 1930 science in The Moviegoer,” Following Percy, pp. 123-137. Lawson identifies both science and romanticism as modernized ver­sions of Platonic idealism and relates them to Binx’s moviegoing tendencies.

5. As has been widely noted, Percy is here echoing Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s philosophic system, i.e., that it explained everything except Hegel himself.

6. The name suggests “wading” in narcissistic shallows as opposed to Kierkegaard’s image of faith: swimming out across “the seventy thousand fathoms deep.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 256.

7. Later on in the novel, as if to make clear the dis­tinction between the nature of Binx’s aes­thetic pilgrimage and that of romanticism, Binx encounters a romantic young lad on the bus whom he de­scribes as “a moviegoer, though of course he does not go to movies” (216). The ro­mantic is so ab­stracted that there is no correlation between his actions in reality and his self-conceived image.

8. Binx considers irony, which he also refers to as a nose “for every species of shit that flies” (228), to be the one positive aptitude inherited from his father — whose eyes in the picture on Aunt Emily’s mantel, Binx has often noted, are “beyond a doubt … ironical” (25).

9. For further discussion and debate centering on the theme of wonder in The Moviegoer, see J. Donald Crowley’s remarkable cataloging of Percy criticism in his introduction to Critical Essays on Walker Percy, pp. 14 and 31n.

10. Lance’s “little cell” echoes his earlier placement in the pigeonnier. Once again he insists that there is nothing worth remembering because “the past, any past … is so god­damn banal and feck­less and useless” (105). Later, however, he says that there might be a clue in the past. The differ­ence between the pigeonnier and the cell is the presence of Percival in the latter, with whom Lance can kick through the ashes of Belle Isle: “I couldn’t do that alone. But we could do it” (106).

11. “The Man on the Train,” MB, p. 83.

12. See above, p. 8.

13. Binx’s irony here is subtle and multi-layered. Since this state­ment is preceded by a refer­ence to how other peo­ple “treasure memorable moments in their lives,” he is implic­itly identifying such remembered moments with the artifi­ciality of cinema. In either case, however, the ordi­nary has fallen prey to a false romantic perfection, whether it be an idealized memory or moviescreen image. See “The Man on the Train,” pp. 94-5, for a relevant discussion of “gestural perfection” in the movies.

14. Although, in another sense, Lance’s entire monologue is an effort of memory, a revision and reconsideration of his original vision, which has been prompted by the “catalyst” (13) of Percival’s presence.

15. Cleanth Brooks, “Walker Percy and Modern Gnosticism,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, p. 206. See also Lewis A. Lawson’s essays on this topic in Following Percy, pp. 197-225.

Compare the figures of the castaway which appear in “The Message in the Bottle” (MB, pp. 119-49) and in the thought experiment which concludes Percy’s chapter on “the depressed self” in Lost in the Cosmos, pp. 75-79. It was this latter vignette, with its startling distinction between the non-suicide and the ex-suicide, which, as I had been reading along in this strange book as an innocent diversion in the college library one evening, first awakened in me a sense of Percy’s at once radical and homely vision Ä- start­ing me along the path of becoming, as Lawson says, a “far-gone Percy reader.”

For an alternative reading of this passage, see John Hardy, The Fiction of Walker Percy, pp. 40-41. Hardy dis­parages the other ways Binx would have Mercer see himself, i.e., faithful retainer or expert in current events, as grotesque stereotypes. According to my reading, that may still be the case. The main point, however, is that an au­thentic existence must be anchored in the concrete, and those two roles (whether they are stereotypes or not) offer Mercer such an anchor Ä- a way of naming and thereby to a certain degree knowing and being himself authentically.

“Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” MB, p. 117.

This episode from the 32nd Chapter of Genesis also contributes to Percy’s typological reper­toire. Jacob seems to be a model for the tenacity and almost down­right orneri­ness which sometimes characterizes the attitude of Percy’s characters when they approach God. See “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself,” Conversations with Walker Percy, pp. 175-6:

“This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and to be asked what you make of it and have to answer ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as ax­iomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the in­finite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actu­ally grabbed aholt of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”

It is from this poem that Tom More quotes in Love in the Ruins.

Whereon to Stand, p. 167.

“Another Case of the Purloined Letter,” p. 44.

My reading of the metaphysical dimension of Lancelot’s quest is informed by John F. Desmond’s valuable essay, “Love, Sex, and Knowledge in Lancelot: A Metaphysical View,” Mississippi Quarterly 39:2 (1986) pp. 103-109.

Desmond, p. 107.


See Simone Vauthier, “Story, Story-Teller and Listener: Notes on Lancelot,” Critical Essays on Walker Percy, pp. 184-99. Vauthier applies Rene Girard’s theories on the mimetic process to the relationship between Lancelot and Percival.

“The Mystery of Language,” MB p. 155See “The Message in the Bottle,” MB, p. 148: “In such times, when everyone is saying “Come!” it may be that the best way to say “Come!” is to remain silent. Sometimes silence itself is a “Come!”

Subjectivity in The Religious Affections

Rufus McCain
Jonathan Edwards Seminar
Winter 1990
Prof. Simonson

1. Subjectivity and Faith

In the present discussion of “subjectivity” in The Religious Affections, I want to veer away from a strictly psychological and emotional definition of the term, as Edwards veers away from a strictly emotional definition of “affections.” Perry Miller correctly points out that to call Edwards a subjectivist according to such a definition “is to leap with Chauncy to the facile conclusion that he was only a jesuitical sort of enthusiast.” I apply the term, rather, according to its more ontological root form, sub jacere, which literally means “throw under” and implies subjection to the authority or control of another.

In this sense of the word, the application to Edwards is readily apparent. Man is, in Edwards’s view, infinitely “thrown under” God’s “terrible majesty, infinite holiness and hatred of sin.” The theme of Edwards’s first published sermon is in fact the basic premise of his entire life’s work: “Man was dependent on the power of God in his first estate, but he is more dependent on his power now.” In his original state of innocence, man was at every moment subject to God for his sustenance and being. Yet even under such favorable conditions, God was in no way obligated to maintain man’s existence. Under the curse of Adam’s sin, however, man’s subjection to God becomes an even more tenuous and terrifying one. The unregenerate self hangs like a spider, as Edwards so unforgettably drew the image, “by a slender thread, with flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready at any moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.” Following from this same premise of man’s radical subjectivity and dependence, The Religious Affections is Edwards’s grand exposition of the nature of faith.

Edwards comes at the issue of faith indirectly and subtly, making no explicit mention of it until near the end of Part II. When he finally does refer directly to the question of “doctrines of faith,” his strategy becomes apparent:

And here I cannot but observe that there are certain doctrines often preached to the people which need to be delivered with more caution and explanation than they frequently are; for, as they are by many understood, they tend greatly to establish this delusion and false confidence of hypocrites. The doctrines I speak of are those of “Christians living by faith, not by sight”; “their giving glory to God, by trusting Him in the dark”; “living upon Christ, and not upon experiences”; “not making their good frames the foundation of their faith”; which are excellent and important doctrines indeed, rightly understood, but corrupt and destructive as many understand them (p. 103).

Edwards’s purpose in The Religious Affections is accordingly to lay a foundation from which to approach a correct understanding of the doctrines of faith. The text on which Edwards bases The Religious Affections affords him precisely the angle required to do so from the point of view of the affections: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (I Peter 1:80). Looming in the background of this text is the commonly quoted definition of faith from the 11th chapter of Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Also looming behind it are the questions raised by the rampant emotionalism which characterized the revivals of the early 1740s. Initially, Edwards sided with the emotionalists. Finally, however, Edwards used the experiences of the Awakening as a means of approaching the more fundamental question of man’s ontological status of which faith in God and Christ is the highest expression.

His defense of the emotionalist tendencies of the Great Awakening thus becomes, by the time Edwards sits down to write The Religious Affections, a defense of a certain “contention about the nature of man” and of faith, a corrective of rationalism and emotionalism alike. Both the Arminians and the antinomians tended to aggrandize man’s nature, the former in laying the stress on man’s rationality and the latter by laying the stress on man’s emotions. Edwards would bring the two sides together, thereby laying the stress on the self as an integrated whole existing in subjectivity to God. Faith originates therefore not in the soul’s ability to reach out to its object, either rationally or emotionally, but rather in the soul’s being grasped by God’s gracious operations upon it.

Here we come to that matter of central importance to Edwards’s thought, and certainly of central importance to The Religious Affections — namely the radical difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate self. In the first of his positive signs of gracious affections, Edwards clarifies the issue in the Pauline terms of spirit versus flesh. Spirit, as it is used in this context, is often misapplied to suggest a Manichaean denigration of the physical body. Edwards, however, reiterates the orthodox corrective of such an interpretation (p. 125). “Spirit” is subjectivity oriented towards God; “flesh” is subjectivity oriented towards the world and one’s self. Paul elsewhere states this dichotomy as that of faith versus sin; whatever is not oriented toward God, i.e. whatever arises not from faith, is sin. Both are acts of the total self. It is not a question of one faculty being more “spiritual” than another, but rather a matter of orientation.

Edwards describes this change in orientation as a “new spiritual sense” or even “a new simple idea” (p. 133), stressing however that it is nothing like the revelation of something new or secret to the understanding, nor some kind of Manichaean mystical dive into the divine. The regenerate self remains a completely human. The difference, as Edwards struggles to put it into words, is more like a new foundation which transforms and revitalizes the old nature:

This new spiritual sense and the new dispositions that attend it are no new faculties, but are new principles of nature. I use the word principles for want of a word of more determinate signification. By a principle of nature in this place, I mean that foundation which is laid in nature, either old or new, for any particular manner or kind of exercise of exercise of the faculties of the soul; or a natural habit or foundation for action, giving a personal ability and disposition to exert the faculties in exercises of such a certain kind; so that to exert the faculties in that kind of exercises may be said to be his nature. So this new spiritual sense is not a new faculty of understanding, but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of understanding. So that new holy disposition of heart that attends this new sense is not a new faculty of will, but a foundation laid in the nature of the soul, for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of will (p. 134).

Gracious operations upon the soul do not by any means relinquish man’s condition of subjectivity, but rather result in a new and transformed subjectivity.

2. Subjectivity and Indifference

Although Edwards is ultimately concerned with the total self as an integrated whole, he begins The Religious Affections by delineating the soul into two faculties: “one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns, and views, and judges of things; which is called the understanding” (p. 24). According to the terms of the present discussion, what Edwards identifies as understanding might be termed the soul’s faculty for objective speculation. The other faculty is that of subjective involvement, “by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers.” In this second faculty of the soul — to which Edwards proceeds to apply the terms will, inclination, and heart — consists the exercise of the affections; and in such exercise consists the essential life of the soul:

Take away all love and hatred, all hope and fear, all anger, zeal, and affectionate desire, and the world would be in a great measure motionless and dead; there would be no such thing as activity amongst mankind, or any earnest pursuit whatsoever (p. 29).

This is the further sense in which man’s condition might be described as essentially that of subjectivity. The self, whether regenerate or not, is subject not only to God’s will, but is also subject to everything it encounters in reality insofar as it is a responsive creature, responding in one way or another to whatever it encounters. Remove that capacity and what you have left over is stagnancy and death.

Objectivity is presupposed as a mere starting point, an initial and prerequisite capacity by which the self is able to perceive that which it then must respond to according to its will or inclination in an exercise of the affections. To stop at objectivity is, humanly speaking, to cease to exist.

Implicit in Edwards’s discussion of the two faculties of the soul, then, is an argument concerning man’s proper attitude toward reality. Is it properly an attitude of objectivity or one of subjectivity? Clearly Edwards answers on the side of subjectivity, though not the merely emotional subjectivity of the anti-intellectual romantic or emotionalist, but something more radically ontological. Norman Fiering is correct in saying that Edwards is “no Schleiermacher or Kierkegaard, writing out of disillusionment with rationalist metaphysical systems.” Nonetheless one cannot help but see in Edwards’s thought a foreshadowing of that disillusionment and a kinship with the existentialist strain of protestant theology which had its most pronounced beginning in Kierkegaard. We find nothing in Edwards that quite compares to Kierkegaard’s bitter scorn of the Privatdocent, or objective-minded man. Yet Edwards was capable of deriding the efforts on the part of “learned men” in eighteenth-century apologetics toward making the gospel objectively “reasonable”:

Learned men tell me these histories were so and so attested in their day; but how do I know that there were such attestations then? They tell me there is equal reason to believe these facts, as any whatsoever that are related at such a distance; but how do I know that other facts which are related of those ages are true? Thus endless doubts and scruples will remain …. There are at least nineteen in twenty, if not ninety-nine in a hundred, of those for whom the Scriptures were written, that are not capable of any certain or effectual conviction of the divine authority of the Scriptures by such arguments as learned men make use of (p. 230).

Kierkegaard, writing a century later under the pen of Johannes Climacus, said much the same thing — though with a with much greater vehemence toward what had become as he saw it a much greater peril — in terms of an “objective uncertainty.” Objectively, the individual always arrives at uncertainty which ultimately leads to the stagnancy and death of Edwards’s hypothetical purely objective world. Therefore, Kierkegaard formulates subjective man’s ability to grasp truth as follows: “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” In Edwards’s terms, Kierkegaard’s “appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness” is roughly equivalent to that sense or relish of the heart in the exercise of gracious affections towards God. Such a subjective and intuitive engagement with divine excellency, in contrast to the “endless doubts and scruples” of objectivity, according to Edwards, goes “beyond all mere probability” (p. 231). The attitude of strict objectivity is that of indifference, whereas “that religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference” (p. 27).

3. Subjectivity and Hypocrisy

Edwards’s answer to the question of preparation for grace is essentially consistent with the Reformed orthodox position. As Pettit formulates it, “the Reformed understanding of St. Paul had led to an extreme emphasis on the utter depravity of man and his inability in any way to influence God or to predispose himself for saving grace.” Gracious operations are a matter of God’s inscrutable sovereign — and, to us, arbitrary — will. Yet the very fact that Edwards is writing The Religious Affections as a kind of manual for the prevention of hypocrisy (p. 124), suggests the possibility of a kind of negative preparation, if we can call it that. The preparation for grace is simply to be oneself and not pretend to be any thing else. It is the moral of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: “Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” Paradoxically, both sin and grace inhere within the exercise of the affections; that is, in the subjective life of the individual. Therefore an attitude of subjectivity and sin become the paradoxical preparation for grace. One is reminded of Luther’s admonition to “sin boldly.” The gospel speaks to the soul is that is thus established subjectively.

Yet Edwards’s concern with hypocrisy suggests there is a kind of false subjectivity which can afflict the soul. When the soul turns towards the world of sensuality and pleasure, that is one kind of subjectivity which is sin — Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic damnation.” When the soul is converted and turns to God, it establishes a new subjectivity. In both cases the soul is responding to something external to itself. The false subjectivity of hypocrisy arises when the soul becomes enamored with its own responses:

The joy of hypocrites is in themselves…. What they are principally taken and elevated with is not the glory of God, or beauty of Christ, but the beauty of their experiences. They keep thinking with themselves, What a good experience is this! What a great discovery is this! (p. 177).

This, says Edwards, is a kind of bastardization of true experiential religion, wherein the experience itself — and not the thing experienced — becomes the object of affection. Hence Edwards’s distinction between “lively imaginations arising from strong affections, and strong affections arising from lively imaginations” (p. 217). The former suggests a subjectivity oriented outward, the latter a false form of subjectivity reflected in upon itself. In the worst case scenario, the result of such an orientation of the soul is a condition of hypocrisy which “is indeed deplorable, and next to those who have committed the unpardonable sin” (p. 124). The underlying point is that there is a distinction, even in the state of sin, between honesty and dishonesty, between a genuine and a false subjectivity.

4. Subjectivity and Humility

In diametrical opposition to the selfishness and pride which characterize hypocrisy, Edwards sets the humility of the true saint. Humility, in the terms of this discussion, marks the defining characteristic of genuine subjectivity. Edwards’s makes yet another distinction in this case, however, which is critical to his notion of the will. Humility can take one of two forms: legal or evangelical. The former has to do with conscience and the ultimate despair of the unregenerate, whereas the latter has to do with the voluntary abasement of the saint:

In a legal humiliation, the conscience is convinced, as the consciences of all will be most perfectly at the day of judgement; but because there is no spiritual understanding, the will is not bowed nor the inclination altered: this is done only in evangelical humiliation. In legal humiliation, men are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves; in the former, they are subdued and forced to the ground; in the latter, they are brought sweetly to yield, and freely and with delight to prostrate themselves at the feet of God (p. 238).

In this passage, we discern what Breitenbach refers to as Edwards’s movement “toward an increasingly voluntaristic explanation of religious psychology.” Later, in his Freedom of the Will, Edwards was to present a monumental argument defending the Calvinist notion of necessity as not incompatible with what he states here as the voluntary abasement of the soul. The point I am stressing here, however, concerns the nature of humility itself, whether it be legal or evangelical. In either case, humility defines a condition of subjectivity as the self relates to God.

5. Subjectivity and Practice

Thus far we have defined subjectivity as it applies to The Religious Affections as a condition of the total self as it is situated in relation to God and the world. Subjectivity in this sense involves a fundamental unity and responsiveness of all of the functions of the self or soul. Thus at the outset of part I, Edwards stresses the absolute link between the affections and the will:

The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will, and inclination of the soul, but only in the liveliness and sensibleness of exercise (p. 25).

This definition lays the groundwork for what Edwards sees as the chief sign of gracious affections, that is “Christian practice” (p. 308). Edwards’s vision of the radical integration and subjectivity of the self leads directly to this conclusion. If man is essentially a responsive, integrated unit, then his outward practice if examined discerningly will reveal his inward inclination. In this sense, as David Jacobson convincingly argues, Edwards can be seen as a predecessor of American pragmatism: “His theory of affections adumbrates a pragmatic logic, which implicates the demands of reason and will in a broad theory of action.”

Edwards’s is preeminently a Christian pragmatism, however, originating in very words of Christ concerning false prophets: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). Thus Edwards’s vision of man, though he may rely on Lockean terminology in articulating it, has its ultimate ground in the Bible and the image of man presented there. Hence Edwards’s insistence that gracious affections are not “heat without light” but rather originate in connection with some knowledge or “light” of revelation. So, too, in this connection does Edwards demand that true faith issues not merely in good works alone; profession of faith must also accompany those works. Making a complex allusion to Revelation and Exodus, Edwards shows how the relationship between profession and practice is typified in the pomegranates (knops) and flowers on the golden candlestick in the temple:

There was a knop and a flower, a knop and a flower: wherever there was a flower, there was an apple or pomegranate with it: the flower and the fruit were constantly connected, without fail…. So it is in the church of Christ: there is the principle of fruit in grace in the heart; and there is an amiable profession, signified by the open flowers of the candlestick; and there is answerable fruit, in holy practice, constantly attending this principle and profession (p. 322).

For Edwards this is finally the ultimate expression of man’s integrity and subjectivity, that when he is converted from a state of sin his entire self responds. A total expression arises from that “new sense” of the moral excellency and beauty of God and Christ. The new self feels, thinks, speaks, and acts as an expression of the radical alteration that has occurred at the very foundation of its being.

Part of the beauty of The Religious Affections is that the structure of Edwards’s argument reflects the image of man presented therein, moving as it does from the inner to the outer, finally to arrive at Christian practice as the chief outward signification of the inward reality. At the outset, insofar as he is able, Edwards goes to the very heart and soul of man to find the principles of unity and subjectivity there. The fundamental premise is that man is emphatically not the self-reliant creature Emerson would have him be, but rather totally reliant on God for everything. Nor is man merely an aggregate of his various roles and faculties, but rather an integrated whole whose ultimate purpose is to relate to God, not merely intellectually or merely emotionally, but with the fullness of his being. Man is by nature subject to, or “thrown under” God’s majesty; or, as Edwards was later to formulate it, man’s being is ultimately subject to Being in general. That condition of subjectivity can be man’s bane as he is crushed under God’s holiness and majesty; or man’s glory as his affections are transformed and he is made a participant in God’s glory.


Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (William Sloane Associates, 1949), p. 189.

It is this more ontological sense of the word that Niebuhr suggests when, commenting on Edwards’s conception of faith, he calls it “the activity of the whole man, of intellect and will, of mind and body.” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row Torchbook Edition, 1959), p. 111.

Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), p. 84. Subsequent references to this edition are noted in the text.

Edwards, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” in Selected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, Ed. Harold P. Simonson (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), p. 53.

Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Selected Writings, p. 107.

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards, p. 179.

The following quotation from a 20th-century American novel makes Edwards hypothesis sound more prophetic than hypothetical: “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Avon, 1960), p. 83.

Norman Fiering, “The Rationalist Foundations of Edwards’s Metaphysics,” Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Hatch & Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 78.

For example: “A ludicrous stiff solemnity and an air of paragraph-importance that gives a Docent a striking resemblance to a bookkeeper out of Holberg, is what the Docents call seriousness.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 250.

Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 182.

Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 2.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Indianapolis: Ohio State University Press, Centenary Edition, 1962), p. 243.

For a provocative discussion of the notion of news as a category of knowledge which depends upon man’s subjective situation, see Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), p. 119.

William Breitenbach, “Edwards and the New Divinity,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Hatch & Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 184.

David Jacobson, “Jonathan Edwards and the ‘American Difference’,” Journal of American Studies, 21:3 (1987) p. 384.