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A Percy Anniversary

Rounding out our troupe of Walker Percy birthday and Moviegoer anniversary guest bloggers is my former college professor, friend, and Percy scholar par excellence, John Desmond. Dr. Desmond is professor emeritus at Whitman College and author of Walker Percy’s Search for Community and At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy.

The near fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Moviegoer set me to pondering why the novel is still around, especially when so many good novels of similar vintage have already have been re-remaindered into extinction. New generations of readers seem constantly to discover Percy’s novel, experience its wonder, and walk away half-dazed by its subtle and mysterious effect on their lives. What accounts for this? I suppose many would account for it by citing its warm humor, its wonderful satire, its humbling but empathic treatment of Binx Bolling and his compatriots, its existential honesty, its philosophical acuity, its unique vision of American culture, and so on. But for me, the enduring success of the novel can finally only be accounted for by the great secret at the heart of the book, the secret that Percy discovered and rendered as no other American novel had quite managed before and perhaps since.

What is the secret? It is both simple and profound. Percy brought to life the great truth that the mystery is in the present, in the here and now. The secret is there to be experienced, but like Hamlet’s mystery, never to be “plucked out,” but only to be enjoyed and pondered by new readers generation after generation.

Hoorah for Walker Percy, and happy birthday!

John Desmond

Comments

  1. Mr. Desmond,

    Would it be fair to say that one recognizes that “simpole and profound truth” while reading Percy when one experiences the prickle on the back of the neck, as Percy described his experience of reading “A Canticle for Leibowitz”?

    I fell under Percy’s sway early in life – about my freshman year in college. He along with Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor seemed at the time to be just about the greatest discovery a Catholic student of literature could make. “Here’s the real thing alright, and proposing the mystery of life like no other. And Catholic to boot. And perhaps,” self says to self, “Catholicism isn’t a remnant or a relic. Perhaps it is a vessel fo the truth…And perhaps it too can contribute to what Ezra Pound calls ‘the tale of the tribe.'”

    It was to Percy though, that I felt something akin to a ridgepole falling into a perfect slot – perhaps because he was most accessible, as you say, whether because he offered a contemporary view of American culture (I howled at his characters’ rants (M*A*S*H)/encomiums (The Incredible Hulk) addressed at the TV, for instance, having not long before finished Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of TV.”) or because less than Waugh or O’Connor he came to his Catholicism – and therefore reality – more “stripped down.” He had only the old ghosts of the South – Waugh still had Empire sitting on his other shoulder and O’Connor was not so postmod as he, perhaps having had only her bedroom window and Milledgeville’s stew of Southern noplace to guide her wagon by….

    You put your finger on it though; in fact, if what you say is true, Percy might be the most lyrical of all our novelists, Catholic or otherwise. I contend that the lyric is the poetry of the emotional present (comedy and tragedy’s emotions deal with the future – fear and pity) while epic most naturally deals with time past (the glory and praise of feat and daring). We’ve had tragicomedy; would it be fair to say that Percy’s work is lyricomedy?

    JOB

    • Hey, you better watch your mouth about Milledgeville.

      • SEP,

        Now, don’t get your peahen feathers in a ruffle. No offense meant – it’s just a plain fact that Percy came from someplace full of someones – he was the scion of a renowned – if somewhat transvested – line of Birmingham gentlemen. To that extent, he was much like Waugh in this, laboring under the weight of a distinctive family blood line. I believe that may have been part of the reason why Percy decided to live in Covington – what did he call it? the non-place betwee NO’s “someplace” and no place?

        O’Connor, on the other hand, STARTED in the perfect no place – an Irish Catholic settlement in the heart and soul of the Bible Belt. (And talk about “place” and noplace, her father was a real estate agent, is that right?) For the fact of her out-of-placeness, she was in a uniquely qualified position to observe the goings on of her neighbors, mostly Protestants, and transform that into high art. Given time and space, I’d qualify the hell out of all this, but it’s enough for now to say that if there was anything postmod about O’Connor it was due to her time at Iowa and among the literati which the Fitzgeralds introduced her to. But as much as you could take the gal outta Milledgeville, you couldn’t do the converse. And thankfully too. She – and we – wouldn’t have nearly the quality of stories her extreme localism provided.

        JOB

  2. Jonathan Webb says:

    Ditto for my part. Thanks so much Prof. Desmond.

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