From a fragment about a boy who one day decides he wants to place his lips on every square inch of his body. The part I’m most interested in here, for the sake of this post, begins around 26:20 ends around 29:00. DFW was a great fan of self-help books; did he ever, do you suppose, take a gander at Lost in the Cosmos?
Archives for February 2015
“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance on ordinary things of this world…. And what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in the real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” – Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary”
Given the turbulent history of Percy’s own family – his father, grandfather and possibly even his mother having all committed suicide – the role of the family in Percy’s fiction is of particular interest. After Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, as he indicates in his 1989 essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” the family like other aspects of the “ordinary things of this world” takes on, through the Catholic order of marriage, a special sacramental character.
In Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer, alienated from his late father’s staid yet disintegrating Southern family (as represented by his Aunt Emily), Binx Bolling visits his mother’s family in the Bayou. During his visit, their genial easy-going backwater spirit, which is free of the usual pretensions that haunt the decaying Southern gentry, helps Bolling reestablish a context for his existence. It is especially in his interaction with his dying younger half-brother Lonnie that he begins to see how his “search” might possess certain religious implications:
“Like me,” Bolling explains, Lonnie “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.”
Even as the family plays an important role in Bolling’s plight, however, the role of the family in The Moviegoer is even more fully realized in Percy’s next novel.
To better understand the part the family plays in The Last Gentleman – both within the narrative itself and the broader context of Percy’s fictional output – the reader would do well to examine another well-drawn fictional family – the English recusant Flytes of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. While there is no evidence that Percy consciously modeled the Vaughts on the Flytes, an investigation into the parallels between the two families – and of the solitary characters they invite into their respect folds – Charles Ryder and Will Barrett – can yield a fruitful discussion on the importance of family in Percy’s oeuvre, and especially in The Last Gentleman.
Not only do the Flytes anticipate the Vaughts in their eccentricities and struggles to navigate the modern age, but as the Flytes afford Charles Ryder a glimpse of the mysteries of life through their Catholicism, so too the Vaughts serve as Barrett’s escape from the everydayness of things which plague his character throughout The Last Gentleman.
Like all of Walker Percy’s novels, The Last Gentleman offers a study of the modern existential man adrift in the universe, reliant upon his own lights and, with a little luck, the discoveries he makes on his wandering path. But as any reader of Percy’s work knows, these elements do not make Will Barrett’s adventure necessarily unique among Percy’s protagonists. Given Percy’s penchant for seeing his characters’ existential struggle working itself out in the “holiness of the ordinary,” in this way, Mr. Barrett is very much in the same league as Bolling, Dr. Tom More, and Lancelot Lamar.
What distinguishes Will Barrett from among Percy’s other existential anti-heroes, however, is his role as an orphan. His own family is all but absent from the story. In lieu of his own family, then, Barrett strikes up a relationship with the Vaught family who adopt him as caretaker for the dying youngest son Jamie Vaught. Serving as Percy’s avatar of the New South with their consumerism and cantankerous demeanor, the Vaughts also retain vestiges of the Old South through their Catholic faith and their tight-knit, if not always functional, family dynamics. Invited into the Vaught’s world, Barrett is intrigued by the family’s members – each serving as a sort of living telescope into the deeper mysteries of life which Barrett only begins to understand at the novel’s opening.
Hearkening back to his first novel, The Moviegoer, Percy presents the Vaughts as a comic foil for the main character and as a portal into the mysteries which first fascinate him as he gazes through the telescope in Central Park – and which he senses Sutter Vaught must know something about at the end of the novel.
“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy asserts in the beginning of Anna Karenina, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps concurring with this estimation, Percy nonetheless shows that through the family, unhappy or otherwise, the individual comes to an understanding of something more abiding than the cold comfort of his existential exertions. By presenting a comparison of the families and individual characters in The Last Gentleman and Brideshead Revisited, I intend to show how Percy taps into the same important lodestone of family dynamics which facilitates Charles Ryder’s conversion and at the same time show how The Last Gentleman, while not haunted with the same nostalgia as Waugh’s masterpiece, ought to take its rightful place besides Brideshead Revisited as a contemporary novel attempting to address the malaise of modernity from the uniquely sacramental and therefore hopeful role of the family.
Many critics see The Last Gentleman as a “hinge” novel between Percy’s first efforts at fiction and his more mature work, but through this presentation, I will show that The Last Gentleman can also stand on its own as Percy’s most fully realized fictional treatment of the family as a refuge for the existential hero and a sign of hope for the modern world.
The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Because nothing … nothing says the sensuous in its elemental originality like Lauryn Hill singing that thing, that thing, tha at thi i i ing … although there’s nothing especially abstract about that yellow dress. Or the black and white dress, for that matter, or the moves, or the horns that kick the song off, or the rap that just crushes everything other than maybe one of Ice Cube’s (I especially love it when she patters Showing off your ass ’cause you’re thinking it’s a trend, as if calling out Miley Cyrus and all the coprophagists who’ve actually turned it into a trend) …
Where was I? Right … Lauryn Hill. I heard three different songs of hers on the radio last week, which was enough to give me hope that she was going to be putting out a new album. Very sadly, that is not the case. But I dug out the old Fugees albums and Miseducation and have been listening to them all week.
For Korrektiv readers who may not know Lauryn Hill so well, this brief history in the form of music videos are worth your while. Here she is in 1987, thirteen years old, getting booed during Amateur Night at the Apollo. Here she is a few years after that singing His Eye is on the Sparrow in Sister Act 2. While in high school she joined up with Pras and Wycleff Jean and started going by “L Boogie” in the Fugees … here they are murdering the same Apollo Theater, and here they are on Jools Holland doing Killing Me Softly.
Then came the deluge of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, including Ex-Factor, Everything is Everything, Zion, and even an old Frankie Valli song … just scratching the surface of the album with these …
Four years after Miseducation she did a complete 180° with a double album of new songs live on an MTV Unplugged special. Not everybody liked it, some people hated it, but there are some great songs, including Adam Lives in Theory, which, even if you can’t bring yourself to appreciate the song, you’ve got to admit is one of the best titles ever.
After that she didn’t come out much new material, except an odd song here or there for a soundtrack or such like. The Man busted her for taxes a few years ago, and if the youtube videos are an accurate indication she’s been hitting the concert circuit pretty hard recently. Here she is in 2012, backed up by The Roots and blowing the roof off Philadelphia. But if you have to watch just one Lauryn Hill video, Live in Japan 1999 is it.
Fashion Their Passion
“Well! You certainly have a fine
looking tie, M. Blass,” said M. Saint
Laurent, fluffing his own pavonine
ascot, he himself looking très bien.
When the models walked
out on the runway, dressed
so tastefully in Vera Wang,
the audience wore a shocked
demeanor, best expressed
with a boldface interabang.
I don’t have anything else to post today, so I’m bringing up one of my comments from the Mahalia Jackson post below. Because it’s so important that everything I write has at least a chance of being read …
Rufus had mentioned that Mahalia Jackson made for an interesting pairing with the Kierkegaard quotation, which got me thinking about what exactly he meant (Kierkegaard, that is; Rufus is clear enough).
The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music.
I include it with all those Music Video posts because I imagine some kind of justification is needed. Kierkegaard wrote it in Either/Or, about the opera Don Giovanni specifically, which makes perfect sense given the Don’s erotic proclivities.
What I think he means by “the sensuous in its elemental originality” is longing or even appreciation, not yet described or perhaps even consciously understood, and fundamentally erotic in nature. The “sensuous”, or the source of feeling—waves on the beach, a bird in flight, the opposite sex—is certainly physical, but the feelings aroused are abstract. Even if science now teaches us that these feelings are basically material, the rush of blood and chemicals in the brain, they are initially felt as something that beyond their material being.
Music is the medium that seems least material and is therefore best suited to express the abstract. And this makes sense if we consider that, even if music has a material basis in acoustic vibrations, it is for all intents invisible—the mathematical nature of rhythm, counterpoint, melody, harmony and all the rest are often described as form, but what the content actually is is a little more mysterious. With lyrics there are at least images inferred by words, and the nature of those images is the subject of much debate these days. For Kierkegaard, it was enough for the libretto to match “the sensuous in its elemental originality”.
The sensuous is most strongly felt as an erotic force, and Kierkegaard’s point, I think, was not only that music was ideally suited for Don Giovanni, but that Don Giovanni as a subject was the highest expression for music. Whether it’s the Don singing Finch’ han dal vino or Taylor Swift singing Style, the love song is primal because it’s about love and ideal because it is a song.
What then do we make of Mahalia Jackson singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, much less I Know that My Redeemer Liveth or Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme? There’s a tendency now to emphasize the essentially erotic nature of religious feeling, and I think because Kierkegaard was similarly trying to sublimate his own erotic longing to attain the sublime, he tended to emphasize the destructive side of that longing. Somewhere else on this blog I wrote that Kierkegaard would have been an entirely different philosopher if he had take Le Nozze de Figaro as a model instead of Don Giovanni. It’s no less concerned with the havoc wreaked by the erotic, but much, much more forgiving of the human actors so tangled up in blue.
And in the same way Le Nozze is forgiving, Wachet Auf might be in search of something much different than the erotic. Or it might just be an entirely different order of sublimation.
On Valentine’s Day Artur Rosman made a slightly different point on the nature of the erotic and it’s relationship to song. It’s more Catholic, and includes twerking, and you can read it here.
I haven’t seen much of Potter lately, but a mutual friend sent me this clip from his 50th birthday party:
Looks like he may be finally getting around to that midlife crisis.
The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
There’s a great moment in Selma when MLK is up in the middle of the night, anxious about a speech he has to give the next day, or maybe the march. So he does what many of us might do, which is listen to music. Except instead of putting his earbuds in and queueing up the iPod, he calls up Mahalia Jackson at 4AM and asks her to sing a spiritual for him. She accepts this as a perfectly normal thing to do, or at least something that makes perfect sense, given the times. So she sits up on the edge of bed and sings Take My Hand, Precious Lord. It’s quite the moment, so much so I assume it has to be true. Apparently a vocalist named Ledisi actually sings it in the movie, which I have to say is pretty amazing too. Don’t want to say it’s more amazing than Mahalia, but it’s worth a listen. Lastly, here is the studio version by Mahalia Jackson, which is … something. Seems like a good song for the first Friday of Lent.
In the comments to the previous post, Duffer asks some hard questions of writers and maybe a few readers of Korrektiv.
Can we please get over Walker Percy? How many Walker Percy conferences must one attend in a lifetime?
As for myself, I can only say to the first, “Not yet, I guess”, and to the second, “Well, three anyway. Three and a half, if we count the opening of the WPC back in 2010 (or thereabouts).
Not that I haven’t tried. There was that decade reading the classics of Greek and Latin literature, not to mention a number of extended trips to such exotic locales as Zembla and McLean Hospital (in search of the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Lowell, respectively). But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always find myself back with other dissenters from the dissent, in the scrambled geography of Feliciana Parish.
For instance, I’ve just started reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography and a former editor at Time. Isaacson himself explains the Percy connection here, and I suppose that’s one of the things that sparked my interest in the book. It’s pretty great so far, beginning with a chapter on Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and something of prophet of modern computers. A prophet and, as she herself would have it, a poet.
Her reengagement with math, she told her mother, spurred her creativity and led to an “immense development of imagination, so much so that I feel no doubt if I continue my studies I shall in due time be a Poet.” The whole concept of imagination, especially as it was applied to technology, intrigued her. “What is imagination?” she asked in an 1841 essay. “It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations….It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.” The Innovators, p18
This sounded awfully familiar to me. Where had I read this before? Oh, yes, of course … Percy wrote something similar to this in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome.
Little things can be important. Even more important is the ability——call it knack, hunch, providence, good luck, whatever——to know what you are looking for and put two and two together. A great scientist once said that genius consists not in making great discoveries but in seeing the connection between small discoveries. The Thanatos Syndrome, p3
Could that “great scientist” have been Ada Lovelace? Probably not, but the connection here is intriguing (to me, anyway). Ada Lovelace has an insight into the relationship between imagination and science in the early 19th century. Percy makes a comment based on a similar idea in a novel in 1987, by which time we might suppose Lovelace’s insight to be more commonplace——possibly picked up on by other mathematicians and scientists, some of whom Percy might have read.
But maybe an actual connection isn’t all that intriguing. Maybe it’s just true, or even a capital T Truth, but a Truth so general that anyone could make it, at almost any time. Causality and contingency be damned, maybe connections just are——between some things and other things, between people, between ideas, between propositions, between people and ideas and propositions … between anything and everything, so much so that I suppose there’s a possibility that in the end, none of it is much more than mildly interesting. Maybe it isn’t interesting at all.
But connections can take on a seemingly divine importance, as I was trying to get at in that poem last week, or as Catholics might more readily understand as the basis of the laying on of hands——we think, or at least hope that the Holy Spirit is guiding our way through these connections. Those we recognize, and probably many more that we don’t. Dash that “seemingly”!
Anyway, that’s one reason I can’t get over Walker Percy.