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The Last Gentleman Revisited: A Study of the Family in the Fiction of Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh

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“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.

NB: Deadline Extended!

Hard Questions

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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.

Diaries, a Call for Papers, and a Sample Topic

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Time put away your diary and the pen with a pom-pom, just for a few minutes, anyway, and write that abstract for the upcoming Percy Conference. The one you’ve been putting off for the better part of a year, while faithfully professing ton grand amour

CALL FOR PAPERS: The third biennial Walker Percy Conference will take place October 16-17, 2015 at Loyola University in New Orleans. The conference will focus on Percy’s 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, its literary, cultural, and philosophical themes, and its place in Southern and American Literature, but is open to the full spectrum of possible topics as they relate to Percy and his work, including but not limited to psychology, exile, place, travel, philosophy, semiotics, postmodernism, suicide, medicine, and religion.

Here’s an idea. If it really is a diary you’re after, here’s a sample topic: Analyze diary-keeper and ex-suicide Sutter Vaught in light of the following comment by Percy …

“I like to think of beginning where Faulkner left off, with a Quentin Compson who didn’t commit suicide. Suicide is easy. Keeping Quentin Compson alive is what I am interested in doing.”

And the comments section seems as good a place as any for a show of hands for those planning to attend the conference next October

Paging Dr. Percy

So I went to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film very much about the importance of the artist.

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And at the end, there was a note about how the film was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig. Over at The New Yorker, Richard Brody shone a little light on the connection. Naturally, that led me to this longer consideration of Zweig in the magazine. Ah – a suicide. And naturally, that led me to this longer consideration of suicide’s resurgence, also in the magazine.

Artists, suicides, Zweig…ah. Of course. A Moveable Piece: Stefan Zweig and Walker Percy’s Problem of Artist-Writer Reentry, Jennifer Levasseur’s very fine presentation (attended by several members of the Kollektiv) at the second Walker Percy Conference (not to be confused with the Walker Percy Weekend, which somehow has yet to be mentioned on this blog).

Perhaps Dr. Percy is not quite as doomed to the past as I had feared. When I applied for the Amtrak writer thingy, I pitched The Last Gentlemen. Hoo!

Dammit, Angelico

Just listen to all those references to the self. You could have made the single most relevant presentation of the whole durned conference.

You’ve seen, haven’t you, Maria Bustillos’ two posts on DFW and self-help?

Anyway, all I’m saying is, I think you’re now obliged to write a brilliant book (it doesn’t even have to be for KP) about DFW and Percy and suicide and self-help and possibly even drinking, and present it at Gerasene 2015 in New Orleans, while we’re running the “Walker Percy Saved My Life, What Can He Do For You?” conference at Loyola.

Is all I’m saying.

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Last time, we had the Carver theater. This time, well, Dr. Lecter called it.

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Please, let’s all start saving for 2015

Everyone, keep safe from murderous drifters for the next two years at least so we can ALL be in NOLA for Conference 3: Dear God, Please Let This Happen, Don’t Let Me Have Missed My Last Chance, We Can Go Even Without a Conference, Y’all, Please.

Also, we were supposed to go to that restaurant from Garden and Gun.

Happy Halloween from New Orleans

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Mrs and Mr Lickona modeling a mimetic death wish in the post-lapsarian Garden District.

A Visit to Walker Percy’s Grave

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Still Lost in the Cosmos conference panelists Jonathan, Rachel, and Matthew at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.

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