The persistence of Percy

Is there a more enduring minor American author than the guy whose breakthrough novel won the National Book Award thanks to an embittered sportswriter? Anyway, Friend of Korrektiv Paul Elie is back on the Percy plowhorse in The New Yorker. Maybe he really is our cool Dostoevsky. Happy New Year, everybody.

Spinning along the highway in this bright little beetle…

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“My little red MG, however, is an exception to the rule. It is a miserable vehicle actually, with not a single virtue save one: it is immune to the malaise.”
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Hey, look at that—AP says I’m Trump Country!

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See me up there in the upper right-hand corner?

As Percy would say, I’m “validated” like the young man who sees his own town in a film or lights up William Holden’s cigarette without acknowledging that he knows Holden knows he knows who Holden is, etc.

(p.s. This is not meant as a provocation, so please if you have anything bad to say about the current president, I would refer you to previous dust-ups at this blog on that issue, which I won’t even link to because I don’t think it bears any relevance to this post. Here, it’s all peace and joy and I don’t really care what you think about the current president – I’m making a Percian point here, which is much more important.

As a smoking/meat-smoking friend of mine in California might say, “Oh, you don’t like my politics? That’s nice. Did I mention that I bake bread?”

Except in my case I would say, “Did I mention I make a helluva good Chicken Cacciatore and that I can make you a martini that you will never forget? Sit down right there at my kitchen table and I’ll stir us a couple, and then let’s light up a smoke—cigar for you? Perfect!—and cigarettes (unfiltered) for me. Let’s talk then about the beauties of poems that completely nail the execution of a perfect enjambment of lines, of women who wear their hair down, of early R.E.M. albums and whether they were meant to be concept albums in the tradition of Pink Floyd and Yes but tinctured with a Southern Gothic ethos, of love in a time near the end of the world, and of children and how, one way or another, the little dears are going to get you out of bed in the morning. Yes—oh, and how’s your drink? See? I told you so….Cacciatore will be ready in about 20 minutes. How ‘bout another round?” )

 

Horn! reviews The Moviegoer

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The man’s website is here.

Walter Isaacson on Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes

In yesterday’s issue:

Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case,” he wrote of Will Barrett, the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” “Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes.”

Percy was a medical doctor who didn’t practice and a Catholic who did, which equipped him to embark on a search for how we mortals fit into the cosmos. Our reaction to hurricanes was a clue, he believed, which is why leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, it’s worth taking note not only of his classic first novel, “The Moviegoer,” but also of his theory of hurricanes as developed in “The Last Gentleman,” “Lancelot” and some of his essays.

Percy lived on the Bogue Falaya, a lazy, ­bayou-like river across Lake Pontchartrain from my hometown, New Orleans. He was a kindly gentleman whose face knew despair but whose eyes often smiled. With his wry philosophical depth and lightly worn grace, he was acutely aware of his alienation from the everyday world, but he could be an engaged companion when sitting on his porch sipping bourbon or holding court with aspiring writers at a lakefront seafood joint named Bechac’s. “My ideal is Thomas More, an English Catholic . . . who wore his faith with grace, merriment and a certain wryness,” he once said. That describes Percy well.

Indeed it does. Thank you, Walter

But will it also be true of earthquakes, when the really big one comes?

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!

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My Email to Garrison Keillor re. Walker Percy

Dear Mr. Keillor,

You and Walker Percy both occupy honored places in my personal constellation of literary stars.

That’s why I was shocked and disappointed by your treatment of Dr. Percy in the May 28, 2014 edition of The Writer’s Almanac. Percy never worked as a psychiatrist. In fact, although he was an M.D., he never really practiced medicine. He contracted tuberculosis while conducting autopsies during a residency in pathology at the end of medical school.

And that synopsis of The Moviegoer (which thankfully only appears in the printed version of TWA) is just as horribly askew. Binx Bolling is a stockbroker who goes to the movies but “in an attempt to get over a nervous breakdown” reeks of having been pulled out of someone’s ass who never read the book and doesn’t really care.

I’m not sure I can trust what you say on TWA anymore.

Maybe what you need is a crusty old librarian who cares about real facts and knows how to dig into reliable sources. Coincidentally, I am just such a librarian (and poor starving poet to boot, having earned $100 from TWA, thank you very much, and about $3.95 in royalties since publishing my book). I would be interested in supplementing my meager poet-librarian’s salary, if you’re hiring.

I didn’t start off this email thinking it would turn into a job application, but the spirit surprises us sometimes.

Let me know what you think. In any case, I’m looking forward to what you come up with for Walker Percy the next time his birthday comes round.

All the best,
Jonathan Potter
Spokane WA

“Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it …”

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It’s the birthday of the man who asked, “What does a sane man do in an insane society?”: American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He didn’t begin any story until he had the first and last lines in his head, and the idea for Catch-22 came about after he thought of an opening: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him.” He didn’t have the character’s name — Yossarian — yet, but the story began to unspool from that first line. “It got me so excited,” Heller wrote in the Paris Review, “that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand. … One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.”

His agent started sending Catch-22 — called Catch-18 at the time — to publishers in 1953, when Heller was about a third of the way through with it. Simon and Schuster paid him $750 up front, with another $750 to be paid upon completion. Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it in 1961. They changed Catch-18 to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’s new book Mila 18, and the title has entered the lexicon as a description of an unsolvable logical dilemma, a vicious circle.

Heller published six other novels, three plays, a collection of short stories, and three screen adaptations. He died in 1999, shortly after finishing his last novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac.

Fun fact: Catch-22 was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award—along with The Moviegoer, which won it.

(“Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it….” Rally Korrektiv, rally!)

See also

Iowa will not be validated.

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I don’t follow “Girls” and never had a desire to – but I do follow women – especially Ann Althouse.

She has a great post about the Iowa Workshop refusing to be validated by one of its own – that Lee Denim person or whatever her name is.

 

 

What The Korrektiv Did for Its October Vacation

Perhaps Percy’s most intriguing work, Lost in the Cosmos is a weird yet satisfying book – a hybrid of philosophical inquiry, satire, cultural analysis, multiple choice questions, thought experiments and (“What the hell, why not?” you can hear Percy say) even fiction. Perhaps the book most closely resembles Melville’s own loose but not-so-baggy monster, Moby Dick. But Lost in the Cosmos stands well on its own. The quality and quantity of presenters at the conference attested to its enduring worth—with more than 40 papers covering everything from liturgy to pornography to interstellar exploration to mimetic theory to Marshall McLuhan.

Bird’s Nest in Your Dappled Things

Mr Hren interviews Mr Jobe … and does a crackerjack job of it.

A Few Questions

Before the questions, a little mop-up work on The Moviegoer is in order. Anybody who has read the book will remember this well-known passage:

“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.
(The Moviegoer, p10)

Here is a bit of unrelievedly good news: the Chindolea bush has been found. Turns out that this is (perhaps) Percy’s spelling of Jin-Dal-Rae, or in Korean, 진달래.

Whew!

Maybe everybody knows this already, but I remember it being something of an open question at the last Percy conference. I’m awfully glad to see this finally cleared up. There are questions that remain open, however, and of course we’re now chiefly concerned with Lost in the Cosmos. So I would appreciate if anybody can tell me

(1) Who is “the man from Chicago” mentioned on page 78?

(2) Is there, or has there ever been, a spacecraft called Voyager 19?

(3) If Voyager 19 really does (or did) exist, who is the man who designed it, described on pages 1 and 2 as “one of the most screwed-up creatures in California—or the Cosmos”?

Thanks for your help!

Rod Dreher on Aunt Emily, Uncle Alasdair, & Cud’n Walker

… along with Charles Taylor via David Brooks, and some guy named Ari Schulman.

Apparently Dreher has just recently read The Moviegoer for the first time. Which in itself is amazing: from Louisiana, a writer, and a convert to Catholicism, and he’s just now getting around to the most important Catholic novel of the last 50-odd years? In any case, he certainly gives it due consideration.

The mash-up with MacIntyre is especially interesting. Nothing would seem to be further from Heidegger’s universal ontology (to which Percy, through Binx, pays considerable homage) than MacIntyre’s Virtue Ethics. But Dreher (and Schulman) are absolutely right, and it fits perfectly:

MacIntyre claims, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” But for Binx, this question can only be answered if he can answer the prior question, “Of what world or worlds do I find myself a part?” And indeed, the attempt to answer this question is one of his central preoccupations, manifesting as his fascination with “the singularities of time and place.”

And all of a sudden I wonder if I should change my paper topic for the upcoming conference at the Walker Percy Center.

All this leads Dreher (after New York and perhaps Paris) to a rather interesting point of departure:

I begin to perceive that the loss of my Roman Catholic faith was a bigger catastrophe than I have even suspected until now. I was not raised Catholic, but my conversion was entirely genuine. I put on another’s man’s clothes and thought they were my own. I really did, and I believed it with all my heart, soul, and mind. And then, over an agonizing four years, it all unraveled, in what felt more like a flaying.

For me, this brought to mind Shusaku Endo, who often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes (“This clothing did not suit me. The clothes and my body were not made for each other.”)

At the end Dreher adds that he may well be working on a novel of his own. I’m sure it’ll be great, but while you wait, you might try another novel set in a “society in the final stages of a breakdown”, Bird’s Nest in Your Hair. Now only $17.06!

Percy and Passover

Over at Townhall.com, Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg cites The Moviegoer: Binx’s search as exodus.

Amen.

Do the Dung Beetle!

“…having only learned to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies–my only talent–smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle…”
― Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Prospering includes dancing, and now they’re being provided with rubbery boots made of silicon for some relief from their strenuous exertions.

“Dung beetles are the first example of an insect using a mobile, thermal refuge to move across hot soil,” researcher Jochen Smolka, a neuroethologist at Lund University in Sweden, told LiveScience. “Insects, once thought to be at the mercy of environmental temperatures, use sophisticated behavioral strategies to regulate their body temperature[s].”

The researchers discovered that beetles on hot soil climbed onto their excrement balls seven times more often than when on cooler ground. When the researchers painted rubbery boots made of silicone onto the legs of the insects to protect them from the heat, “beetles with boots on climbed their balls less often,” Smolka said. The scientists think the insects get on top of dung when it gets hot to give themselves a respite from scorching sands and help protect their brains from overheating.

I look forward to seeing kids imitate the dung beetle in discotheques all over the world. And I suppose we can now refer to the 21st century as the Great Discotheque of Scientific Humanism.

Read the straight poop at Live Science.

Certified …

https://korrektivpress.com/2012/07/20224/

Neo-Nazi Notes on The Moviegoer

If passing a Jew on the street is like Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint in the sand, to what shall we compare bumping into a Nazi on the Internet?