Ralph C. Wood’s most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 6-13, 1977, p.634. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Walker Percy’s Lancelot seems at once pretentious and unfocused — characters too cursorily sketched to sustain interest, the clanking machinery of the plot irritatingly audible, and the narration shifting unsatisfactorily from lucid monologue to leaden description.
A Book Review: LANCELOT. By Walker Percy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.95.
For an increasingly large number of college students, teachers and church people, the fiction of Walker Percy has the value virtually of prophecy. We await the publication of his novels with almost evangelical zeal, eager to be entertained and edified by him as by no other contemporary American writer. But it was with shock and disappointment that I read Lancelot for the first time. It seemed at once pretentious and unfocused — characters too cursorily sketched to sustain interest, the clanking machinery of the plot irritatingly audible, and the narration shifting unsatisfactorily from lucid monologue to leaden description.
Most troublesome of all was the narrator himself: Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a profane and savage moralist redeemed by neither grace nor irony. What to make of him? Is he Percy’s nemesis, or advocate, or something of both? I felt it unconscionable of Percy to have provided no clear authorial judgment of this guiltless maniac. Only at the urging of a former student, wiser in these matters than his teacher, did I give the novel a second hearing. It turned out that perhaps I was at fault rather than Percy, whom I wanted to be more respectable and hopeful than he is willing to be. Though still unpersuaded that Lancelot is a masterpiece, I am now convinced that Percy is to be commended for what he has attempted; namely, to confront us mercilessly with the nature of damnation in our time.
T. S. Eliot once remarked, in praising Baudelaire, that most of us moderns are not men enough to be damned. Walker Percy is completely in accord with Eliot’s judgment, and the chief intent of his fiction is to awaken characters and readers alike from a subhuman ignorance of their own lostness. But in The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins, there is always a hint of recovery at the end. The man brought alive to his perdition makes at least the first step toward his salvation. And the whole scene is suffused with a comedy which, though often acerbic, is finally redemptive.
The power and the horror of Lancelot is that it moves toward no such comforting conclusion. The humor is vicious and destructive, and no one is redeemed. Instead, four people are left murdered by the narrator himself, who feels not a twinge of remorse for what he has done. The single emblem of hope in the novel is a psychiatrist-priest who utters but two words, both of them monosyllables. It is not a cheery book, and those of us who would make Percy out to be a safe Christian novelist had better beware.
Lance Lamar is an angry and embittered man because he thinks that he (and our whole culture with him) has been inveigled by the gospel of absolute passion. What we moral-minded, churchgoing Americans really believe in, our formal allegiances notwithstanding, is the infinitude of sex. Lance argues, in fact, that the omega-point of all evolution is neither Hegelian self-consciousness nor Teilhardian cooperation but the perpetual possibility of orgasm, the beast with two backs, the thinking reed who is also walking genital.
Lance was himself once a high priest of the sex cult. A 45-year-old New Orleans lawyer with a genteel Episcopal upbringing, he has had his temple of true worship neither in court nor at church but between the thighs of his lusty wife Margot. And thus he is determined to give pagan pleasure its long-neglected hearing. In erotic descriptions at once humorously profane and tactfully oblique, Lance evokes the sheer ecstasy, the virtual eternity, that he and Margot enjoyed in bodily life together.
The transports of delight are never far removed, however, from Lance, vitriolic confession of how, maddeningly, he came to recognize the awful limits of our spurious absolute. It was not for the standard mindless reason that one grows tired of his wife’s charms or that one’s own body passes its prime. Instead, Lance’s fury is prompted by the metaphysical abyss he finds beneath the religion of “living for love.” Its horrid converse is that if a woman is man’s very life; then her absence or infidelity is his damnation. Worse still, Lance discovers how even at their happiest he and Margot were not so much loving as assaulting — yes, raping — each other.
Percy must surely share Lance’s bilious regard for the obsessive carnality which belies much of our proverbial American niceness. There is something of Percy’s own acerbity, for example, in Lance’s description of the American Sodom as a baboon colony where men and women cohabit as indiscriminately as characters in a soap opera. Indeed, Lance is Percy’s man insofar as he has. been jolted out of that spiritual complacency which makes most of us unworthy even of damnation. So late is the hour and so deep the malaise that any moral awakening at all is likely to take Lance’s violent expression.
But we should not mistake Lance’s proposal of a new ethical absolute as Percy’s own. It serves, if anything, to confirm Lance’s damnation. All his talk about stern morality and knightly intolerance is nihilistic to the core. For it is based on the graceless conclusion that only such moral supermen as himself can put an end to the universal buggery. Anyone finding himself encouraged by this courtly righteousness should remember that as Lance slits the throat of his wife’s lover he feels nothing except his neck itching. And when Margot herself dies in the fire set by Lance’s own hand, he is injured trying to rescue not her but a prized Bowie knife.
If there is any hope at all in the novel, it is that Lance shall perhaps listen when the silent psychiatrist-priest begins to speak. Having experienced his own damnation, Lance is capable of hearing the gospel, however little he presently feels the need for it. He observes, for instance, that throughout the preceding centuries of history man has been so busy surviving — living and dying like an overworked animal — that he has hardly had time to be anything other than decent. But now in this late liberated age, an eternal destiny has been thrust upon us willy-nilly. We shall either be damned while panting after the sexual absolute, Percy seems to be saying, or else we shall be saved in pursuit of Eternal Love.
Lancelot offers no vision of this latter blessedness, but it does make clear the religious alternatives which our sexual paradise has already forced upon us: “Take such a species, the human, give it a two-hour work week and a hundred year life expectancy and it doesn’t take a genius to see what God has in mind for man.”