Walker Percy as Satirist: Christian and Humanist Still in Conflict

by Ralph C. Wood

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, November 19, 1980 pp. 1122-1127. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Walker Percy’s satire is premised on the conviction — fictionally adumbrated rather than overtly stated — that the God who sits in his heavens and laughs t our folly is first and finally the God of grace who, in Jesus Christ, humorously accepts and thus transforms our sin into the occasion for his mercy.

Walker Percy has taught me more about the human condition in the 20th century than virtually any other writer. It was through reading his works that I was first stirred from my religious slumbers and made aware of the unconscious despair that holds our culture in a veritable death grip. I discovered, however, that Percy’s satire is not merely negative and destructive. The laughter resounding throughout his work is also redemptive and edifying. For it is premised on the conviction -- fictionally adumbrated rather than overtly stated -- that the God who sits in his heavens and laughs our folly to scorn is first and finally the God of grace who, in Jesus Christ, humorously accepts and thus transforms our sin into the occasion for his mercy.

Yet Percy’s two most recent novels -- Lancelot (1977) and The Second Coming (1980) -- have left me keenly disappointed. They appear to mark a decline not only in Percy’s literary mastery but in his theological discernment as well. The plots seem banal, the characters undeveloped, the prose often slipshod. More disturbing still is the vision of human life they seem to incarnate. In Lancelot it amounts to a moral rage that is nearly misanthropic, and in The Second Coming a romantic hopefulness almost sloppily sentimental.

Percy’s early freshness of perception may simply have been replaced by something alternately cynical and maudlin. It is my conviction, on the contrary, that what lay dormant in his early books has belatedly come to life in his recent novels. It is a humanist rage and compassion which Percy’s conversion to Roman Catholicism did not overcome. Far from constituting a wholesale rejection of his humanist upbringing, Percy’s entry into the church meant the transposition of his old secular values into a new religious key.

Percy the convert became a Christian humanist. Now for the past 30 years he has been mining the rich lode of satirical denunciation and theological affirmation embedded in the Christian humanist tradition. But because such a theology begins with the human quest for the divine rather than with God’s own self-manifestation, it is susceptible to the misdirection which I think Percy’s later work suffers from. For when the search is not successful, or when humans refuse even to pursue it, bitter despair may result. What is far worse, the seeker may become romantically more enamored with the journey than the destination. But the deeper strain of Percy’s Christian humanism sounds another chord altogether: the exultant conviction that we long for the grace of God not because of our own capacity for it, but because we have already been found by it.

A Quest for Truth

After the suicide of his father and the death of his mother in an automobile accident, the young Walker Percy and his two brothers were adopted by a distant kinsman named William Alexander Percy. This remarkable Mississippian -- soldier, farmer, lawyer, teacher, poet, civic leader and above all aristocrat -- put his indelibly humanist stamp on his foster son. Percy calls him "the most remarkable man I have ever known" and confesses that he owes him "a debt that cannot be paid." Yet Percy spent much of his early manhood seeking to escape what was stultifying in the humanism of his Uncle Will -- seeking not so much to repudiate it as to overcome its theological vapidity.

Percy’s religious crisis seems to have been precipitated by the tuberculosis he contracted during the early ‘40s while working as a pathologist in New York city. He spent five years in a slow convalescence. Confined largely to his bed and forced to confront the meaning both of his own life and of a world rending itself in war, Percy began to read omnivorously, especially the works of Dostoevsky. For the first time he was free to question his own serene faith in science, to seek the ultimate answers which three years of psychoanalysis had not provided, and even to decide whether to pursue the medical career he had begun.

Percy was clearly a man at a loss over what to do with himself. With the aid of an independent income, he lived for a while in Santa Fe, came back to the south to marry a Mississippi woman, moved with her to the hills of Tennessee near Sewanee, returned to dwell in the Garden District of New Orleans, and finally settled with his family across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, Louisiana. But all the while he was intensely, almost hermetically, absorbed in books and ideas.

The upshot of the matter is that Percy chose to become a writer rather than a doctor. His passionate quest for truth led him to convert, in 1947, to the Catholic faith. This religious and intellectual renewal meant that Percy was possessed of a vision which he wanted to articulate not only for himself but also for the edification of others. It was, moreover, a Christian humanist vision which enabled him to reconcile his old science with his new faith and to reappropriate his Uncle Will’s humanism in a religious framework.

The Gift of Speech

Percy wrote essays long before he turned to fiction. His philosophical efforts have been collected into a volume -- The Message in the Bottle (1975) -- which reveals, it least indirectly, the fully Catholic character of Percy’s work. He begins his theological reconstruction with a study of human possibility, not with divine revelation. His Christian humanism rests, in fact, on the conviction that theology has validity only if it can be rooted in an appropriate anthropology.

Confronting the linguists and behaviorists on their own territory, Percy attempts to demonstrate how, with the gift of speech, our species makes a quantum leap out of animality. In speaking, we cease to respond as Pavlovian beasts and become creatures capable of sadness and joy, remembrance and anticipation, damnation and beatitude. In short, the image of God takes unique and observable shape in the human.

The work of Søren Kierkegaard provided, moreover, a strange ally for Percy’s spiritual restoration. Indeed, his reading of the great Dane had nothing less than a transformative effect. For all his radical Protestant insistence on the nonsacramental encounter with God in the lonely leap of faith, Kierkegaard served to confirm Percy’s Catholic humanism. He taught Percy that the uniquely human self can provide the basis for a recovered religious faith. Kierkegaard galvanized Percy’s own thought by showing him that the self is a slippery combination of actuality and possibility. It is always sliding off into one sinful extreme or the other unless it is transparently grounded in the reality of God.

The aim of Walker Percy’s work as a whole is to re-establish the validity of a Christian humanism that has been displaced by a vapid secular substitute. This theological animus makes Percy’s fiction at once satirical, meditative and redemptive. Not until we have been disabused of our spurious humanism, Percy believes, can an authentic humanity emerge. Hence his slashing critique of our banal talk about human dignity and the quality of life when we have not the faintest notion of what might give the individual ultimate importance or make life irreducibly sacred. His satirical fiction sounds a last-hour alarm to awaken us from our spiritual somnolence, from the unconscious despair which thinks all is well when in fact we may be lost and damned.

But Percy can turn his rapier wit as much upon himself as upon the madding crowd. His narrators all seem, in fact, to be fictional versions of himself. They tell their stories less by way of well-plotted action than by wry reflections on the meaning of their lives and times. Indeed, Percy’s novels might be called fictionalized essays, so much more do they rely on an authorial assessment of the human condition than on a narration of intrinsically exciting events. Percy’s fiction is characterized, above all, by a confessional tone that implies his own entrapment in our common malaise. The redemptive power of his novels derives less, therefore, from a proposal of concrete remedies than from an admission of our illness. But that is at least half the cure.

Denouncing a Bogus Humanism

The false humanism plaguing us assumes, fore Percy, two principal though unequal forms. The first and less pernicious is the ethical humanism that nourished him as a youth, whose values he still reveres, but whose religious banality he also laments. For unless its noble stress on human courage and honor is given theological grounding, Percy fears, it will be left dangling in the air. The far more insidious disease is what Percy calls scientific humanism -- that rough consensus of both humanistic and technical thought which has seeped into every corner of American life, convincing us that we are creatures adjusting to a habitat, fulfilling ourselves from resources latent within the environment.

Percy’s fiction constitutes a withering denunciation of our bogus humanism. His satirical sabotage is undertaken in the name of that "true humanism." as Maritain called it, which alone can account for both the terrible perversion and the wondrous exaltation of human life as it exists before God. The whole of Percy’s work bears the urgency of this twin critique and corrective, but it is displayed most convincingly in his first and third novels, The Moviegoer (1961) and Love in the Ruins (1971).

Much of The Moviegoer’s interest centers on the relation between the narrator, a young stockbroker named Binx Bolling, and the aunt who has been his spiritual mentor. Her name is Emily Cutrer, and she is a virtual parody of William Alexander Percy, Walker’s own spiritual father. Like Uncle Will, she is a person of sterling moral probity and intellectual culture: she has taught Binx to reverence the Platonic dialogues, to love classical music and literature, and to cherish what Faulkner called "the old verities and eternal truths of the heart." Not for a moment, however, does she believe that the ancient virtues are grounded in ultimate reality. Being a good Stoic, she understands the impermanence of all things, the sure collapse of civilization, and the final return of nature to its original chaos.

Her litany of the coming doom might have been drawn straight from the pages of Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy’s celebrated memoir of southern life. For Aunt Emily also shares Uncle Will’s stern ethical humanism in its paradoxical regard for defeat as its finest justification. These self-sufficing souls can fight for order and justice and decency even knowing that they are fated to unsuccess. For only in the waging of losing battles can one’s steely selfhood be fixed against the deluge to come. Thus does Aunt Emily beseech her nephew to face the new barbarism with a fierce determination to go down fighting, even to relish the inevitable loss as proof of virtue and honor.

This high ethical summons is largely lost on Binx. Though he admires what Aunt Emily stands for, he cannot fathom her single-minded devotion to a goodness that has no ultimate basis. Her confident humanism has failed, in fact, to register with Binx ever since his brother Scotty died many years earlier. It was then that Aunt Emily had first counseled the young Binx to bear his sorrow with an unquivering chin. He knew that he could, if necessary, play the trooper. But even as a child he wanted to know if that were all he was supposed to do. Where, Binx wished to ask, had his dead brother gone? If, as Stoics like Aunt Emily believe, he has simply been reabsorbed into the circumambient nothingness, why is human life not absurd and worthless? Why, indeed, should Binx do anything at all, except perhaps -- like his father -- kill himself?

The Gift of Grace

The problem of suicide is a major preoccupation of Walker Percy’s fiction. It figures significantly in all five of his novels, usually as sons are haunted by the memory of their own fathers’ refusal to go on with life. And in most cases those who have committed self-slaughter are humanists who finally cannot sustain their self-sufficiency against either the decadence of the age or their own failure to find meaning in life.

Suicide was, of course, a supreme virtue among the Stoics. Percy himself seems to have a high regard for it as at least an honest cry of desperation as opposed to the dull oblivion in which most people remain sunk. The narrator of Love in the Ruins experiences a certain relief, in fact, after having unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life. He finds himself spiritually at home in the hospital ward for the insane, where he and his fellow inmates are free to acknowledge the misery which most of us suppress. Insofar as the problem of despair is overcome at all in Percy’s fiction, it is through a confession that we are indeed "prisoners and exiles," as he calls us -- wanderers and wayfarers who cannot avoid the quest for God and who thus must be ever waiting and watching, and listening for manifestations of the Holy in the most unlikely places.

Binx Rolling avoids this serious search for as long as he possibly can. He fends off the ultimate curiosity by living either as a gentle amoralist who cares only for "drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh," or else as a mock-bourgeois conformist who keeps witty vigilance against litter-bugs, smelly armpits, and the seven signs of cancer. Finally, however, Boiling cannot sustain his antic avoidance of the religious question which Aunt Emily’s ethical humanism forces upon him. He cannot escape, in short, the hounding reality of the God whose cleverest ruse is what Binx calls "the dim dazzling trick of grace."

Its sly operation is revealed to him as he watches a black man attending an Ash Wednesday service. He is there at the white man’s church either to make his way up in the world or else to perform a genuine act of penance. It is impossible to say which. The irony is that he probably goes, like the rest-of us, for his own selfish reasons but receives, unexpectedly, the gift of grace instead. "God’s importunate bonus," Binx calls it. Only when Binx himself obliquely receives this gift can he take up the morally responsible life which, in Aunt Emily’s ethical humanism, remains without transcendent sanction or support.

On the Brink of Spiritual Disaster

Ethical humanism is far from being the main source of our spiritual malaise. In his most recent work Percy has come, in fact, more to honor than to seek a corrective for it. His real satirical spleen is reserved for the scientific humanism which, in his view, has permeated every pore of our national life, Our schools and churches, our social and governmental agencies -- even the armed forces! -- have as their common goal the creation of caring and sharing persons who have not a twinge of self-doubt, much less of transcendent judgment or hope.

Far and away the funniest of Percy’s satirical salvos against our deadening scientific humanism is found in Love in the Ruins. Set during the week of July 4, 1983 -- at the apocalyptic edge of Orwell’s predicted end of the modern experiment -- the novel seemed a piece of zany hyperbole when it was published in 1971. A decade later it reads like palpable prophecy. Dr. Thomas More, the narrator who is also a lineal descendant of the Renaissance humanist-saint, envisions an America on the brink of a spiritual disaster whose reality few can doubt.

Wolves howl in the streets of Cleveland. Buzzards circle New Orleans seeking carrion. Vines sprout up through cracks in the interstates. Parking lots lie full of moldering cars. Ours is a country, More laments, where you can buy anything but can get nothing fixed. It is neither Nietzsche nor Marx who has done us in. America is dying for want of repairmen! We are, in sum, a nation where the venerable Christian humanist center has not held. Things have not just fallen apart, as Yeats said; they have split into warring camps. And a spiritual monstrousness has been loosed upon the land.

The Roman Catholic Church has splintered into the relativizers whose chief concern is to justify the right of priests to remarry, and the Americanizers whose papacy is located in Cicero, whose Latin mass culminates with the singing of the national anthem, and whose high feast day is Property Rights Sunday. Among Protestants, the mainline churches have virtually abdicated to the God-hucksters of radio and TV. These bouncy boosters specialize in golf tournaments whose promotional slogan is "Jesus Christ the Greatest Pro of Them All."

In politics the Republicans have changed their name to the Knothead Party, adopting as their motto an updated version of Goldwater’s 1964 call to arms: "No man can be too knotheaded in the service of his country." They have also enacted laws requiring compulsory prayer in the all-black public schools and providing birth-control programs for Africa, Asia and Alabama. The Democrats, for their part, have renamed themselves the LEFTPAPASANEs -- an acronym standing for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Antipollution, Sex, Abortion Now, and Euthanasia.

The point of this visionary invective -- indeed, Percy’s keenest satirical insight -- is that there is very little difference between left and right in America, between secularist and churchgoer, liberal and conservative. The apparent opposites are, in fact, but mirror images. Both sides accept that beastly humanism which regards our species as anthropoids. Except in lonely outposts of faith -- the crippled child Lonnie in The Moviegoer, the fierce nun Val in The Last Gentleman, the firewatching Father Smith with his remnant of faithful Catholics in Love in the Ruins -- the old Christian humanist vision is dead. The worlds of reason and revelation now seem hopelessly divided.

Rage and Romanticism

Percy’s fiction makes opposing responses to this cultural and spiritual breakdown -- one dark and caustic, the other bright and cheering. The baleful underside of Percy’s Christian humanist faith is prone to explode in wrath at the deadness of our age. Binx Boiling vents his rage, for instance, by calling ours "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." And Tom More grows so impatient at our loss of true humanity that he seeks to invent a machine which will physically bind our riven selves whole again.

Percy’s forbearance seems to have worn exceedingly thin and frazzled in his last two novels. For while he keeps his authorial distance from the angry narrator of Lancelot, there is no mistaking Percy’s basic sympathy with his Nietzschean madman who prefers war to "what this age calls love" and who had rather "die with T. J. Jackson at Chancellorsville [than] live with Johnny Carson in Burbank." Infuriated by the moral decadence he finds about him, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar determines to create a stern new morality of his own, a revived courtly righteousness which will put an end to the American baboon colony, as he calls it, where men and women cohabit as indiscriminately as characters in a soap opera.

Percy has described this novel as a "cautionary tale." He means, perhaps, that his own affinities lie not with Lancelot and his lunatic ravings, but with Percival, the psychiatrist-priest who patiently lets Lamar howl himself out. Even so, the novel leaves the dominant impression that Percy expects our world to be incinerated not by a fanatic terrorist or a games-playing Dr. Strangelove, but by a thoroughly moral man who can no longer stomach the spiritual softness which makes most of us, as Baudelaire said, unworthy even of damnation.

If Percy’s satirical outlook is given on the one hand to an almost misanthropic scorn, it is susceptible on the other to a sentimental hopefulness. When the human quest for God seems doomed to unsuccess, one can become either soreheaded or sweet. Mark Twain’s description of a cynic as a romantic on all fours is reversible: a romantic is also a cynic turned happy. Percy’s latest novel, The Second Coming, evinces such an unfortunate romanticism.

When a retired stockbroker finds salvation between the thighs of a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, there is cause for alarm. This is especially true in Percy’s work; repeatedly he has ridiculed the notion that sexual ecstasy is the goal of mutual love. At best it is a serendipitous by-product. Nor does Barrett’s newfound happiness have much to do with the ordinary world of work and worship, of politics and the family, where real faith is tested and confirmed. Barrett is alarmingly gnostic in his determination to transcend both species of contemporary "assholes" -- the Christians who blandly believe everything and the atheists who fatuously believe nothing. Yet in his desire to avoid the religious rottenness of the age, he becomes its unwitting victim. He indulges in tough Nietzschean talk about seizing the absent God and creating his own higher position above both believers and unbelievers. But Barrett cares only for his own inalienable freedom from any particular belief or permanent commitment.

The Shrine and the Pilgrimage

Alarming as it is, this tendency is not exactly new in Percy. It has been latent in his work from the start. Having begun with the quest for God, Percy’s Christian humanism comes, at its worst, to value the pilgrimage more than the Shrine. What matters is less the Object of the pilgrim’s journey than the subject’s own endlessly interesting peregrination.

The difference between Percy’s early and late fiction is that, whereas the first novels contain figures of authentic faith who call the protagonists’ metaphysical yearning back to its theological base, the last novels depict no such characters of spiritual authority. What I find acutely absent from Percy’s recent work, moreover, is his previous vision of God’s grandeur charging redemptively through the whole dappled creation, drawing all things back unto itself. Even Tom More’s hankering after a pretty nurse could serve, in the vintage Percy, as a sign of this ineluctable divine allurement:

. . . lust gave way to sorrow and I prayed, arms stretched out like a Mexican, tears streaming down my face. Dear God, I can see it now, why can’t I see it at other times, that it is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.

These are the tidings of life rather than death because they tell not so much of our own sovereign search as of God’s gracious giving. Percy at his best understands this utter priority of the heavenly largesse over any earthly reception of it. Perhaps Percy’s Christianity and his humanism remain in conflict precisely because transcendent grace and the human quest for it are not the two halves of a perfect equilibrium. Indeed, their permanent disjunction is our final and funniest hope.

Both Penitence and Celebration

This holy serendipity is nowhere more cheeringly rendered than in the conclusion to Love in the Ruins. In a wondrously ironic reversal, the apocalypse which Thomas More has both feared and prophesied fails to occur. The center does not hold, but neither does it completely disintegrate. And More is left, as we all are, with the task of making life and love in the ruins of our civilization. But he cannot do it on his own. He finds himself, lapsed Catholic though he is, prayerfully if profanely invoking his saintly ancestor. He cries out for deliverance from the machinations of a devil incarnate as a funding expert. "Sir Thomas More, kinsman, saint, best dearest merriest of Englishmen, pray far us and drive this son of a bitch hence." More’s petition is hilariously granted.

In the epilogue, when More goes to have his sins shriven, his meager confession to the priest is that he is sorry "for not being sorry. More has not been spiritually alive enough to have committed egregious sins. On the contrary, he is just barely able to acknowledge that far deadlier evil called apathy: the failure even to register the reality of sin and grace. But this minimal admission -- a bare double negative which in the divine economy amounts to a positive sign of redemption -- releases More to new life. Though still tippling and yet given to a wandering eye, he resumes his abandoned medical practice, marries his nurse and fathers children, takes up a political cause and returns to churchly worship. Yet More enters this gracious new life less because he has sought it than because it has claimed him willy-nilly.

The jovial hope made possible by this comic imbalance between God’s grace and our choosing of it is nicely figured in the novel’s final scene. We last glimpse Tom More on his backyard patio on Christmas Eve 1988. He is there barbecuing in sackcloth, making merry with his wife, "dancing and singing old Sinatra songs and the Salve Regina, cutting the fool like David before the ark or like Walter Huston doing a jig when he struck it rich in the Sierra Madre"

This, I submit, is the true prospect of Walker Percy’s fiction. Neither cynical nor saccharine, it is a vision built on both penitence and celebration before God, beckoning pagan and pilgrim alike.