In Washington, where he was to give the eighteenth Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on May 3, 1989, Walker Percy also gave an interview to Scott Walter for Crisis . This is almost exactly a year before his death, and both the interview and his lecture, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind,” reflect not only his journey up to that point, but a continuing concern for the meaning of the journey and to a degree a continuing ambiguity in his understanding of intellectual experience. He still shares with Binx Bolling an amused wonder in the presence of experience, still somewhat divided of mind as to the dependability of immediate experience, a condition suited to the novelist. Perhaps the point can best be presented by noticing the divided sense in which Percy uses the term liberal in his interview.
A problem arises in his discomfort with the liberal mind, with which he nevertheless shares causes. “I agree with them on almost everything: their political and social causes, and the ACLU, God knows, the right to freedom of speech, to help the homeless, the poor, the minorities.” But the liberal position on abortion and euthanasia is “a mystery, a bafflement to me.” Their “hearts are in the right place,” but “they cannot see the paradox of being in favor of these good things and yet not batting an eyelash when it comes to destroying unborn life.”
First of all, there is a question here as to whether we are dealing with a paradox or with a contradiction. But a more troubling question is whether the “liberal” whom Percy has in mind addresses the causes he accepts enthusiastically in the same manner of intellectual deportment to those causes as Percy does. For this “liberal” may in actuality deport himself to good causes and bad without discrimination, so that his attitude toward abortion or euthanasia is neither paradoxical nor contradictory. In other words, it is possible that one may deport oneself, even to good causes, without one’s heart being “in the right place.” That is the climactic recognition of T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket at the edge of martyrdom, who in horror steps back from the most subtle treason to the soul, that is, doing “the right thing for the wrong reason.”
These words of Percy’s about his “liberal” friends and acquaintances occur after some talk in the interview about tenderness . Mr. Walter has asked whether Percy meant a tribute to Flannery O’Connor in Fr. Smith’s words in Thanatos Syndrome : “Don’t you know where tenderness leads? . . . It leads to the gas chamber.” He’d like to give Miss O’Connor the credit, Percy responds, but it wasn’t a conscious use. He had in mind his own experience of the German people as “extremely sentimental,” possessed of a “tremendous tenderness.” And he emphasizes here, as he does in other interviews, the comparison implied in his last novel between the Western liberal and the Weimar Republic liberal in relation to the effects of Weimar tenderness as executed in Nazi Germany and our own obsession with the right to abortion. “Nothing offends the American liberal more than being compared to the German liberals of the Weimar Republic.” He cites The Defense of the Destruction of Life Without Value , by two “liberal Weimar doctors,” emphasizing that it appeared in what was “probably the most liberal democracy in Europe.” What Percy knows is that the “whole notion [of euthanasia and abortion] is very reasonable without the Christian ethic.” To talk of “the sacredness of life,” unless “you really mean it,” cannot but support the improvement of life by the systematic eradication of people whose “quality of life” is inferior. One can, in defense of the sacredness of life, be suddenly in the position of executing the program of the liberal Weimar doctors, which of course comes to pass under Nazi rule, under “national socialism.”
We may begin by correcting the citation of Flannery O’Connor, who is very careful in what she says of tenderness . The quoted passage is from her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann . Castigating a “popular piety” such as associated with liberalism in its political and social rhetoric, she says that we “mark our gain in sensibility and our loss of vision,” in that having lost faith, “we govern by tenderness,” a tenderness “wrapped in theory.” And then her precise words: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness [i.e., Christ] its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” The important point is that tenderness is not the problem in itself, for tenderness properly oriented is a desirable deportment toward creation. But when that manifestation of disoriented tenderness occurs again as dissipated by an almost universal acceptance of abortion, Mother Teresa is right to say (as Percy quotes her): “If a mother can kill her unborn child, I can kill you, and you can kill me.” Since Mother Teresa spoke these words, we note, euthanasia as a public policy has been submitted to plebiscite in our own country. The issue, then, is not tenderness, no better example of which is among us than Mother Teresa’s, but the distortion of that sentiment by separating it from its source in Christ, which separation Flannery O’Connor characterizes as sentimentality.
The general sense of experience in our age, the most common bond among our separated selves, is the sense of a derangement, and Percy (among others) finds this an effect of the Cartesian displacement of consciousness. What we are left with, let us say, is a residual element of sentiment, an intuitive inclination to tenderness, that finds no proper orientation in respect either to nature or to human nature. Tenderness separated from the source of tenderness thus supports a “popular piety” that goes unexamined, a piety in which liberalism in its decline establishes dogmatic rights, rights that in an extreme”as presently in the arguments for abortion in the political sphere and for “popular culture” in the academic”become absolute dogma to be accepted and not examined. To examine that dogma might perhaps serve to restore tenderness to its proper source. Indeed, the attempt at that rescue and restoration is the disturbing aspect of Percy’s fiction, disturbing to the “liberal” mind in its common manifestation among us.
What is somewhat discomfiting about Percy as dialectician”and the dialectical is the principal aspect of his fiction, as well as central to his other work, including his interviews”is his seeming inconstancy in holding the advocates of tenderness to account in their various causes, even those separate from euthanasia and abortion, those other causes to which he himself is committed. Those are causes he tends to ally himself with”but precisely out of his commitment to the “source of tenderness.” Despite his confession of sympathy to shared causes, he does not actually “agree with [the liberals] on almost everything.” To help the homeless, the blacks”that is, minorities as abstractions”to defend free speech with Pavlovian tenderness, is far from Percy’s own ground of defense. He has been incisive, for instance, in castigating that species of abortion and euthanasia practiced upon language in the name of semiotics, a destruction of language now raised to an academic principle.
To do the right thing (to clothe the poor and comfort the widow) for the wrong reason is the greatest treason. But it is most destructively a treason to the would-be comforter’s own soul. With this, Percy would undoubtedly agree. Walter, in the course of his interview, asks Percy his reaction to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind , remarking Bloom’s original title, Soul Without Longing , and recalling Father James Schall’s quip that the title should be Longing Without Soul . (Of Bloom, Percy remarks, “I suspect he is a nihilist.”) If we take Father Schall’s pointed jest and explore it in relation to Walker Percy’s own long journey, we see the heart of Percy’s concern, a concern central to his fascination with the mystery of sign, of language, in relation to the reality we experience either by a deportment through ordinate sentiment to reality or a deportment of sentimentality, that is, a manner divorced from reality.
What we might say is that the modern condition of the person is of a soul longing for its recovery as soul, longing for an escape from the reductionism of person to mere self , to consciousness disoriented from reality. And we find Percy wrestling with this condition not only in his concern for semiotics, but in his own ambiguous address to himself as Southern writer. In taking up this strain of his thought, his “Southernness,” I must make it clear at once that I myself am centrally concerned with “Southernness,” by which I do not mean a limited historical or geographical reduction to the local accidents of place. My own position is that we are born provincial but if blessed in our labors by grace may become regionalists. That is, we may at last come to some accommodation in our necessary journeying, our wayfaring in time and space, in relation to the present realities of explicit time and place that are always conditions to our actual existence as persons. Much more is involved, I contend, in respect to Percy as “Southerner” than his inclination to credit to his “Southernness” only the texture of his fictions, as he is inclined to do. On this question, there is much more to say. Meanwhile, however, we take up his response to Scott Walter’s question about himself as Southerner.
In discussing the loss of culture, manners, belief”once associated with the American South as stereotypical, in contrast to the North as the “land of industry””Percy remarks the dissolving of those differences, though in some degree they once obtained in our history. He says, however, that now his grandchildren are “like the kids in Dubuque, Iowa.” That this sea change has occurred, I believe, is an effect of “liberal” sentimentality, by which I mean to suggest at once that the Iowa children suffer as well as the Louisiana Percy children. The “Christian scandal,” Percy says in this interview, is its “emphasis on individual human life.” Without that scandalous emphasis, anything goes, including the gas chambers. The importance of encounter of person with immediate existence, the accommodation to this place and this time, which is so heavy a theme in recent literature of the American South, is exactly the issue, though reduced in its implications whenever frozen in our accounting for it by a reduction to mere history or geography. That is, the concern requires a metaphysical perspective beyond the account of history or naturalistic geography.
The liberal response of tenderness, then, which makes the Louisiana child and the Iowa child hardly distinguishable in their manifestations in time and place, begins with a denial of personhood in its fundamental actuality. Put briefly, sentimentality is a distortion of proper sentiment as oriented by the realities of time and place and thus a distortion of significant creation. It begins with a dislocated emphasis on egalitarianism, a shifting of perspective from the essence of personhood to the accidents of personhood in a reductionism of discrete entities to identities of each other in the name of “equality.” It is accomplished through a nominalism in service to pragmatic attempts to restructure the accidents of existence, under the mistaken supposition that accident is substance. Thus the dislocation of sign from reality by nominalism makes ready the manipulations of gnostic intellect. Required: an assault on and dislocation of the sign in its relation to the actuality of the signifier (the sign user) by the removal of meaning in sign. Through that subversion the proper relation of personhood to the present reality is destroyed. There is no better instance of the point than the effect of the media in reducing the diversely known by actual personal experience to a putative sameness. To hear the media tell it, the Des Moines child and the Louisiana child are identities, not persons, a manipulation possible through the sentimentality attaching to an abstraction, “child.” That distortion involves, in its reaches, even the reduction of the voice of signs, the reduction to a common “accent.”
Indeed, in the leveling of “North” and “South” following the most recent invasion of the South by the North as the new “land of industry” there develop “schools” devoted to removing “Southern” accents from employees. Now in this dislocation of a person from the immediacy of place, he is left with mere “feeling” toward whatever object of attention is not the self. Feeling replaces the possibility of a full communion in being itself with that which is not the self. To suppose, then, that the actual South known by the novelist and used by him makes him a “Southern writer” only insofar as he uses that knowledge as a matter convenient to his form is to misunderstand the complexity of place to the soul. It is to misunderstand the nature of man as a wayfarer who must learn not only to be at a place but in a place as well.
And that is the tensional conflict in Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer . Here lies the center of the mystery of our existence as person, as wayfarer in time and place, Percy’s continuous theme. About that theme he expresses himself ambiguously as often as not. The ambiguity enriches the fiction, surely. And expressing himself so, he associates himself with his protagonists in a complexity echoing the relation of James Joyce to his Stephen. What is meant by this cryptic analogy we may discover in turning to Binx as Percy comments on him in another interview, one in which he talks with French critics in a trans- Atlantic conversation on December 3, 1986, in which Judlyn Liffy of Worldnet conducted a televised exchange between Walker Percy and a gathering of French scholars. The occasion was the inclusion of The Moviegoer on the reading list in English and American literature for that year’s examination in Agregation d’Anglais for future teachers. Percy, he was told by the panel’s moderator, Professor Claude Richard of the University of Montpellier, was included with such notables as “Shakespeare, John Donne, Oliver Goldsmith, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Dashiell Hammett.” To be on that reading list, Professor Richard said, “is, in France, like ultimate recognition.” With that preparation, Professor Richard propounded the first question, the one Percy had to contend with from his early recognition as novelist to the end: “Do you consider yourself as a Southern writer and, if so, what features of your work do you regard as peculiarly Southern?”
After a mannerly response to the honor of being included on the reading list, Percy answered the question that never would go away. It would not go away in large part because it was a question gnawing at the root of his own intellectual blossoming, a question he had come to but uncertain terms with in an earlier interview, the now-famous one with himself. There he both asked the questions and answered them, in a self-interrogation that rejected questions about his “Southernness” and yet returned inescapably to that question. For the panel of French scholars he responds, “Yes, of course I am a Southern writer.” But he is so “in the sense that I depend on my Southern background for the decor, the setting, the sense of place which any novelist must have.” And, given his audience perhaps, he adds at once: “I owe less to Faulkner and Southern writers and indeed American writers than to certain French writers: to be specific, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, and to go back a way, Blaise Pascal.”
In matters intellectual it is of course, as Percy well knew, most difficult to sort out one’s influences. Nor does it help much to give an accounting of one’s debt to particular thinkers, since such an attention to one’s relation to other minds in the intellectual community, whose life is continuous in time and beyond discrete place through the mystery of sign itself, violates the reality necessary to that community. One is not so much indebted to a particular mind in imitation of that mind as he is an inheritor of truth about reality insofar as that mind has cogently expressed it and turned one to desire the truth of things. There is surely, between Percy and Faulkner, a shared climate of thought about time and place as manifested in their fictions, and there is certainly a common concern for Southern stoicism between them. There is as well a recognition of that climate as encountered in Faulkner on the part of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre reveals this recognition in his essays on Faulkner. This climate of intellectual concern with time and place, for instance, which dominates discussions of “Southern” literature at a largely superficial level, is inescapable to human experience of existence itself, whatever one’s “South.” It is crucial, at last, to any person’s understanding of his own nature and is not reserved as what “any novelist must have.”
Percy recognizes this mystery of our immaterial (intellectual) nature as involved in our material (incarnate) nature as the combining of person through the soul, which St. Thomas defines as the substantial form of the body. Person is thus necessarily situated circumstantially in a time and a place, a mystery Percy explores in his concern for the word, the sign. It is the concern that led him along the way to accept the Word made flesh. In his colloquy with the French professors, then, he must have anticipated their next question, as often asked as the one about his being a Southern writer: are you a Catholic writer? And to this he gives an answer analogous to his first. His being Catholic as a writer has to do “not so much with explicit faith or transmitting an explicit faith in my writings as it has to do with what I would call an anthropology.” He is not speaking of anthropology in the American sense, the sense that spawns much of the American discussion about his Southernness, but rather of that intellectual concern”more typically European”for “a view of man, of a theory of man, man as more than an organism, as more than consumer, man as Gabriel Marcel describes him, a ‘homo viator,’ man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.”
It is no accident that Percy summons Flannery O’Connor to such questions as well; but unlike her, he does not anchor his response in St. Augustine and St. Paul (we have here no abiding place) nor in St. Thomas, whose argument is insistent that the poet’s, the artist’s, responsibility is to the good of the thing being made, not with the correction of appetites in his audience. What lies behind Percy’s limitation of his answer, one suspects, is his sense of membership in that recent intellectual community concerned with man the wayfarer, a community descended most directly from Kierkegaard to that French intellectual who has been much celebrated in the academy as Existentialist. Flannery O’Connor, too, is sometimes concerned with that particular community of thought, and rather devastating in her satirical treatment of it. Her Bible salesman, for instance, in “Good Country People” may be said to make the point that one need not have a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne to believe in nothing. He “was born believing in nothing.” Such a recognition allowed Miss O’Connor a somewhat more immediate access to “place” than Percy at first enjoyed. His is a journey from which he comes home at last by way of European thought of a recent vintage.
What began to be more and more certain for him was that the wayfarer is precisely that because of the circumstances of time and place, the wayfarer being one who wanders from place to place. But he seems increasingly to have realized that the wandering was primarily a journey of the mind. To have settled in Feliciana in Louisiana and lived there so many years, only reluctantly leaving that temporary home to go to Washington, D.C. or Notre Dame, or even abroad, allowed him a more manageable journey as a wayfarer within the immediate, the local, the concrete. For such is the great scandal to man, as he said in the Washington interview, of an “emphasis on individual life” (and here he means that Christian sense of personhood). There is the added scandal: that such an individual life can exist only in some place. Every thing has to be some place , and a person does not escape place by moving, as so many of the early American expatriates thought possible in moving to France.
Such was Percy’s recognition as he talked to the panel of French scholars about himself as a Southern, Catholic writer, and he used his first protagonist, Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer, to talk about his own “identity.” His concern is at a level deeper than the American anthropological concern with “religion” and “race” and “local history,” the usual limits of his interlocutor’s interest. Binx is a figure of modern man as wanderer. That is, Binx is deracinated, though he cannot escape his history and he is rather restricted geographically. The local signifies to him, but only when it is a part of that strange abstractionism practiced upon the local by the movie. He is fascinated by the movie’s accommodation to place whereby place seems at last made real. It is made real not in itself, but through the images projected on a screen. One cannot escape a metaphorical analogue to Binx: the parable of Plato’s cave. And to be reminded of that parable is to recognize Binx as a wanderer within a limited local compass: a small geography that provides all the complexity of place as one might discover that complexity the world over, insofar as man is wayfarer, that is, insofar as man is a soul seeking its cause as a “self.” What is missing is a recognition of the full sun upon reality, to be encountered only if one abandons the tunnel vision of the self trapped in the cave of self- awareness, the Cartesian curse.
It is clear that Percy feels toward Binx as a father to a son, seeing more of himself in Binx than he might admit under direct questioning, though that kinship emerges in his own self-questioning interview. Here to the French scholars he says, for instance, that out of Binx’s sense of dislocation he is searching for some way (in Binx’s words) to “stick” himself “into the world.” In his later interview on the occasion of the Jefferson Lecture, he speaks of modern man as deranged , the literal sense of that term most appropriate to the Cartesian dislocation of intellect that has effected our displacement from the proper range of our being in the world. What, he asks, “are the options for characters living in a deranged world in which the Church is no longer regnant, no longer terribly important in many places?” That is the question initiating his several protagonists’ quests as wayfarers, whether Will Barrett’s journey to New York City and points North and his return to his baffling South, or Binx Bolling’s wanderings about New Orleans.
Binx, Percy tells his French admirers in his trans-Atlantic interview, is playing a certain game, though he “doesn’t know it.” He is “doing what Kierkegaard would call exercises in repetition and rotation . . . . He is a victim of your great Rene Descartes, to whom I attribute many of the troubles of the modern world.” But what is significant to Binx’s journeying is his quest for signification: he “looks for signs.” And, with a foreshadowing of the same concern for sign that Percy pursues in Thanatos Syndrome , Binx finds one particular sign to be his “particular way of thinking of the Jews.” Try as he may, he cannot subsume them by sign. They escape “the theories of the books,” being always something more than can be said of them by words. Binx recognizes a kinship here that escapes his understanding of himself as dislocated in time and place in relation to the Wandering Jew, who is not a literary shibboleth but a reality eluding his grasp. He feels a kinship that evades him. As for this dislocation in Binx, Percy says, “I balance the question very delicately between the hero or the protagonists of most of my novels.” The question is the meaning of dislocation itself.
As for Binx specifically, his “real dislocation” is “from the ordinary modes of existence in America; existence as consumer, as recipient of all the goods and services of technology.” But it is more complex, this dislocation, since Binx is “an exile from his own traditions. I placed him very consciously as a certain consciousness placed between two traditions in the South. One is from his father’s side . . . a very strong ethical stoic tradition which owes less to Christianity than it does to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the stoic philosophers . . . . The other tradition is his mother’s family which is middle-class bourgeois New Orleans Catholic.” In dramatizing Binx as dislocated intellectual, Percy raises the delicate question: “Who is dislocated”are the consumers, the businessmen, the professional men, the happy scientists who are busy; busy with their various works?” The answer to that question for Percy is that all are dislocated. All are dislocated by the very nature of human existence which necessitates one’s being a wayfarer. He adds, “Maybe the philosophical progenitor is Pascal who said ‘To be born and to live is to be dislocated.’“
The agony in wayfaring is the difficulty of orientation, which Binx solves inadequately by his obsession with moviegoing, his Kierkegaardian repetition and rotation. Percy implies its inadequacy in calling our attention to the time-span of his novel, “the two or three days at the end of the Mardi Gras season.” And the last scene on the last day is an occasion of an epiphany, not only in the Joycean sense, but in the O’Connor sense as well. On Ash Wednesday, Binx, whose talent as observer of other people’s wanderings is (as he says) “to see the way people stick themselves into the world,” observes a black man leaving a church, a smudge on his forehead. It is a moment revealing of Binx’s displaced Cartesian awareness, in which he observes others and sees with a detachment that excludes him from the world into which those others insert themselves. It is Kate, practiced in observing Binx at his own detached observation, who most nearly draws him into the world, by recognizing the nature of the “game” Binx is playing in his Kierkegaardian exercises of repetition and rotation. The two moments: first, Binx’s seeing the black man leaving the church after Ash Wednesday ritual, with an acceptance of the necessity, as Binx would have it, of “inserting himself into the world”; second, Binx’s own ceremony of moviegoing whereby he seems to come to terms with place but in actuality does not. It is this latter moment that Kate explores. Binx’s fascination with movies, she tells him, lies in their certifying place as a reality. Place , the old problem of “Southernness” which is independent as a problem to any wayfaring man of any specific geography, as it is independent of any specific time in the history of place.
What Binx thinks to have accomplished experientially through his moviegoing is a rescue of place from its encumbrance by consciousness itself. It is a way of dissolving, as it were, the detachment from place, a moment of rest from wayfaring in which, as Kate says, place reveals its “peculiar reality.” What his experience of place through the movies seems to overcome is that burden upon place which, as Percy remarks, is the Heideggerian “everydayness.” Place seems in its reality transformed, and by the mystery of the movie as an art form. It is in this context of Binx’s wonder that the momentary encounter with the sojourner on the church steps reveals both Binx’s hunger and the inadequacy of the food his hunger finds. For truth is the proper food of intellect, and the existential food proves ersatz, as Percy suspects, though he is never quite able himself to escape its attraction. He is drawn to it always, as some of us are to McDonald burgers. Binx’s “theory of certification,” as Percy calls it, implies a search underway”very much Percy’s own”whose object seems now near, now impossibly far away. But that sense of nearness or farness is teasing always, insofar as it always appears in our experience of time and place.
Let us say that the search, which is common to us all by our very given natures as created intellect, is for a valid self-forgetting in which place and time are real beyond geography and history. The adjacent world in this moment seems always inadequate to the desire, but only inasmuch as the wayfarer cannot escape the ambiance that his own consciousness imposes upon place in relation to his own awareness, that Heideggerian “everydayness.” That is the obstacle to visionary encounter with place, a conspicuous manifestation of which is Descartes’ legacy to Western thought. What is desired, and made possible to homo viator through this moment in this place, is a visionary encounter, first with being and, necessarily consequential to that encounter, with the Cause of being. That is why the moment’s encounter with the worshiper on the church steps is profoundly important, though but a moment’s encounter to Binx. The deep is not necessarily the long or the large. Magnitude is, at last, not dependent on time-space, though Binx stops shy of that recognition and not many readers will themselves appreciate the dramatic burden carried by that brief encounter in the action of Percy’s first novel.
The significant analogue to Binx’s fascination with the movie is the Mass. The movie is the Cartesian reductionist version of reality, a substitute for the Mass, through which Binx attempts to certify his own validity as person. In the end, we might say, the rival philosophers are more ancient than those Percy cites in discussing his work in this interview. Rather than Descartes, Pascal, Kierkegaard, the French Existentialists, they are Plato and Aquinas, for the polarity in Binx’s tensional quest is that between Idealism and Realism. The problem is older than Descartes and Pascal, as it is older than Aquinas and Plato as well, the wanderer’s seeking an encounter of the timeless under the burden of time, the abiding under the burden of fading place.
This issue, and the inadequacy of Binx’s solution at this point of his journey, is spoken to with subtle irony in relation to the movie “hero,” with implications beyond Binx’s understanding. Percy says to the French scholars: “Living in an ordinary neighborhood . . . one is uncertified: one goes about one’s business; one sees the same people who are, more or less, alive”maybe more dead than alive; victim to what Heidegger would call ‘everydayness.’ And yet when this very same, ordinary scene is represented in the movies, it all of a sudden becomes alive; it becomes certified.” Percy is speaking of Binx’s “theory of certification,” but there is at least a degree of consent to that theory in his own speaking. We have seen Binx encounter the Ash Wednesday worshiper. We see him also observing people observe William Holden, on movie location in New Orleans. Binx is interested, says Percy, in “this extraordinary phenomenon”which I am, too”the aura of reality around movie stars who are perhaps the most unreal of all people, in truth.”
One regrets that in the interview Percy did not underline more firmly the relation of this fascination with the unreal as if real, this malaise of the modern mind, by turning to that other hero, who once for all rescued sign in relation to place, the Christ on the altar, in Whom the Word is a presence orienting time and place, the abiding Signpost in the desert. He might well have pointed more sharply to his own wily juxtaposition of signs in the novel, that of the movie’s illusion of reality and the moment’s encounter of the black man on the church steps, the sign of the cross smudged on his forehead with the ashes of the inescapable exile in the wandering season of Lent that is man’s lot as homo viator . But the pointing in an interview, not in the novel itself of course, is the place for remarking the juxtaposition explicitly. In the novel he is attempting the task proper to the poet, the recovery of signifying sign to his reader. In our age, in which we have lost the significance of the mystery in sign, let alone the limited signification of truth in any particular sign, it is not amiss in the poet, when he is confronted by inquisitive theorists and urged to pronounce upon the nature of his peculiar calling”the rescue of sign”to speak directly for that labor Eliot calls the purification of the dialect of the tribe.
That is the task Percy recognized, of course, out of his faith, his orientation through sign to the Word. But in his intellectual exploration as homo viator , he does not always seem to recognize the extent of his own accomplishment in justifying the profound “Southernness” which is always at issue. In this “Southernness” lies an anthropology beyond both the American and, at least since Descartes, the European species of anthropology”a recognition of the wayfarer as created intellect lost and wandering in the desert until he becomes oriented to reality through such signs as may rest their limited significance in specific time and place, as that complex is governed by the Word. The “everydayness” of the elements of the Mass mediate the reality of time and place to intellect, justifying existential reality at last as rescued. The ersatz food of art divorced from its relation to the creating Signifier through being, God, the Cause of moments of time and points of place, at this juncture of my next step on the journey, is poor food indeed. It is in turning from false fare to true that the soul finds the desert abloom. Recovered now “the salt savour of the sandy earth” as “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices” in hope of rescue, as Eliot discovered. That is a considerable step on the way to recognition that “all manner of thing shall be well.” And that is the recognition that Percy, like Eliot before him, comes to in his journeying within the confines of time and place. That is the recognition Percy hints at, in remarking the background of that painted portrait of himself in his self-interview, “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself”: “The no-man’s land barbed wire is not really wire but a briar and it is blooming! A rose!”
Marion Montgomery is a poet, novelist, and critic. The present essay draws on themes from his recently completed book, Walker Percy: The Long Way Toward Home.