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The Walker Percy Project

The Modern Prognosis: Walker Percy Interviewed


The following interview was conducted on the occasion of Walker Percy's delivery of the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment of the Humanities in May 1989, Washington, DC. Below, a short introduction is followed by the interview. Reprinted with permission from Sojourners (May, 1990, original title, "The Novelist's Freedom").

A Brief Foreword by the Interviewer
Just what the "death of God" has meant to the 20th century artist is reflected throughout contemporary literature. In every Walker Percy novel, this core concern is approached with great humor and utmost seriousness. With sociology as the new religion, the deterministic and reductionistic tendencies of the spirit of the age have been the continual focus of his fiction and nonfiction. He has taken Dostoyevsky's maxim: "Without God, all things are permitted," and applied it to modernity in the form of cautionary tales.

Photograph of Walker Percy during Interview with Brent Short

Diagnosis comes as second nature to Percy. Trained as a physician, a convert to Catholicism, his own confinement as a tuberculosis patient was instrumental in his second career as a writer. Having immersed himself in the perspective of modern existentialists and phenomenologist philosophers, his first novel The Moviegoer begins with a quote from Kierkegaard: "...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." The winner of the 1962 National Book Award, The Moviegoer (as well as those to come) would describe the spiritual malaise of the twentieth century juxtaposed against the backdrop of the passing experience of the Old South's mystery and manners.

Like fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor, Percy has not been interested in writing Southern novels where the regional history, dialect, and customs of the South act as mere literary device and decoration. Combining his avocation as a scholar of semiotics (the study of symbols) with his use of the novelistic form, Percy's work continued to reflect his critique of the social sciences as they infiltrate into an increasingly homogenized, technologized popular culture.

In Lost in the Cosmos, a collection of nonfiction essays (1984), Percy takes on the conventional wisdom of the day — a meld of media, new age philosophy and superficial scientism — in the author's own uniquely droll manner, producing a thought-provoking and often hilarious antithesis to the euphemistic answers of the television age. As an allegorist, Percy possessed such a penetrating sense of satire, social critic Robert Coles put it simply: "Walker Percy is a gift."

One of the immense pleasures of reading Percy is that he makes a concentrated effort to not take himself too seriously. He once devoted an essay to the various "existential pleasures" of bourbon, spoofing the pretentiousness of the existential viewpoint, as well as himself at the same time. It's part of the literary cure he prescribes for the sickness of the age.

In an unending search to diagnose the modern malaise, Percy's last two novels The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome specifically concerned themselves with the post-Christian and post-modern West as a culture of death. As a comic writer attracted to the themes of alienation, his protagonists' encounters with their fellow wanderers provide comic relief as well as a way to open up to a more serious antidote. To the discerning reader, hidden within Percy's powerful critique, are subtle and allusive signs of grace.

In his last novel The Thanatos Syndrome, Dr. Thomas More stumbles upon a plot among local scientists to cure the social ills of the commonweal by technological means: loading the water with the chemical Heavy Sodium. In Dr. More's struggle to penetrate a conspiracy of silence and discover his own rightful place as a scientist at the same time, the author posits a most challenging thesis about genocide in the modern age and contemporary scientific mores.

Walker Percy was interviewed during a visit to Washington, D.C., in May 1989 to deliver the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities. His topic was the current disorientation of the scientific mindset in an age of unbelief. The following is a discussion about his study of science, his home state Louisiana, and matters of faith and fiction.

Brent Short: In your novels, you seem to render a diagnosis for the age and the people in it. Has your medical background had a lot to do with that?

Walker Percy: That's a good question. Some people think that the two vocations, the two professions, couldn't be more different — being first, a physician, then ending up as a novelist. I find it very useful to use the same stance — the stance of the physician is that of a diagnostician. His premise, his presumption is when he sees a patient something's wrong. Something's wrong: the question is what's gone wrong, and how do you find out to make a diagnosis. I find that extremely useful in dealing with the present age. Something's clearly wrong, maybe even worse than usual in civilizations. I find it a natural stance from which to write both novels and nonfiction.

BS: In your novels and essays there is a lot of comic satire of science, but a great love and respect for science comes through as well. Would it be possible to separate you as a novelist from Walker Percy the scientist?

WP: Well, I hope not. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I don't have any quarrel with science. In what they do, they do very well. The trouble is the sciences for the last two hundred years have been spectacularly successful in dealing with subhuman reality, subhuman creatures, chemistry and physics of matter, and with extraordinary progress in learning about the cosmos; but also an extraordinary lack of success in dealing with man as man, man qua man. I think it's very curious — here the scientist knows a tremendous amount about everything except what he or she is. Despite the extraordinary successes of science, we do not presently have even the rudiments of a coherent science of man.

BS: What effect do you think popularizers of science and trivializers of social issues in the mass media have had?

WP: I think it's been bad in two different ways. Carl Sagan gives the appearance of knowing a great deal, and people who have read the book [Cosmos] think they've learned a great deal where they've learned very little indeed. Phil Donahue has simply prostituted his profession; he's a very bright man. I think he began very well. Now, he's simply in the sleaze competition with Morton Downey, Jr., and other talk show people, just to see who can beat the other one in the ratings. Mainly, it depends on the sleaze factor.

BS: In The Thanatos Syndrome, the forces of death seem to be masquerading in the guise of social betterment. Do you think by naming or describing those forces, one comes closer to coming to grips with a contemporary predicament?

WP: The old addled priest who is holed up in a fire tower like Saint Simeon Stylites in the 2nd century says it in his own peculiar way. We've learned a great deal, everything seems to be going pretty well. Some guys have discovered that Heavy Sodium seems to cure the contemporary ills — reduces the number of teenage pregnancies, reduces depression and anxiety, and people seem to be getting along better.

The trouble is people are beginning to act more and more like subhuman primates. The priest goes back to — and this is the central point of the book — that the evils of the Nazis did not begin with the Nazis. The Nazis didn't come out of nowhere. They came out of the German Democratic Republic, the Weimar Republic — one of the most democratic in Western Europe. By using all the canons of liberal thinking, most of which I agree with — man should do his best to improve the quality of life not only for himself but for disadvantaged people — the Weimar doctors, not the Nazi doctors until later, saw nothing wrong with...well, two of them wrote a book called The Defense of Destruction of Life Devoid of Value.

The criterion became what you hear so often now — the quality of life. If the quality of life is not good, why not get rid of it, which is reasonable, quite reasonable, absent the Judeo-Christian ethic. If one can dispense with the scandalous Christian proposition that each human being is created by God and accordingly sacred, literally sacred — not in the standard liberal use of "the sacredness of the individual," which rolls off the tongue very easily and doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot — one can quite reasonably use the criterion of the quality of life for all people. First, to get rid of malformed children, then get rid of anybody, old people, using the criterion of quality of life. If the quality of life is bad, what is wrong with terminating it for the benefit of the family that is going through a lot of trouble, and for the benefit of the state because it's extremely expensive?

I was making a not-too-subtle suggestion that a certain kind of liberal — I consider myself a liberal in most ways and I agree with the ACLU, for instance, about most things — who crosses the barrier of the destruction of human life...if you're that sort of liberal, you're on the slope. I don't see how it ends short of how the Weimar Republic ends. Some people could come in like the Nazis, and if the majority of the people come to believe the Jews are bad and undesirable, or the Gypsies, or the Hispanics, or the Blacks, what is wrong with getting rid of them? Once the barrier is crossed, I don't see what hinders what the Germans called Die Endlösung, "the final solution." It was a somewhat shocking thesis for a novel, and not really picked up by a lot of people because you can't do that in a novel. A novel had better not be caught preaching or edifying. It's o.k. to be satirical and be funny. If there's a heavy message, it better be concealed. So I conceal it in the mouth and the words of a nutty old priest.

BS: Your novels are often described and discussed as novels of ideas, but most novelists find their fictional characters take on a life of their own. Has this been your experience?

WP: Which is all right — that's the best thing that could happen to a novelist. If the characters are vehicles, mouthpieces for his own ideas, he's in trouble. He's going to write a bad novel. The best thing to happen is to create a novel, create a character. Naturally, if you create him, he's going to be informed by the way you see life and the nature of human beings. But then you turn him loose and you find him or her doing all sorts of things. That's the freedom the novelist hopes for.

BS: Looking at the signs of grace in your work, you seem to present them in a way that leaves it up to the reader as to how to take them and what exactly to discern from them. What's your intention by doing it that way?

WP: Well...trying to get away with it. If you get caught writing a religious novel about God, Judaism, Christianity, you are dead. You'll be read by a few people. As one of my characters, Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, says, "Whenever anyone says God to me, a curtain goes down in my head." I have to be damn careful when I talk about grace. I have to be extremely allusive. I think Caroline Gordon said, "The novelist is entitled to use every trick of deceit and underhandedness at his or her control."

BS: It's like you're beguiling the reader.

WP: You sure are, you sure are.

BS: How does one go about writing about Christian faith in a culture where the language of faith has been discredited and devalued?

WP: That's the problem. That is THE PROBLEM. And it's getting worse because the language of Christianity that you're speaking of is increasingly discredited, mainly by the media and the TV preachers. They've given us all a bad name. You do the best you can with it, usually by avoiding the words or using other words.

BS: In your background there was a bout with tuberculosis. Was that in medical school?

WP: Yes, I was interning at Bellevue, a big charity hospital in New York. I was working on the TB side doing all the autopsies in pathology. I just picked it up that way. It was picked up on a routine X-ray. I never had any symptoms. I had to take the classic rest cure. That was before drugs. Right now, no one takes it very seriously. You can cure it with chemotherapy. I had the classical experience of Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, which was a turnaround in his life, too. It was certainly a revolution in mine. If it hadn't been for that, I'd probably be a second-class psychiatrist in Birmingham.

BS: How did that time effect the "cure" you suggest in your novels?

WP: How do you mean?

BS: As gestation for reflecting, listening and watching your own life — how does that work into the "cure" you allude to?

WP: It was valuable to me and I used it later in various ways. As the Existentialists say, as Marcel says, speaking of himself as a modern man, "It may be of my essence to be able to be not what I am." Most of the time we are not what we really are. We are some distance away, not really ourselves. I find it useful, both what happened to me and other people I know about. There is a paradox. One is most one's self usually, not when one's needs are satisfied, but under conditions of catastrophe.

My character in The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling said the time he was most himself was when he had been shot at in the Korean War, and he was close to death, then all of a sudden he was most alive. Actually, I think I swiped that from Tolstoy when his character Prince Andrei at a Napoleonic battle was about to get killed, or maybe he is badly wounded. All of a sudden, he realizes for the first time what it was to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to be himself.

I've noticed in Louisiana in hurricanes — my theory is that people enjoy hurricanes whether they say so or not. Because in hurricanes, terrible things are happening, people are getting killed, you're liable to get killed, there is a certain exhilaration. It comes from a peculiar sense of self, the vividness. As Einstein said, "Life is dreary as hell. Ordinary life is dreary." Somebody asked him why he went into quantum mechanics. "Well, to get away from the dreariness of ordinary life." Louisianans enjoy hurricanes if they're not too bad.

BS: Despite their outward appearance of success as doctors, lawyers, scientists, all southern gentlemen — all your protagonists seem unsatisfied with life in conventional society. Would you say that is one of the central dilemmas you have tried to address?

WP: Yes, and to get back to your question about what is the relationship between being a Christian and being a novelist. Some people would think of the two as antithetical. It comes down to this question. I find it extremely valuable being a Catholic Christian, it can also apply to any Christian church or Judaism. The peculiar Christian notion of man as wayfarer, Marcel says Homo Viator, man as pilgrim, man in search, man in quest, is of course the very essence of the novel. The novel is about somebody in trouble, in a predicament.

As Binx Bolling says, he undertakes the search. When he came to himself on the battlefield and realized what he was, who he was, with this very vivid sense of being human. The rest of his life was devoted to the search and not to the standard secular practice of satisfying one's needs, or achieving one's life goals, or growing as a person (a favorite expression these days.) I wonder how many books have been written about growing as a person? That may be useful, but it doesn't work well in a novel.

But the idea of man in quest, man in search, doesn't have to have any great revelation, any great conversion. It doesn't have to end up like Saint Paul knocked off his horse. It's the idea of man in quest, which is very useful to a novelist. So, the two backgrounds have been so useful — the background as physician, diagnostician, something's wrong with the world; and the anthropology of Christianity, man as the creature that something has gone wrong with. Something's gone wrong with him, and if he's got any sense and comes to himself or herself, he spends his time searching for what happened, searching for the answer.

BS: What kind of impact and influence do social planners and theorists who measure society in quantifiable terms have on contemporary culture? Does that create its own ethos?

WP: It's easy to criticize but it's certainly not bad. A social planner is trying to plan some way that the state and society can take care of those or better the situation of those who are in a terrible situation, terrible trouble — the truly deprived, both minority and homeless. There's certainly everything to be praised about planning for the betterment of it.

The only danger is from the point of view of the individual. In our culture, which is informed by a kind of popular scientific notion of "the experts," the scientists are the experts. They are those who know, not only know but owe it to us. If you come to the point where you are relying on the experts, the scientists, to give me the answers to my life, or the social planners to get me out of the mess I'm in — that's unfortunate to the degree that it destroys one's own initiative.

BS: You seem to make a big distinction between science and scientism.

WP: Oh, yes, it's not my distinction but I think it's quite true. I think Whitehead was the one who developed the idea. Science is fine for what it does, for what it does it's magnificent. The idea of scientism is a cultural transmission of a notion of science for the popular mind in which they, the experts, have the answers. Of course, the answers are abstractions.

As Kierkegaard would say, they cannot utter one word to me about what it is to be born, to live or die. The misconception of scientism is that they have all the words, they have all the answers. I think Whitehead called it a misplacement of reality. Misplacement of reality from the reality of one's self and individual things to the notions of abstractions where things or selves are simply exemplars of this or that theory or abstraction. You have a terrible loss of reality.

BS: You've been quoted as saying, "If the first great intellectual discovery of my life was the beauty of the scientific method, surely the second was the discovery of the singular predicament of Man in the very world which has been transformed by science." Does that still hold true?

WP: Oh, yes, I would accept that almost as a truism which most people agree with. You don't have to be a sage or prophet to point out the fact that here in the late 20th century, which should have been the greatest triumph of civilization of all time — the triumph of science, technique, consumership — has been the most murderous century in all of history. More people killed by each other, twenty million in the first big war. I think it was more like forty or fifty million killed in the second, more than any number from other causes since then. It's a nice paradox for a writer to think about.

BS: I was always under the impression that the South was almost exclusively Protestant, but after reading your novels and Flannery O'Connor's, I was introduced to a southern Catholic tradition. Just how prominent has the impact of Catholicism been in the South?

WP: Well, it's not considerable. It only happens in a few areas when you're talking about cultural impact. It's in south Louisiana, parts of Florida, or south Texas, where the Spanish and French had colonies. I use it as a backdrop. New Orleans is a useful backdrop with an odd kind of combination of Catholic, Hispanics, French background, and a strong Black and Creole component. A nice admixture of the two cultures — the Louisiana WASP and the Louisiana Catholic have a wonderful way of getting along — a strong Jewish tradition, too.

Flannery O'Connor used it in very different ways. God knows, where she was in Milledgeville, Georgia, there was maybe not more than a dozen Catholics. She made tremendous use of Fundamentalist Protestants for her own purposes, not satirically but very sympathetically. She was not writing with any cultural Catholic backdrop. That part of Georgia of all places is probably the least Catholic I know anywhere. That was no hindrance for her.

For me, it's just useful as a setting. In the little town where I live across the lake from New Orleans is a nice amalgam of the two, the meeting between south Louisiana and north — which is totally different, Baptists and Methodists. The two meet and get along very well indeed. In fact, if Louisiana has anything to contribute to the U.S. culture, it is probably a way of living, a way of getting along.

BS: I'm from Ohio, I was wondering why you're always poking fun at Ohioans in your novels?

WP: I have some Ohio friends. I just like the way they talk. They don't talk, they tock. Well, nothing personal, not even against the state. I can't imagine anything more American than Ohio and Ohioans. It's a partial balancing of the scales, too. Usually Mississippians and Georgians are getting it from everybody, and Alabamians. So, what's wrong with making smart-aleck remarks about Ohio? Nobody puts Ohio down. Why shouldn't I put Ohio down? (laughs)

BS: I read you met Thomas Merton. What was your impression?

WP: I saw him in Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery [in Kentucky]. In those days, they had the vow of silence and it was respected. I had to get permission. He was a very nice man. He sort of had the same background as I did. He went to Columbia about the same time and we had the same experiences. He was perfectly open and funny.

BS: I heard he had a good sense of humor. He looked more like a truck driver than a priest.

WP: He probably felt like one. His book The Seven Story Mountain was very successful. It influenced a lot of people.

BS: You wrote a whole essay on the pleasures of drinking bourbon which was very funny. Why is it that Southerners prefer bourbon?

WP: Well, you know that's a good question. I don't know really except it's corn whiskey. It's probably a lot easier to make whiskey out of corn than it is out of rye. We don't have any rye to make rye or scotch whiskey. Interestingly, I had a couple of visitors from the Soviet Union, an editor and a minister of culture, one from Bulgaria and one from Moscow. The first thing I asked them was do you want a drink? They said "sure," they wanted bourbon because they were curious. What was so funny was in the group we were in, the Americans were all drinking vodka martinis and the Russians were drinking bourbon. (laughs)

When I was in college just when prohibition went out, we drank some terrible things, anything we could get our hands on. I remember the worst whiskey I ever tasted was the first legal whiskey we could get a hold of. It was called Two Natural. It showed a pair of dice coming up with five and two is seven, and four and three is seven. It was supposed to be bourbon but it was awful, the worst-tasting stuff. It was some kind of dyed alcohol. We loved it.

BS: You work on essays and fiction. What's your next project?

WP: I alternate between making up stories, writing novels which express the ideas we've been talking about, and nonfiction essays, which are more explicit, which talk about the same ideas. Right now, I'm writing a collection of essays. One chapter will be a lengthened and more elaborate version of this lecture. It'll be a half dozen or so rather long essays.

My editor asked me, "When am I going to get something from you?" I said I don't know. I never know. It takes a couple of years. He said, "What's the title?" I said, I think it's a real catchy title. It's "Contra Gentilis" [which means "against the peoples"], which I borrowed from Saint Thomas Aquinas. He thought about it for a moment, he laughed, he said, "O.k., if that's what you want, but you know how it will be read don't you? It will read like contras, as in the guys in Nicaragua, and gentiles. It will be about gentile contras. But who knows, maybe it'll work." (laughs)

BS: That reminds me of that joke Dan Quayle told recently. He was getting ready to go down on his trip to Latin America. He said if he had known he was going down there, he would have brushed up on his Latin.

WP: Johnny Carson talked about that last night. I can't believe he said he would brush up on his Latin. He's out in the Pacific now I think. He went to the island of Pago-Pago, which he referred to in his speech as Pogo-Pogo, according to Carson. I don't know if Carson was kidding or not. The poor man's trying.