Posts Tagged ‘Walker Percy’

I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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I love a book that lingers on the mind long after you’ve reached the last page. In some cases I think this happens because a book is beautifully written and thought provoking. In some cases it simply speaks to your own experience, or to the human condition, so clearly that it makes you, the reader, more human simply by reading it.

The Moviegoer is both. I’d never read Walker Percy and I have to credit the New York Times Sunday Book Review‘s “What I Read That Summer” article, where I read about Walter Isaacson’s meeting his friend’s uncle, Walker Percy, and his discovery of Percy’s books. I checked out The Moviegoer that evening at the library.

Binx Bolling is twenty-nine, a war veteran (Korean, I think) managing a small brokerage office in the family firm in New Orleans, having a string of affairs with a series of secretaries, and going to movies. “It is not a bad life at all,” as he says. He’s on a bus on the way to see his aunt, who has summonsed him to lunch, and checking out a pretty woman seated across the aisle, when he recalls an idea he had earlier: “the search.”  He explains, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

If that sounds like Kierkegaard, it should. Percy’s epigraph is from The Sickness Unto Death: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Binx undertakes his search during Mardi Gras and we go along as he promises to look after his mentally fragile cousin Kate, tries half-heartedly to start a new affair, visits his mother and his half-siblings, travels to Chicago for a conference.

I was totally drawn into his existential wanderings, I was in New Orleans (where I’ve never actually been) I could hear the voices of these characters, I ate their lunch. Ok, I didn’t eat their lunch, but you see what I mean? Walker Percy made me Binx Bolling. And he made me more me.

I was trying to figure out what I didn’t like about the last Gibsons’ Book Club selection, The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry. After the meeting, I felt a little churlish for stating my dislike strongly and also a little disappointed that nothing my fellow book club members said changed my mind (which has happened, and I’ve enjoyed, in the past). When I read The Moviegoer I got it.

On Ash Wednesday Binx thinks: “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journeys and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.” This is the subtle, heartbreaking, tender, tenous, holy mess of life. This is love and faith and doubt and every loss or gain a person can experience. When you’ve drunk in a masterpiece like The Moviegoer you don’t really need words to explain why some “it” books disappoint. You feel it in every cell.

Good books capture what it is to be human. When someone raves about a book and I read it and it doesn’t, in Seamus Heaney’s words, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” well, that’s disappointing. I’ll grant that some days, that’s not what I’m after. As my dear friend YeVette says, some days she doesn’t want to think, she just wants a dead body in her book. But when you’re looking for more, give Walker Percy a try. Just be ready for Binx to stay a while after you close the book.

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