Thomas Aquinas. An insightful observer of human nature and relationships, Percy had growing doubts about his scientific, materialist view of reality. Years later he wrote,.
What did at last dawn on me as a medical student and intern, a practitioner, I thought, of the scientific method, was that there was a huge gap in the scientific view of the world. This sector of the world about which science could not utter a single word was nothing less than this: what it is like to be an individual living in the United States in the twentieth century. This realization led Percy to make three major decisions in short order in his mid-thirties: to become a full-time writer, marry, and become Catholic.
Not long afterwards, they moved to the small town of Covington, Louisiana, where Percy wrote and lived until his death in Convinced that he needed a different literary vehicle for taking his observations to a larger audience, Percy wrote two novels during the s. Initially ignored and selling poorly, the novel was the surprise winner of the National Book Award in Percy rightly dismissed the notion that people can live without an anthropological vision, that is, a specific understanding of who man is and what he meant for. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question.
As a trained physician, Percy had respect for science when properly practiced and understood. This radical dualism shaped the ideologies of Communism and Naziism, the sexual revolution of the s, and secular humanism. Each of these belief systems, however well or poorly articulated, rejected God and set up man as the ultimate reference point for all of human activity, whether that activity was political, social, or sexual.
Now freed from the confines of the supernatural order and objective truth, man could create and customize his own reality: totalitarian, egalitarian, hedonistic, or consumer-oriented. Percy often noted the paradoxical fact that man can form a perfect scientific theory explaining the material world —- but cannot adequately account for himself in that theory. Man is the round peg never quite fitting into the square hole of scientism. In short, the sciences of man are incoherent. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight.
Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i. This malaise, Percy makes clear, is not simply the corruption and abandonment of Judeo-Christian morality. The real issue is more basic: What is man and who am I as a specific man? Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. Their musing philosophical style broke sharply with the Southern gothic tradition and influenced later writers such as Richard Ford in The Sportswriter and its moving sequel, Independence Day Equally impressive were the novels and….
It won a National Book Award. The story is a philosophical exploration of the problem of personal identity, narrated by Binx Bolling, a successful but alienated businessman. Bolling undertakes a search for meaning in his life, first through an obsession…. History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox! I would call it the age of the theorist-consumer.
All denizens of the age tend to be one or the other or both. Darwin, Newton, and Freud were theorists. They pursued truth more or less successfully by theory—from which, however, they themselves were exempt. Marx and Stalin, Nietzsche and Hitler were also theorists. When theory is applied, not to matter or beasts, but to man, the consequence is that millions of men can be eliminated without compunction or even much interest.
The denizens of the present age are both sentimental and bored.
Last year the Russians and Americans united to save three stranded whales and the world applauded. It seemed a good thing to do and the boredom lifted for a while. This was not true unfortunately of the million Sudanese who died of starvation the same year. Americans are the nicest, most generous and sentimental people on earth.
Yet Americans have killed more unborn children than any nation in history. But euthanasia was instituted not by the Nazis but by the friendly democratic Germans of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was followed by the Nazis. For one thing, one does not see many people horrified. It is not horrible because in an age of theory and consumption it is appropriate that actions be carried out as the applications of theory and the needs of consumption require. Accordingly, it should not be surprising that present-day liberals favor abortion just as the Nazis did years ago. The only difference is that the Nazis favored it for theoretical reason eugenics, racial purity , while present-day liberals favor it for consumer needs unwanted, inconvenient.
Nor should it be surprising that for the same reason liberals not only favor abortion but are now beginning to favor euthanasia as the Nazis did. Because it is one thing for a liberal editor to see the poor and the homeless on his way to work in his own city and another to read a medical statistic in his own paper about one million abortions. A liberal may act from his own consumer needs guilt, sentimentality and the Nazis may act from theory eugenics, racial purity but both are consistent in an age of theory and consumption.
It may be quite true what Mother Teresa said—if a mother can kill her unborn child, then I can kill you and you can kill me—but it is not necessarily horrifying. America is probably the last and best hope of the world, not because it is not in the same trouble—indeed the trouble may even be worse due to the excessive consumption in the market place and excessive theorizing in academe—but because with all the trouble it preserves a certain innocence and freedom.
This is the age of theory and consumption, yet not everyone is satisfied by theorizing and consuming.
Walker Percy, the Last Catholic Novelist by Kieran Quinlan
The common mark of the theorist and the consumer is that neither knows who he is or what he wants outside of theorizing and consuming. This is so because the theorist is not encompassed by his theory. Such a denizen can become so frustrated, bored, and enraged that he resorts to violence, violence upon himself drugs, suicide or upon others murder, war.
Or, such a denizen may discover that he is open to a search for signs, some sign other than theorizing or consumption. There are only two signs in the post-modern age which cannot be encompassed by theory. Indeed the self may be defined as that portion of the person which cannot be encompassed by theory, not even a theory of the self.
This is so because even if one agrees with the theory, what does one do then?
Walker Percy: Seer of the Self
Accordingly the self finds itself ever more conspicuously without a place in the modern world, which is perfectly understood by theorizing. The only other sign in the world which cannot be encompassed by theory is the Jews, their unique history, their suffering and achievements, what they started both Judaism and Christianity and their presence in the here-and-now. The Jews are a stumbling block to theory.
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They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory. Even Arnold Toynbee, whose theory of history encompassed all other people, looked foolish when he tried to encompass the Jews.
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The Jews are both a sign and a stumbling block. That is why they are hated by theorists like Hitler and Stalin. The Jews cannot be gotten around. Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other. One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind.
Accordingly it is Hinduism and Buddhism, which have no scientific tradition but whose claims are limited to the self, its existence or nonexistence, which are far less offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind, are in fact quite compatible. One is that both the Jewish and Christian claims are untrue, are in fact nonsense, and that the scientific mindset is correct. The other is that the scientific method is correct as far as it goes, but the theoretical mindset, which assigns significance to single things and events only insofar as they are exemplars of theory or items for consumption, is in fact an inflation of a method of knowing to a totalitarian worldview and is unwarranted.
Now that I have been invited to think of it, the reasons for my conversion to the Catholic Church, this side of grace, can be described as Roman, Arthurian, Semitic, and semiotic. This is funny because what could be more un-Jewish than the chivalric legend of Arthur? And who could be more un-English than the Old Testament Jews?
Or are they? Or could it in fact have been otherwise?
My first hero and the hero of the South for a hundred years was Richard I of Ivanhoe , who with his English knights in the First Crusade stormed the gates of Acre to rescue the holy places from the infidel.