Monday, August 31, 2009

Torn Curtain

I wrote my master’s thesis on the novels of Walker Percy and Frederick Buechner and tried desperately for months to find one of them commenting on the other one. Far as I can tell, Percy was completely unaware of Buechner’s existence, but I did manage to track down an interview with Buechner in which he spoke very unfavorably of Percy:
I must say he just leaves me literally cold. That’s just the right word for it. I don’t feel any excitement, any passion. It seems very cerebral and planned out and cold. I always feel that the characters sound like what I imagine Walker Percy would sound like. I have a hard time believing in them as real human beings.
Buechner actually understates it. Percy’s characters are for the most part a royal bore, and his own voice, evidenced in his nonfiction writing, is far more nuanced, elegant, and interesting. I’ve now read every word Percy has written (he’s probably the only author about whom I can reasonably be considered an expert), and I’ll shout it from the rooftops: He’s not a novelist. He’s a philosopher who wants to be a novelist. Of his seven novels, only two, Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome, have anything resembling an interesting or coherent plot; the rest are mere philosophical exercises.

Not that that’s a bad thing. At their best, Percy’s novels serve to inject his philosophy into more-or-less real-world applications, and taken on these terms, they’re pretty good. In some respects, they are more or less interchangeable—they all take some aspect of Kierkegaard’s “spheres of existence” and throw characters into them. They’re all about the sick condition of the modern world, and they all hint at the same solution for that condition. (It’s not for nothing that one of the worn-out descriptions of Percy as a philosopher is that of the dianostician.)

The problem with the modern world, for Percy, is that the human being has been completely split along Cartesian lines. On the one hand, you have a soul/mind; on the other, you have a body, and never the two shall meet. (Obviously, Percy is following his existentialist forbearers in this diagnosis; both Heidegger and Sartre describe Descartes’ sins along these lines.)

One of Percy’s main concerns in the split modern world is sex, an act which he variously portrays as splitting the self further and bringing it back together in a type of religious redemption. (This was the subject of my thesis, incidentally—if you’re interested, Buechner’s Lion Country portrays only the latter; virginity is atheism in that novel, and sex is redemption.) This concern with sex and alienation and wholeness might make you think of John Updike—by all means a reasonable connection, since Updike and Percy share similar religious views and have a similar mission in writing.

But Percy hated Updike as a theologian, as much as he might admire him in terms of sheer writing. Biographer Jay Tolson reports that Percy’s reaction to Updike’s controversial Couples was almost entirely negative, calling the novel muddled Kierkegaard and noting its treatment of “[sex] elevated to a kind of religion” (351).

Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that in The Last Gentleman Percy gives us a thinly veiled version of Updike in the novelist Mort Prince (the name, of course, suggests “prince of death” in French). Here’s one character’s description of his latest novel:
You know what that guy told me with a straight face. I asked him what thiis book was going to be about and he said quite seriously: it was about ----ing. And in a sense it is! . . . But it is a beautiful piece of work and about as pornographic as Chaucer. Indeed it is deely religious . . . It is essentially a religious book, in the sense of being a yea-saying rather than a nay-saying . . . Mort has one simple credo: saying Yes to Life wherever it is found. (Bowdlerization Percy’s)
That sounds like Updike to me. The Last Gentleman precedes Couples by two years, but this description could just as easily apply to 1961’s Rabbit, Run. Percy’s protagonist, Will Barrett, is confused by this description; he wonders, “What the devil does he mean telling me it’s about ----ing? Is ----ing a joking matter? Am I to understand that I am free to ---- his daughter? Or do we speak of ----ing man to man, jokingly, literarily, with no thought of ----ing anyone in the vicinity?” Updike/Prince and his fans, then, are guilty of taking sex too seriously and simultaneously not seriously enough. It’s a type of religious rite, but at the same time it doesn’t mean anything.

Unsurprisingly, then, Percy compares Mort Prince multiple times to Descartes, suggesting that he is the product of the mind-body division that is the chief ill of the modern age. With the body split from the mind, we’re left with desire for carnal knowledge and desire for angelic knowledge—but no knowledge whatsoever of what it means to be human, between the extremes of the angelic and the bestial. That’s why Prince can see sex as simultaneously disconnected from the soul, that is, purely bodily, and as an attempt to reunite the soul and the body.

Will Barrett, however much he is offended by Mort Prince, tries to make the same connection when he sleeps with his asinine girlfriend, Kitty Vaught. (Kitty, I suspect, has the name she does because it suggests curiosity, Heidegger’s word for a sort of constantly moving stasis.) But you can’t have a real relationship with another person if your own identity is constantly in question, as it must be in a world split into mind and body. Thus, Will promises her that “I’ll be both for you, boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father. If it is possible” (167). Of course, that’s not possible, and Will’s relationship with Kitty, like every sexual relationship in Updike’s novels, leads only to further alienation.

All of that said, I suspect Percy is slightly misreading Updike here. The latter’s reliance on sex (and his steadfast commitment to depict every nauseating detail of it) can mask the fact that sex almost always fails to produce the effect his characters would like for it to produce—that is, the reunion of soul to body. If anything, Percy has a more optimistic view of sex, as evidenced in the sequel to The Last Gentlemen, 1980’s The Second Coming.

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