How Walker Percy Brought Sin & Grace to the New Yorker Reader
by Thomas Howard
Walker Percy’s novels and essays tackle what C. S. Lewis called “the great platitudes” and T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” That is to say, they concern themselves with far more than manners, psychology, or social issues.
This locates Percy in an odd spot, if we are trying to place him in the ordinary tradition of the English-language novel. This tradition characteristically concerns itself with manners and psychology (I am thinking of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Henry James) or with social issues (Dickens and Hardy).
Unlike Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Mann, or Camus, English writers have, as often as not, seemed to avoid the immensities that arch over our mortal existence. It cannot be urged that English-language writers are superficial. Their art exhibits, in its own mode, a very high level of perfection.
Nothing but Grace
But when you get a writer who carries his tale into a realm where sin is a real category, or divine grace, you realize that you have crossed a certain threshold. Flannery O’Connor, who is frequently mentioned in the same breath with Percy, maintained that she never wrote about anything but grace. Take little Tarwater in her novella The Violent Bear It Away.
The oddities of behavior that this boy displays are, of course, partly a result of his peculiar birth and upbringing, but at the end of the day we are obliged to agree with O’Connor that he is morally and spiritually responsible for his choices, young though he may be, which must be expiated before God. There is no question of his getting comfortable with his feelings, or “giving himself permission” to follow his own preferences. Obedience to the divine will seems to be the touchstone, and it is grace that has pursued him all through the story, like the Hound of Heaven.
What Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf would make of this, I have no idea. Your average reader of the New Yorker will titter knowingly when he comes across Old Tarwater, the archetypal redneck, sweating and preaching doom from his shanty in Powderhead.
Or again—Evelyn Waugh: as amusing, scintillating, and urbane as Brideshead Revisited is, we find that all the disorders that bedevil the Flyte family eventually reveal themselves not as dysfunctionalities but as sin. Confession and repentance seem to be the touchstone here. Lord Marchmain must repent of his adultery, and Julia of hers. Charles Ryder, the agnostic narrator, must get on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament before he is truly free, and it is grace that has crowded him along the way.
Each member of the beleaguered Flyte family, who are all deeply flawed Catholics (except for Cordelia, perhaps), is discovered as having failed in one way or another in the sanctity sweepstakes—even the devout Lady Marchmain, who is something of a dragon, and her oldest son Lord Brideshead, who in the interest of the Faith tends to tramp on everyone’s insteps.
Or we may mention Graham Greene in this connection. In his so-called “Catholic novels,” we find that the protagonist is not merely confused or neurotic, which would be acceptable categories for your New Yorker reader. We find him hag-ridden with guilt (think of the priest in The Power and the Glory) or trying to deny it (think of the adulterer in The End of the Affair). And he is very far from suffering your post-Freudian guilt feelings.
No. The trouble is that the man is actually and objectively guilty before the Divine Tribunal, and that there is nothing for it but that he repent, more often than not of his sexual excursions. Otherwise his immortal soul is in real danger of eternal damnation, understood not as a psychological metaphor but as the doom preached by our Lord.
It may be apposite here to put forward a difficulty that all of these writers, and hence Walker Percy, encountered in their effort to write stories that will be heard by their modern audience.
Whereas Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare, not to mention Austen, Eliot, and Dickens, all told their stories to audiences that shared altogether the moral and metaphysical point of view from which they wrote, you have no such luxury in the twentieth century.
Nowadays the Christian writer of fiction finds that he must cobble up some trick to circumvent this disjuncture between his own assumptions and his readers’ Darwinian, Freudian, and postmodern assumptions.
How, in other words, do you go about drawing your blasé secular readers into this peculiar world where disordered behavior must eventually be confessed as sin? How do you get your twentieth-century sophisticate willingly to suspend his disbelief and recognize your story as being serious and not merely quaint? (For this reason, among others, the operation of grace on their protagonists is always implicit. You don’t get anything about the person’s having a conscious, momentary, explicit “conversion experience.”)
The tricks Percy and company reach for vary. O’Connor, for example, beats us about the ears with the grotesque. Awful things happen in her stories, and her characters are often virtual gargoyles or trolls. Many readers turn away from her fiction with a sigh: I don’t want to read about all this squalor. But if we allow her fiction to percolate through our shallow imaginations, desiccated as they are by modernism, then we will find that she knows exactly what she is doing.
Her characters really are answerable before the Divine Tribunal. Any merely psychological mollifying of things in the case of little Tarwater, or of the boy in “The Enduring Chill” who comes home from New York to his mother in Georgia to die, would be frivolous. That water stain on his ceiling really is the Holy Ghost descending on our sick laddie. Old Tarwater really is a prophet of God, who, like many true prophets, is taken for a lunatic.
O’Connor takes this stuff seriously, and has to lure her readers into these Christian precincts with all sorts of bizarre tricks. She says at one point, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.”
Or this, from her marvelous collection of essays Mystery and Manners: “My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have . . . the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. . . . The reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and [those of] their audience.” The Christian novelist, she continued,
will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little . . . [but] when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
Of the Christian novel she says, “Its center of meaning will be Christ; its center of destruction will be the devil.” Well, you can’t write about the devil and expect your New Yorker readers, or your graduate departments of English, to take you seriously. It is a problem.
Or again: “The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin . . . not a sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future.” Find me the place in Henry James where any of his heroines are endangering their eternal souls.
Like O’Connor, Percy speaks of the novelist “who has explicit and ultimate concern with the nature of man and the nature of reality,” and hence, says Percy, “It is fitting that he should shock and warn his readers by speaking of last things.” He poses this question: “Is it too much to say that the novelist, unlike the new theologian, is one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrine of original sin? . . . Either this novelist is crazy or . . . in his confused Orphic way [he] is trying to tell us something we would do well to listen to.”
He goes on to ask, “What is the task of the Christian novelist?” And he gives us his own answer: The Christian novelist “calls on every ounce of cunning, craft, and guile he can muster. . . . The fictional use of violence, shock, comedy, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade.”
In other words, Percy and the rest of these novelists are stuck with having to smuggle into their tales notions that are quaint, archaic, or outrageous to modern readers. He has worked up a special, even idiosyncratic, vocabulary for his tactics, which comes into play in all of his novels, I think, and certainly in The Moviegoer.
His stories reach beyond the psychological realm, and always record some assault that turns out to have been launched by divine grace on the protagonist’s normal dim state of awareness. It calls into question the hero’s whole being, and bundles him along towards an awakening to his true state, that is, of his state before God. In The Moviegoer, his hero, Binx Bolling, finds himself thus assaulted. The assault comes in very odd forms.
For one thing, Binx stumbles into what Percy calls “certification.” Binx and his cousin Kate are at a movie. A scene in the movie shows the neighborhood of the theater, and in the street afterwards Kate looks around and says, “Yes, it is certified now.” Binx, who is the narrator, tells us this:
She refers to a phenomenon of movie-going which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”
There we have “certification.” By seeing our own street in a movie, suddenly we are awakened to the curious actuality of the very place in which we have dawdled for years without ever seeing it. Suddenly here on the screen is William Holden walking along my own street. Hey: I live in this place, and this place is Somewhere, and not just Anywhere. Percy capitalizes Somewhere and Anywhere, by the way. To live Anywhere is to be lost in despair, since it adumbrates hell’s own stupor.
For Percy, despair is not merely a state of extreme despondency. It is far more dangerous, since our eternal souls are at stake, and no psychiatrist can get anywhere near my eternal soul. In his usage, the word despair refers to the dim torpor in which almost every one of us passes his life. The saints have been awakened from this lethal miasma, but the rest of us most of the time shuffle along in the murk of unawareness.
Our Dim State
Percy owes this notion to Kierkegaard. If you are in this dim state, of course you do not know it. You are just going along in the torpor that settles upon our mortal state, or, perhaps worse, you are what Eliot called “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Both Eliot and Percy would understand this state of semi-consciousness as a final danger. Since we are all moving towards the Last Judgment, we had better wake up and look to our knitting.
But what will wake us up? Well, various things pluck at Binx’s sleeve. This movie, for instance.
To be “Anywhere,” for Percy, means just that: I am living in just any old where. Nothing plucks me by the sleeve. Nothing jolts, startles, ravishes, or alarms me. If I go on this way, I will eventually need a priest or prophet to help me. No psychiatrist can come near these precincts where Everything is at stake. His “expertise” is myopic. He can’t see doom but only dysfunction, and that is not how the Christian vision understands our mortal situation.
So again and again in Percy’s novels we find this somewhat frightening distinction between Anywhere and Somewhere. If I am never hailed by the sharp individuality of a place—the crunching of camphor berries underfoot as I walk to school, say, or the smell of a privet hedge—then I am veering towards Kierkegaard’s despair, which is to say damnation.
In this connection we may notice the names Percy gives to his minor characters. There are no Joneses, Smiths, or Browns here. Binx’s landlady, who is, socially speaking, a person of no importance at all, is Mrs. Schexnaydre forsooth. The name flags us all down. She is Somebody, not just Anybody. You can’t vanish in the throng if you are called Schexnaydre.
Or we have Mr. Sartalamaccia, who wants to buy a piece of Binx’s land. Or Mr. Kinsella, who really is nobody: He runs a cracked and peeling outdoor cinema in the boondocks where Binx likes to go to see B-movies.
But we find that Binx is intensely interested in these people. They are Somebody, and not Anybody. He wants to get to know them. He even likes to talk to the ticket-taker in the booth at the cinema, who for most of us would most certainly be of no account whatever. But Binx has been awakened from the despair that lives Anywhere amongst Anybodies.
Besides this certification, we find what Percy calls “rotation.” Rotation occurs when, as Binx puts it, we stumble into “the experience of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new.”
For example, if you go (as Binx does) to the Grand Canyon having never been there before, you expect a new experience. But everybody is a tourist; everybody goes there; you have seen it all in travel brochures. But if you get lost on the way, you have stumbled into “rotation.” Now you are keenly and uncomfortably aware of terrain that was not at all a part of your expectations. The whole thing has taken on a certain sharpness. You have been awakened.
Most of the time we all live in what Percy calls “Everydayness,” which is virtually synonymous with despair. But think of Noah, who found that a flood was coming, or Abraham, who was told to pull up his tent pegs, or Joseph, who found himself in a pit, or Jonah, who was told to go preach doom to Nineveh, or St. Paul, who was struck down en route to Damascus when his expectation was merely to savage some Christians. These would all be instances of rotation.
Percy’s assumption is that unless or until we are jolted awake by something, we may be in grave danger of Everydayness, which may in its turn land us in hell. (We will come presently to the big rotation that awakens Binx forever from despair. But I must squeak in another of Percy’s tricks before we get to that.)
This time it is “repetition.” “What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
Percy has our friend Binx tell us here about his experience of going into a theatre to see The Oxbow Incident fourteen years after he had first been there to see it . On the first visit, he had emerged from the theatre and smelled the smell of privet, and found camphor berries popping under his feet on the sidewalk. The same thing happens now. The latter visit vividly conjures the former.
But what about the intervening fourteen years? What has happened in them? What, for example, about the split plywood seats in the theatre, enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. [There is a very strong hint here of Judgment, surely?] There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theatre. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.
Awakened by a Beetle
Clearly something has happened to free Binx of Everydayness. His routine hometown streets; a routine trip to the Grand Canyon; and two routine visits to a theatre. It almost seems like a curse: Binx can no longer merely pass through routines. He must notice everything.
(This is exactly what happens in the Sacrament of Confession, where I must rake up everything. I must give an account of every thought, word, and act. Heaven have mercy on my soul if at the Last Judgment I am hailed with a mountain of items for which I must give an accounting and which I have habitually allowed to drain off into Everydayness.)
Now we come to Binx’s original awakening: In the Korean War, he was shot in the shoulder. Listen to how Percy has Binx tell us about it:
I came to myself under a chindolea bush. . . . My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search.”
My own hunch is that it is not only the wound, which has certainly jolted him awake, but also the sight of the dung beetle that seems to be busy digging a hole around him. If you are vouchsafed a glance at your own grave-diggers at their work you may find, as Dr. Johnson put it in his usual lapidary way, that your mind is wonderfully concentrated. (I think Dr. Johnson said that it was the prospect of being hanged, but never mind.)
So. Binx is “on to something.” He has embarked on a “search.” (These are key words in Percy’s writing.) Mere “Everydayness” has been interrupted for him. We find out as the story progresses that he has made himself a sort of ascetic, for exactly the same reasons that drove the desert hermits and the Cistercians to renounce everything.
The reader will find himself wondering why Binx lives in such a nothing neighborhood and reads such inconsequential newspapers and pursues such a boring life. The truth is that he has divested himself, quite sedulously, of every single one of the gratifying distractions that distract his family and all of his friends. Family pedigree, membership in the right clubs, travel, beer-drinking, self-congratulatory aestheticism, the socially correct neighborhood, charming houses—it is all so much wood, hay, and stubble for Binx, since he has got “on to something” and has embarked on the Search. Like those hermits, he forswears everything in order to find the Pearl of Great Price.
Binx lives in a Somewhere, not an Anywhere. He sees himself and everyone else whom he encounters as Someone, not Anyone. All of this, of course, makes sense to Christian readers, but Percy is luring his New Yorker readers into a region where one’s immortal soul is at stake.
There is nothing in heaven or earth which does not matter, most of all one’s own self before God Most High. The final torpor is to be found in hell, where everything is reduced to a grey murk. Paradise is the place where every created thing and creature, and hence one’s own self, dances out in all of the glory with which it was invested at the Creation.
From now on Binx is blessed, or cursed, with this attentiveness. Every routine place, person, object, or event presents him with the chance to wake up. You can see this in the punctilio with which he speaks of things. In Korea, for example, he awakens not merely under a bush but under a chondolea bush. There is a bird singing, but it is not just a bird: It is an oriental finch. The bug near his nose is not just a bug: It is a dung beetle.
When he drives his little MG along the Gulf Coast, the enormous cumulus clouds are always “booming up over the horizon,” as though we all carry on here under the turbulent threat of something titanic that arches over our mortal affairs. Binx sees a wading bird at one point, but it is not merely any old bird. Here is how he records it for us: “The egret pumps himself up into the air and rows by so close I can hear the gristle creak in his wings.”
I won’t tell you Binx’s whole story. (Percy, as you may know, was an adult convert.) I don’t want to give away the punch line. But let me, in closing, touch upon what strikes me as being the most significant event in the whole book.
Binx is a lapsed Catholic. Most of Percy’s heroes are. But they are not comfortably lapsed Catholics who have packed in on the Faith and find themselves exhilarated by the freedom that follows upon one’s having left behind the nettlesome restraints of faith. Percy’s characters all seem to be bugged by Something. It is, of course, the Hound of Heaven—the Holy Ghost.
Anyway, Binx visits the fishing camp where his mother, her second husband (she has been widowed), and their seven children live. They are perfunctory but scrupulous Catholics, off to Mass regularly, believing everything, but unlike Protestant Evangelicals, never chatting about the Faith. No earnest conversations about the Faith and no “sharing” ever occur in Percy’s work, or in that of any of the Catholic novelists I’ve mentioned.
One of Binx’s half-brothers is called Lonnie. He is crippled. He and Binx have a special devotion to each other. When Binx arrives at the fishing camp we have this:
Lonnie has gone into a fit of excitement in his wheelchair. His hand curls upon itself. I kiss him first and his smile starts his head turning away in a long trembling torticollis . . . his face is handsome and pure when it is not contorted. He is my favorite, to tell the truth. . . . We are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business.
Well. There we have it. Lonnie’s suffering, purity, and devotion to Jesus Christ pluck Binx by his lapsed-Catholic sleeve. He knows it is all true, even though he has long since ceased practicing the Faith.
We never see Binx falling to his knees in an act of repentance and renewed faith. And our New Yorker readers are never put on the spot. We simply pick up Binx’s sharpening awareness of what it is that his “search” implies. We hear very little about anything religious going on in him. But in the very last scene of the book, we see him offering his own life, as it were, in behalf of his poor neurotic cousin Kate whom he has now married.
Nothing in the scene tells us “This is religious.” It is a very small scene, and a very small act on his part—actually, he just promises to be thinking about Kate as she ventures out to the shops. But his promise sets her at least momentarily free from the fears that paralyze her.
The scene is not symbolic. Rather, it presents a case in point of what occurred also at Golgotha, namely, the offering of oneself for another. In the one case we have a life— the life—offered in behalf of the whole world. For Binx, it is only a matter of offering a little bit of his time and attention (more, presumably, than he’d give otherwise) for the relief of Kate. And indeed we are meant, I think, to see his marriage as such an act. Charles Williams calls this whole business “co-inherence,” or “substitution and exchange.”
So: In The Moviegoer we see sin and grace illustrated for the New Yorker reader, who might learn in this way something of the divine life he would not learn (would not let himself learn, perhaps) from writing that wore its religion on its sleeve. Percy, like O’Connor and Waugh and the others, has found a way to speak to the hard of hearing.
Percy takes us much, much further into the region of the self than any psychological novel or novel of manners ever attempts to do. Here you have the human self at stake—but (whether you know it or not) that self is an immortal soul who eventually must give an accounting before the Divine Tribunal of every word and act. •
Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).
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