A physician turned philosopher turned novelist, Walker Percy (1916-1990) was a towering figure in the world of arts and letters. His body of work includes six novels, three works of nonfiction, and numerous scholarly articles. Percy received critical acclaim throughout his writing career: his first work of fiction, The Moviegoer, earned the National Book Award in 1962, and in 1989, shortly before his death, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities' highest honor, the post of Jefferson Lecturer.
I first encountered Percy in Philosophy 101 at the University of Utah, in 1969, when my professor assigned an essay of Percy's on theistic existentialism‹quite a stretch for a former Mormon like me. Ten years later I encountered him again, this time not on paper but in the flesh. I had moved to New Orleans in 1979 and was working as a writer and producer for the CBS affiliate there. By then I had immersed myself in Percy's novels and philosophical work, and was fascinated by the complexity of the man, by his originality and humor.
After a while, I learned he was living only twenty-eight miles from the French Quarter, where I lived. He was just on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. As a field producer scavenging for stories, I dug up his phone number (don't ask me how) and decided to give it a shot. I dialed his number:
I cleared my throat. "Dr. Percy?"
"How are you?"
"Robyn Leary. You don't know me, but I write and produce for WWL Television in New Orleans. I'd like to schlep a camera crew over and spend a few hours with you at your home or studio in Covington. How about it?"
Unhesitatingly, he refused, adding, "If you knew anything about my work, you'd know I hate the twentieth century, the whole culture, and that I've had enough of interviews."
We repeated this ritual once a month for at least nine months. No dice. Then, one splendid afternoon in the spring of 1982, I was on my way to the New Orleans Museum of Art for the glitzy premier of the Search for Alexander exhibition. The museum had arranged for a shuttle to bring guests in from wherever they'd had to park. My beau and I were on the shuttle, en route to the museum, when I spotted Walker Percy walking arm-in-arm with his wife, Bunt, beneath a giant oak.
"Don't you think you should stop for that older couple?" I blurted out to the driver, my finger pointing at the Percys.
Walker and Bunt took the two seats in front of us.
With less than a few yards to ride, I screwed up my courage and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to me with a dazzling smile.
"Dr. Percy, you don't know me, but I'm Robyn Leary. I write and produce for WWL in New Orleans. I'd like to schlep a camera crew over and spend a few hours with you at your home or studio in Covington."
"Yes"‹still smiling‹"I remember." As we stepped out of the shuttle, he looked straight at me and said, "Call me."
In phone conversations we established our friendship. Percy was just finishing Lost in the Cosmos (1983), and he filled me in on all that was required to get his book in final shape. Over the course of several months we spoke on the phone and corresponded frequently by mail. Eventually he invited me to a writers' roundtable at an old Louisiana seafood house called Bechac's, on the Covington side of the lake, where he held court every Thursday with six or eight writers. I arrived early and watched Percy pull up in an old battered pickup. Wearing a pair of rumpled chinos and a yellow button-down shirt, he led a casual discussion about the latest novels and mysterious things like current events, and we sat around eating crawfish and drinking Dixie beer. He also invited me to his studio.
Sometime later, when he was wrapping up Lost in the Cosmos, he wrote to tell me he'd like to see some interview questions, to which he would respond in writing. Why had he changed his mind? He said I was easy to talk to.
Robyn Leary: Why are you so critical of the sciences of man‹of psychology, for example?
Walker Percy: I am not critical of social scientists when they are dealing with man as man, a fellow human. Psychotherapists who do this have the most difficult job in the world, and I admire them for it. What I object to is, for example, a Skinnerian professing to understand other men as bundles of conditioned reflexes. Or Margaret Mead professing to understand Samoans by making them conform to her theory of culture, which she had in her head before she got to Samoa. Therefore, it is more interesting to me to study people like Margaret Mead and B. F. Skinner‹scientists with a certain set of mind‹than it is to study rats in mazes or Samoans.
RL: You write a lot about the upside-downness of life. Is there, do you suppose, any remedy for the human condition?
WP: As the saying goes, we're probably not going to get out of this alive. The problem then becomes: What do you do about a "human condition" which is essentially a terminal illness?
RL: Freud defines anxiety as the product of intrapsychical conflict. Skinner defines it as a learned behavior. In Zen philosophy, anxiety is an evil to be removed. Heidegger, on the other hand, defines anxiety as ontological, in that it tells us about our humanness. It is for him not a by-product or a learned behavior‹or something to be avoided. To which of these definitions do you most closely subscribe?
WP: Check Heidegger. I would agree with him that we do a lot better treating anxiety (some forms, at least) as a kind of beckoning of the self to a self rather than as a symptom of illness. This is why in writing novels I often find that it works to turn things upside-down and to set forth a character‹say, a woman with severe free-floating anxiety‹as more interesting, more hopeful, possessing greater possibilities than, say, another perfectly adjusted symptom-free woman. To say this is to say a good deal more than that illness is more interesting than health.
RL: The work of Gabriel Marcel has had a tremendous impact on your philosophy. For Marcel, hope‹real hope‹lives only in the face of near impossibility or real despair. Is your hope of this variety? For what do you hope? And how does hope differ from faith?
WP: I would agree with Marcel that even in the worst of times‹for example, in the twentieth century, when man is behaving at his most perverse, apparently intent on self-destructing‹there is always an extraordinary trait in man of paradox. Man strives for beauty and grace and knowledge of God and the cosmos at the very moment he is murdering his fellow man in the filth of trenches, in the Holocaust of World War II.
For what do I hope? Short-term goal: that man can survive himself long enough to explore the infinite potential of himself and the world around him. If he can last another fifty years, he might make it.
Personal goal: to survive my own bad habits.
Faith, I would think, is the actual belief that what one hopes for is attainable. A man dying of thirst in the desert may hope for water and have no faith that he will get it. But suppose there is a second man, who stands atop the next dune and makes a signal to him, perhaps with semaphores, signifying two H's and an O. Now the first man is entitled to faith.
RL: I believe that there are two kinds of adjustments a human being can make to reality: a comedic one and a tragic one. What kind of an adjustment, at base, is yours?
WP: Check both. In writing novels, for example, I find that the comic‹perhaps it is my own peculiar sense of the comic‹occurs at the very heart of the human tragedy. In The Second Coming, for example, Will Barrett's threatening God with suicide in a cave is comic. And yet we have no doubt that he is wholly serious and does intend his suicide‹and is therefore tragic. The comic dimension is apparent when he develops a toothache and has to give up his nutty plan.
RL: Science, as you so often point out, has failed man. But so, too, has God. How is art the solution for man as he aimlessly roams the cosmos?
WP: Explain how God has failed. Does this mean that God exists but that he might have done a better job? Or that man has screwed up and supposed, therefore, that God has failed? I didn't say art was the solution. I would agree that with a failure of religion for many people, art is often promoted as a quasi-religious vocation. I'm not sure how successfully this works, even for the most talented and committed artists and art lovers. I dealt with this interesting art-as-religion phenomenon in Lost in the Cosmos: for example, comparing the transcending God-likeness of Faulkner while writing The Sound and the Fury with the crash afterward‹drunk for a week. Or think of the exaltation of the moviegoer after seeing a fine movie‹say, Wild Strawberries‹and then what? One hour, two hours later, what? I called this the "reentry" problem.
RL: You give writers a lot of bad press in Lost in the Cosmos. Why do you suppose writers are different from others? Does their temperament differ significantly from other artists?
WP: Also in Lost in the Cosmos: writers are in the front line of sensibility, like the canaries miners take down in the shafts to test the air. Also: writers are the "Protestants" of art, with nothing but their Scripto pencils and Blue-Horse tablets; painters are the "Catholics," with concrete intermediaries, clay, paint, models, fruit, landscape, etc. This is why writers drink more and painters live longer.
RL: You have chosen a life of seclusion. Why?
WP: Because writing is murder-both joy and murder. I would agree with Flannery O'Connor that if she spends three hours in the morning writing, she has to spend the rest of the day getting over it. This doesn't leave much time for square dancing. Bourbon is better anyhow. But I am not totally secluded. I know you, don't I?
RL: You often reject the label "existentialist." Given the importance of naming in your philosophical system, what are you?
WP: God knows.
RL: It's been said that your plots all seem to have certain elements in common: A disturbed, alienated man meets a younger woman, who is worse off than he. He solves all her problems and in so doing solves his own. They live happily ever after. Is this accurate?
WP: A lovely concise summary. I feel you have taken care of me for all time in all textbooks of American Lit. No, really, it's true, with a couple of qualifications: 1) there's something else going on besides the love story; 2) it doesn't always end happily. In fact, the only unambiguous happy ending was in The Second Coming.
RL: You are openly critical of joining groups. Why, then, did you join the Catholic Church?
WP: The question opens such vast areas‹or should I say abysses‹of misunderstanding that I am somewhat boggled and could not begin to answer it seriously without writing a three-hundred-page Apologia pro Vita Sua. Indeed, I had supposed that all of my writings might be considered as a sort of covert answer to this question. Therefore, I will answer your question unseriously: Would you like it better if I were a Methodist?
RL: Freud defined "mental health" as having the ability to work and the ability to love. Are you, according to Freud, mentally healthy?
WP: No. I am lazy and selfish‹like most writers, I am quite neurotic, more so than most people. Fortunately, I live in the right time.
RL: Is The Incredible Hulk really your favorite TV show?
WP: Until it went off the air. It united two great literary traditions: rotation (hitting the road, dropping out, adventures) and the good monster (Beauty's beast), who is also Lancelot.
RL: Kierkegaard's remedy for the alienation of "everydayness" is the "rotation" you've just mentioned. Do you agree? To what extent do you pursue rotation?
WP: I am not sure that he didn't say, rather, that "rotation" is a symptom of "everydayness," or, at least, a poor attempt to escape it. I rotate less and less these days. That is, I see fewer movies, do less travel. On the other hand, what few rotations I do are probably worse: I enjoy watching The Love Boat and reading The National Enquirer. They are so bad they are good. That is, they are pretty good indicators of what people really want.
RL: What were your most significant transitions philosophically?
WP: From Tolstoy to Dostoevsky. From Sartre to Marcel. From Plato to Aristotle. From Wolfe to Faulkner. Though in no case did I lose admiration for the former performance. It was a matter of further discovery.
RL: In your novel Love in the Ruins, Dr. T. More is the inventor of an instrument that can miraculously measure the health of the human spirit. Without such a device, how might we measure our spiritual health? Why might this be important?
WP: Dr. More's lapsometer was a not-quite-serious sci-fi device for measuring a serious condition given a not-quite-serious name: "Angelism-Bestialism." It signifies the condition of mind-body separation which has been endemic in Western civilization since the time of Descartes. It would be important to have such a condition diagnosed, because then one might elect to do something about it. One psychotherapist I know recommends to some of his neurotic patients that they volunteer as aides in a cancer ward.
RL: How much do children owe their parents, and vice versa?
WP: Don't know, beyond a certain decent respect. Love's fine, but so is toleration. Thus, parents should recognize that most children, especially the most talented, have to rebel to become themselves. Young people should recognize that their parents are not necessarily the cretins they appear to be. Each should try to put up with the other, difficult as that may be.
RL: Do you think the philosophical distinction between idealist and materialist is a meaningful one?
WP: Not as meaningful as the issue of realism vs. nominalism. That is, the belief that there is a real world out there which we can, to a degree, know (including God), vs. the belief that there is nothing really knowable or scientifically lawful or meaningful but a bunch of sensory impressions which we give names to.
RL: To someone contemplating suicide, what would you advise?
WP: Go ahead and contemplate it. Then enjoy the consequences of not doing it.
RL: You've lived a fairly privileged life. Why such despair?
WP: Who says I despair? That is to say, I would reverse Kierkegaard's aphorism that the worst despair is that despair which is unconscious of itself as despair, and instead say that the best despair and the beginning of hope is to be conscious of despair in the very air we breathe, and to look around for something better. I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That's despair?